The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 2

It was a dark and stormy night.  Without a sound, the study door began to slowly swing open until it struck the wall with a soft “clunk.”  A rush of cold air entered the room, sending chills up my spine.  Was this the spirit of a long-dead lodger, a disembodied specter, or the ghost of Christmas bills past due?

Doors seeming to open or close of themselves might be the source of at least some if not most of the reports of ghosts and hauntings over the many centuries to the present.  It’s a common phenomenon with a cause based squarely in the world of the living.  It’s even got a name:  ghosting.

Part 1 covered the ins and outs of properly installing an interior pre-hung door.  This post covers some of the idiosyncratic issues associated with doors, their diagnosis and repair, and how to retrofit a new door slab to an existing jamb.

Doors that ghost are leaning, perhaps imperceptibly, as a result of shoddy installation or natural movement of the structure over time. Fixing doors that ghost can be a bit of a project, but worth the effort to eliminate the annoyance and potential embarrassment of a door opening unexpectedly, especially a bathroom door…

Believe it or not,  I have two doors in my home that ghost open.  And, yes, one of them is a bathroom door.  The other is a bedroom door.  The bedroom door also does not latch when closed against the stop.  We’ll fix that, also, but first let’s exorcise the ghost.

Fixing a door that ghosts can be as easy as removing the middle (or top) hinge pin, supporting it between two scraps of wood and striking it with a hammer.  This action puts a slight bend in the pin; when reinserted in the hinge, the bend creates just enough friction to overcome the tendency for gravity to open (or close) the door.  Because of its simplicity, it’s worth trying a second hammer blow to make a larger bend; just don’t take it to the extreme of bending it into a “C” or “U.”

If the lean angle is significant, the above technique might not work to stop the door’s movement.  Now comes the fun part:

Carefully pry the casing away from both sides of the door and remove it.  You’ll want to slice the paint seams with a razor knife to avoid tearing away paint, etc.  Taking time and care to do this will avoid damaging the trim pieces and allow you to put them back neatly when done.  Remove nails from the jamb; the nails that stay in the molding can be reinserted in their holes when replacing the casing.  (Hey, I made a rhyme…)

Now you have the area around the door jamb exposed.  If there are issues with the door slab not touching the stops evenly all the way around (see Part 1), now is the opportunity to fix that as well.

Note which way gravity is causing the door to swing.  Move both jamb legs to make the door plumb; use a long level to find plumb.  It should now not ghost.  You might have to split and remove shims to free up the jamb to move.  Keep the nails in place; they will hold the structure and bend enough to move the jambs plumb.  Replace the shims snugly, add a new nail or two, replace the casing and take the dog for a walk.  Good boy!

The bedroom door doesn’t latch because the bolt doesn’t line up with the hole in the strike plate.  The easiest way to make them line up is to take off the strike plate, make the hole in the jamb larger in the location it needs to be, cut the mortise for the plate in the new location with a utility knife and/or sharp chisel and attach the plate with screws in the new location.  (Old screw holes causing problems?  See below…)  You can dress up the old mortise cut with wood filler.

On the other hand, it would be a great learning experience to remove the problem door from its rough opening and reinstall it following these guidelines in Part 1.  There is no better teacher than experience.

A replacement slab door should be sized precisely based on the old door it is replacing.  Measure the height, width and thickness of the old door slab.  The direction of swing and “handedness” (left or right) can easily be determined by simply backing your rear end up to where the so-called butt hinges are on the jamb and noting whether the door swings to the left or right.

This is called the “butt-to-butt” method for obvious reasons.  When you put in the order for the new slab, this information will save mistakes and misunderstandings.  Also, a picture is worth a thousand words:  Make a plan drawing (“bird’s-eye view”) of the room and door and take that with you to the door store.  (Whoops, I did it again…)

To digress:  The absolute simplest, fool-proof way to ensure an accurate replica of the former door is to give it to the fabricator/lumber yard/door store which is supplying your new door.  Then, it’s all on them and nothing can be lost in translation.

If you are doing the mortises for the hinges, measure their locations carefully on the old door and duplicate them on the new door slab.  The lockset borings will probably also be duplicated, but check the specs (there I go again) that come with your new lockset hardware.  A spade bit is used to bore the bolt hole in the edge of the door, 7/8″ or 1″ diameter depending on the specifications of your lockset.  The handle hole requires a hole saw of the correct diameter, usually 2 1/8″.  Start the big hole on one side; bore through until only the pilot bit comes through the other side.  Now cut the hole from the other side using the pilot bit hole to avoid blowing out (splitting) the wood when the hole saw emerges.

Hinge mortises can be drawn with pencil and cut out free-hand with a trim router set at a depth equal to the thickness of the hinge leaf.  Use a straight bit of the same radius as the corners of the hinges to route the round corners easily.  Square corners can be cut out after routing with a knife or chisel.

The face plate on the latch assembly requires mortising as well; this is best done with a razor knife to cut the outline, and a sharp chisel to remove the wood to depth.  No face plate — just a round insert?  Skip this step.

