Brevity=Wit Entry #18

April 12th, 2010 by Wordsman

“You read the bible, Brett?”


“Well there’s this passage I got memorized.  Sort of fits the occasion.  Ezekiel 25:17:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.  Blessed is he who, in the”

“Hey, Jules.”

“Now what the hell is it, Vincent?  I’m kind of in the middle of something important here.”

“Brett’s passed out, man.”

“Aw, hell no!”

Jules had originally memorized the passage not because he was impressed by its religious significance but because he thought it was some cold-blooded stuff to say to an individual before he put a bullet in him.  He had been saying that stuff for years, and now, apparently, it had lost its punch.  These days it seemed that your typical punk didn’t have the patience to listen to an entire bible verse on the wrath of God.

This would not stand.  Jules Winnfield was not about to have his concentration broken by some loser snoring through his monologues.  He was going to have to come up with an update quicker than you can say, “Wh-what?”

Mr. Winnfield and Mr. Vega stepped out of the apartment, had a smoke, discussed various affairs both pertinent and totally unrelated to the current situation, and then returned.  Jules tapped Brett on the cheek with his friend Mr. Nine Millimeter to ensure that he had his attention again, and then he spoke:

“The righteous man has it rough, but he’s on my side.  If you’re wicked, then I will smite you but good.  And that’s how you know I’m God.”

At this point Brett lost consciousness again, though this time in a decidedly more permanent fashion.

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Brevity=Wit Entry #17

March 29th, 2010 by Wordsman

July 4, 1776.  A messenger rushes into the chamber of the mighty King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, the Defender of the Faith, the Prince-Elector of Hanover, and the Duke of Brunswick, his Majesty King George III.  He has just received a communication of vital importance from the colonies, which he begins to read at a fevered pace:

“When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with anoth”

George promptly fell asleep.  Then, after a long, satisfying nap, he got up, went to his diary, and wrote, “Nothing important happened today.”

The messenger, on the other hand, panicked and retired to his own room.  He was certain that this document was of paramount importance, and that it was his duty as a servant of the Crown to communicate its contents to his sovereign.  But how to do it?  The message was not what you might call concise.  Who knew those backwater colonists could be so long-winded?  Presumably that was why they had been shipped en masse across the ocean in the first place.  And what was this business about “anoth?”  It was not any sort of English expression that he was familiar with.  It was some sort of obscure colonial slang, perhaps, and best left alone.

He worked late into the night, endeavoring to compose an abridged form of the document that would fit the attention span of a monarch, and a mad one to boot.  The next morning, exhausted almost beyond all use, he returned to the royal chamber and read:

“You done us wrong, for a long, long time.  We tried to be patient, but enough is enough.  We want to live and be free and happy.  Peace, yo.”

The good King nodded, thanked his loyal servant, congratulated him on his command of bizarre American dialects, and dismissed him.  Then he promptly fell asleep.  Later that day, he wrote, “A funny little fish came today and told me the colonies are revolting.  I quite agree.”

NOTE: Some historians will argue that George III never wrote “Nothing important happened today” in his diary, or that he didn’t keep a diary, or that he didn’t hear about the Declaration of Independence until long after July 4th.  This last argument is based on the claim that the people of 1776 lived not only without internet, but without television, radio, the telephone, or even the telegraph.  But we at the Wandering Wordsman believe that historians have long underestimated the ability and ingenuity of pre-modern peoples.  I mean, seriously, if it really took weeks to get a message back to England, you’ve got to wonder why they would even bother.  By the time England got back to them, the whole “independence” craze would be long over, and everybody would have moved on to the next fad.  Like Beanie Babies, or possibly the Macarena.

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Brevity=Wit Entry #16

March 22nd, 2010 by Wordsman

This week on Brevity=Wit we return to where we began, a realm that has not been touched in this segment since that very first entry (unless you count Brutus’ and Antony’s speeches in Julius Caesar): the world of politics.

The excessive length of the Gettysburg Address has, I feel, already been conclusively demonstrated here.  But we must remember that that was a speech, a situation in which I can conceive of tactics that could allow the speaker to maintain an audience’s attention beyond a reasonable character limit.  Where brevity is far, far more important is in political documents.

