Why is the English language so difficult?

In one of life’s ironies, the citizens of the United States speak an Americanized version of the English language, yet so few Americans bother to learn a second language. It has been argued that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, yet because of the exploration of the English and the success of two large English speaking economies, people feel the need to learn it.

I inherited from my mother a love of Crossword and other word (and number) puzzles. As I wait for my computer to boot up, I will pick up a pocket dictionary close by and just leaf through it, testing myself on words that I may use or need. I do not prefer to know arcane words, as using them will be more pretentious than communicative. There are some editorial writers who prefer to show how smart they are rather than make the reader understand what they are saying.

But, why does English have to be so difficult? Here a few case in points.

Ingenious vs. Ingenuous – the first word means clever or resourceful, while the second word means naive or artless. Only one letter divides an insult from a compliment.

Impunity vs. Impugn – the first word means free from harm or punishment, while the second word means to challenge as false or questionable.

Reproach vs. Rapprochement – the first word means to blame or rebuke, while the second word means an establishing of friendly relations.

Glib vs. Glum – while these words sound like they are similar, the first word means fluent or a good talker of banter, while the latter means gloomy. I have often said glib is one word that means the opposite of what you think.

Curate vs. Curator vs. Curative – the first word means a clergyman helping a vicar, while the second word means a manager of a museum, while the third means having the power to cure or offer remedy.

While I was compiling these words, I was reminded of the great college and NBA basketball player David Robinson. Robinson attended the Naval Academy and served his country after his graduation. A very smart man embodied this 6’11” basketball player. When a reporter asked him why he was good at blocking shots, he said he did not want others driving the lane with “impunity.” The reporters had to go find a dictionary.

What are some of your favorite, confusing English words? Before I leave, my wife and I watch the show “Law and Order – Special Victims Unit.” At the introduction to the show, the narrator mentions the special unit that handles crimes that are “heinous.” Now that is a word that means what it sounds like.

A quiet and competitive baseball star passed away

As a boy, I had dreams of being a professional baseball player. I began playing organized baseball when I was 8 and did not stop until my senior year of high school. I was reminded of that yesterday, when one of the older stars named Bob Gibson passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 84. You may not know who he is, so allow me one paragraph on his success, courtesy of Wikipedia, which I will follow with a few recollections.

“Robert Gibson was an American professional baseball pitcher who played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Nicknamed “Gibby” and “Hoot”, Gibson tallied 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, and a 2.91 earned run average during his career. A nine-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, he won two Cy Young Awards and the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award. Known for a fiercely competitive nature and for intimidating opposing batters, he was elected in 1981 to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The Cardinals retired his uniform number 45 in September 1975 and inducted him into the team Hall of Fame in 2014.”

The above paragraph speaks of him being fiercely competitive implying he must have been some kind of jerk. While pitching, he was a force as he was paid to get the batters out. And, he could be off putting to teammates. This talented pitcher was very quiet, even soft-spoken, and did not brag on himself like too many do today. He was very smart and confident and largely kept to himself. That did not always sit well with reporters and others. So, to say he was a warm person would also be off the mark.

But, as his former catcher and later baseball announcer Tim McCarver said about Gibson, he scared batters because he had command of two pitches – a moving fastball and curveball. Batters did not want to dig in too deep at the plate because of these two pitches. He would throw the fastball inside, then strikeout the batter with his curve ball away. As a former player, facing a fastball that moved was more frightening than one that was straight.

In 1964, 1967 and 1968, he led the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series, with his team winning two of them. They came close to winning all three, but succumbed to a loaded Detroit Tigers team in seven games in 1968. Yet, even then, Gibson pitched the Cardinals to two victories. In the first game against the Tigers, Gibson struck out seventeen batters. At the time, the record was 18 strikeouts.

When Gibson was pitching against a team I was pulling for, I knew it was an uphill battle. I remember a sports show where Bob Costas interviewed Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, two of the greatest baseball players who played in Gibson’s time. Gibson was in the audience and when Costas asked him to stand, both players showed Gibson much respect as a worthy adversary.