Bore hinge screw holes with a drill bit smaller than the hinge screws; the screw holes should not be deep or large to ensure the screws get a good bite on the wood.  I’ve install umpteen doors that came from the factory with screws that were spun in their holes from overzealous workers using a drill motor to tighten the screws on a Friday afternoon trying to finish up before the corner bar fills up with hockey fans watching the big game.  Oh Canada.

If you encounter a screw or two (I can’t stop myself) that spins as you tighten it, the fix is easy and reliable:  Grab some wooden toothpicks from the local bar; remove the loose screw; add copious amounts of carpenter’s glue to the hole and toothpicks; jam the toothpicks tightly into the hole; break or cut off the toothpicks; replace and tighten (not over-tighten) the screw; go back and finish your beer.

No Disassembly Required

No Disassembly Required

A door that rattles when closed needs a simple fix;  the bolt and strike plate are mismatched.  Look inside the strike plate hole; see the metal tab?  If it has a slot, take a slot screwdriver and gently pry the metal tab  “out” a tad.

No Slot

No Slot

No slot?  Remove the strike plate and use pliers to bend the tab a tad (that’s more alliteration than rhyme, but who says poetry has to rhyme?)  The door should now close with a little shove and a soft “clunk.”

(If a door opens by itself in an empty house, does it make a sound?  Yes.  Clunk.)

Finally, here is a short list of related issues that will keep your interior doors working perfectly long into the future:

  • Avoid hanging anything on the door, like clothes racks and children.  Sagging and loose hinge screws will ensue.
  • Lubricate moving parts occasionally.
  • If the door begins to rub or stick, fix it right; don’t butcher the door with a saw!
  • Declaw your pets; better still, train them, except cats, which is impossible.
  • Keep a key or unlocking tool handy to avoid having to tear down the door to free someone like that guy at the Olympics.
  • On painted doors, install with a bit wider reveal to prevent sticking as you add more layers of paint over the years.
  • If your bathroom door opens by itself unexpectedly, keep the lights off while you’re in there.

More on doors (this is getting old) later.


The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 1

Borrowing from the effusive Sally Field, “You like me!  You like me!” I am just cresting 3,000 views in one year (I assume this is good) and, turns out, the subject of doors is the most popular view to date!  Following your lead, this post covers basic installation techniques for interior doors.

Door installation is as much an art as a skill.  Rarely is the rough framing into which the door is placed square, plumb or level.  In remodeling, this can be due to settling and movement of the house over time; on the other hand, in all the time I worked as a trim carpenter in new construction, I never saw a framer (the guy who builds the walls) use a level or a plumb bob to ensure the walls and door openings were not leaning, twisted or shaped like a trapezoid.

In new construction you begin by assessing the rough opening.  The rough opening is the hole in the wall built by the framer where the door will be located.

Measure the inside width of the opening from stud to stud, top, bottom and middle.  This dimension should ideally be about one half-inch to one inch larger than the width of the door in its frame (jamb.)  You will need this extra space to place shims in order to square up the door so it will operate perfectly.  Measure the outside width of the door frame (jamb) from the outside of the hinge jamb to the outside the latch jamb to check the door width.  These vertical jambs are also called “legs.”  You should have a 1/4″ – 1/2″ gap all the way around if everything is sized correctly.

Measure the height of the rough opening; this number should be a bit taller than the overall door height (Remember:  “door” refers to the door slab hanging on its hinges inside the jamb or frame.   This is referred to as a “pre-hung door.”  We’ll discuss hanging a replacement slab in an existing jamb later…)  The top piece on the door jamb is called the “header.”

Go get your levels.  For door installation close is close enough, so if the bubbles are intact and there are black lines on either side of the bubbles, your level will work fine; we’re not building a boat here, as they say.  An assortment of 2-foot, 4-foot and 6-foot levels will come in much handier than one of those 6-inch levels which fits neatly in your tool box but is about as much help in hanging doors as a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

Levels should be accurate; the best way to ensure accuracy is to spend a little more for a good set.  Keep in mind the maxim about tools:  You get what you pay for.

Set the pre-hung door unit aside and just work with the rough opening for the moment.  Place the 6-foot level vertically on the hinge side of the rough opening; get rid of any protrusions like nail heads, staples and dried drywall mud so the level sits flush with the stud.  Note whether the surface is plumb (straight up-and-down.)  If it’s plumb…Frank Lloyd Wright built the house.  Use cedar shims to space the hinge jamb away from the rough opening the distance you measured earlier.

The shims are wedge-shaped; put them together to make flat surfaces to go against the stud and the jamb.  Nail the shims to the stud at the same heights as the hinges on the door.  They will stick out on both sides; you will cut them off later.

If the stud is not plumb, arrange the thicknesses of the shims to make a plumb surface (the shims) to attach the door jamb to.  This is where the wedge shape comes in handy.  Use your level to find plumb after installing, say, the top set of shims, then fit the correct thickness of shims between the stud and the level at the other end.  That makes the middle set easy to fit.  Now you have a plumb surface to fastened the hinge jamb to.

