Saturday, August 16, 2014

It's time to face the not-so-final curtain

And so, dear reader(s), the time has finally come to face the not-so-final curtain.

As one door closes, another door opens.

Into each life some rain must fall.  

In order to make an omelette, you have to break some eggs.  

Actually, I have no idea about that last one, but I'll ask my loyal manservant, Javier.  

As per my previous message, things are moving on in the fiction business.  A novel or two, some short stories, it's all going on.  

That being the case, I am hereby moving my online presence over to

I pledge to keep blogging over there with news of my fiction activities.  And, if you're very lucky, and I'm having a slow week, I promise occasionally to drop in an illuminating blog post about the shape of American states or my own vulgar take on TV healthcare ads or hilarious gifts one can buy for ones pets online.     

It's been an almost-decade of on-and-off merriment, illumination and discovery.  I hope you've enjoyed it half as much as I have.  If not, I'll settle for a third.

So, here's your mission, should you choose to accept it: please join me at: for all my fiction writing activities;

@jon7payne for my writing-related tweeting.

Let me close with a few words from the Grateful Dead: "What a long, strange trip it's been".  Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mea culpa, pending something de novo

I am getting the distinct impression, dear reader, that we have now technically arrived in the spring of 2014, albeit that you wouldn't be able to guess that fact from spending any time outside anywhere on the mid Atlantic coast of the US of America.  Nevertheless, and regardless of the weather, I must admit to a dereliction of blogosphere duty for a year or more, for which I can only apologize.

There are a number of possible reasons for such dereliction of duty, which might include (i) I had become trapped under a large and heavy object, (ii) I had joined a monastery and taken a vow of literary abstinence, and/or (iii) I had lost my typewriter (whatever that is!) to a band of marauding Cossacks.  The truth, that I took a year off to write a novel, is only slightly less implausible than any of these three possibilities.

To those readers who have been waiting breathlessly to read 'Hamish and Veronica Take Manhattan', as trailed in my previous message, I owe yet another apology.  No such story exists, except in my fevered imagination; but I suppose that without fevered imagination no stories would exist of any sort. Anyhow, my regular, slightly less-fevered, imagination has labo(u)red for a year to bring you a novel entitled 'The Shores', about a tragic bombing incident in the fictional beach town of Canterbury MA.  Watch this space, so to speak, for news about that.

For now, in a thinly-veiled, in fact totally un-veiled, attempt to whet your appetite (when did anyone 'whet' anything other than an appetite?) (on second thoughts, don't answer that), I bring you the following extract, which introduces our protagonist.  Enjoy.

Memorial Day, exactly one year before the explosions.

Jimmy Twelvetrees pedalled up the hill as fast as he could, his shoelaces dangling dangerously close to his bike chain, steering with his right hand and momentarily holding a piece of toast in his mouth, so that he could use his left hand to adjust his headphones.  He saw old Mr Crabtree step out into the road just in time to swerve around him, almost losing his balance, and then regaining it enough to wave his toast in the air.  

“Morning, Mr Crabtree!” he called back over his shoulder, optimistically.  As usual, Mr Crabtree ignored him.  “Miserable old bastard,” Jimmy said to himself.

At the corner of the park, Jimmy had a quick look around and, seeing no one nearby, cut onto the footpath that ran across the park, past the sign that read ‘Strictly no bicycles, roller skates or ball games’.  He had calculated, several summers earlier, that, while technically breaking parks department by-laws, or some such thing that is of no concern to 17-year-olds, this shortcut saved him a good 5 minutes over going all the way up Park Road and across on McPherson Street.

Jimmy arrived at the depot at 3 minutes past 6am.  Mr Gupta was already out front, looking at his watch.  

“Come on, Jimmy!” he called. “You’re late already!”  

“Sorry, Mr Gupta!” replied Jimmy, with a smile, as though pleased with himself.  “The dog ate my homework.”  

“OK, if you say so.”  Mr Gupta rolled his eyes and gave Jimmy a friendly slap across the back of the head, which his young employee tried to dodge as he ducked inside to pick up his pile of papers.

“Anything special today?” asked Jimmy as he emerged back out into the early morning sunshine.  

