"Wow, something happened here, didn't it?" She asked, more of a statement, really an acknowledgement that I looked like hell. And, I did.
Only a few minutes before, I'd been in a good place. The show had finally hit a stride. The days, though still long and demanding, had become predictable. Until this week it had been ten blue bolts, two biblical plagues and at least one unfolding movie-maker nightmare each day. Nothing was going right. Balls, once confidently juggled, had fallen to the floor so that I could see which ones most resembled eggs and which fine china. I'd been exhausted, at wit's end, and for the first time in my career, I spent more than a fleeting minute wondering if I was really cut out for the job. Three weeks into photography, though, the dust devils petered out and a rhythm had finally established itself.
Finished with my work in a paltry thirteen hours, I took to the hotel gym for some long-ignored exercise. I was twenty minutes into what I had planned as a ninety minute session on the recumbent bicycle. The hills were set at maximum, my pulse had finally broken 140 and a glistening torque of perspiration encircled my neckline when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and found my late-shift office counterpart standing behind me. I extracted my headphones and he said those three tiny that every man in my job fears to hear. "FedEx didn't come."
Shit. This is bad, very bad. This is the kind of terrible that I would express as a DefCon level if I could ever remember whether higher or lower was worse for DefCon kind of stuff. It was seven fifty-seven in the evening. The latest FedEx dropoff in this are was at eight-fifteen and it was twenty minutes away by car. Moreover, one of the packages was a first overnight for an Oscar-winning makeup artist who was attached to our lead actor, and for whom we'd already fucked up one major cross country shipment. It's Friday and I'm the only one who hasn't left town that knows the route.
Without a word, I dash out of the hotel gym and sprint the seven flights of stairs to my room to get my keys. I run back down the six flights of stairs to the lobby. On the last flight, I slip on ten years' accumulated slime and put my head into the un-finished cinder block wall, scraping my face and shoulder. Bleeding only slightly, I run to the parking deck, where I find my distressed colleague putting the last of the packages in my car (he knows I never lock my doors.) I crank up the engine, tailgate out beneath the retracting arm and veer into traffic. I probably average ninety miles an hour down the highway to the airport FedEx dispatch.
My car fishtails as I swerve into the lot and I screech to a halt just in front of the entrance. I arrive two minutes late but before they lock the doors. Panting, drenched in sweat, swaddled in dirty workout clothes, reeking of burnt rubber and bleeding from the face, I hand the stack of envelopes and packages to the fairy-tale monster of a woman behind the counter.
"Wow, something happened here, didn't it?" she says, not really expecting an answer.
"Yes," I said, "Victory."
The English language has some foibles, probably more than the majority of concurrent tongues. Our grammar is uneven, ascriptions of meaning can be arbitrary and there are oh-so-many-instances of 'that's just how you say it.' The most discerning of us, even professional linguists, have trouble with some of the minutiae of the language. I, for instance, will probably never master "Lay" and "Lie." But there's one point of English, moreover, one point of rhetoric that really apprehends my impala.
Not all words have a superlative. Their tone, their insinuation of meaning, cannot be increased through the application of adverbs or descriptive clauses and trying to do so will turn an otherwise articulate individual into a babbling yokel.
There are three such instances where I find individuals make these errors.
First are words that already connote the ends of the spectrum that cannot be surpassed. They tend to come in pairs and the generally end with the suffix "est": most/least, biggest/smallest, furthest/nearest. This is the mistake that seems to appear the least. It's almost a toddler's trope, something said by proto-lingual children who have not yet reached the conservation phase of psychological development. No less, I oh-too-often hear adults say, "That's the most dumbest thing ever." Those people are idiots.
More vexing are those people who misuse words that connote an absolute state*: unique, impossible, omnipotent, infinite**, individual, universal, etc. These ideas do not have varying degrees. These words cannot be superlatized because anything that modifies them alters their very definition. One thing cannot be more unique than another; they are each one of a kind or not.
What nettles me is hearing absolute terms coupled with superlatizing words in ways that are intellectually lazy. "She's the most unique person I know," is a non-statement. They mean "She's the most engaging, creative, memorable or the least like those around her, person that I know."
