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Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Brand Salad Surgery

What’s an Accenture?

I hate this word—or should I say this nonword, or should I say this meaningless corporate name? I know I should just let it go—in fact, since the test of time determines branding effectiveness, which is the whole point, Accenture and other so-called meaningless corporate names should not bother me. Besides, many of them are not as meaningless as they seem.

I still hate the name Accenture, which can’t even claim lineage to a Greek god or a volcano or some obscure Latin root. It’s a word smashed together with a suffix that just doesn’t belong there. It reeks of contemporary corporate marketing culture in which the name is more about creating a vaguely positive mystique about the company than about who founded it or what it actually produces. There are many similarly meaningless corporate names out there; I’m picking on Accenture because it has an Albany office and I know a couple of people who have worked there. I’ve asked them what they do, and what the company does, and I still don’t understand it. I do know that it offers management consulting, and “solutions” (don’t get me started on that word), and that it’s global and has lots of clients, and that it’s based in Dublin. I don’t care. “Accenture” sounds like it’s supposed to mean something even though it doesn’t. I hate that.

And it’s not in the dictionary; I checked it, along with a bunch of other corporate names, to make sure they aren’t real words before I added them to my (dis)honor roll of meaningless company names. If any of these turn out to be the actual last names of the founder, then, well, count me fooled. Here we go: Acquis, Altria, Arryve, Astadia, Aviant, Detecon, Exceeda, Extraprise, Innosight, Knowledgent, Nexera, and so on. There are hundreds, if not thousands. I collected only a small random sample before I gave up in despair, dropped my head into my hands, and pined for the good old days when companies either named themselves after their founders—Walt Disney Productions, Ford Motor Company—or chose names that directly related to what they produced—International Business Machines, General Electric, Xerox … um … oops … hold on a sec …

In the 1950s, the Haloid Photographic Company came up with the word “xerography” to differentiate its newly developing photocopying system from other existing technologies, using two Greek roots that together meant “dry writing.” Before long the company was Xerox Corporation, and for as long as I can remember, the word “xerox” has been firmly established to the point of being used interchangeably with “photocopy” as a both noun and verb (adjective too—think “xerox copy”). This longstanding reality has been both good and bad news for the company: you almost can’t have better branding than that, yet Xerox has actively fought against the use of its name as a verb, fearing the trademark will be declared generic by the courts.

In a blog post titled “10 Great Business Names That Started Out Meaningless”—from a website called Novanym, speaking of meaningless—Accenture is included with such iconic company names as Xerox, Sony, Häagen-Dazs, Kodak, Ikea, and the king of meaningless-gone-household-noun-and-verb, Google. (Actually, the name Google isn’t really meaningless, as it is a simple rearrangement of the word “googol”—the digit 1 followed by 100 zeros—and thus is meant to evoke large sums of information.) Google is arguably a “great business name,” but I still don’t think Accenture is, and I don’t think it belongs on this list. The other names here had to worm their way comfortably into the brains of a broader cross-section of society, as their companies sell consumer products as opposed to “management solutions.” And while they all contain an element of phony (none more so than Häagen-Dazs, the founder’s misguided attempt to sound exotic and perhaps Danish), none comes close to the creepy, insipidly corporate phoniness of Accenture.

I decided to scroll through the Fortune 500 list to see how the “meaningless name” companies were faring in the revenue race; for whatever reason, there are almost none in the top 100, with No. 13 Verizon Communications being the conspicuous exception. That name never actually bothered me, as it rolls off the tongue and didn’t seem to be trying too hard to mean something, even though it rhymes with horizon—so I almost wish I didn’t now know that it was conceived as a combination of the words veritas, Latin for truth, and horizon. Now I never got that from the name at all, and I’m not sure how “truth on the horizon” describes a telecommunications company anyway, but oh well.

Toward the end of the top 100, you get Aetna, so named to evoke Mount Etna, at the time (early 1800s) Europe’s most active volcano—works for me. Near it is TIAA-CREF, whose letters stand for something (two somethings, actually—look it up). I seem to recall that at one point maybe 20 years ago give or take, the folks marketing the company actually embraced the awkwardness of the name by enunciating it laboriously in radio commercials. More recently, they rebranded as simply TIAA in a concession to simplicity. At No. 124 you get the Greek goddess Nike, and No. 130 is AFLAC, also an acronym, the branding of which was enhanced by the introduction of a duck madly quacking the name.

So unless I missed one or two, besides Verizon, the first two in the Fortune 500 list to really push the meaningless-name effect are Exelon (134) and Altria Group (137), the latter more scornworthy due to the likelihood that the company was rebranded to sound less like a producer and pusher of carcinogenic cigarettes (Philip Morris) and more like a company with loftier ideals (does anyone else hear “altruism” in there?). There’s nothing quite like renaming yourself when your brand goes sour—just ask Erik Prince (you know, Betsy DeVos’ brother), co-founder of private security outfit Blackwater, whose contractors were found guilty in the 2007 slaughter of 14 Iraqi civilians. The company soon changed its name to Xe Services, and more recently, under new ownership, to Academi.

I read somewhere that two important considerations in choosing your meaningless corporate name are (1) whether it rolls off the tongue (it should) and (2) whether it means something silly or offensive in a foreign language (it should not). Then again, when your business involves murky government contracts to carry out security and sometimes collateral damage to civilians in foreign countries (Xe), maybe you don’t want the name to roll off the tongue.

