View from Mudsock Heights

In the course of writing a column one encounters items of interest that may not be enough to sustain a whole weekly screed but that are worth more than nothing. I’ve swept a bunch of them into a pile here on my desk. Let’s take a look at a few.

A couple of months ago we were told it was urgent that the government send cash payments to almost everyone in the country. Congress voted an amount, $600 per person, while the president at the time took a break from prancing around his spinning wheel and chanting “Trumpelstiltskin” long enough to angrily say that $600 wasn’t sufficient and that it should be $2,000. He didn’t get his wish, but he did manage to convert the dispute into Republican loss of the Senate.

A lot of people didn’t get the money. That’s because the bill that Trump signed into law said the Internal Revenue Service should send out as many payments as it could by January 15, after which it could reverse the money flow and return to its usual job, receiving checks from people. That (apparently arbitrary) date came before all the money was sent out. Everyone else can claim the payment when filing their 2020 income tax returns, with the checks coming weeks later. So much for urgency.

(You can check online, supposedly, to see if you were issued a check and it was lost or something, but the IRS website isn’t exactly helpful: “We are unable to provide the status of your payment right now because: We don’t have enough information yet (we’re working on this), or You’re not eligible for a payment.” This is on a site that has already demanded your Social Security number and date of birth — the identity thief’s dream, which is not especially reassuring in that we now know that government computers have had the hell hacked out of them over the last many months.)

Moving along, let’s consider the wearing of masks, which I advocated in this space long before it became a thing in the U.S. As we enter the coldest part of winter, I predict that in addition to the practice’s other virtues mask wearing will do much to end the annual epidemic of chapped lips (during a time when we’re prohibited from kissing each other, alas) and much to remind us how being outdoors in the cold is much nicer when your nose is warm. But I wonder, too, if we’ll see an increase in maladies such as sinus infections as we reuse masks, over and over, and so make them into nice, warm incubators for bacteria. We need to frequently wash reusable masks and regularly replace the disposable ones.

Here are some notes on our continuing effort to destroy the English language, in no particular order. The first is the erroneous conflation of “when” and “whenever.” The first, “when,” points to a specific time: “When he crossed the street, a bus hit him.” “Whenever” means every time: “Whenever he crossed the street, a bus hit him.” That would be one really unlucky (and unobservant) fellow. Yet more and more I hear the words being used as if they were interchangeable. They’re not.

How many syllables are there in the words “blessed” and “cursed”? It depends. When they’re used as past-tense verbs, they’re one-syllable words: “The priest blessed her.” “The devil cursed him.” Ah, but when they’re modifiers, they become two-syllable words, pronounced bless-ed and curs-ed. A person who has received a blessing is blessed, two syllables. The unfortunate soul who is recipient of a curse is cursed, two syllables. (This will be on the test.)

For no discernible reason, a war on adverbs is being waged throughout the land. Where once people said “seriously,” they now say “serious.” The same holds true of other adverbs. It used to be that parts of speech and their differences and uses were taught, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, or else the teaching is ineffective. That is too bad, because literacy is a good thing. Seriously.

You may have noticed the over-use of the modifier “military-grade,” always as if this is a good thing. It isn’t. “Military-grade” means stuff that came from the lowest bidder (or the company that ponied up the biggest bribe). It is not a mark of high quality. That’s why one does not see restaurants advertising that they serve military-grade food.

Last week there were reports that Apple is negotiating with Asian companies toward the goal of producing an Apple-branded car (iMobile?). The imagination soars, though not always in happy directions. Might Apple produce a car that indicates it is going 70 miles per hour when it is really only going 50, so as to hide the degradation of its batteries? There is precedent. My first thought jumped to a column decades ago in PC Magazine which fancifully discussed plans by the International Business Machines Corp. to develop an automobile. The columnist, whose name I do not remember – he was the Robert Benchley of the publication – talked about how the new vehicle might replace all the controls with a keyboard. Instead of steering, accelerating, braking, and so on, one would type commands to the car (“Turn 87.5 degrees to the right in 156 feet.”). He hilariously proposed that the new car be called the IBMW.

As I searched to find the columnist’s name, I regretted having long ago discarded my mountains of old computer magazines. Then I thought about it and realized that if I hadn’t, I would now have dived in, searching for the columnist’s name and emerging days later having forgotten my goal but full of nostalgia for the days of DOS, or the “operating system” I used, DR-DOS. So it’s probably a good thing I didn’t save them.

Speaking of cars, in the 16 years I’ve lived here I’ve been puzzled by two widespread habits of local drivers. One has to do with lane changes on Routes 33 and 50/32, where drivers seem wedded to what I suppose would be called reverse tailgaiting: You’re driving along at 60, and the only other car on the road is going, say, 60.01, so of course he passes you – and immediately changes lanes right in front of you, not even a full car length away. Why would anyone do this? I’ve wondered, yet the practice is common. I think it may be a result of the Walter-Mitty aspects of having watched NASCAR races. Anyway, it forces me to slow down to establish some distance or, as the other driver might put it, spoil the fun.

The other is the apparent desire not to be seen. Some drivers here get cars that seem to blend into the background or else paint their cars (trucks, jeeps) in flat black, flat olive drab, and so on. Then they use their headlights only when they absolutely must. There is no possible advantage in hiding from other drivers. In fact, it’s a terrible and dangerous disadvantage. Maybe they think they are being military-grade.

I have a lot more, such as how it seems that Joe Namath is transmogrifying into Bela Lugosi, of “Dracula” fame, but we’re done for this week, so we’ll have to take up the rest some other time.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at

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