Friday, June 28, 2013

An invisible menace

Over breakfast this morning I read about John Snow, a London doctor in the mid-19th century whose research showed that polluted drinking water was responsible for the severe cholera outbreaks that were claiming so many lives in certain areas of the city. The authorities refused to believe him and his substantial evidence, preferring to believe the disease was being caused by bad air, not bad water.

Move this story ahead almost two centuries and change a few details and you have the basic plot for Carla Buckley's novel Invisible. Dana Carlson returns to Black Bear, Minn., her hometown, after many years away after getting a call from her teenage niece telling her that her older sister, Julie, has seriously damaged kidneys and needs a transplant. After arriving in Black Bear, Dana learns that Julie has died and that a shocking number of other locals have failing kidneys, too.

She wonders what has happened in Black Bear since she left town under mysterious circumstances. Is something making all these people sick? Does it have anything to do with the most prominent local industry, a company that manufactures sunscreen and cosmetics? Her sister worked there. So does Julie's husband and daughter, Peyton.

Although Invisible is an interesting medical thriller that raises serious questions about the safety of nanotechnology, the novel comes most alive when Buckley writes about the relationship between Dana and Peyton. While Dana searches for answers, Peyton has many questions of her own. Why did Dana disappear? Why has she never even come back for a visit? Why does she stay in town after Julie's funeral? Why is she so committed to tracking down what may be threatening Black Bear when she doesn't live there anymore? What family secrets are being withheld from Dana?

The novel makes compelling reading, even if it doesn't always ring true. The story is telescoped into a matter of days, when in real life it would take months, if not years, to accomplish what Dana, who lacks even the training John Snow had, accomplishes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Confessions of a completionist

He'd always been a completionist: he had to finish a book once he'd started it; it seemed like bad manners not to, like not finishing the food on your plate.
Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears

When I was a young city hall reporter, I might sometimes have to spend an hour or more waiting in the mayor's office for a chance to ask him a question or two. I always carried a paperback with me for such circumstances, and I read a number of books while getting paid to wait for the mayor. One day the city solicitor came in, said hello and asked what I was reading. It was William Golding's novel The Spire. He asked if I liked it. I told him, "Not particularly."

"Then why are you reading it?" he said.

The fact that I remember this conversation more than 40 years later suggests it must have been more significant to me than one might think it could be. Like the character in Ian Sansom's novel, I was a completionist. If I started reading a book, I finished it. Liking it had nothing to do with it -- until that little conversation in the mayor's outer office. I don't remember ever finishing The Spire. I still made it a point to finish most books I started, but I no longer felt compelled to read to the last page of every book. As I've gotten older, realizing how many good books remain unread and how few years I have left to read them, I have become increasingly impatient with those few books I simply don't like. A couple times a year I will give up on a book after starting it. There are many other books in a state of limbo, sitting somewhere with bookmarks in them neither being read nor discarded. Maybe I'll get back to them someday. Most likely I won't.

Authors have put their hearts and souls into those books. Publishers have thought enough of them to put their imprints on them. They must have some value, even if I don't see it. Perhaps if I read a little bit more, all will become clear. This is very much like the fictional Sansom's character's conviction that it is somehow bad manners to not finish a book. I have never worried much about finishing the food on my plate, however. If I've had enough or if I don't like something, I don't eat it, even if children really are going hungry in China. I've always seen finishing a book as more of a moral question than cleaning off my plate.

My own rationale has more to do with economics than food. I tend to think of reading as an investment, both of time and, if I purchased the book, of money. I like to get a return on my investments. Not finishing a book puts the experience into the loss column, a waste of time and, perhaps, money. Aging has made me realize, perhaps a little more with each passing year,  that it's a bigger waste to devote even more time to books I don't enjoy reading.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is this year's most unfinished book. Many people who started reading it were disappointed it isn't more like her Harry Potter books, so they gave up on it. Other books that have been left unfinished include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (too grueling) and Fifty Shades of Grey (made readers uncomfortable). Of course, the real reason these were the year's most unfinished books may be because were also among the year's best-selling books. Most people, I suspect, are not completionists. They buy books, usually best sellers, with good intentions, then lose interest after a few chapters. The reason you can find so many books at used book sales that look like new is because they are like new. Someone bought them but never read them.