So, Accenture—does it roll off the tongue? I suppose so, but not in a way I find pleasing. It joins a real word with a real suffix to make a compound that has no meaning or reference to the company’s services or mission. After the consulting arm of Arthur Andersen broke all ties with that company toward the end of 2000, an employee in the Oslo office won an internal naming competition with Accenture, supposedly derived from “accent on the future.” Uh-huh. I never would have made that connection had I not looked it up. But so what? Accenture doesn’t care what I think. And even as a B2B, its branding is pretty strong among a random sample of about 30 people who responded to my Facebook query, three in four who knew the name.

I’ll end with a little game for you. Can you rearrange these five nonsense names into actual nonsense corporate names: Aquartis, Enovo, Experent, Lenron, Novian?

Got ’em all? Great job. There may be a future for you in public relations at Accenture, or someplace with a name much like it.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Everyone Gets a ‘Trophe

No other punctuation mark gets this much abuse—and I have a radical proposition to end it all

I expect it in Chinese restaurants, cheerfully and nonjudgmentally.

Special: Wing’s 10 for $5

Almost anywhere else, it makes me wince.

The Smith’s would like to invite you to their house party Saturday. Please bring appetizer’s or drink’s to share.

At my children’s schools, it makes me want scream, “Who’s in charge here?—or else slam a hardbound copy of The Chicago Manual of Style down on the principal’s desk.

School trip to Six Flag’s on Friday. Don’t forget permission slip’s and snack’s. Lunch is provided, $60 per student, cash only, no check’s.

Yes, checks. I’m checking to see who let you get through school without learning the proper—and improper—uses of the apostrophe.

Every grammar blog known to Google has covered this topic (and headlined the post with some variation of “Apostrophe Catastrophe”).

They all cover the basics, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. Apostrophes have two common uses: (1) to show possession, and (2) to stand in for missing letters, as in contractions. A third, less-common use is to make plurals out of odd (and therefore possibly confusing) constructions, especially lower-case letters appearing as just the letters themselves: Mind your p’s and q’s.

Next, the grammar bloggers address the most commonly confused words, starting with “its” and “it’s.” Hey, what happened here anyway? One is a contraction and one is a possessive, and they both wanted the apostrophe, so they got drunk and slugged it out. The contraction won. So “it’s” means “it is” (“It’s raining men”), while “its” shows possession (“The heart has a mind of its own”).

Back to the epidemic. In a nutshell, these days I am seeing more rogue apostrophes then I can ever remember. Most of them are apostrophes stuck senselessly into a plural noun (Steak’s! Chop’s! The best burger’s in town!). Sometimes they are the disastrous results of someone not being sure if a word is plural, possessive, or both (Ladie’s Night–$5 drink specials!) They typically appear in store signs and event posters, but also almost anywhere else where a punctuation illiterate is left alone to mangle the English language: company memos, school fliers, e-mails from the soccer club president. And yes, even in newspapers and magazines. Yike’s! (Haha … just trying to be cute.)

At this point, I’m thinking that Chinese restaurants should start suing the other perpetrators for plagiarism.

The apostrophe misuse has gotten so bad—and the prospects for reeducation so dismal—that I have come up with a radical solution to end the madness once and for all.

For background, consider what has happened to the period (and the question mark, for that matter). Unless you’re old enough to remember FDR and have never received an e-mail or text message, you’re probably aware that use of punctuation to show that a sentence actually has ended is becoming more and more optional—so much so that even The New York Times noticed and wrote a story about it. And even without periods and question marks to guide them, the kids understand just fine. And not just the kids—old guys like me, too. Consider this series of three texts I received a couple of years ago from an on-again, off-again girlfriend who had decided, early one evening, that she wanted to see me again:

Hello Stephen

How are you

Where are you

I needed no punctuation to grasp the nuances of each text—in fact, they might have been clearer without the periods and question marks. The first text was an olive branch, the second a half-statement, half-question to acknowledge that she wondered how I was doing, the third a more direct question asking if I might be free that evening. Fill in your own unpunctuated texts—I’m sure you have an iPhone full of them

So … is it possible that we can take a page from the Great Period Throwaway, and just do without apostrophes altogether?

I know, language preservationists are supposed to run screaming from radical rule changes. But just think how much cleaner the world of print will look without all those wince-inducing rogue apostrophes mucking it up! And once we eliminate the apostrophe from our keypads, will we really miss the ones that we used to think were essential? I think not.

Some words will retreat comfortably from possessive nouns to adjectives, like Mothers Day and Mets game and Beatles drummer. And consider the many living examples of dropped apostrophes, like Proctors Theatre and the R.E.M. album Lifes Rich Pageant: In the first example, when the arts organization removed the punctuation years ago, it merely established that the question of possession was not important; in the second example, possession is still understood perfectly. As for contractions, I cant and probably wont think of any that we couldnt get used to. And if you do not like them unpunctuated, you are still free to spell them out.

I pulled a few random phrases from the news just to see how they would read without apostrophes: Trumps tax returns, Trumps Russia connections, Trumps early-morning tweetstorms, Trumps alternate reality … Hmmm … from where I sit, all of these are much easier to comprehend than anything the man actually says.

But seriously, it will make life (and writing and reading) so much easier. We can stop fussing about the many unnecessary uses we have for apostrophes (Back in the 90s, I once gave my two weeks notice after my boss told me to mind my Ps and Qs.) Did you notice all three examples of the dropped apostrophe? And if not, could it be that they didn’t matter?