“No,” said Mr Gupta, “just the usual.  But remember: just ‘cause it’s a holiday, folks still want their paper on time.  So, no slacking!”  

“Yes, sir, Mr Gupta!” barked Jimmy, with an ironic salute.  

“How’s your mom?” asked Mr Gupta.  

“She’s OK,” said Jimmy.  “You know, the usual.”

“OK.  Well, send her my regards.  Now, go on, shoo!” called his boss, as Jimmy climbed back onto his bike, balancing himself, newspapers, headphones and toast.

Mr Gupta smiled and watched Jimmy swerving from side to side as he disappeared down McPherson.

Jimmy loved being a paperboy.  It was easy, it paid pretty well, it was outside, he could ride his bike, he could listen to music.  Today, because it was a special day, he had chosen a classic: The Ramones’ Rocket To Russia.  

Jimmy loved being a paperboy even more on holidays, because he could arrange to finish his deliveries right down at the bottom of King's Road, at the intersection with Queen's, from where it was a short ride along to the Family Diner, where he could get as much milkshake and pancakes as he wanted.  He would get a booth in the window and take all the time in the world.  

Sometimes, if he was lucky, he’d be there on the same day that Alice Crabtree, granddaughter of the miserable old bastard, was working her waitressing shift.  

Alice was smart, funny, cute, cool, she even had OK taste in music.  How could there be a better girl than that waiting for him out there?  Surely unrequited love would have to be requited eventually, he thought to himself.  And in the meantime he would try to work out what requited meant.  He made himself laugh.

Even if Alice didn’t come into the diner, he could always ride back via the boardwalk and check out how the ocean looked today.  Which was not a bad consolation.

All these thoughts were bouncing around Jimmy’s head as he took a left and headed downhill along King's Road.  The Ramones were hitching a ride to Rockaway Beach, his absolute favorite.  He sat back in the saddle, breathed in the sea air deeply, and lost himself in rock ‘n roll.  

OK, that's your lot. For now.

Who is Jimmy Twelvetrees?  

Will he get hooked up with Alice?  

Why would anyone want to bomb a peaceful beach town?  

What does that have to do with the local paper boy?  

What difference does it make?  

These questions, and maybe some others, will be answered in 'The Shores'.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Referee's Top Nine Popular English Baseball Idioms

Well, it's that time of year again, dear reader.  The time of year that The Referee begins to suffer from a highly personalised and specific ailment I have invented for myself which I like to call Baseball off-Seasonal Affected Disorder, or B-SAD.  This is a particular type of listless melancholy that sets in every year in November, as soon as the World Series ends, begins to lift slightly in March during spring training, but only disappears completely on opening day, usually in early April.

This year, I have decided to take action against my MLB-related malaise by sharing with you something remarkable that brings together two of my very favo(u)rite things: baseball and the English language.  And so, without further ado or preamble (only joking!), it is my pleasure, as well as my self-medication, to share with you The Referee's Top Nine Popular English Baseball Idioms.

We all like to use a good idiom.  In fact it's probably true to say that we each use multiple idioms every day without even noticing that we're doing it.

Do you want to chew the fat?  I've been burning the midnight oil.  You're barking up the wrong tree.  I'm under the weather.  He's pushing up daisies.  I'm all ears.

But how many of us ever stop and think about the origin of the idioms we use?  I'm amazed at how often they have their roots in sport(s).

We'll beat them at their own game.  The ball is in your court.  That's below the belt.  Keep your eye on the ball.  Don't jump the gun.  That was below par.

One sport, baseball, aka America's pastime, seems to provide many more idioms than any other.  And not just in American English, but also in British English and in English-speaking countries generally, despite the fact that baseball is not a major sport in most of those countries.      

In case you think I'm overstating this case, I'd like to present to you The Referee's Top Nine Popular English Baseball Idioms.  A top nine not because I can't think of 10 (there are many more than that) but rather one for each of the regular innings in a game of baseball.