I've heard that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988) is among the best-selling books of all time that few people actually finished. I finished it, even though I can't claim to have understood much of it. I haven't managed to finish Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), however. I read a few pages each year, after forgetting what I read the year before. 

I guess I'll always be a recovering completionist.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Ziegfeld on Broadway

As a biography, Ethan Mordden's Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business (2008) is nothing special. As a book about Broadway during the Flo Ziegfeld era, however, it is excellent. Mordden often has little to say about the man he is supposedly writing about, while offering detailed descriptions of virtually every show Ziegfeld ever brought to Broadway.

Mordden has written at least eight other books about Broadway, including The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last 25 Years of the Broadway Musical and All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959. His Ziegfeld is just another in the series.

Mordden could be described as a Broadway elitist. He seems to regard any other form of entertainment  as second class. About television, for example, he writes, "Television offers canned stardom, strictly for those who tailor their material to rules of the usual federal white breads." But he does know his stuff. It's amazing how much he knows about live performances from a century ago.

Ziegfeld followed a simple formula to become "the man who invented show business," which to Mordden means simply Broadway. He believed in beautiful girls, beautiful costumes and beautiful sets. He could also identify great talent. Despite lacking a sense of humor, according to Mordden, he made stars out of Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and Fanny Brice, among other comics. He's the producer who first put Showboat on the stage.

The author's prose ranges from the ridiculous ("... he was collapsing under the weight of more lawsuits than can dance on the head of a pin") to the sublime (he describes the Ziegfeld Girl as "the upwardly mobile harlot"), but it's almost always fun.

Friday, June 21, 2013

White and black hats

Nowadays authors tell us whom not to like by making them cigarette smokers.
Ethan Mordden, Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business

Recently I had the chance to watch yet again the 1965 comedy The Great Race. Or at least I got to watch most of it. Once again I tuned in late and missed the first 30 minutes or so, which I have always regarded as the most entertaining part of the movie. Once the actual race begins, the movie becomes less interesting. If you have seen the film you will remember that Tony Curtis plays The Great Leslie, who is handsome, clean-shaven, noble, brave and always dressed in white. Jack Lemmon is Professor Fate, who wears black, has a moustache and tries to win by cheating in every way he can. The movie is something of a satire on older movies when such things as facial hair and the color of hats tipped off audiences as to when to cheer and when to boo.

Actually, as Ethan Mordden suggests, such tip-offs have not entirely disappeared, even if they have become more subtle and sophisticated. In movies, sometimes it's the music or even the lighting that tells us who is good and who is evil. Often it is a character's actions and attitudes toward women, children and racial minorities. Or it can just be smoking. At one time the heroes smoked. Today it is more likely to be the villains.

There are tip-offs in novels, too. Robert B. Parker's heroes, like Spenser and Jesse Stone, are witty and keep up a constant banter with other characters, while the bad guys tend to be humorless. Other novelists employ other means to differentiate between good and bad characters. The most common of all may be simply telling readers more about the main characters. We tend to like people we know well and dislike those we know less well, especially when they stand in the way of those we like.

Murder mysteries may be genre fiction and something less than great literature, yet one thing they are good at (Parker being an exception) is avoiding painting characters, other than the hero, with a broad brush. Mystery authors usually sustain the mystery by giving many characters a possible motive for murder. Thus, most characters must, by necessity, be less than perfect, and thus fully human.

The best fiction, in most cases, is that in which all the characters wear gray hats rather than white or black ones. That's one of the qualities I appreciated about Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder, which I recent reviewed here (June 5). One's sympathies lie with Marina, the main character, yet she does not always do the right thing in this story. Annick Swenson, the mysterious researcher in the Amazon jungle, at first appears to be the villain, but as the reader comes to know her and understand her, she becomes, like Marina, more human.

Unfortunately it is not just in movies and books that we look for tip-offs as to who are the good guys and who the bad guys. The George Zimmerman trial going on in Florida offers a perfect example. Zimmerman is accused of racially profiling Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, and then killing him. After the incident, many people judged Zimmerman guilty before the facts were in, seemingly based, again, on Martin's skin color.

Many of us are much too quick to judge people based on such things as sex, wealth, race, national origin, politics, religion, age and appearance. To such people, The Great Race must be not a satire but real life.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book learnin' 3

I've picked up a few more interesting tidbits about English words from my reading during the past several weeks. Here are a few of them.