Years ago, when my sister lived in North East, Pennsylvania, she took me to a place called Larry Youngs Fruit Farm. Of course the missing apostrophe on the sign bothered me—until my sister informed me that the farmer’s name was Larry Youngs. But it still bothered me—Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe after the s, then?

To see if other people actually cared about such things, I stood outside the door and asked customers, as they were leaving, if they were bothered by the lack of punctuation in the sign. Their reaction was unanimous, paraphrased here: I don’t care about punctuation, I just wanted the damn cherries!

OK, I didn’t really do that, but you get the point.

One more thing about the case we fret about the most: its vs. it’s. From now on, it’s just its—And everyone will understand which one you mean from the context (just like they do when you’re speaking). And you will never have to worry about which one gets the apostrophe again. Ever.

Best of all, the horror of rogue apostrophes will become a thing of the past.

Then again, Chinese restaurants probably will not get the memo. So we can still look forward to the specials on wing’s.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Beautiful Game, Ugly Undercurrents

Image result for soccer legs and ball

Racial hostility on the pitch–all too real, or just my imagination?

At halftime, I asked the head referee to keep an eye on No. 23 from the other team. I assume most refs aren’t crazy about whiny coaches trying to influence their calls, so I tried to explain that 23 had done several flagrantly dirty things to our players in the first half (most of which the refs had missed), and I just didn’t want our boys’ anger and frustration to escalate into a fight.

But that is exactly what happened. In the middle of the second half, No. 23 went hard into a tackle with one of our players, who gave back a little aggression of his own. (If you’re not familiar with soccer terminology, a “tackle” refers to a challenge in which a defender tries to take the ball away from the opponent with his foot, possibly with some body contact involved.) At that point, No. 23 raised the stakes with a hard two-handed shove that almost knocked our player to the ground. So our guy, a usually mild-mannered 14-year-old boy who happens to be from the Middle East, shoved back in kind. Other players swarmed toward the two boys as the refs quickly intervened, separating them and showing both of them yellow cards (which puts players on notice that next time they’ll get thrown out).

For the next 20 minutes or so, I had other things to think about as the team I coach, the Albany Soccer Club under-16 boys, fought their opponent to the wire in a close game. But afterward, as I thought about the game and the actions of No. 23, it dawned on me that his aggression might not have been general, but rather, targeted toward our foreign-born players.

Almost half of our players were born in other countries, including Afghanistan, Senegal, Yemen, and Myanmar (Burma). Many of them are refugees who fled political strife and repression at home; the Albany chapter of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants welcomed them to the city and helped assimilate them into American life. The refugee influx has fed Albany’s soccer programs for some years now with very talented players who grew up with the sport, and then, quite likely, played it constantly during the long months in refugee camps while they awaited transferral. In 2013, when Albany High School advanced to the Class AA sectional soccer final for the first time ever, they were led by two brothers who, as babies, had been carried out of Rwanda on their father’s back during the genocide.

Before the modern era that began in the late ’60s with the formation of the North American Soccer League, the history of American soccer had its roots mainly in clubs formed by immigrants from countries like Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Scotland. In the ’70s and ’80s, youth and adult participation took off: In 1967 there were 100,000 people playing soccer in America, compared with more than 4 million by 1984. But for some reason, perhaps its late start, American soccer came of age as a relatively affluent, suburban sport, unlike most countries of the world where there is heavy participation among the poor and working class. The Capital Region reflected this demographic, with club and high-school soccer participation and success concentrated in suburbs like Guilderland, Bethlehem, and Clifton Park. And the rise of “premier” clubs, whose players and parents travel farther afield to play in high-level tournaments and expose the players to college coaches, underscores the competitive disadvantage faced by poorer and immigrant families, most of whom can afford neither the money or the time it would take to join these clubs and travel to the tournaments.

In recent years, the influx of foreign players in Albany added to what already was a racially and ethnically diverse soccer population, and the mix helped, over time, make the city’s programs more competitive with the once-dominant suburbs. But this shift toward a level playing field has not come without growing pains.

As my sons began playing with the Albany club more than a decade ago, I began to notice a common occurrence at games: An African or African-American player would be whistled for a questionable foul, and parents would turn to each other as if to say, “What was that for?” The answer, we eventually agreed–and occasionally spoke out loud–was that the player had been charged with “tackling while black.” I didn’t want to believe it at first, but as the evidence mounted, it was hard to ignore. And it could happen with any nonwhite player; Albany parents became almost resigned to the fact that the darker the skin, the more likely certain referees would reach for their whistles.

I also have overheard suburban parents react angrily to fouls (real or perceived) committed by black or foreign players, sometimes screaming at the ref as though a routine challenge for the ball actually carried criminal intent. Again, I like to give the opposing parents the benefit of the doubt–every perception of the game they are watching is colored by the fact that their son is on the field (and that goes for me too)–but sometimes their outbursts are hard to ignore.

And when you have foreign players on your team, the current political climate is hard to ignore.

During a recent indoor game against a premier club with mostly suburban players, one player in particular seemed bent on giving our players an extra shove or elbow when they met in a challenge. And as the game progressed, he seemed particularly hostile toward the foreign players. Finally, after a particularly savage tackle, our player–a refugee–lost his cool and threw a punch. Of course, that is what the ref saw, and he was shown a red card.

