The dench Dame Judi Dench — Song for a Sunday

Listen to Judi Dench rap. (I bet you never expected to read that sentence.)

“Hey, I’m Jude-to-the-D—Pow!”

I came across a Huffpost article about Dame Judi Dench “learning to spit lyrics” with a British rapper.

While she does look fetching in the flat-brimmed DENCH cap he gives her, the talent she displays is not so much rapping as it is mimicry—and rhythm. The Dame’s got rhythm.

Have a listen to the video if you like, but the thing that made me want to bring this to your attention is this line in the accompanying article:

“In the United Kingdom, Dench’s surname is sometimes used as slang to describe something amazing.”

Judi Dench
Dame Judi Dench, photo by Caroline Bonarde Ucci, CC BY 3.0

A quick check in the Urban Dictionary confirms Dench as a synonym for sick (in a good way) or nice, and offers the examples:

That was dench bruvaaaaa
look at her saaaaaaaan she is well judi dench

What an extraordinary thing to have one’s name enter the lexicon—and as high praise, no less.

Of course we all know Judi Dench as a marvelous actor. But do you know she’s also quite a, well, a dench musical theatre interpreter as well?

In a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in London, she sang the over-sung, often cloyingly sentimental “Send in the Clowns.” Frankly, the song had always put me right to sleep. Until I saw her interpretation. It’s dench, all right. Totally dench. Enjoy.

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WTF Philadelphia?

First stop on my vacation took me to Philadelphia. I think of Philly as a sort of mini-New York. You know, a city on the East Coast. So it must share the kinds of New York City values I’m used to. But apparently…not so much. I found myself bewildered more than once, thinking WTF Philadelphia?

[Yeah, I know there’s supposed to be a comma between WTF and Philadelphia. But I don’t want to anger the SEO Gods.]

My first clue came at the ballpark. Of course I was in Philadelphia for a Mets game. Don’t you know me by now?

RIP Darren Daulton

WTF Philadelphia
Daulton’s 1991 baseball card, image c/o

The Phillies had just lost one of their great players the week I visited. Darren Daulton was the catcher on their 1997 World Series-winning team, and they paid tribute to him before the game. You know: moment of silence, reverent video—at least 7 of the whole 9 yards. I’m sure they’ll get to 9 later, when they can bring in his family and the men he played with for a more extensive tribute. But he’d only just passed away; the family is probably still making funeral arrangements.

We Mets fans know what it’s like to lose a beloved player too young—”the Kid,” Gary Carter. Carter was a catcher on our 1986 World Series-winning team. And, like Daulton, he was also felled by a brain tumor. I grabbed some extra napkins at the cheesesteak stand to sop up my inevitable tears.

And I did cry at the memorial (enough with the dying, already). But I also gasped in astonishment at the film tribute. After detailing the highlights of Daulton’s playing career—the little film was packed with clips of him in action—the voiceover announcer intoned,

“To the ladies, he was a matinée idol. But he was also a man’s man.”

Now I’ll grant you, the guy was handsome. Chiseled cheekbones, strong jaw, a full head of floppy late 1980s hair. But will someone please explain to me why we needed the caveat that men also liked him—or maybe that he also liked hanging with  dudes. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what that sentence was trying to say.

One thing it did say—loud and clear to me—is that someone thinks the only reason a woman could possibly admire a player is for his good looks. But is that really the story you want to tell your female fans, Phillies management? “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about strategy and skill; just look at the hot bodies. And buy lots of pink gear with the team logo. M’kay?”

WTF Philadelphia?

Still, I did enjoy the game. For once the Mets were in fine form, combining lights-out pitching by Jacob deGrom; stellar defense in the field; and—mirabile dictu!—actual hits, including singles and doubles, so that more than once when someone came along to hit it out of the park we scored not one run but three. Add in a handful of solo shots and you arrive at the very satisfying score of 10-0.

I hopped in a cab outside the ballpark—couldn’t have been easier—and hurtled back toward my hotel. The doorman opened the taxi door for me, gave a deferential half-bow and asked, “How was your evening, sir?”