But, to make it interesting (imagine that!), and to continue my long-standing commitment to both your education and entertainment, dear reader, I will not only list my Top Nine, but I'll also give you the original baseball meaning of each phrase, and demonstrate its popular (non-baseball) use in a helpful and highly realistic sentence.  I bet you already can't wait to get started.  Me too.

Just to make things easy to follow, each line is labelled a, b or c, as follows:

(a)  Baseball meaning
(b)  Popular meaning
(c)  Use in a sentence, or paragraph.

Got it?  Then let's play ball.  (Ooh, there's one).

1.  Touch Base
(a)  To touch, step on, or otherwise make contact with the plate, or "bag", to ensure that the runner is "safe" and can't be run out or tagged out.
(b)  To make sure one connects with or stays in touch with someone else; to arrange to be in contact.
(c)  Veronica was already sitting at a corner table when Hamish arrived. "Hi." she said sheepishly, "So glad we had chance to touch base while you're still in town."

2.  Ballpark
(a) A baseball stadium.
(b) A broad estimate, usually of something so large that a "more or less" approach won't make much difference.
(c)  "My pleasure" said Hamish, a little bemused by her tone. "So, what are we talking about? I mean, just give me the ballpark, you know."   

3.  Left field
(a)  Relating to the left side of the outfield, as seen from the point of view of the hitter and catcher, when facing the pitching mound.
(b)  Something unexpected, out of the blue.
(c)  Veronica looked down quickly at the delicate white table cloth, in order to disguise a rapidly advancing blush. "Well...". She hesitated before looking up again. "I'm worried that you might think it's a little, you know, left field."

4.  Big league / major league
(a)  Top-level professional baseball, as opposed to the minor, feeder leagues (AA and AAA).
(b)  Serious, professional, senior.  
(c)  "Bloody hell!" snorted Hamish, propelling a morsel of complimentary Italian bread out of his nose and into his empty wine glass. "Just tell me. I like to think I'm a big league kind of guy. I'm sure I can take it." 

5.  Cover all bases
(a)  To ensure that all the infielders are in position in terms of being ready to make contact with the base and so run out the hitter / runner.
(b)  To make sure one has thought of everything and/or is fully prepared.
(c)  "Well," continued Veronica, pretending not to notice the nasal projectile. "I just wanted to make sure we covered all the bases, so to speak, before you go back home." This time she looked him straight in the eye. 

6.  Get past first base / get to second base
(a) To achieve a base hit and run round at least to second base.
(b) To make more than basic progress; especially to get further in a romantic encounter than, well, first base.
(c)  "Oh, I see" said Hamish, hoping that he had got the drift, without being sure. "It's just that, at the party, it was pretty clear that you had no interest in getting past first base, so I didn't want to push my luck."

7.  Throw a curveball
(a)  A pitch thrown with topspin which dips dramatically before it reaches the strike zone.
(b)  Do something unexpected or out of the ordinary.
(c)  "I know, I know." Veronica sounded a little exasperated. "It's just that, you know, you arrived with whats-her-name..". "Elspeth" he interjected. "Yes, Elspeth" Veronica continued. "And so I didn't think I should throw you a curveball, in the circumstances".  

OK, hold that thought.  It's now time for the 7th inning stretch.  I realise that that occurs in the middle of the 7th inning, not at the end, but please bear with me.  There is a limit to how far one can take an analogy, you know.  

For the uninitiated, the 7th inning stretch is a break in the middle of the 7th inning when the crowd is encouraged to get up and stretch, and sometimes to do a little dance, etc.  This is often accompanied by some jaunty music, just to get you in the mood.  Those nice people in major league baseball are very careful to look after their crowds as well as their expensive players. 

Anyway, by way of our analogous 7th inning stretch, I send out kudos in the direction of the marvellous film "Zombieland", which I was re-watching recently with the Littlest Referee.  As a responsible parent, I think it's important from time to time to sit down with ones young children in front of a good zombie apocalypse movie.  

There is a splendid scene in the house of Bill Murray (played by himself) when Columbus (the nervous nerd male protagonist) and Wichita (the confident gun-toting female subject of his admiration) share a tentative first (and only) kiss.  The build up to the kiss goes like this:

Wichita: You know, between you, me and "What About Bob?"... you're actually kinda cute.
Columbus: You think so?
Wichita: Yeah. I mean, you've got the guts of a guppy, but I could hit that.
Columbus: Really?
Wichita: Or at least give you the intentional walk to first.