I accepted the red card–it was appropriate to the offense. I had a little more trouble with the grilling I received afterward from an official of the facility, asking who exactly this player was, looking him up in the system to make sure he was eligible to play, and threatening to suspend him for more than the required one game.

What bothered me the most, however, was the way the opposing player’s father reacted to the fight (which his own son had started, in my biased but hopefully measured opinion). He screamed from the sideline that my player should be arrested, that he was going to call the police.

Really? You’ve never seen teenage boys get into a fight in the middle of a heated athletic competition?

Then again, maybe that’s not the question that particular parent needs to be asked. Maybe he should be asked if he’s ever had any reason to fear the police. To worry that they might knock on his door and arrest him and take him away from his son. Or to worry that police or government soldiers might come in the middle of the night and burn his family’s house down.

I’d like to think that if he put himself in a refugee’s shoes, he might rethink his reaction.

Then again, maybe he, and his son, and the family of player No. 23 from the beginning of this essay, just don’t think these foreign players belong here. I hope that’s not the case.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Let’s Get Serial

It has never occurred to me to start a cocktail-party conversation with Oxford commas or dangling participles or split infinitives. If someone else brings them up, I’m happy to participate, but generally those are topics for newsrooms and annual conventions of the American Copy Editors Society. I’ve seldom if ever heard grammar and style discussed over dinner, and I’m not aware of the Oxford comma ever making the news …

Until now! Just when you thought that subliterate tweets had taken over American discourse for good, a contentious grammar issue actually made headlines in March when Maine milk-truck drivers won $10 million in back pay thanks to the absence of an Oxford comma in their employer’s overtime guidelines.

Oakhurst Dairy’s official literature spelled out that the following activities do not merit overtime pay: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”

The so-called “Oxford” comma, or “serial” comma (I’ve also heard “terminal”), is the comma separating the last two parallel items in a series of three or more. For example: Her dress was red, white, and blue. That last comma is the Oxford comma, used by writers and editors who adhere to Chicago Style, or who simply swear by its absolute clarity.

Now if you adhere to AP Style, or you believe that the directive to always insert the Oxford comma is unnecessary, even silly, then you would write the sentence this way: Her dress was red, white and blue.

Oakhurst Dairy lost its challenge to the overtime-pay lawsuit because there was no comma after “shipment,” thus joining “shipment” and “distribution” into a single item as objects of “packing for.” The distribution of products (the activity at issue in the suit) was not listed as exempt from overtime pay; only “packing for shipment and distribution” was. So a missing comma cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million, and rightfully so. But the absent Oxford comma is only half the problem; there’s another issue in the sentence that makes the ruling a grammatical slam-dunk. I’ll come back to that.


The debate over the Oxford comma has raged for god knows how long (and even has inspired satirical treatment by The Onion), although if (like me) you were taught by your English teachers that the serial comma was unnecessary, or (like me) you worked at newspapers where AP Style ruled, you might not have noticed. Adherents of the Oxford comma like to use rather extreme examples to prove its necessity:

I’d like to thank my parents, Gloria Steinem and Jesus Christ.

Now without an Oxford comma, you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

The AP Style camp would say that’s merely an exception that proves the rule: as with anything else, when there’s a clarity problem, recast the sentence. I’d like to thank Gloria Steinem, Jesus Christ and my parents.

I’ve come around to the Chicago view on this issue, in part because using the Oxford comma almost never creates a clarity problem (the examples that Oxford haters give in response to the above are far less likely to come up), and in part because of something I’ve learned over the years in training editors. Many perfectly literate editors are never going to be style and grammar geeks; in other words, while they’re capable of memorizing a rule and generally using good editorial judgment, they’re not going to obsess over the finer points of style, or learn more about grammar than they think they need to, or notice an exception to a rule they’ve learned—it’s easiest to simply follow the rule every time.

So, if your junior editors need a rule on serial commas that they can apply every time and almost never be wrong, would you teach them AP or Chicago? Game, set, and match.

Having said all that, I have noticed lately a more serious issue involving series, a form of grammar abuse that seems to be getting past editors with increasing regularity: the false series. And while the necessity (or not) of the Oxford comma remains amusingly debatable, the increasing failure to understand and apply parallelism is no laughing matter.

Parallelism in writing involves balancing like items (nouns with nouns, infinitives with infinitives, participles with participles, etc.) to promote clarity, prevent awkwardness, and improve readability. Sometimes the failure to use parallel structure is not wrong, but also not pleasing: I enjoy hiking, watching movies, good books, and when my partner surprises me with flowers.

But sometimes it is just plain grammatically incorrect, as with many false series:

He stole a soda, a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In this example, “soda” and “bag of chips” and parallel nouns identifying what he stole, but the last clause introduces a new predicate and just doesn’t work with the series; the reader will trip over “and” when a third noun does not appear. The fix is to insert “and” between the two parallel items:

He stole a soda and a bag of chips, and got caught trying to sneak them out.

In the next example, I deliberately misapply AP Style to enhance the point:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts and I should always make sure no one was hiding in the store.

The first three elements of this series are parallel: “lock,” “sweep,” and “tally” are verbs forming infinitive clauses with “the instructions were to.” Again, the “and” signals a fourth parallel item and does not prepare the reader for the wild left turn. One fix is to reduce the series to three items, and recast the final clause slightly:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, and tally the receipts, and I also knew to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

But a better solution is to simply make the last clause parallel:

At closing time, the instructions were to lock the door, sweep the floor, tally the receipts, and check to make sure no one was hiding in the store.