I mean, yes, I was wearing a baseball jersey and matching cap. But I was also wearing my—well, this is a business blog so I’ll just say “curves.” The moment I stepped one daintily shod foot out of the taxi, he started falling all over himself to apologize.

I looked him in the eyes and said,

“You know, girls can be baseball fans, too.”

The minute the word tumbled out of my mouth, I wanted to stuff it back in. I haven’t been a girl in—er, probably since before that doorman’s birth. But I was a little bit rattled, I gotta say.

So WTF Philadelphia? Seems like the “city of brotherly love” still hasn’t figured out that women love things other than men—or, in some cases, in addition to men.

Is this what it’s like in the rest of the country? No, I imagine in some spots it’s probably worse.

Well, I’ve checked the Phillies’s ballpark off my list. I don’t have to go back; in fact, I probably won’t.

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Imperfection & authenticity — RIP Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook,
Cook in 2011, photo by Joella Marano, CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the great singers of the American musical theatre passed away yesterday. I may be somewhat less than objective about her—I once drove 36 miles in a raging blizzard because I had front-row seats to a one-night-only concert—but I think some of the qualities that made Barbara Cook such a great singer parallel the qualities we need to be great writers.

Take this anecdote, from her obituary in The New York Times:

Teaching master classes at the Juilliard School in recent years, Ms. Cook often waved off her students’ preoccupation with vocal perfection, pushing them instead to get at the pain and joy beneath the notes.

“What is this song about?” she demanded of one bewildered class.

Writers may not always be dealing with the extremes of “pain and joy,” but we must have an emotional connection to what we write. It’s the only way we can hope that our audience will also have an emotional connection to the material. And without an emotional connection, without knowing what your message is about, they’re just listening to a bunch of words. And who cares about that?

Notice also Cook’s insistence that the singers stop obsessing about sounding perfect. Perfection is just a roadblock we create. Because it’s unattainable, we can constantly belittle ourselves when we fall short of it. In her concerts, Cook would sometimes stop in mid-song and start all over again if she sensed something was off—not because she wanted to sing perfectly, but because she wanted the audience know that she was just as human as we are.

Barbara Cook: Words matter, the truth matters

But one thing Barbara Cook pursued rigorously, especially in her career as a cabaret singer: the truth. When she sang a lyric, you knew exactly what it meant. And fortunately for us, later in life she discovered the work of Stephen Sondheim—devilishly hard music with lyrics that demand complete emotional connection. Asked by to name her three favorite songs to sing, she chose two by Sondheim. Sondheim, in turn, told The Washington Post in 2002:

“No one sings theater songs with more feeling for the music or more understanding of the lyrics than Barbara.”

After winning acclaim—and a Tony Award—on Broadway, Cook took a left turn into alcoholism and depression, emerging in the mid-1970s onto the cabaret circuit. This soon led to a recording contract with Columbia Records. And that is how her Barbara Cook at Carnegie Hall record entered my collection: I gave blood one day while I was working at CBS and picked the record out of a bin set aside to reward donors. I never suspected it would be the start of a four-decade-long musical crush. But that’s a story for another time.

The New York Times obit again:

Paying less heed to the technical virtuosity that had thrilled audiences in big Broadway theaters, she now emphasized phrasing and styling to project a song’s emotions in smaller, more intimate settings.

The effect was striking. She had made no secret of her personal problems. But character and hard-won experience seemed to suffuse her songs, and it connected with audiences and critics. The reviewers took up a refrain, with phrases like “simple honesty,” “simplicity and directness” and “straightforward and declamatory.”

Obviously I added the emphasis, but this is authenticity. And it works as well when you’re reading a speech as it does when you’re singing a showtune. Connect with honesty—character flaws and all—and your audiences will connect with you.

Her three favorite songs to sing

“He Was Too Good to Me” by Rodgers and Hart (recording released in 1959) — bear with her through the verse; the emotion kicks in with the song proper. And listen to that crystalline soprano. If this song doesn’t have you reaching for the Kleenex, I don’t know what will.

Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”—yes, I’ve overdosed on this song too. But listen to the lyrics—you can hear every one.