I think the framers started things off right . . . eventually (let’s not forget the good old Articles of Confederation).  They decided to begin their all-important Constitution of the United States not with a long-winded essay, not with a lengthy paragraph, but with a single sentence.  And that sentence goes a little something like this:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the c”

Now that is just sad.  A measly one-sentence preamble, and they can’t even keep it short and sweet.  No wonder there are so many arguments about what the Constitution means; people get so bored right off the bat that they never bother to actually read it.  Or maybe that’s why it works.  Political science has never been my strong point.

Either way, this preamble could really use a little help.  First off, they should have done the whole thing in reverse.  By starting off with the reasons, they never get a chance to actually say what they’re doing.  We don’t know what this document is.  A constitution?  James Madison’s list of things he would do if he were King of America?  Roger Sherman’s notes from Civics class?  All we’re left with is the enigmatic statement, “provide for the c.”  “C” could stand for something sensible, like “common defence[sic],” but we’ve all read about those silly old laws that were put on the books two hundred years ago and never taken off.  For all we know they could be providing for the consumption of duck only on alternating Thursdays or the castigation of Freemasons.

Let’s just clear this whole thing up right now:

“This Constitution is for cooperation, due process, peace, protection, prosperity and freedom for the people of the United States of America.”

There may be seven articles (including twenty-one sections) and twenty-seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but at least we can keep this one section brief.

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Brevity=Wit Entry #15

March 15th, 2010 by Wordsman

The advent of daylight saving time this weekend can mean only one thing: spring is coming.  Warmer temperatures and fervent rains are sweeping in to release the northern lands from the snow that has choked them for the past several months.  Birds and other animals begin to return, suggesting that perhaps once again people can venture outside without bundling up in layers absurd enough to rival the turducken.  For those who enjoy a casual walk through the woods as a part of their daily routine, this is a good thing.

But even though it may be warm, that does not mean that it is safe.  For example, an unsuspecting pedestrian about to trek down a seemingly innocuous wooded path might encounter the following sign:

“‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabb”

That can’t be good.

At this point, if I’m the humble pedestrian, I start freaking out.  I wasn’t expecting a warning sign at all, and now not only am I faced with one, but it’s one that appears to be written not so much in English as in a language resembling English, kind of like a CD resembles a record, but it’s not going to do you a lot of good if you try to play it with your phonograph.  I start to wonder: have I somehow walked all the way to Australia?  Ireland?  Or back in time?

Second, and even more frightening, the bottom of the sign appears to have fallen off the tree.  The message now cuts off in the middle of a word.  The “Jabb,” it seems, is perhaps only about a third of my problem.  I don’t know what it is, or why I should beware it, or what sort of effective countermeasures exist, though, frankly, given the nature of the portion of the sign still standing, I doubt that the rest would have been all that enlightening.

Panicking, I stumble around in the ever-increasing darkness (it stays light later these days, but not that much later) until I locate the section of the message that fell.  It turns out that the sign was not so much a warning as it was a story.  Still, I found the story educational, in that it taught me to stay the heck away from this particular forest.  So, for the sake of those who come after me, I translate it into English, abbreviate it (for the tree was clearly never capable of supporting such a long story in the first place), and reapply it.

It now reads something like this:

“Son, beware the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Bandersnatch.  I recommend this vorpal sword.  Snicker-snack!  Did you kill it?  Great!”

Happy trails!

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Brevity=Wit Entry #14A

March 8th, 2010 by Wordsman

I should have known.  I should have anticipated that writing about an extremely controversial topic like Paul Revere would land me in trouble.  I should have predicted that, shortly after posting the latest edition of Brevity=Wit, my inbox would be rent asunder by a veritable firestorm of enraged emails.  But, foolishly, I did not.  And this is what I got for it:

“Paul Revere never made it to Concord!”

“How could you not mention Samuel Prescott and William Dawes?”

“He never said, ‘The British are coming!’  Most Massachusetts residents at the time thought of themselves as British!  He actually said, ‘The Regulars are coming!’ . . . oh wait.  You did that.  Never mind.”

Personally, I think that these people should really take up their problems with Longfellow.  He wrote the poem.  I was just going off of his work (and, for the record, even Hank gave a nod to both tradition and accuracy by using the phrase “British Regulars.”)  But, since he’s been dead for approximately 130 years, I guess I’m the only one around who can do anything about it.  So, here goes.