Now, back to Oakhurst Dairy.

(Here’s the contentious clause again: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.”)

If the company’s lawyers wanted to argue that the Oxford comma was optional and would not change the meaning of the guideline, they would still have a grammatical problem on their hands: “distribution” is not parallel with “canning, processing, preserving,” etc., which are gerund forms of verbs functioning as nouns. “Distribution” would have to be “distributing” to continue the series. Without the comma or the gerund form, “packing for shipment or distribution” makes grammatical sense only as a single concept.

There. I have written almost 1,200 words on series and Oxford commas, I have lost most of my readers, and I have decided to move on. Did you see what Trump just tweeted?

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon

Concerning “Concerning”

When the doctor told me that something in my x-ray was “concerning,” I was alarmed.

My distress was not over my dislocated shoulder, which I somehow knew would heal just fine.

It was my reaction to his use of the word concerning as an adjective, which I had seldom if ever heard before, and which had something akin to a nails-on-chalkboard effect on my ears.

“You don’t use concerning that way,” I fumed silently as the doctor explained the shoulder’s ball-and-socket mechanics. To me, concerning was a perfectly useful preposition meaning “regarding” or “with respect to” or “on the subject of.” It was not a proper substitution for more familiar adjectives such as “alarming” or “disturbing” or “troubling.”

Not only did I soon learn that my position on concerning was mostly indefensible; I also began to hear it used as an adjective on a regular basis.

Searches have found the word used as an adjective in literature going back at least to the 1700s. It was not used commonly in American English until it began to take off in the late 1980s, but it is used commonly now, and it stands as yet another example of the fluidity of language over time. It also occupies a slightly different niche than some of its synonyms because it has a milder connotation (compare to alarming). Besides, several of those synonyms—distressing, disturbing, upsetting—are formed in the same way, so there is no justification for rejecting the similar usage of concerning.

Well, maybe one. It is a very specific case, but an important one if, like me, you strive above all for clarity, especially in writing. I always advocate recasting a sentence that is likely to confuse the reader momentarily, and that can happen with concerning precisely because of its common use as a preposition. For example, if we read “The police report was concerning,” we may initially think there is more coming, specifically, the subject of the report.

In that case, I would suggest changing concerning to troubling. I hate tripping up readers, which also is why I separate most multiple subject clauses with commas to keep the reader from momentarily mistaking the second subject for an object. (“The doctor fixed my shoulder and my brain learned to accept concerning as an adjective.”) But that’s a topic for another day.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


A Night Off From Language Abuse–Not Quite


As expected, there have been plenty of news organizations and social-media watchdogs to point out the substantive problems in President Trump’s speech last night to the joint session of Congress: the factual inaccuracies, the hypocricies, the credit taken for things that already had happened or were under way before Trump took office. But for once, Trump’s remarks—written by smarter people and read from a teleprompter—did not give editor geeks like me too much to work with. On any other night, his off-the-cuff ramblings would contain so many unfinished sentences and other grammatical errors, so much hyperbole and vague language, that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

Still, as an editor, I do have a couple of complaints. This minor one is from the Department of Redundancy Department: “I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.”

Now the Stephens who wrote the speech might argue that both “recent” and “past” were necessary for full clarity, but this Stephen strongly disagrees. “Decades past” alone would not have focused sufficient attention on the “mistakes” of the Obama administration, but “recent decades” removes any need to add the word “past.” Recent is defined as “belonging to a past period of time comparatively close to the present,” so “recent decades past” is redundant, period. There is no “recent future.”

Another editor’s complaint involves a passage that is a combination of hyperbole and illogic, and may have been overlooked by the fact-checkers precisely because it doesn’t make enough sense to be singled out as factually inaccurate.

“The rebellion started as a quiet protest … But then the quiet voices became a loud chorus … Finally, the chorus became an earthquake, and the people turned out, by the tens of millions, and they were all united by one very simple but crucial demand: that America must put its own citizens first.”


OK, before I pick this statement apart, I will acknowledge that its intent seems clear. And even though Trump probably didn’t write it, it’s a page right out of his playbook: keep repeating that I inspired a huge turnout, that I won in a landslide, and that I’m one of the most popular presidents ever, and people surely will believe me and love me.

There was no earthquake, no huge turnout. People have turned out by the tens of millions for presidential elections since before I was born. In terms of sheer numbers, both Barack Obama election years saw higher turnout. In terms of the percentage of eligible voters, 2016 had the smallest turnout in twenty years.

And of course, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million. And the voters were not united in their values or “demands”—they were very sharply divided, and still are. Again, the only thing resembling an “earthquake” here is the fault line between red and blue America.

My parting shot comes not directly from Trump’s speech, but from a campaign incident that last night’s event brought immediately to mind. In the emotional high point of the speech, Trump paid tribute to Carryn Owens, the widow of William Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL who died in a January raid in Yemen. No further comment on that tribute, except to say it stood out in sharp contrast to Trump’s exchange during the primaries with the parents of US Army Capt. Humayun Khan, an American Muslim who died while serving in Iraq. The soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, gave a memorable speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in which he questioned Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and respectfully offered him his pocket-sized copy of the US Constitution to read.

In the aftermath, Trump belittled the Gold Star parents and then defended himself by saying he had been “viciously attacked” by Khan.

