Friday, August 27, 2010

I rite gud

Astronomy is, as Carl Sagan put it, a humbling experience, especially when one considers the relative insignificance of humans and Earth in comparison with the mind-boggling size and age of the cosmos. On a personal level, the wonder of the universe and its workings -- as well as trying to wrap my head around the sheer number of things that had to go right for me to be alive here and now -- goes a long way toward keeping me from getting too full of myself.

I also have moments like those on a professional level, albeit on a much less cosmic scale. Like most everyone else, I take satisfaction in a job well done, especially if it's writing a story that required time and effort in research and tracking down sources to complete. Every so often, though, I come across a piece that reminds me of how meager my writing and journalism are in comparison to the people who do this job and do it well.

These pieces generally come in two forms. The first tends to be a triumph of insightful or poignant journalism, sometimes long-form writing but not always. (Note: I am intentionally leaving out literary giants such as Hemingway and their works, for comparing myself to the all-time greats would be akin to a certain former governor of Alaska comparing herself to William Shakespeare -- a nonsense at best.) There is no shortage of recent examples, from S.L. Price to Charlie Pierce's "Welcome to Idiot America" to the vast majority of the work of Chris Jones, including "Too Far From Home." Older pieces include the writing of Hunter S. Thompson -- whose work I admire but lifestyle I could never replicate -- Grantland Rice (whose contributions to sports writing live on, if only in cliche) and "Death of a Racehorse" by WC Heinz.

The other kind of writing that leaves me shaking my head, wishing I had an iota of those chops, is the punchy, humorous prose best typified by America's Finest News Source -- The Onion. Examples after the break.

Rather than doing jokey, slapstick humor (not that there's anything wrong with that, of course), The Onion specializes in straight-faced humor that is at times disturbingly plausible. An example from a recent edition: Smart, Qualified People Behind the Scenes Keeping America Safe: 'We Don't Exist'

WASHINGTON—Members of the brilliant, highly trained, and dedicated team of elite professionals who work tirelessly behind the scenes to protect our nation and keep its citizens out of harm's way announced Tuesday that they do not exist.
"I know most Americans like to believe there are selfless, ultra-intelligent operatives like me out there watching over everything from an underground control room," said the Rhodes Scholar Navy SEAL national security official who for the past 10 years we have all mistakenly presumed to be an actual human being. "Unfortunately, though, I'm not employed by the U.S. government, I'm not working at all hours to foil terrorist plots, nor am I part of some secret network of sharp, capable agents, because no such network exists."
"And again, neither do I," the imaginary man added.
 Another recent example -- somewhat less family-friendly but nonetheless funny: Local Water Tower Celebrates 50th Year as Repository of Information on Who Is a Slut

CONCORDIA, MO—Residents marked the 50th anniversary of the Concordia water tower Tuesday, honoring a structure that for generations has been the community's most comprehensive source of information on who is a slut.
According to University of Missouri historian Elliot Torcello, the remarkably well- preserved tower is recognized throughout the region as an indispensable archive detailing which women in the area are promiscuous, as well as whether or not they have crabs.
"Since June 22, 1960, when the words 'Jill Hooper is a slut' first appeared on one of its support girders, the tower has been a place for citizens to go and find out who is really easy, or perhaps to contribute their own statement about who is giving it up all over town," Torcello said. "This unique public forum has immortalized the names of all those who demonstrated in one way or another that they were a slut, a whore, or—after 1984—a skank."
 Small-town America at its finest, no?

I'll close this with two more examples, both of which show it is possible to take current issues that not many people find funny and give them an amusing slant. The first, to which I was clued in by the excellent Trixie: Abstinence-Only Lunch Programs Ineffective at Combating Teen Obesity

WASHINGTON—According to the findings of a recent Department of Health and Human Services study, school lunch programs that teach children to avoid all contact with food may not be an effective method of reducing teen obesity rates.
Despite the popularity of abstinence-only meal programs in schools across the country, the study found that children who were provided with no food at lunch and cautioned against eating at an early age were no less likely to become overweight than those who were provided with a well-rounded nutritional education.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the findings could adversely affect federal funding for all programs that tell kids "lunch is worth waiting for."
"There's no evidence to suggest that instructing teens not to chew, swallow, or even think about food is actually going to stop them from eating," Sebelius told reporters. "Let's face it: Kids are already eating. And not only during lunchtime. They're eating after school, at the mall, in their parents' basements. Pretending like it's not happening isn't going to make it go away."
"After all, they're teenagers," Sebelius continued. "Eating is practically the only thing on their minds."
 Lastly, this story in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks: God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule

NEW YORK—Responding to recent events on Earth, God, the omniscient creator-deity worshipped by billions of followers of various faiths for more than 6,000 years, angrily clarified His longtime stance against humans killing each other Monday.
"Look, I don't know, maybe I haven't made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again," said the Lord, His divine face betraying visible emotion during a press conference near the site of the fallen Twin Towers. "Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don't. And to be honest, I'm really getting sick and tired of it. Get it straight. Not only do I not want anybody to kill anyone, but I specifically commanded you not to, in really simple terms that anybody ought to be able to understand."
Worshipped by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, God said His name has been invoked countless times over the centuries as a reason to kill in what He called "an unending cycle of violence."
"I don't care how holy somebody claims to be," God said. "If a person tells you it's My will that they kill someone, they're wrong. Got it? I don't care what religion you are, or who you think your enemy is, here it is one more time: No killing, in My name or anyone else's, ever again."

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