Listen, my readers, with “oohs” and with “aahs”
To a tale of Sam Prescott, and poor William Dawes
In the middle of April, Seventeen-seven-five
Truly no one is still alive
To remember that famous time of year

It began with Doc Warren, who told his friend Bill
“You must spread now the news of the Regulars’ plot”
Said Dawes, “Do not worry.  I certainly will
And I’ll bring this guy Paul along with me.  Why not?”
They rode out of Boston, past the late-night tramps
And Paul wasted time messing ’round with some lamps
Soon they arrived in old Lexington
Warned Hancock and Adams that they’d better run
‘Fore the Regulars came and spoiled their fun

There, near old Lex, they met young Doctor Sam
Coming back now from paying a call on his gal
So Dawes told him, “Hey buddy, we’re in a small jam
Do you think you can help us?”  “I verily shall!”
And the three rode to Concord, with its weapons stores
The protection of which was the chief of their chores
And away the three flew, with their speed at the top
Driving their horses so hard they were like to drop
Till a man in a red coat suggested they stop

British horsemen, at Lincoln, planned them to detain
But Will Dawes had a mission, a most sacred task
He and Prescott would break out, show the Redcoats disdain
While Revere, he just sat there (probably with a flask)
But Dawes’ sacred mission was lost on his horse
Who bucked him the first chance that it got, of course
But Sam Prescott escaped, leaping over a wall
And he had the good sense not to on his butt fall
He warned Concord, Acton, Framingham–warned them all

Now, Revere was not useless, as some’d have you believe
He was busy as he did to Lexington ride
Through fair Middlesex County he bobbed and did weave
And by time he was done they were fit to be tied
But to put him in Concord, where he didn’t belong
Longfellow, I am sorry to say, was quite wrong
And to leave out poor Prescott, and great Billy Dawes
Cheating them out of their highly deserved applause
Such a mighty affront should be against the laws

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Brevity=Wit Entry #14

March 1st, 2010 by Wordsman

I normally like to start off these entries by mentioning my inspiration, describing the spark that led me to seek to improve each particular piece.  In this case, however, I will have to refrain.  There must have been some sort of catalyst, something that spurred me to this course of action, but I cannot for the life of me remember what.  So I’ll just say that we’re talking about Longfellow and leave it at that.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Wow.  It takes an awful lot of characters just to get out this guy’s name.  I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.  But let’s go ahead and take a look anyway.  Here is perhaps his most famous poem, Paul Revere’s Ride:

“Listen my children and you shall hear:
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now”

Hardly a man is now awake sounds just about right to me.

Clearly, Longfellow has a thing or two to learn here.  First off, it’s generally not a good idea to start by calling your audience children.  A lot of people take offense at that.  Unless the ones he’s talking to really are his children, in which case I don’t think his poem is going to have a very broad appeal.  Call me a skeptic, but it seems unlikely that Longfellow got around like Genghis Khan got around, if you know what I mean (and no, I don’t mean “on a horse.”)

Then we’ve got this date.  Never spell out dates.  It’s such a blatant waste of characters.  But, worse than that, he doesn’t even finish it.  I mean, come on, Longfellow, how are you supposed to teach us kids about Paul Revere if we don’t even know which century he lived in?  Guess we have to do a little detective work on this one.

Hmm . . . Jimmy Hoffa, the Edmund Fitzgerald, Saturday Night Live, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Thrilla in Manila . . . and Paul Revere?  Nope, it’s not 1975.

Carmen, indoor ice hockey, first person swims the English Channel . . . and Paul Revere?  Not 1875 either.

Second Centaurian Invasion, polar ice caps refreeze . . . and Paul Revere?  He’s not talking about 2075.

Second Continental Congress, “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” Bunker/Breed’s Hill . . . okay, now I think we’re got it.  1775.  Whew.  Took long enough.

Anyway, now that we’ve got that sorted out, we can get down to writing a version that’s short enough for everyone to enjoy:

“4/18/1775: Revere rides.  12:00- Medford.  1:00- Lexington.  2:00- Concord.  He told the villages and farms the Regulars were coming.”

There.  Now you know exactly when everything happened.  And isn’t that what’s really important?