In its definitions of “vicious,” Merriam-Webster offers words including “savage,” “malicious,” “spiteful,” and “dangerously aggressive.”

You saw it. Khan delivered his criticism of Trump in gentlemanly, reserved tones, offering his copy of the Constitution as a pointed but polite challenge. There was nothing remotely vicious about it.

Trump’s response was hyperbole. It was loaded, exaggerated wording that can’t be defended. It was abuse of the English language. I wouldn’t accept it from students, and I don’t accept it from Donald Trump. But he does it all the time.

Last night, crutches at hand, Trump sounded, for once, almost articulate. If I sound disappointed, I’m also sure it won’t last. Before you know it, he’ll be in front of a microphone again, without a script.

And his next Twitter rampage can’t be more than a day or two away.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


I’ve Seen This Road Before

And in some ways, it was darker then

If you’re old enough to remember Neil Gorsuch’s mother, then you’re old enough to remember that the practice of appointing people to run government agencies whose mission they fundamentally oppose is nothing new. To put it another way, Donald Trump is hardly the first president to hire anti-government thugs to dismantle those parts of government that actually serve ordinary people—schools, parks, environmental protections, social security, etc. President Ronald Reagan did the same thing back in the eighties. The difference was, Reagan had a charming smile—and a lot more popular support than Trump will ever have.

Maybe calling Anne Gorsuch a “thug” is a bit strong, but she certainly did her part, as the first female administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to undermine its mission. Gorsuch (who conveniently shed that professional name after it had been tainted by scandal, remarrying to become Anne McGill Burford) cut the agency’s budget by 22 percent, relaxed regulations, reduced the number of cases filed against polluters, and hired staff from the industries they were supposed to be regulating. Her already-tarnished reputation was irreparably damaged when the EPA was charged with mishandling monies for toxic-waste remediation under Superfund, and she refused to turn over records that Congress demanded. Gorsuch then became the first agency director in US history to be cited for contempt of Congress. The EPA at that point was widely criticized for being dysfunctional, and Gorsuch resigned under the pressure.

I am not bringing this up to cast any shadow over Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy (if there are shadows to be cast, let them come from his own record). It’s just an interesting coincidence to be reminded, by bloodline, of a time when the US government was behaving in a manner not at all unlike it is behaving today. The extreme and unusual features of Trump’s early administration (Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest, his widely questioned mental state, his administration’s near-daily barrage of jaw-dropping lies) mask the fact that in other ways, this is business-as-usual in the era of Republican governance ushered in by Reagan.

Unlike Trump, and George W. Bush before him, Reagan did have popular support: in 1980 he beat Jimmy Carter in the popular vote by almost 10 percent, and then trounced Walter Mondale in 1984 by a whopping 18 percent. But while his voters cheered, his administration set about undermining the long-term prospects of the American middle class, most notably by lowering income taxes on the wealthiest Americans, an upward redistribution of wealth that triggered a long-term structural income inequality that persists to this day. Favoring privatization and deregulation, the Reagan team took on social goods and institutions with contemptuous disregard for the needs of the ordinary. And if you’re worried (understandably) about what sort of dangerous entanglements Trump and his foreign policy wackos might get us into, remember (or read up on it) how the Reagan administration was committing terrorist atrocities in several Central American countries, most notably Nicaragua, where Reagan’s own wacko supreme, Oliver North, was caught funneling illegal arms profits to fight a covert and illegal war against a democratically elected government.

The Reagan administration did all this and more under the cover of a popular mandate, and while it did mobilize some amount of dissent, “liberals” were very much marginalized in mainstream culture and media. To any mainstream Democrats still sore at Bernie Sanders for stealing Hillary Clinton’s thunder with his 2016 primary appeal to progressive millennials, you might want to reflect on a term that was coined in the eighties: “Reagan Democrats.” Yes, some of you voted for the Gipper—what was your excuse then? And what did you think of the results?

Today, the liberal/progressive opposition to Trump feels strong, organized, potent—I daresay it even feels like a majority. If you’re part of it, take heart and keep fighting. And thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s okay to identify yourself as a socialist today without being laughed off whatever stage you happen to be on. In 1988, Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis was afraid even to say he was a liberal. Speaking out in those days was trickier and more isolating. And we had no Jon Stewart or Samantha Bee to validate our feelings on national television.

(In a longer piece about my great-aunts, and a dying way of life in rural Washington County, New York, I mention my hapless attempt to counter Reaganism on a local call-in radio show circa 1985.)

Anne Gorsuch did not survive the fallout of her disservice to the American people, and perhaps more of Trump’s cabinet will meet similar fates. But Reagan’s legacy outlasted his presidency. Maybe it just took our nation too long to see through that wide cowboy grin.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon


Fasten Your Seat Belts

The runaway train is rumbling toward us. It’s almost here. What do we do? (A) Jump out of the way? (B) Lie down on the tracks and let it crush us? (C) Pop cans of spinach into our mouths, extend our now-bulging arms, and stop the train dead on its track (or get crushed anyway, trying)?

Okay, now, seriously, folks. We are about to enter partly uncharted (and partly charted) territory. When I feel like my head is about to explode, I like to stop, take a deep breath, and compartmentalize.