The third song Cook mentioned was Sondheim’s “So Many People.” It’s the second half of this arrangement. Although it comes from Cook’s Sondheim album, this is Malcolm Gets singing. I couldn’t find a recording of Cook herself singing it.

Goodnight, dear Barbara Cook

I’ll leave you with Cook in her prime—1957—from her Tony Award-winning role, Marion the Librarian in The Music Man.

Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”

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“Lordy!” — get sticky with colloquialisms

“Lordy,” indeed.

I didn’t have time to watch Jim Comey’s testimony live yesterday: I had to prep for the writing class I lead on Thursdays. And after that, I had to dive back into The Project That Ate My Week™, whose deadline looms tomorrow. (I’ll make it; I always do.)

But I have caught snippets of the coverage, read bits of news articles here and there. And one word sticks out for me—and apparently for many other people too:


It’s certainly not the most important thing the former FBI Director said. It won’t be a central feature of the future analyses written about this key turning point in American history. If there’s a future in which to write histories.

But it may just be the “stickiest”—most memorable—sentence to emerge from his testimony:

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

Why “Lordy” matters

Think about all the ways Comey could have phrased that response:

“I certainly hope there are tapes.”

“I would welcome the release of those tapes, should they exist.”

Those are plausible examples of bureaucrat-ese. And boring as hell. Or as we can imagine Comey might say, “as heck.”

But “Lordy” takes the information out of the hearing room and puts it out in the real world. I was going to say “on the street” but that street would be somewhere in Mayberry. And that’s part of what makes it sticky. It’s somehow not of our world, so our brains hang onto it a little longer than they would a more familiar word. We turn it over, examine it from all angles. And in examining the unfamiliar word, we also hang onto the rest of the sentence: “I hope there are tapes.”

Of course, Comey was talking about the tapes that Tr*mp claimed to have of their private conversations. But when we get to thinking about those tapes, we can’t help but be reminded of those other tapes, the more salacious tapes the Russians are rumored to have. The more we think about tapes in connection with that man in the White House, the worse it is for him. And “Lordy”—lordy, lordy, we can’t let go of that word. And the tapes that follow it.

Straight from the heart

“Lordy” did not come from a lawyer or a communications consultant. It’s a colloquialism—informal language; it’s just the way people talk. Straight from the heart.

If you want people to listen to you, a communications consultant can help. But if you want people to remember you, speak straight from the heart. (And—shhh!—a great communications consultant can help there too.)

A well-placed colloquialism can have a lasting impact.

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Writing advice from Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel in 1928, Public Domain,

No doubt you’ve heard of Coco Chanel, the French fashion designer who liberated women from stiff, formal clothing and popularized the still-ubiquitous “Little Black Dress.” Her fashion advice remains legendary—just Google “remove one accessory” and your screen will fill with blogs and articles quoting or misquoting her famous dictum

“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”

But while Chanel intended that as fashion advice, I think it works just as well for writers.

How many adverbs have you used? Surely you don’t need them all. And those adjectives—wouldn’t a few descriptive phrases enliven your work more?

Of course, before you can revise—your outfit or your writing—you have to create it first. Write until you’ve finished the draft. But before it “leaves the house,” give it a good once-over. Is every word, every sentence, necessary? If it isn’t—copy, cut, and paste. Slap it into the writer’s equivalent of a jewelry box, the Outtakes file.

More advice from Coco Chanel

“Take one thing off” may be Chanel’s most-quoted piece of advice. But I found another one I like quite a lot in this slideshow from Australian Vogue:

“In order to be irreplaceable one must be different.”

While we’re on the subject of revising, I’d lop off “In order” at the top of that sentence. But let’s not blame Chanel; perhaps it got added in translation.

“To be irreplaceable, one must be different.” I tell my writers a variation of this all the time. And my clients, too. They talk about subjects that thousands—millions—of people have already talked about: diversity, ethics, management. How can they differentiate themselves from the crowd? By weaving their own stories into the mix. No one else has had your experiences, has your perspective.