There is an old saying that applies to Gibson; be more scared of the quiet one. He did not boast, he just performed. He was quiet, but he was confident. He was someone I would love to talk with about his philosophy on pitching. Then, again he may not have let me.

Two great talents, two big hearts pass away

Rightfully so, the passing of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a huge loss for our country. Her diminutive stature belied the large intellect and courage to fight battles, first for herself, and then for women and the disenfranchised.

There are several stories whose theme is around the only woman in the room, be it the first female rocket scientist, Mary Sherman Morgan, or the first black female NASA mathematician, Katherine G. Johnson. Ginsburg was often one of only a scant few women in the room, be it Harvard or Columbia law schools or when she first joined the Supreme Court following Sandra Day O’Connor. Being told you do not belong, either directly or implicitly, requires a courageous heart.

Ginsburg was unable to get a job with a law firm since she was a female and a mother. Her husband, Marty was quickly able to gain employment as a tax attorney, but his very learned wife could not. So, she taught law. So, when she finally tried an appellate case regarding gender discrimination, very few knew the constitutional law as well as she. She knew the documented discrimination that existed in the law and what had to be changed. And, her track record on gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court was excellent, losing only one case. The movie “On the basis of sex,” starring Felicity Jones, is an excellent drama telling her story.

Yesterday, another person passed away, who will not be as known to non-football fans, but his supreme talent was only exceeded by his heart. His name was Gale Sayers and for seven years, was one of the most exciting football players to watch as his ability to stop, start, change direction and run kept defenses at bay. He was the youngest player to be inducted in the NFL Hall of Fame at the time. Yet, his heart may be what people will remember most.

When he joined the Chicago Bears in the mid-1960s, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act had only recently been passed. The African-American Sayers befriended a white ball player named Brian Piccolo. They became friends, teasing each other often while competing for the same position. They both made the team and were roommates on the road.

But, the story unfolds later that Piccolo gets cancer and is dying. Sayers and his wife were by the Piccolos’ side the whole way. When Sayers was given an award for a courageous comeback after an injury, in his speech, he told the audience of the courage of his friend Brian Piccolo. He said “I love Brian Piccolo. And, I hope you will love him, too.” He then asked for their prayers for God to love Brian as well.

The story is captured in the excellent movie “Brian’s Song,” starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. I wrote a post a while back which I will link to below, which said “Brian’s Song” was the first movie where a man was allowed to openly cry. Truth be told, I am tearing up as a type this.

Let’s remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gale Sayers. Both are national treasures

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/brians-song-the-first-movie-where-men-could-watch-and-cry/

Monday musings – insignificant or significant

Life offers many experiences from the insignificant to significant. Approaching my 62nd birthday, I can share that more than a few things people believe are significant are not really important. Conversely, little insignificant things may have been gateways into something more meaningful. As Robert Frost wrote, the road not taken has made all the difference.

The girl or boy you did not ask out, as your friends labeled the person too different, might have opened your eyes to wonderful experiences.

Being prevented by your parents from attending a party may be mortifying for a teen, but does not make that big a difference in the big scheme of things.

To this point, the most well-adjusted Hollywood couples, live away from the superficial Hollywood scene. They crave the reality, not perception.

Being genuine is far more important than being popular. Choosing to help or listen to someone with a problem, is far more important than being “liked.”

Changing your mind on a major decision may prove embarrassing, but it is usually for the best. Life events are worthy of as much introspection as possible. I have never regretted unwinding a major decision.

Saying “no” may be unpopular, but it is also more than fine to decline. People sometimes overcommit and end up letting people down.

Take the time to ask your older relatives about your heritage before it is too late. I still have unanswered questions, especially after doing research online. Knowing your lineage and history is gratifying, even if the history reveals some warts. Our kids love to speak of their roots.

Finally, one of the things my wife and I miss with the COVID-19 limitations is talking to people we encounter on our travels, near and far. A trip to Ireland was seasoned by chatting with Oola, who grew up in a corner of Belgium, very close to two other countries, eg. Take the time to talk to folks. It may make all the difference.

The Black Tax

For the African-Americans reading this title, they will immediately know what it means. For those who are not and do not know, it is important that you do know. The best description of what it is can be found at the end of the most recent broadcast on HBO of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” This show focuses on the impact on sports and society of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter racial injustice protests. A link to his description is below.