Now, an intentional walk happens when the pitching team, usually under imminent threat of conceding runs, decides that the next batter up is too dangerous to be allowed a regular "at bat" because he is likely to get a hit and allow his team to score.  Therefore, on instruction from the dugout, the pitcher deliberately throws 4 "balls" outside the strike zone to the catcher, thus allowing the batter (who just stands there looking bored and chewing) to take a walk to first, which is in any case the outcome when a pitcher throws 4 balls, including when not intentional.  I trust you're keeping up at the back.

In other words, the concept of getting to or past first base is so engrained in popular non-baseball usage that Wichita is able to mangle it by introducing the concept of an intentional walk, and any casual baseball fan, and I dare say almost all Americans, would know exactly what she meant.

OK, now that we have all stretched, and perhaps enjoyed a little dance (you know who you are), let's press on.

8.  Play hardball
(a)  Play baseball (which uses a small, hard ball), as opposed to softball (which uses a larger, slightly softer ball) (and is played principally by female teams, at least in the US) (and involves a frightening and bizarre underarm pitching technique which has to be seen to be believed).
(b)  Play or negotiate hard, in order to get exactly what you want.
(c)  "Oh, I see" said Hamish, again, starting to catch up. "And I thought you were just playing hardball with me. You know, because you weren't all that interested." "I know" Veronica blushed again. "But I invited you here today because I am interested. Very. In you."    

9.  Step up to the plate
(a)  Prepare for your "at bat", ie a batter's appearance at the plate.
(b)  Be ready to take on a responsibility.
(c)  "Well, in that case, I have no choice but to step up to the plate" beamed Hamish. As he was speaking, a waiter hurriedly arrived at the table, apparently to take an order for pre-lunch drinks. But Hamish didn't let him get a word in: "We'll be needing Champagne, please".

And so, gentle reader, there you have it. The Referee's Top Nine Popular English Baseball Idioms set out in nine innings.  I hope those of you who might have been sceptical about the impact of America's pastime on God's own language have been duly convinced.

And, as a major bonus, entirely free of charge, those who were able to string together the scene set out in the lines marked (c) have just enjoyed the opening salvos of my forthcoming debut romcom novel, "Hamish and Veronica Take Manhattan".  You might say it's a screwball comedy.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Today I'll Mostly Be Using The Future Tense

Let me reveal a secret: I love language. I love not just how it sounds and how it's used, I love in particular the fact that the way we use language can change the world around us, and language can tell us things about the world around us that we wouldn't otherwise have known.

Now, dear reader, I can guess what you're thinking.  You're probably thinking "What is he going on about now?", or "Why does he never write about interesting things?", or something along those lines.  Both are good questions.  On we go.

By way of introduction (no, the above paragraphs are not introduction, they're pre-amble, which is different), let me mention that the differences between American English and British English are well known and well documented.  I don't propose to go on at length (!) about tom-ay-toes and tom-ar-toes and all that.  It is what it is.  And most of what it is is differences in vocabulary.

Differences in vocabulary (pitch v field, courgette v zucchini, tarmac v blacktop) are important to know.  For example, if you're a Brit travelling in the US of America, you probably are well aware that Americans use "sidewalk" to indicate what you would call a "pavement"; but it might also come in useful to know that Americans also use "pavement", but to them it means the surface of the road.  Equally, depending on what you get up to whilst travelling over here, it might be useful to know that Americans use the word "suspenders" to indicate what Brits would call "braces", ie something to hold up mens' trousers (aka pants) rather than womens' stockings.

And so, dear reader, if this was just any old expat blog, I would go on about vocabulary differences at length and we could all have a good laugh about what would happen if you mixed up your suspenders and your pants, etc.

But, as my hardcore following will know, The Referee tries to dig a little deeper, in order to give you the in-depth inter-cultural commentary you so richly deserve.