Neutral: In an Author's Note at the front of his novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare, Frank Delaney writes that the word neutral is closely related to the word neuter and originally meant the same thing: neither male nor female. The meaning of the word changed over the years, as meanings of words often do, until it came to mean not taking sides in a dispute.

Delaney's novel is set during World War II in Ireland, which struggled to remain neutral, fearing invasion and occupation by either England or Germany if it joined the war. The plot involves a man who is married to a missing woman and whose best friend is another woman, who wants his help to catch the man she loves. Yet our hero secretly loves his friend and, like his country, is torn by neutrality.

Slut: Here's another word that means something different today than it once did. John McWhorter writes in What Language Is that slut was originally a word applied equally to persons of both sexes and that it referred to someone who was messy, not sexually promiscuous. Chaucer, for example, asks, "Why is the lord so sluttish, I thee preye?" In the 17th century, McWhorter writes, the word came to mean "high-spirited" and could actually be a compliment. Samuel Pepys once wrote, "Our little girl Susan is a most admirable slut, and pleases us mightily."

Today the word usually refers to a woman's sexual behavior, although there doesn't seem to be any clear definition of how much sex with how many men it takes to become a slut. The word's original meaning is still echoed in phrases like "dresses like a slut."  There have been some recent  attempts to reform the word, if not the women, and turn it into something positive.

Punch: Mark Forsyth writes in The Etymologicon that the word punch comes to us from the Hindi word panch, meaning "five." A punch bowl, thus, should contain five ingredients, traditionally spirits, water, lemon juice, sugar and spice.  Of course, you can make a tasty punch with fewer or more ingredients. I see from Wikipedia that Hawaiian Punch originally contained seven flavors: apple, apricot, guava, orange, papaya, passion fruit and pineapple. Another article lists three ingredients for most commercial fruit punch beverages: sugar or corn syrup, citric acid and artificial flavors.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Does reading make us better?

Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel. He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn't make you a better person...
Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears

Several years ago when I led a discussion about the 2003 movie Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of the questions we talked about was this: Does art make us better people? The story, based on the novel by Tracy Chevalier, offers a fictional version of how Vermeer's famous painting Girl With a Pearl Earring came to be. Vermeer, played by Colin Firth, is shown to be a great artist who can see all the many colors contained in a white cloud, yet he is blind to the needs and feelings of everyone around him, including his wife and his many children. His patron, whose purchase of paintings helps feed Vermeer's growing family, appreciates fine art, yet he is a corrupt and abusive man. Meanwhile, a young butcher with no interest in art whatsoever is shown to be a good man. Only Griet, the maid (Scarlett Johansson) who poses for Vermeer's painting, and her father, now blind, possess both an artistic sense and a moral sense.

So when we encourage art education in public schools and applaud the art displayed in museums is it with the expectation that art somehow makes us better people? Is beauty itself a moral value? Great artists sometimes, like Vermeer in the movie, act like they have a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to ethical behavior. Are we willing to forgive behavior in talented artists we would not tolerate in others? Is art moral, immoral or amoral?

The same kinds of questions can be asked about literature, as Israel Armstrong does in Ian Sansom's wonderful comic novel Mr. Dixon Disappears (2006). He is a reluctant librarian in Northern Ireland who is shaken when he discovers that the people who use his mobile library are really no better than anyone else. He had believed, as many of us sometimes do, that good people read good books and that reading those books is one of the things that makes them good.

"While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is," writes philosopher Gregory Currie in a New York Times column printed Sunday in the Tampa Bay Times. Currie suggests that "advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don't overrate the evidence -- they don't even think that evidence comes into it."

Great literature often wrestles with moral questions. One can't read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without thinking about slavery and racism. How often does reading it actually make someone less racist? The same question might be asked about To Kill a Mockingbird. Novels as diverse as War and Peace, The Scarlet Letter and The Heart of Midlothian deal with other moral issues. One would think that simply thinking about moral questions would help one make better moral choices, but does literature really do more than a simple moral code such as the 10 Commandments or, simpler still, the Golden Rule?

Currie calls for research on the question. "Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being," he writes. I have no idea how one might conduct such research.