For those who do not know who Bryant Gumbel is, he is a long time news and sports reporter who is also a Black man. For a few years, he left sports to host NBC’s “Today Show,” but returned to his roots of reporting on sports. I find his show to be the best sports commentary show around because he and other talented reporters do deep dives on the stories. To be frank, the sport is secondary to the human interest story.

This show is no exception. At the end of the show, Gumbel updates a real life shooting of a promising baseball talent named Robbie Tolan, the son of former major league player, Bobby Tolan. He was shot in his front yard after an office accosted his mother over the belief the car parked out front was stolen. It turned out the officer entered one digit wrong on the license tag number. The mother was in her pajamas at 11 pm. The son said loudly take your hands off my mother and the officer turned and shot. No warning. He just shot.

The young man survived after months of hard recovery, but Tolan’s dream of a baseball future would not come true. The police officer was acquitted of any crime, returned to the force and later received a promotion. Tolan has written a book about his travails called “No Justice: one white police officer, one black family.”

Then, Gumbel told us about the Black Tax. It not monetary – it is a burden that is paid everyday. It is the daily burden of being treated as an unequal citizen. It is the daily burden of worrying about the life of yourself, your kids and your grandkids. It is the burden of being pulled over or accosted by police officers for being Black like the suspect they believe you are. It is the burden of being considered less able for a position you are applying for. It is the burden of having to check your response to obvious racial denigration. It is the burden of having to suffer people saying something that would not be said to a white person, “you are a credit to your race.”

Gumbel concludes by saying it is exhausting to have to carry this burden. It is bothersome that we have not resolved to fully deal with the racial injustice. Black lives matters is more than just a slogan. It is a hope for equal footing.

https://people.com/tv/bryant-gumbel-explains-black-tax-hbo-real-sports/

Stress is a significant influence

Stress is an obstacle for us all, most often being harmful to performance whether it is a big test, big game or big presentation. It impacts both your memory and confidence causing self-doubt.

John Smoltz, the retired baseball pitcher was known for his ability to perform well in big games. But, he would tell folks he was not elevating his game, he was able to perform at the same level, as the stress made opponents play worse. This is a reason coaches like to replicate stressful game situations in practice to prepare players, but it is hard to emulate actual game stress.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his latest book, “Talking to Strangers,” how stress affects people’s ability to remember things. One of the subjects he delved into is PTSD due to torture made it a less effective means to get information from prisoners. A famous terrorist who planned the 9/11 attacks revealed over thirty pieces of information with torture, but most of it was fabrication. About 1/2 of the pieces of infotmation occurred after the terrorist was jailed. He would say anything to stop the torture. This is a one reason former Senator and Vietnam POW John McCain was not too keen on the US torturing people – the other is torture demeans the image of the country doing it.

While I have written before about stress, I repeat it now after the news Brionna Taylor was killed in her own home when a botched middle-of-the-night police raid ended up with her being shot eight times. A no-knock warrant executed during the night seems to heighten stress of all concerned. She is dead and her parents are owed answers.

So, if we can minimize the stress through planning, training, and mitigation, performance will be improved. And, maybe lives will be saved.

Invisibles: People who don’t pat themselves on the back (a reprise)

A few years ago, David Zweig was interviewed about his book called “Invisibles – The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-promotion.” The book is a fascinating read which explores the success of those who show up to work each day, do their job well and collaborate with others toward common goals. These folks do not seek the limelight and are definitely not about merchandising themselves. And, each has a very rewarding career doing a job well and sharing the success with others. I was thinking of this book as I read about the courageous and quiet healthcare and retail workers who are doing their jobs in more dire situations.

In my over thirty-three years of working as a consultant, teammate, employee and, at times, manager of people, one observation seems to ring true – “work will find good people.” These are the folks who don’t talk about getting it done, they work with others to get it done. In any business, we find people who are over-committing and routinely missing deadlines or producing less than quality deliverables. We will also find people who talk about good ideas, but fewer people who get up out of their chair and go do something.

