Saturday, January 15, 2011

Words to Live By

When we were in Russia and offered tea, our hostess took her teapot and poured about two fingers worth of hot liquid into my cup, then turned away. I thanked her, blew on it to cool it down a bit, then brought it to my lips to take a sip. "Nyet, Nyet!" she said as she turned back with another pot. Turns out that the first pot contained the concentrated essence of the drink, and was not meant to be drunk alone. You took some of the base, then added plain hot water to fill up your cup. Attempting to do what I did was the equivalent of shooting uncut heroin, though the results would most likely be less catastrophic.

We're generally not used to working with things at the purest levels. It's probably safer that way, though the kick is not as intense. In fact most of what we deal with on a daily basis is cut or adulterated in some way, be it foodstuffs or politics. Indeed, one of the issues many have with the Tea Party is its view of "principle over party," where its core beliefs are more important than moderating them to work in the real world. If you're an ideologue, you applaud this. If you're a pragmatist, you disdain it. In either case, you think Michelle Bachman is crazy.

Still, it's an interesting exercise to reduce your core operating principle to single phrase. Politicians have been doing this for years in the form of campaign slogans. Obama's "Yes We Can" is perhaps the most recent example that gained a toehold. But it's not always the pithy utterance you see on the posters that takes on life. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton advisor James Carville made "It's the Economy Stupid" the central talking point, while George H.W. Bush's "Read My Lips: No New Taxes" was his rallying cry, until those same lips had to talk out of the other side of his mouth.

You can never tell what will strike a chord and live in the public's mind, for beter or for worse. In Norway in 1983, Communist party candidate Liv Finstad tried to explain why her party wanted an increase in sheep farming. Her explanation, "Sauer er ålreite dyr" which translates as "Sheep are all right animals" became the phrase which helped to sink her candidacy. And in the 1990's in Romania, Minister of Transport Traian Basescu nailed it when he was asked why so many streets were blocked by snow: "Larna nu-i ca vara" he said, or "Winter's not like summer." Perhaps Mike Bloomberg should take note.

But it's not just politics. New York Sportscaster Warner Wolf will always be know as the "Let's Go To the Videotape!" guy, while radio broadcaster Paul Harvey had as his calling card, "The Rest of the Story." Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse has two in "Let's Kick It Up a Notch" and the more succinct, "Bam!" And The New York Times had a front page story that individual athletes are getting into the act, with New York Jets cornerback Darryl Revis applying to trademark the phrase "Revis Island," a reference to his own little piece of turf downfield where receivers get stranded without the ball.

Which leaves the rest of us. Just because you're not a broadcaster or a politician or a celebrity doesn't mean you can't have a catchphrase. You didn't think you needed your own web domain a Twitter handle or blog... and you don't. But that's today. Things in this world move fast, and before you know it you'll wonder why you didn't stake out some turf sooner. After all, your email is likely to be something un-fun like "mark621" because all the good names had been taken by the time you thought you should get on the bandwagon.

So think of the phrase that reduces you to a pithy utterance, and register it now. And before you know it, your family, friends and associates will be clamoring for tee-shirts, coffee mugs and bumper stickers to show their agreement with your philosophy. As for me, I'm taking orders. Just let me know what size shirt to send you with the slogan on it, "Smile Like It Doesn't Hurt."


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds himself repeating the same things over and over. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at 

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