Whatever the moral dimension of literature, I tend to believe that it makes us better in other ways. It allows us to travel the world and meet an endless array of people without leaving our homes. It educates us, exposing us to ideas and beauty and experiences we could not otherwise find in our own living rooms. Perhaps that is enough. And if it is, then that is a moral good.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sports talk

I enjoy talking about sports, but I can't add the phrase "as much as the next guy." Chances are the next guy likes sports talk a lot more than I do.

When I speak with my son by phone, we usually spend a few minutes talking about sports. We may discuss the fortunes of the pro teams in Detroit and Pittsburgh, but mostly we talk about soccer. Both of his kids play almost year-round, so we talk about their play and then we move on to the Columbus Crew and, perhaps, the U.S. national team. It isn't long before I've said all I have to say about sports and heard all I want to hear. I'm ready to talk about something else.

Other guys seem to be able to talk about sports endlessly. When I was still working for a newspaper, some of my colleagues would talk about sports from the beginning of their shift to the end. Sometimes these conversations seemed to cover just one topic, such as the question of whether Lebron James would leave the Cleveland Cavs to try to win a championship elsewhere. This conversation lasted for several days. After James bolted for Miami, the conversation continued for a few more. I could never figure out how these guys could talk all the time and still write or edit their stories. I had trouble enough getting my work done while trying to ignore their discussion.

Consider all the sports networks now available on cable television. Most of the games they cover occur in the evening, so the rest of the day is devoted to sports talk. At lunch in a restaurant a week ago, I was placed at a table in front of a screen tuned to ESPN. The sound was muted, but from the text across the screen I could tell they were talking about the Miami Heat loss in the first game of the NBA finals -- not the San Antonio win, but the Miami loss. The question was: Were Heat players too tired after their tough series against the Pacers? This question, or something to that effect, was on the screen when I sat down, and the panel was still talking about it in a rerun when I left about 45 minutes later. How could so much talk be devoted to so little? But then I don't know how a Super Bowl pre-game show can last six hours or so. I turn the TV on about 15 minutes before kickoff, and I hear all the talk I want to hear. I'm certainly glad I didn't have to listen to a long discussion about the Miami Heat being tired.

I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated for years. After I check out the newspaper's front page, I usually turn first to the sports section every day. But although I like sports, I have never wanted sports to consume my life. When I was just beginning my journalism career, the sports editor asked me if I would be willing to cover an occasional high school  football or basketball game on Friday nights. I did it for a couple of years and enjoyed it. I must have done OK because the sports editor asked if I wanted to transfer over to the sports department. I turned him down without having to even think about it. Sports could be fun, but that's not how I wanted to earn my living. A couple of years later when I was a city hall reporter I may have briefly questioned my decision. Any high school football game is more interesting than almost any meeting of a zoning commission.

I would much rather watch a game than talk about it afterward. Can there really be so much to say?

How about them Tigers!

There, that just about covers it. Now let's talk about something important.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A doctor in the house?

Our culture has pretty much resolved the dilemma of whether to refer to a woman as Miss, Mrs. or Ms. by simply using her first name or, in the case of most newspapers and other media, her last name, regardless of her age or social position. In this country we are all now on a first-name basis.

All, that is, expect doctors and a few others (teachers, coaches, judges, senators, etc.), who are still known by their titles. The title of Dr., however, seems to create the most problems of any of them. Who deserves the title and who doesn't?

While reading Ethan Mordden's Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business recently, I noted that Flo Ziegfeld's father, an immigrant from Germany, liked to be called Herr Doktor Ziegfeld. He was not a medical doctor, but rather a piano teacher in Chicago. In 19th century Germany the title of "herr doktor" was a term of respect, not an indication of any advanced degree.

We have mostly left that sort of thing behind us, but there is still the matter of honorary degrees awarded by colleges and universities each June to distinguished people. Some honorees take the degrees as they were intended, simply as honors. Others seem to have accepted the honorary degrees as the real thing and place a Dr. in front of their names. Among these have been Ralph Stanley, Billy Graham, Maya Angelou and Hunter S. Thompson. Benjamin Franklin liked to call himself Dr. Franklin, although all three of his degrees were honorary.