The invisible people need not be the “stars” of the team. Sometimes their strength is project or process management competence. They are the machine that gets work product done. In other words, they do the basic blocking and tackling that does not make the headlines. A successful football team is more due to those guards and tackles who make way for the stars.

A business is no different. And, many may not do their job exceedingly well, but do it well-enough, and show up each day to do it again. These are those solid C+ and B- performers that every organization needs to be successful. They have an intrinsic knowledge of how to do things within that organization. If leaders do not heed their value and input, they will not be as successful or may fail.

I had an old management professor who advised his son on how to be successful, advice which I share with others. If you do these three simple things, you will have some success. “Show up, show up on time and show up dressed to play.” It matters not the underlying business or work group. If you are not there, others have to pick up the slack. If you are constantly late, others have to pick up the slack. If you are not there wearing clothes to present yourself as expected to your colleagues and clients or dressed with the right attitude, others will have to pick up the slack. Then, an invisible person becomes visible and management will realize they can do their job without you.

The lesson of the book is a good one. You do not have to merchandise yourself to be successful. Competence is a terrific aphrodisiac to an employer. I often help people network as it is my way of paying it forward. I was helping someone I know well get a job and she is all about competence, efficiency, teaming and effectiveness. She is not as good at merchandising and your first impression would be not to hire her. I used to tell prospective employers, she may not be the one you propose to, but she is the one you want to be married to. She understands strategy, tactics and execution and that is a powerful combination.

Let me close with some observations on what to avoid. If you hear someone say he/ she is a “big picture” person, don’t hire them. If you hear someone use far too many “I’s and me’s” and not many “we’s and us’s” don’t hire them. If someone “throws people under the bus” more than accepting responsibility, don’t hire them. I recognize fully the need to have people who can sell services and merchandise themselves. But, the merchandisers I would prefer to work with know that it is a team of others who back up their commitments. Many of them are in this group called “invisibles.”

Be alive, but be truthful, calm, humble and thoughtful

In spite of everything, we need to remember to be alive. If we do not, then we may spiral down a rabbit hole of despair and uncertainty. Here, it is a good day to be outside. While I have yard work in my plans, it will be nice to exercise and breathe fresh air. I have a few random smidgens of musings to ponder around a common theme as we head out.

Since I have been writing of the need to listen to the truthtellers, I was reminded of a quirky colleague who was a joy to be around. He would leave vignettes on his voicemail greeting, changing them every few days. One of my favorites is “Always tell the truth. You don’t have to remember as much.”

An old leadership axiom is watch what managers do in times of crisis. The ones who can calm others in the face of adversity are the ones to follow. People take on the personality of their leader. If he or she berates people in times of stress, then others will follow suit. But, if he or she is calm….

The famous Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz was applauded for how cool he was in the playoffs and World Series which contributed to great success. He said the key is to stay calm and achieve the same level of performance as you do when not as stressed. It is not that he elevated his performance, others got nervous and lowered theirs.

Like many, my grandfather was not a talkative man. He was a hard worker who loved to fish in his spare time. His best friend, my great uncle, was the same way. Between the two of them, the fish would never be scared away by sound. But, when he talked, you listened. We all know and need people like this in our lives.

One of the greatest college running backs and a very good pro football player was named Herschel Walker. When Walker scored a touchdown, he would not celebrate like players do today and many did when he played. He preferred to act like he had been in the end zone before. And, he was there a lot.

Finishing up with Walker, I have written before of the true story after he retired. He was out jogging and came upon a car that had crashed and the people could not get out of the car. Walker ripped the door off the car and pulled them to safety. After making sure they were alright and waiting until the police and EMTs arrived, he ran off with no fan fare. It was not until later that a reporter confirmed that Walker had saved the couple from the car.

The themes of truthfulness, calmness, humility and thoughtfulness are worthy attributes to deploy. Beware of those in leadership who do not exhibit such.

Did I tell you about the time…?

We all need some outlets from the news of the day, the Coronavirus. Words like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” are in many discussions. So, with a Thank-God-its-Friday sense of purpose, here are few things I want to share.