Finally, there are those places where superlatives are not strictly incorrect but where they are rhetorically clunky, the moments when the idea encapsulated in the word does not lend itself to being altered: very historical, most immense, extremely starving. Even though there's no structural error to this last set of examples, they're the ones that bother me the most.
Words are weapons. Keep them sharp and use them wisely.
* I concede that there is some metaphorical wiggle room with these terms. For instance, when referring to pre-natal development, we often say that one woman is more pregnant than another even though pregnancy is a binary state. I'm unbothered by such use, though I'd like to see someone come up with a more elegant way to express that thought.
** I understand that, when used as a strictly mathematical term, there are degrees of infinity. I'm not referring to these instances, which are very narrow in scope (which is funny given this particular word). The folks who are going to make this mistake are not using the word in this sense. Besides, I'm not a mathematician, I'm a language harpy.
They say the first million words are practice.*
Who 'they' are, I've never been so sure but 'they' have been responsible for every great flub in all of human history. "They're preparing for war." "They've been trying to cure cancer for a hundred years." "They've developed a handy appliance that can scramble an egg while it's still insides it's shell." "They never see it coming." I'm not sure how much stock I put in what they have to say about it.
That quip, having been quipped, I now wonder, how much have I written? And, I mean deliberately, conscientiously written. I'm discarding texts, notes, holiday cards and casual emails. How much have I written where I put any craft into the smithing of words, any muse or music? A handful of essays for minor niche publications, a dozen volumes of personal journals, hundreds of blog posts, easily a thousand pages of academic research and professional documentation and, most importantly, three aborted novels.
How many words is that?
Let's say my journals, the small hard-backed kind I've been scribbling in since I was a teenager, each 110 leaves, have space for 100 words per page. That's 22,000 words per volume, of which I've filled about one every nine months for at least fifteen years. That's 440,000 words right there.
According to my software, this blog has some 358 publish posts. That number surprises me, though I don't know whether I feel it's high or low. Taking a guess at my output on my handful of previous blogs, I feel safe eyeballing a career 500 posts of greatly varying length. A glance at a few puts my guess at a median 500 words. That's another 250,000.
Academic and professional correspondence, I can only begin to guess. I know that the stack of college papers and work documents I keep at home require a drawer almost a foot deep and it's nearly full. That's just the stuff I chose to keep. Everything I wrote my freshman and sophmore years is long since discarded and the greatest part of the words to paper for work I never think twice on. This is just the stuff I thought worthy of one day rereading. 250 words to a double-spaced page and easily four reams of paper in that drawer! Even if pithy memos make up a third of the lot, that's 350,000 words.
Dozens on dozens of false-start short stories and half completed novellas. Sheaves of scenes, character descriptions, vignettes and word studies written only for pleasure and private practice. How much? Much more than will fit in a stack of binders, perhaps 250,000 more words. And, then my first two novels, neither of which I wrote with the intention of publication. The first I wrote because I was inspired, eager and bored with the rest of my life. Although, it's too long, it might be readable, with a good dose of editing and a fiscal quarter's re-writing. The second, also indulgently long, might have a good twist of phrase or two, but I'll never offer it to be read. I wrote it because I was angry and heartbroken and too poor for therapy. Call them each 100,000.
Someone check my math: one million, four hundred and ninety-thousand words. My math is sketchy, I concede, but even give or take twenty-five percent, that still puts me well over a million words penned in my adult life. That's a lot, much more that I thought I actually had to say.
What about that last novel? That third one that I was pecking at over the winter. The one that was coming out so easily? It needs revision, certainly, everything I write does but, is it time? I don't feel ready but I don't know how much more practice is practical. What am I to do with words 1,490,001 - 1,580,000? If, as they insist that the first million words are practice, then I think I'm about done practicing and should be getting dressed for opening day.**
How's this going to turn out?
* By "they", I mean Stephen King, to whom the quote is most often attributed, but I had to feign ignorance or you would have been bereft of my world-weary wit.
** Did you think that was a sports or an art/theatre reference? Just curious. That assumption says a lot about a person.