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Brevity=Wit Entry #13

February 22nd, 2010 by Wordsman

Sport is in the air.  In college basketball, teams on the bubble are looking for one last hot run that might get them into the Big Dance.  In baseball, pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training.  In the NHL . . . well, something must be going on.  And in Vancouver, in between uplifting and inspiring us, the greatest athletes in the world are reminding us of one of the greatest truths in sport: even heroes sometimes fall (in the case of the Winter Olympics, often literally).

In the realm of fiction, nowhere is this truth better exemplified than in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.”  Long-term readers (and, as far as I know, I have nothing but) may recall from last summer that I am a particular fan of this work, and I thought it would be worth taking a look at it from another angle.  Non-fans of baseball often complain that the game is too long.  Wondering if these people might have the same problem with a poem about baseball, I decided to look into shortening it.

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?

“The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Co”

Now, we’ve seen this before: the author gets in a good introduction, but he wastes so many characters that he has no time left to get to the meat of the story.  Casey isn’t even mentioned for another stanza, and this hero doesn’t actually appear until about a thousand characters in.  Thayer gets to mention the Mudville nine, but the only specifics we get about them are the first two letters of a name (at least, we assume it’s a name because of the capital “C,” though his capitalization of “Outlook” makes such an assumption risky at best).

Authors could solve much of this “setting dilemma” by taking care of business with the title and then moving on.  In this case, once we’ve seen “Casey at the Bat,” we’re already pretty sure it’s about baseball, discounting the off chance that it’s a story about Casey and a buddy of his from the order Chiroptera.  But we can go further.  If the title was something like “Casey’s Bat: Hot or Not?” or “Casey: Hit or Die,” then we could easily skip the first 5-7 stanzas, avoiding wasting time with peripheral characters like “Cooney” and “Barrows,” who clearly aren’t as important as Casey himself.

This leaves us free to cover all the essential facts in a few quick, painless fragments (this is poetry, remember, so we’re not too worried about grammar):

“9th inning, two out.  Mudville down by 2, two men on base.  Casey takes strike one, strike two, strike three.  Game over.  Mudville joyless.”

Now that you’ve gotten the story of Casey out of the way, you have plenty of time to move on to reading the scouting report on the vastly underrated Jimmy Blake.

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Brevity=Wit Entry #12

February 15th, 2010 by Wordsman

As Valentine’s Day was this weekend, I thought it only made sense to talk about expressions of love.  There are many ways to say, “I love you,” some long, some short, some famous, and some obscure.  Let’s take a look at “famous,” starting with this well-known poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

It’s not a bad start, really.  She loves as deeply as her soul can.  That’s pretty good.  But when you count it, as she herself suggests, that’s only one way, three tops, if you count “depth,” “breadth,” and height separately.  When you look at it that way, it’s not very impressive at all.

Let’s try another one, the famous Sonnet 18 by my good friend and frequent participant in Brevity=Wit, William Shakespeare:

“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lea”

This one’s just a mess.  You kind of understand where he’s going.  He does call her (or, depending on what interpretation you subscribe to, him) “lovely,” but that’s about it.  “Temperate?”  I really can’t tell if that’s supposed to be a compliment or not.  Clearly what happened here is that old Willy tried to profess his love, but in the end he panicked and just babbled on about the first thing that came into his head, which happened to be the weather.

Now, I’m not going to suggest any of my own compositions to be used instead.  And I suppose that even these long-winded sonnets could work for some people, if high school English class is their idea of romance.  But, for those of you that are looking for more bang for your buck (or, specifically, more content for your characters), then I would like to recommend this classic work of unknown authorship:

“Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet,
And so are you.”

There you have it.  Everything you need, in only sixty-one characters.  A fabulous exemplar of brevity.

But it’s not the best.  Even this terse, to-the-point poem spends half the time going on about flowers, which don’t really have anything to do with anything.  If you want the ultimate declaration of love (as measured by quantity of love expressed per character), then I direct your attention to The Empire Strikes Back:

LEIA: “I love you.”

HAN: “I know.”