Did I tell you about the time…

– I called the Senator’s office and shared my concern with the staff member and learned I was speaking with the wrong Senator’s office? Oops.

– I said to a small gathering in front of our Health and Wellness coordinator, that we need to do these Mobile Mammogram screenings for our employees to honor “Breast Awareness Month” in October. She corrected me saying that would be “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Oops.

– I watched a colleague walk into the wrong gender bathroom by mistake at a client’s manufacturing plant only to see a line of three women looking puzzled as he walked out? He said he thought it was pretty progressive move to have a tampon machine in a unisex bathroom (this was 1985). Oops.

– I listened to a colleague recounting small talk with a female prospective client who had picture of Don Knotts in his Barney Fife deputy uniform in her office; after multiple probing questions he learned that she just had a crush on Barney Fife? Oh my. Don’t tell Thelma Lou.

– I watched a colleague try to take a charge from an opponent during a league game for our company basketball team; he did not want to get hurt, so he started falling before he was hit and slowly fell to his backside chuckling all the way down? Ouch.

– I almost fell on my backside at our wedding when we were lighting the unity candle and stepped wrong off a step, catching myself without too much notice? Almost oops.

– I did fall on my backside at a community play, when we returned to our seats after intermission, and my folding chair back leg was off the two-feet high choral riser; as I sipped my wine, my first thought was my date was going forward, but it was me falling slowly backwards to a loud crash? Ouch, indeed. My ego was more bruised than my tail bone.

– I was working with my son last week to pull up some stumps from trees that we had cut up after they fell; as we pulled the stump as I squatted using my weight, the stump freed itself and landed me on my backside. Oops.

We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and these events. My bride is still my wife. The date went out with me again. The Health and Wellness coordinator and I still laugh about the story. I reminded the faux charge basketball player of the story when we met up again after twenty years to laughter. The Senator staff member and I had a good chuckle and I am sure she shared the story. And, my son, my wife and I laughed about my stump removal techniques.

Have a great weekend. Laugh and the world laughs with you. Especially when you fall on your backside.

Visiting people and places is the ticket

I wrote a few years ago about the wonderful visit we had to New England, made more enjoyable because we reconnected with some relatives. The combination of using a visit to a place to visit people can be marvelous, the caveat is to make sure it is people who you want to be around.

The past few days, my wife and I did a similar kind of visit to my home state of Florida and roots in south Georgia. Starting with my hometown of Jacksonville, we stayed with my brother and visited with his oldest daughter who is temporarily staying with him. The next night, we had dinner with his son, who we had not seen for a few years. It was wonderful to catch up. Earlier that day, we had yet another four hour lunch with my three best friends dating back to grade school, along with their wives. We did hear a few new stories, along with the old, and got to catch up.

The next day we drove to Tampa where we spent a couple of days enjoying its wonderful River Walk and a cool place called the Oxford Exchange suggested by our niece, my brother’s youngest daughter. The key to our trip was to visit with her, which was lots of fun. But, while there, we got to meet our blogging friend Gronda, who I had never met in person. She is a delight and has lived a wonderful life with various experiences, which she shared. We walked to and from the restaurant with Gronda, which was on the River Walk, as we sat outside and enjoyed the meal.

As for meeting our niece, it is lovely to meet her now as a wonderful young woman, as contrasted to the child we saw grow up. Meeting her alone in her new home city was quite fun. We had a nice brunch at the Oxford Exchange which is a rehabbed old building filled with shops and restaurants.

Finally, we ventured north and had a wonderful meal with members of my father’s family in south Georgia. I won’t mention the town, because everyone knows everyone else. There were eight of us, which included the three children (and their spouses) of a man raised with my father after his parents divorced. My dad was brought up largely by his aunt and her husband, who had two children as well. This aunt had helped raise his mother, as her biological mother was not part of the picture.

We had so much fun catching up, trading stories and filling in gaps in other stories. I hope the visits spawn reciprocal ones. It did with our New England trip. In fact, another niece we reconnected with in Maine is coming down for a few days later today.

I cannot emphasize enough how happy we are to have made these trips. I recognize this may not be newsworthy, but let me say don’t wait until it is too late to connect or reconnect.