In the two months since Donald Trump was elected king by less than a quarter of eligible American voters, all of the impending disasters seemed to run together in one orange blob. But as we turn the corner into an actual Trump-led government, I’m beginning to see three areas of distinct concern that may have less and less to do with each other as we go forward: (1) Trump himself; (2) the hate-filled nutjobs who think they’ve just inherited the country with a mandate to mock and scare and drive out and possibly even kill their nonwhite, non-Christian, non-male enemies; and (3) the Republicans in the House and Senate who are licking their lips at the prospect of turning the clock back to 2000, or 1980, or 1850, or something like that.

I’ll offer a few thoughts on each. I’ll try to be brief; I don’t want to miss Toby Keith.

The nutjobs. This is a very real and scary problem, but one you’d think all reasonable people should be able to unite behind. The litany of threats and attacks that have been made since Trump’s election is too long to recite, but it certainly came home to those of us who live in Albany when the local Jewish Community Center received a bomb threat yesterday (along with Jewish organizations across the country). I certainly hope anti-hate organizations will be joined by a vigorous law-enforcement effort to root out these assholes, but I also hope that the various targets of hate—foreigners, Muslims, Jews, blacks, women, and members of the LGBT community—will be reminded that we all need to be united in opposition to bigotry and hate. In the meantime, there’s a chance this fervor will subside when the hatemongers begin to notice that the billionaires in charge have stopped acting like they care, and also have taken away their health plans.

Trump. This is the real uncharted territory. Megalomaniacal, narcissistic, mentally unstable, unpredictable, unhinged. I don’t know if anyone knows what he is going to do at any given moment, except that he will send off blistering tweets to those who disagree with or mock or publish damning stories about him. And that he’ll revoke press credentials, but since he doesn’t like to give press conferences, I’m not sure how much difference that will make. His business conflicts of interest and international entanglements, his lack of interest in the fundamentals of national security, and his apparent readiness to hastily realign America’s place in the world order, are scary enough before we even consider how he will respond to foreign-policy crises (with tweets?). I should add that Trump also appears to lack interest in running a government, period. Besides clearly preferring to stay at Trump Tower over the White House, and blowing off security briefings, he is way behind in nuts-and-bolts staffing of his administration (see–which may well mean that basic government functions will be run ineptly, and also suggests that the appointments he has made (besides relatives) likely have been suggested by others who know exactly how the whole thing works.

Back to the business conflicts–I believe he will be in violation of the Constitution, and therefore impeachable, the second he takes the oath of office. But we’ll see who wants to go there (and remember, Mike Pence would not change the dynamic of part three below). I also think Trump is fundamentally at odds with the Republican establishment—even though there hasn’t been much talk of that lately—because of a fundamental difference in their agendas. Trump’s agenda is himself, his ego, his delusions of unlimited power and awesomeness (also frightening, though I for one don’t see him as Hitler). As for the Republicans who actually make the laws …

The Senate and House Republicans. I don’t think most of them give a damn about Trump, except that he has given them the enviable circumstance of having control over all three elements of the legislative and executive branches (and he has cheerfully provided them with the most deplorable of foxes to guard the cabinet henhouses). And what they want is nothing new—this is the “charted territory” part. They already have begun trying to dismantle all the good stuff government does, and they won’t stop trying until … they don’t have majorities any more! Now repeat after me, there’s no time like 2018, there’s no time like 2018 …

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon



Stories of lasting friendship, and a message to an old buddy’s daughter


Last September, Mark summoned up the courage to jump out of an airplane.

And I couldn’t even get up enough nerve to play and sing “For a Dancer” in front of 30 people.

I can play “For a Dancer” on the piano, and I have an okay singing voice, so I could have pulled it off. I got the idea because Mark’s sister, Jane, played a song for the occasion, one she had been practicing, and she performed admirably, even though I could tell she was nervous and shaking and struggling to follow the sheet music in a couple of places. It still sounded lovely.

I gave up trying to read sheet music a long time ago (I’m terrible at it) because I can play by ear, but at the gathering last Saturday, my courage just was not there. Maybe I worried that performing the song would seem like a distracting ego trip—I certainly didn’t want it to be about me. But “For a Dancer” did seem fitting. The event was almost over, and some people had left, when I finally sat down on the piano bench and played a couple of verses. No singing. I was surprised that most of my friends didn’t recognize what I was playing—see, singing the words would have been so much more meaningful! When I stopped, a few people thanked me and asked if it was something I had written. Across the room, someone I didn’t know made a remark about Jackson Browne.

I discovered the music of Jackson Browne and David Bowie when I was in high school, and I think it was Mark who introduced me to both. He was very passionate about finding interesting new things happening in music and art; another friend recently found and shared a Bowie album review Mark wrote for the school newspaper. Senior year, while our high school building was being renovated, we had classes in a half-dozen buildings scattered around downtown Pittsfield, an arrangement they called “open campus.” It meant, among other things, that we were free to go to the public library for study hall (or for any other period we decided was “free”). I think the library had some contemporary albums you could listen to on the house audio equipment and headphones. If I didn’t listen to Browne’s Late for the Sky album there, I certainly did at home. And one evening, lying on a blanket under the stars at Tanglewood, I listened to him play “For a Dancer” live, and the song’s simple elegance and melancholy left its mark on me.