Make your communications irreplaceable—and your ideas memorable—by being your own, unique self. (Little Black Dress optional.)

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May the Fourth Be with You — puns and when to use them

“Puns are the lowest form of humor.”

My parents may have said that to me more often than anything else—more often, even, than “Clean up your room.” And believe me, my room always needed cleaning. But I could never resist a good pun. Or a bad one, for that matter.

My favorite Star Wars pun is not “May the Fourth Be with You.” It’s

Metaphors Be with You

Back in the early ’80s I had a sweatshirt from the National Writers Union with that line on the front. I spent my last $20 on it, but it made me so happy.

punsPuns—the “feeblest species” of humor?

Besides my parents—who, being parents, were wrong about so many things—who else says puns are the lowest form of humor?

Well, British poet John Dryden said it way back in the 17th century. According to this op-ed The New York Times published in 2009, Dryden called puns “the lowest and most groveling kind of wit.” He must have hated Shakespeare. Shakespeare punned with abandon—using them to intensify humor in some scenes, and pathos in others.

Ah, but the author gives old Will a pass:

“Yet [Shakespeare] is guilty less of punning than wordplay, which Elizabethan taste considered more a sign of literary refinement than humor…”

When is a pun not a pun? The answer seems to be “when you’re an Elizabethan…or a law student.” Yes, scroll down to read the author’s bona fides: He was a law student when he wrote this piece. The law depends on words meaning what they say they mean; and while I know many lawyers with fine senses of humor, I can easily imagine a law student losing his after too many long nights in the library.

“Puns are the feeblest species of humor because they are ephemeral: whatever comic force they possess never outlasts the split second it takes to resolve the semantic confusion.”

Now I’m not a big fan of long-term semantic confusion (see Trump, Donald J.), but a momentary mix-up—I think it’s a sign of a superior intellect, myself. Case in point, Stephen Sondheim, whose lyrics are full of puns. The first one that comes to mind is the lyric from “I’m Still Here,” in which a former Follies girl reflects on her life:

First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone’s mother, then you’re camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I’m almost through my memoirs,
But I’m here.

The switch between “career” as verb and noun—I find it dizzyingly brilliant.

Some say puns are the lowest form of humor; I think people who dislike puns are the lowest form of people. Okay, that may be hyperbole (see Trump, Donald J.).

Perhaps Oscar Levant, one of the signature wits of the early 20th century, said it best:

“A pun is the lowest form of humor—when you don’t think of it first.”

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Finish that Sentence!” (Poetry edition)

Do certain phrases automatically trigger others for you? Surely I’m not the only person who goes through life playing a silent—and unique—game of “Finish that Sentence!” Most of my triggers trace back to poetry.

On a call today, a friend of mine said, “The time has come…” And I completely missed the rest of the sentence because my mind was reciting Lewis Carroll:

…the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

I think the woman who babysat me before I was old enough for preschool read me that poem. Looking back on it today, it hardly seems appropriate for preschoolers. The Walrus and his friend the Carpenter tricked a bunch of oysters into joining them for dinner—not realizing that they were on the menu. Perhaps that’s where my aversion to shellfish began.

poetry and children's better combination
Edward Lear’s own illustration of the scene, 1888

I loved my picture book of Edward Lear’s poem The Owl & the Pussycat. Also a little racy for a two-year-old, but no shellfish were harmed in the making of it. That poem also has its trigger words, although they don’t crop up in casual conversation as often. When someone talks about being “at sea”—or when I pass a green rowboat, I hear:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
   In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
   Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
I’d forgotten the rest of the stanza:
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
   And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
    What a beautiful Pussy you are,
         You are,
         You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”
Perhaps that’s where I got the urge to play with guitars. And, well, other things.
I’m grateful I had a babysitter who read me poetry — real poetry. Words so memorable that they cut through the fog of a toddler’s brain and embedded there, to resurface randomly even many decades later.
What are your “Finish that Sentence!” triggers?

F*ck yeah! — profanity and politics

Warning: This blog contains profanity, like the “ph-word”—phooey—and its descendant, the more straightforward “f-word.”