That being the case, I want to mention something much more subtle about the way that Americans use English and see if it doesn't indicate something interesting in outlook and points of view.  There are multiple potential subtle differences, of course, but I want to focus on one I've noticed often recently, and which stood out on a recent visit to the cinema, aka movie theater.

The Littlest Referee was keen to take me to see a film and I was happy to go along; (it used to be the other way round).  On the way in to the cinema, the very polite young ticket chap said the following: "Theater 7 is going to be upstairs, and the concession stand is going to be open up there".

Think about that for a moment.  Ignore the spelling - I'm spelling "theater" that way just to be consistent with who the speaker is.  (There appears to be a pattern of Americans anglicizing French words, but don't get me started on that.)

He said: "Theater 7 is going to be upstairs".  I had to force myself not to ask "Where is it at the moment?", as though concerned that Theater 7 might not show up in time before we arrived at the top of the stairs, only to find ourselves on the brink of a frightening vortex full of anti-matter, whatever that might be.  But I didn't, because that would have been a little mean to the poor chap, not to mention confusing.

Instead, I thought about that fascinating use of language, which is a very common American way of speaking.  I have noticed it most often in the context of what you might call customer service, in the widest sense - at the cinema, in a restaurant, when asking directions, etc.

The thing that occurs to me about this phraseology is that the speaker is putting him or herself in the shoes of the listener.  It is, I think, a manner of speaking employed when the speaker wants to be helpful by describing for the listener what they are about to experience, rather than simply expressing facts that the speaker happens to know.

Did the ticket chap at my local cinema believe that Theater 7 was not yet in place but would be so at some point in the near future?  Of course not.  What he was doing was describing for the Littlest Referee and myself what we were about to experience in the next minute or so.  We would go up the escalator to the 2nd floor (which can be found where a Brit would locate the first floor), and then we would make our way, via the concessions or otherwise, to door number 7, and behind that door we would then discover our destination, and that destination was Theater 7.

This reminds me that I have no idea why Americans use the word "concessions" to describe food and drink places.  Answers on a postcard, please.

But, more importantly, I like to think that, as the inventors of customer service, in movie theaters, diners, drive-ins, etc, the Americans have unconciously developed a manner of speaking which is empathetic to the needs of the listener.

And so, that leaves me to say only that I am going to be signing off this message, at some time in the near future.

There it is.  Told you so.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Return of the Son of Monkey Glue

Richard Dawkins, the notable British evolutionary biologist and Oxford don (not pictured, left) was recently in DC to speak at a gathering labelled the "Reason Rally", which claimed to be the largest ever gathering of secularists, humanists, atheists and the like.  According to Barbara Bradley Hagerty, religion correspondent at NPR (National Public Radio, for those reading this from outside the US of America), Dawkins had been invited as a keynote speaker in part to improve the public image of the secularist community.

This gives me a thin but nevertheless arguable excuse to return to one of my favo(u)rite topics: the age-old (and, in my view, pointless) argument between science and religion about how we got here and what it all means.

But, before I launch into that, let me say the following by way of preamble:

1.  My first thought on hearing about the "Reason Rally" was to wonder what the collective noun for secularists, humanists and atheists might be.  A "Proof" perhaps, or a "Laboratory", or maybe a "Curmudgeon".  A curmudgeon of secularists.

2.  Inviting Richard Dawkins to represent secularists in order to improve their image is, may I humbly suggest, rather like hoping Newt Gingrich might improve the image of conservatives.  Or like inviting Basil Fawlty to address a conference of hoteliers.  All are well qualified, certainly, but none of them is exactly a pin-up.  Is that the best they can do?  Isn't Beyonce an atheist, or Ryan Seacrest?

3.  I have, as those numerous (!) keen followers of this august organ will be aware, held forth on this topic before, in my messages of 11/25/05 and 12/26/05, to be precise.  You might be wondering if I'm going to say anything different this time.  The answer is no: I'm going to say the same things, in a slightly different way.  Am I, you might then reasonably ask, going to keep going on about this same topic interminably?  The answer is yes: I plan to keep going on about it at some length until someone listens.  Don't hold your breath.      