The arc of my long friendship with Mark began in high school, when he and I and a handful of other friends and girlfriends would hang out together just like any other teenagers—in class, at sports events, at parties, at Boys’ Club dances. We scattered for college but always visited one another, and mostly spent summers back in Pittsfield. It was during those years, on one particularly sweltering summer night, that we went for a midnight swim that resulted in our most enduring story. Leaving our clothes piled next to the cars we had arrived in, we set out for the middle of Onota Lake. Good swimmers all, we nonetheless agreed to have names for a periodic “check-in” to make sure everyone was fine. Mostly, we chose goofy sounds—except for Dick, who couldn’t think of one, so his handle was “I don’t know.”

At one point Chris decided to stand on George’s shoulders so that it would look, to the next car that came around the bend and momentarily trained its headlights on the middle of the lake, as if Chris were walking on water. And that is exactly what the occupants of the next car saw—but they were not amused. So on came the flashing lights and out came the blue searchlight that probed the lake in a sweeping motion from one end to the other. I still remember waiting underwater for the light to pass overhead, then coming up for air and doing it all over again. We drifted this way and that, waiting for the cops to leave, which they finally did. We eventually swam back to our cars, though Chris had entertained the idea of swimming instead to the public beach to look for something in Lost and Found to wrap around himself before walking home.

The group stayed in touch for a while. In the early years there were letters (try to explain this to the kids …), holiday weekends home, visits to apartments in Boston, New York, and Buffalo, and class reunions every five years. But geography, new families, and years take their toll on old school friendships. I saw less and less of everybody until it pretty much ended. George left for Colorado, Mark for California. I saw Mark in 1989 when I flew to Los Angeles for a conference, and drove out to his house in the suburbs one evening for dinner with him and his wife Diana. Their daughter, Phoebe, had not been born yet. We told stories, we laughed, we had a great time. We probably talked about art (Mark was working as an engineer but longed to work as an illustrator, which he eventually did). And I remember watching Mark make homemade croutons. I’ve always made my own croutons since that night.

Prior to 2016, I hadn’t seen anyone from the old gang since the last class reunion, in 2001. Then, early last year, Chris sent around an e-mail titled “Cheese Dogs” (don’t ask) as a conversation starter about an upcoming class reunion, teasing us with references to funny moments from our school days. One by one, we responded with stories of our own.

Before long, the “Cheese Dogs” thread took on a life of its own. Soon our whole high school experience was being replayed on our laptop and iPhone screens. Every class, every teacher, every awkward date, every strange thing one of our classmates did, every zany night out—all reconstructed in hilarious detail. People everywhere have their own stories—ours are not uniquely funny, or even unique, but they are unique to us. And like photographs tucked away in a drawer for decades, they were a joy to share all over again. And like time travelers, there we were: wondering what to do with a fallen streetlamp after Chris’ car skidded on an icy road and into a snowbank; playing soccer hungover because the game was postponed by a day, but Margo’s party was not; watching in shock as a classmate, trying to close the Venetian blinds for a movie in chemistry class, yanked the whole thing out of its casing and watched helplessly as it smashed into thousands of dollars worth of Pyrex glassware. And of course, swimming nude in Onota Lake and ducking the police searchlights.

Reconnected, we all vowed to make it back to Pittsfield for that weekend in July, and most of us did. And what an amazing reunion. I had all but forgotten what awesome friends I made all those years ago in high school. Our e-mail group has remained active ever since. Not everyone is so lucky; I do know people who couldn’t wait to leave everything about high school behind, for whom high school was like one three- or four-year-long root canal.

As the official reunion event ended and many of us agreed to meet for a nightcap at my hotel, Mark asked me if I could give him a ride. Prior to the weekend, I had told everyone I was in the middle of a divorce, so it wouldn’t come up as a surprise. Mark and Diana had divorced several years earlier. He wanted to ride alone with me to find out how I was doing, and to share his experiences. And Mark is so funny and easygoing about everything, talking about divorce with him was anything but a downer. We were having such a good time, we stayed in the parked car for another 10 minutes before going into the bar.

At the gathering this past Saturday, we retold the midnight-swim story with four of five participants present—Chris, Dick, George, and me. We even remembered our check-in sounds. Everyone got a nice laugh out of it. I also met Phoebe, now a graduate student, for the first time. Later, I learned that she had had considerable difficulty letting go of the anger she felt toward her parents over their divorce.

That got me thinking about my own children, but also about Phoebe, and whatever between her and her father may have been left unreconciled. If I could say one thing to her, it is this:

I don’t know enough about you or your life to understand what you have gone through or how you feel. All I do know is this: If you’ve been married for any length of time, and especially if there are children, divorce is difficult for everybody involved. It doesn’t matter if it’s his fault or her fault, or everybody’s fault or nobody’s fault. It’s no fun for the kids and it’s no fun for the parents. It breaks their hearts to tear their children’s lives apart, but for one reason or another, they have reached the conclusion that there is no other choice. Mark loved you, but I’m sure you know that. He made that clear to us as well. You know what else about him, that you might have heard once or twice these past couple of months? When you talked one-on-one with him, it was as if you were the only other person in the world. We all try to be that much in the moment, but Mark did it effortlessly. And for me, it was a blessing to have that last 20 minutes in the car with him, as he shared his own difficult experience with me to make sure I didn’t feel like I was going through it alone.

On the night before Thanksgiving, at the home in Laguna Beach he shared with Corrin, his partner, Mark Warren Peronto died suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. Last Saturday, we gathered in Williamstown to toast his memory and tell stories celebrating his life—and to watch a video of him skydiving, smiling from ear to ear as he fell to Earth.

Copyright 2017 Stephen Leon