Eighteen characters.  Beautiful.  It doesn’t get any sweeter than that.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Brevity=Wit Entry #11

February 1st, 2010 by Wordsman

In a previous edition of Brevity=Wit I lamented the disappearance of prologues, implying that they have all but vanished since Shakespeare, but there are some modern works that take the time to set the scene with a few choice words.  Some of the best-known examples from the latter half of the twentieth century are the “opening crawls” from the Star Wars trilogy.  George Lucas was a man who knew how to get the audience up to speed quickly, beginning the first of his most famous creations thusly:

“It is a period of civil war.
Rebel spaceships, striking
from a hidden base, have won
their first victory against
the evil Galactic Empire.


Zzzzzz . . .

Okay, you have to admit, those yellow letters moving slowly past a black backdrop are strangely hypnotic.  They could put people to sleep even without going on and on, which is why I think we should make sure that this introduction is no longer than it needs to be.

It’s not a bad start, really.  He sets up the whole “Rebellion vs. Empire” situation pretty effectively, but the point could easily still be made while conserving a few valuable characters.  A couple tips: one, do rebels have anything but hidden bases?  I can’t imagine they’d last very long operating out in the open.  Cut that phrase.  Second, do you honestly think anyone could believe that an organization called the “Galactic Empire” is not evil?  You save an easy five characters by removing that unnecessary classifier.

On the other hand, looking at this piece more harshly, we can see that many key elements are missing: the stolen plans, Princess Leia, the DEATH STAR for crying out loud!  Sure, you’ve established that there’s a war on, but I kind of already figured that, given the title, “Star Wars.”  How are we supposed to know why the big white spaceship is attacking the little gray one, or why the lady with the sticky-bun haircut is messing with that little robot, or what the heck that giant thing that looks like a moon but is actually a space station is?  Do you expect audiences to figure these things out for themselves?

Then at the very end the prologue appears to switch to German, but let’s not go into that.

Don’t worry, though.  This thing is salvageable, with a judicial application of brevity:

“Rebels stole plans for the Empire’s Death Star, which can blow up planets. Princess Leia got them, but she’s being chased. What can she do?”

There.  Now we the audience can sit back and watch spaceships shoot lasers at each other without having to think about a plot and other silly things like that.

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Brevity=Wit Entry #10

January 25th, 2010 by Wordsman

As I write this, I find myself thinking about sports.  At any given moment, people all across the country are eagerly anticipating some big game somewhere.  It seems to me sometimes that the world of professional sports spectating is defined by waiting.  You have to wait during commercial breaks.  You have to wait during timeouts.  You have to wait during pitching changes.  And, from hockey rinks to baseball stadiums to football fields, before anything can even get started, you have to wait through someone singing our national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner.  And when you’ve been thinking all week long about that first pitch, jump ball, or kickoff, it can feel like our friend Francis Scott Key wrote not just a song but an entire opera.

To be fair, the duration of the anthem is not entirely the fault of its author.  Let’s not forget the performers, those people who (if they bothered to learn the lyrics) can put eighteen or more syllables into the word “free.”  But I thought that it couldn’t hurt to take a look at the text and see if I couldn’t cut it down to a more reasonable length, for the sake of all those impatient sports fans out there.  My first attempt looked something like this:

“O, say can you see
By the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed
At the twilight’s last gleaming
Whose broad stripes and bright stars

Sure, it’s shorter, but it’s also just about incomprehensible.  All I get is that we’re supposed to be looking at something with stripes and stars.  That could be anything: a tiger eating Lucky Charms, a zebra who was rewarded by his elementary school teacher for doing well on his homework, or a group of Hollywood party animals who got too rowdy and had to be sent off to prison.  Clearly, it takes more than twilight’s last gleaming to shed some light on this mess.

Now, you could argue that many people don’t know what the song is really about even in its full version, but I like to strive for clarity.  So here is the comprehensive abridged anthem:

“Look at that flag with the stripes and the stars.  You can see it by the gunfire.  Up there on the ramparts with those free and brave folks.”

There you go: you’ve got the flag, the stripes, the stars, the ramparts, the free and the brave, all the fun stuff.  Plus you don’t have to spend nearly as long on your feet before you get to sit down and enjoy the game.  And you know, it wouldn’t have to just be for sports.  Now that I think about it, I see no reason why you couldn’t replace the interminable full version of our national anthem with this baby (let’s call it “Starry Flag”) whenever you want.  Why, even in the most formal situations . . . what?  He actually wrote three more verses to this song?  Oh, come on, Key.  No wonder the British locked him up.  They must have been sports fans.

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