So, here goes.  In a nutshell, the approach taken by The Referee, for what's worth, is that the age-old argument between science and religion about the origin of things - by which I mean everything - is essentially a non-sequitur.  In other words, the question raised by one side is responded to by the other side with an answer which is in fact about something else.  This is followed inevitably by confusion.  And this in turn is followed by a boring and protracted round of everyone insulting everyone else's beliefs, as though we were all talking about the same thing.  We weren't.  Let me explain.

The essential point, IMHO (as those young people say), is that the question of HOW we got here is not the same as the question about WHY we are here.  The first is mechanics, the second is meaning.

Why does this matter?  I'm glad you asked that.  Here's why:

Scientists are qualified to answer questions about HOW.  Theologians and philosophers are qualified to answer questions about WHY.  The origin of the non-sequitur, it seems to me, is that both groups have consistently attempted to get out of their own lane and answer the other guy's question.  Or, worse still, both have, in their own way, tried to pretend that there's only one question.

Let's say, by way of example, that you bumped into the Archbish of Canterbury, perhaps having a crafty pint in the margins of the General Synod, and you sidled up to him and asked him to explain the physics behind the Big Bang.  What do you think he'd say?  I'd like to think that he might pass on the question.  I'd hope he would refer you to someone more qualified than he on this point.  A physicist, for example.  He might perhaps offer you some wisdom on the theological significance of the event, but it's a fair bet that he would leave the physics to someone else.

Looking at the vice versa situation for a moment, does Mr Dawkins respond to out-of-lane questions  with such humility?  No, he does not.  In fact, when the decorated astrophysicist and non-God-botherer Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow to you and me) suggested in his book "Our Cosmic Habitat" that there are legitimate questions of faith and meaning that "lie beyond science", Dawkins apparently responded by asking "what expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?".  A classic example of pretending there's only one question.

I wish I could say that my fellow God-botherers have all acted as humbly as I imagined Dr Williams would.  Alas, they have not.  Whilst there are very many, perhaps a silent majority, who get it, a very vociferous minority have been just as guilty as Dawkins et al in terms of getting out of lane, just in a different way.

The key here is Genesis.  Not the complicated hippy prog-rockers turned balding millionaire charity crooners, but rather the opening book of the Bible.  Too many of my fellow God-botherers have failed to limit themselves to WHY, and have proclaimed Genesis as a book of HOW.

Here's the key question they need to consider: what if Genesis was never intended as a book of mechanics, but rather a book of meaning?  If that's the case, which very many of us God-botherers believe it is, then there is no threat from science, including evolution, since these are matters of mechanics.

In other words, a win-win becomes possible.  Suddenly, one can conceive of both a Supreme Being who created us, and a body of scientific knowledge that is gradually discovering how She did it.

Or, if I may, scientific discovery becomes a matter of uncovering the "Fingerprints of God", which just happens to be the title of a book by one Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

"Aha!" I hear you cry, as you emerge briefly from your boredom-induced slumber, "so The Referee is an advocate of Intelligent Design".  No, he isn't.  Here's why.

ID, as those of us in the know like to call it, attempts to take on science in a battle to find the bits that scientists can't explain and then proclaim that as proof of a creator.  There are numerous problems with this, amongst my favo(u)rite of which are: (i) it's just another attempt to answer the other guy's question, & (ii) given that scientific discovery constantly moves forward, it's not a brilliant plan to base your argument on things that scientists haven't discovered, yet.

If the existence of God depends on gaps in science, what happens when those gaps are filled by new scientific discovery?  Does God suddenly cease to exist?

I prefer not to take on science in a battle for supremacy.  I prefer to invite it round for a nice cup of tea.

That is about the limit that my simple brain can deal with.  If you feel the need to get into this in a more serious way, then I would suggest avoiding the ID-peddling anti-evolutionists at Seattle's Discovery Institute and instead directing your attention towards the lovely people of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge, where you will receive some real science, and maybe even a nice cup of tea.

Which leaves me only, as I have done before, to remind you of the wisdom of plant-pot wearing Ohio electro popsters Devo on this issue: "God made man, but a monkey supplied the glue".

And, with that, may I wish you a very happy Spring break post-equinox holiday vacation.  Amen.