College students soon get used to putting a Dr. in front of their professors' names. Throughout my four years at Ohio University in the 1960s, I often found myself hanging out in the home of Gerald and Pauline Franks, a wonderful couple originally from England who welcomed students into their home near the campus. He taught Russian at the university, and we all called him Dr. Franks. Years passed before I learned that he didn't actually have a doctorate, but neither he nor his wife ever corrected us. Perhaps they had just given up, realizing students would call him Dr. Franks anyway.

At the newspaper where I worked for more than 40 years, our style called for using the title Dr. only for medical doctors. University professors and others with doctorates were just called by their first and last names, like everybody else. This always seemed unfair to me, yet I understood the rationale. Most people, when they see the word doctor, think of someone with a medical degree. My late father-in-law had a doctorate in chemical engineering. I imagine he was asked for free medical advice on occasion.

Earlier this year two bills were introduced in the Florida Legislature to make it a felony if nurses with doctorates in nursing fail to clearly inform patients that they are nurses, not doctors. This seems excessive to me. In my experience, nurse practitioners already do a very good job of making it clear they are not doctors. For one thing, they invite patients to call them by their first names, something doctors almost never do.

Monday, June 10, 2013

What makes a western?

Western Movies: A Guide to 5,105 Feature Films by Michael R. Pitts (McFarland) can certainly be described as exhaustive. It includes listings for any western film you can think of, as well as many you might not even think of as western movies. Some have titles like Quebec and Harpoon. Remember the 1983 movie Never Cry Wolf about a scientist who spends a winter in a remote area of Alaska to study wolves? That's in here.

Although the title mentions "feature films," Pitts lists movies that were made for television, including those Hallmark Channel romances like Loves Comes Softly. We find musicals like Naughty Marietta and The Harvey Girls, plus such films as The Sugarland Express set in more contemporary times. There are movies we might regard as science fiction, like Westworld and Alien Encounters, plus some Charlie Chan and Bowery Boys movies.

There is even a Cary Grant movie. Didn't know Cary Grant ever made a western? Turns out it is The Howards of Virginia, a 1940 Revolutionary War drama. Other westerns are set in equally unlikely places, such as Hawaii, Africa and Europe.

So I am not sure how Pitts defines western, but I am not sure how I would define it either, and better a definition that's too broad than one that's too narrow.

Pitts skimps a bit in summarizing the plots of these 5,105 movies, and a rating system might be helpful, but he does list every cast member, including the bit players. Using the index one can discover that the actors making the most western movies were not heroes like John Wayne and Tom Mix, but people you've probably never heard of like Steve Clark and Tom London.

With a little digging, fans of western movies can discover all sorts of intriguing trivia. Did you know Roy Rogers made two westerns under the name Dick Weston? (I can remember once seeing Rogers play a villain in an early Gene Autry movie.) People, other than Cary Grant, you might never expect to find in a western include Louise Brooks (she made two near the end of her career, including one with John Wayne), Audrey Hepburn, Henny Youngman and Hugh Hefner.

In one appendix, Pitts even lists the names of many of the movie cowboys' horses. Do you remember that Rex Allen's horse was named Koko? Do you even remember Rex Allen? For those who do (and for almost anyone else who enjoys western movies), this book will be a treasure.

Friday, June 7, 2013

New editions of old bestsellers

Some former bestselling novels have all but disappeared from bookstores, libraries and memory. Does anybody still read Irving Wallace, who was so popular back in the 1960s? Richard E. Kim's great novel The Martyred was a bestseller in 1964. Now it seems to be forgotten. What about Jonathan Livingston Seagull, at the top of the list in both 1973 and 1974, and the novels of Sidney Sheldon?

Yet lately I've been noticing quite a number of new editions of books that were bestsellers decades ago. Funeral in Berlin and other novels by Len Deighton that were so popular in the 1960s and '70s are readily available again. So are the novels of Leon Uris, author of Exodus (1958) and so many other bestsellers. Likewise the work of Alistair Maclean, John D. MacDonald, John Jakes, Helen MacInnes and James Clavell.

James A. Michener wrote one mammoth bestseller after another beginning in the 1950s, and his books remain readily available. Anton Myrer's novel Once an Eagle got a lot of attention in 1968. Now it's in bookstores again. I don't know if Richard Stark's (Donald E. Westlake) hardboiled crime novels were ever bestsellers, but they were popular with many readers for decades, and now the older ones from the 1960s are back in attractive paperbacks.