When my mother was a kid, back in the first half of the 20th century, she and her schoolgirlf friends used to camouflage their curses with Latin. Latin? Conjugate the verb “to be”: “Sum, esse, PHOOEY!!! futurus.” You can almost hear Cicero rolling in his grave.

Nobody camouflages curses these days. Nope, they’re right out there, front and center, a routine part of what used to pass for political discourse.

“Vulgarity,” my parents would have called it. And no one can dispute that an exceedingly vulgar man sits in the highest office in the land. But I’m not just talking about the “p***y-grabber-in-chief.” Apparently the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez, has thrown the s-word around at public rallies several times recently. And I don’t mean my mother’s s-word: “SHHHHHH-UGAR!”

Even Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has dropped the f-bomb:

“If we’re not helping people, we should go the fuck home.”

CNN commentator Mel Robbins asks an excellent question with the headline of her piece this week:

“Why the f*** are you talking s*** with kids in the room?”

Profanity works

Robbins offers an explanation (or justification) for all this salty talk. Apparently it works.

A team of researchers from the United States, Netherlands, the UK and Hong Kong found that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated by others with lying and deception.”

Still more research finds that we process most language on the left side of our brain, swear words get shuttled over to the limbic system, where we process emotions. The emotional connection makes you sound less scripted, more trustworthy. And these days politicians will do anything possible to seem more trustworthy. Shit, even the ones who are trustworthy seem shady.

Robbins paints a world that would be completely unrecognizable to my parents. I have to say, it’s even inconceivable to me:

“Now that we’ve stepped into the Swear Zone, there’s no turning back. Indeed, when Gillibrand dropped the f-bomb, people actually floated the theory that she’s swearing because she’s gearing up for a presidential run.”

Would I like to see Gillibrand explore a presidential run? Fuck yeah. But I would also love to return to a time when leaders also modeled class and decorum. I say “Sum, esse, PHOOEY!!! futurus” to the profanity of the Trump era.

Women or girls — a friendly reminder

I don’t remember the exact day I became a woman, but I do remember insisting—at the ripe old age of 18—on being called a woman. A few months after graduating from my all-girls’ high school, I matriculated at Smith College. And Smith was definitely a women’s college, ergo—my classmates and I suddenly realized—we were no longer girls. We were women.

As a woman I was to be taken seriously, a project that necessarily began with taking myself seriously. And so I began insisting that my bemused parents, and anyone else who misidentified me, recognize me as a woman.

Some decades later—we need not enumerate them here—I found myself calling a grown woman a “gal.” Okay, I’ll confess: I didn’t “find myself” doing this, it was pointed out to me. By the woman I had reduced to “gal” status. She was kind (she’s a friend), but firm.

She reminded me that what I’d learned as a teenager at Smith remained true: The world has enough ways of minimizing the power of women without our assistance. And referring to an adult woman as a “girl” or even “gal” (I was trying to be folksy, and we all know where that can lead) diminishes her and her accomplishments.

Language matters: Don’t call women “girls”

don't call a women "girls"
Screenshot from Mayim Bialik’s Facebook video

In March, actor and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik posted a Facebook video with a fantastic explanation of this. I can’t embed it, so you’ll just have to click on the link. Trust me, it’s worth four minutes of your life.

Bialik reminds us: “Language matters, words matter. And the way we use words changes the way we frame things in our minds….It’s science.”

If society sees children as inferior to adults—and it does—then calling an adult female a “girl” immediately marks her as inferior. Of course that’s not at all what I meant when I called my friend a “gal” in my blog. But it’s how people unconsciously translate the word. Even when we’re recognized as adults, women struggle to be taken as seriously as men. So we need every linguistic aid we can find to claim our status as equals.

No one should call a woman a “girl.” But it’s especially egregious when a woman does it. (Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) If we women don’t use language that acknowledges us as full, equal members of the human race, then who will?

So hat-tip to my friend Marcia and to the fabulously forthright Mayim Bialik, Ph.D. for today’s lesson in comparative linguistics. Thanks for reminding me to be intentional with my language. This time, the lesson will stick.

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