Not all bestsellers deserve to be, and many of them don't hold up so well decades later. Yet I'm pleased that publishers haven't given up on books that once made so much money for them. A new generation of readers has a chance to read the books their parents and grandparents enjoyed so much.

Of course, for those not interested in spending money on new paperback editions of old books, most used-books sales still have table after table filled with former bestsellers.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A family story

When novelist Ann Patchett appeared in St. Petersburg in January (see Jan. 23 post), she commented that all her books tell essentially the same story. "My story is a group of strangers who are thrown together to make a family," she said.

Her 2011 novel State of Wonder is much more than that, but at its
core it really is a story about strangers, or virtual strangers, thrown together to make a family. The protagonist is Dr. Marina Singh, a 40-something medical researcher who works for an American pharmaceutical company. When word comes that a colleague has died in a remote region of the Amazon jungle, she is sent down both to learn the details of his death and to complete his mission.

That mission is to learn what's going on with a research team that has been working in the Amazon for years without giving more than sketchy reports about its progress. It seems that the women in a particular tribe are continuing to have babies up into their 70s. The team, led by Marina's former medical school professor Dr. Annick Swenson, now in her 70s herself, is supposed to be learning the tribe's secret and turning it into a drug that could mean millions for the company. Swenson, however, doesn't like to be bothered with reporting back to those funding her research.

Marina, however reluctant she may be to visit one of the most primitive areas in the world, wants to do her job and gather the information desired by Mr. Fox, both her boss and her lover, but she soon finds herself becoming a part of Dr. Swenson's family and, eventually, protective of the family secrets. This family includes Easter, a deaf Indian boy whom both Dr. Swenson and Marina desire to claim as her own. Even Anders Eckman, the man whose death sent Marina to Brazil, had made plans to send Easter back to the States.

Patchett carefully rations her surprises, one here, one there, another a little further along. For a novel that makes justifiable claims to be literature, State of Wonder reads like a thriller.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Just between us girls

Don worked at the same newspaper where I worked for many years. We were in different departments, but Don was an outgoing fellow who seemed to know everyone in the building, so I knew him well. The paper's general manager was once a man named Robert Blake. One day Don was heard to say something like "that SOB Blake" just as Blake himself walked around the corner. It must have been an awkward moment, but instead of getting angry, Blake smiled and thanked Don for thinking of him as "Sweet Old Bob." Don not only kept his job, but he earned new respect for his boss and retired many years later as a valued employee. Blake continued to be thought of as Sweet Old Bob by many of his employees until his own retirement.

Most of us aren't as lucky as Don when we say something negative that later gets back to our target, if it isn't overheard in the first place. And most of us aren't as gracious as Bob Blake when we learn what others are saying about us.

This sort of embarrassment happens to someone every day. The other day it happened to Ohio State president Gordon Gee. His comments about other college football teams -- "those damn Catholics" at Notre Dame and supposedly inferior academic achievements at Louisville and members of the SEC -- were made last December, but they just became public knowledge a few days ago.

Gee has, of course, apologized, but apologies don't help much in these situations. He can say he was just joking, but being laughed at can be worse that just being insulted. Now Gee and his university are the ones being laughed at, but not behind their backs.

When I was a reporter covering city hall in Mansfield, Ohio, back in the late 1960s, the service-safety director was a man named Paul L. White who was fond of the phrase "just between us girls." He would often say this to me not just when something was off the record but also when he had a juicy bit of city hall gossip to tell me.

Most, if not all, of us enjoy talking "just between us girls," saying things that we hope won't be repeated outside the room. We like to air complaints and make jokes to sympathetic ears, expressing feelings we could never reveal in front of those we are talking about. When Gee spoke to the OSU Athletic Council in December, he thought he was talking "just between us girls."

Yet today, more than ever before, there is no such thing as "just between us girls," especially when someone is as prominent as Gee. Interesting comments are recorded on cell phones. Cameras are everywhere. Text messages can be sent even before the speech is over. Almost everyone is on Facebook. And people still like to gossip the old-fashioned way, face to face.

All of us, and those in high places in particular, need to be more careful about the things we say. If it's not something we would be willing to say in front of those we're talking about, perhaps we shouldn't say it at all.

And a little more grace wouldn't hurt. After all, it's not like we are saints either.