Now you are ready to put the pre-hung unit in its hole.  Man-(or woman-)handle the door into the rough opening.  This is easiest done with the door closed and secured by a plastic or wood “bolt” through the lock set hole into the jamb hole.  Some pre-hung doors come with a screw or nail through the jamb header or leg into the door edge; make sure you find and remove these first to save time and aggravation.

Align the outer edges of the hinge jamb to the wall surface on each side.  Drive one nail through the stop (the small board the door closes against) at the top hinge location, through the shims, pinning the door frame to the stud.  Now you can operate the door to see how to adjust it during installation for perfect operation.  I usually add one more nail towards the bottom, not through the shims, to add stability and ability to make adjustments in the door geometry.

Align the latch jamb with the wall surfaces; “capture” or hold it in place with shims top, middle (behind the latch bolt hole) and bottom friction-fitted between the jamb and the stud.  You will adjust these (see below) for proper gap, a.k.a. the reveal, around the door so it’s even, not too large, and not too snug.  Kind of like Goldilocks’ porridge, but different.

Close the door.  What?  You didn’t take out the temporary bolt yet?  Okay.  I’ll wait…

Close the door.  Gently.  Does it “clunk” pleasantly when it hits the stops, hitting the stops all the way around?  Yes?  Nail it all off and go take a smoke break if you live in Colorado.  Or Amsterdam.

Does it hit the stop at one place but not uniformly around the perimeter?  To fix that, nudge the jamb legs in and out, top and bottom until the door hits the stops all the way around.  This will put the jamb either sticking out past the wall surface, or a little behind the wall surface.  You will deal with this when you trim out the finished door with casing.  Welcome to my world.

Now you can think about seriously nailing the two legs through the shims.  Before you put all 6 X 3 = 18 (yes, 18) nails in the jamb, start with one through the jamb at each set of shims.  Remember the gap?  If it’s uneven when you close the door and exam it all the way around, pry the jamb away from the shims to adjust it until it’s a consistent 1/16″ to 3/32″.  Too large will A.  look ugly; B.  transmit more sound and drafts; and C.  look ugly.  Too small will cause the door to rub and bind.  Adjust shims accordingly for a perfect fit.

You may notice the reveal at the top is a pie-wedge, i.e., uneven.  Adjust the shims behind the bottom hinge, adding thickness or taking it away to even up this gap.  This technique rotates the door slab to change that gap.  You might need to tweak the middle hinge shims to compensate for the bottom movement.  The bolt holes in the slab and the latch jamb should now be aligned.

Almost done.

Finish the installation by installing the remaining nails:  Three at each shim location, one each side of the stop and one through the stop.  If the header (remember the header?) is bowed up or down, shim and nail where it works to get rid of the bow.  Use the 2-foot level to check.

One more potential issue you may face in installing an interior door is a sloped floor over the width of the rough opening.  Use one of the shorter levels to test this before you begin.  Lift up the low end of the level, center the bubble and estimate the amount the floor is out of level across the opening.  This will be the distance between the bottom of the level and the floor on the low side with the level level.  Using a saw, neatly cut off this amount of wood from the bottom of the jamb leg on the high side.  This will compensate for the slope.  I do not recommend cutting the bottom of the door to match the slope of the floor; this is difficult to do neatly, and only draws attention to the slanted floor.  No one looks at the bottom of the door anyway…

Okay, enough for now.  Later we’ll get into a few more tricks and tips that will make you the Dior of Doors.

Oh come on!  Fashion IS Art!

Christmas Memories

Take this little Christmas quiz:

Santa Claus first appeared as the Elf-master icon of Christmas we all recognize today in what year?

A.  1931

B.  1492

C.  1776

If you guessed A. 1931, you’re right:  Santa Claus as we know him was first drawn by illustrator Haddon Sundblom as an advertising image for The Coca-Cola Company in that year, believe or not.  Far earlier than that, Santa has his true origins in German paganism in the form of the god Odin, among other things the leader of the Wild Hunt, a supernatural procession of ghosts in the sky occurring each year during the winter celebration of Yule.  According to the Dictionary of Northern Mythology, “With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas.”

Which begs the question:  What other traditions of men do we observe in the guise of celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th each year?  We should probably keep in mind as we go through these the instruction in Revelation 22 verse 18 (easy to find:  it’s the last page of the Bible):  “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book…”  Caveat emptor.

Was Jesus even born on December 25th?  As the British would say, not bloody likely.  An easy estimate can be made of his approximate birth date by reading the account of the timing of his birth:  “And she (Mary) brought forth her firstborn son…And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”[1]  No shepherd in his right mind would be tending his flock in the open in the middle of December in the Middle East, which is the same latitude as the United States.  Simply put, Jesus probably was born no later than September or October.

So, whose birthday is historically associated with 25th of December?  Not the Son of God, it turns out, but the Sun God.  The Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” on December 25.

This holiday followed the  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god, Saturn.  The Saturnalia anticipated the winter solstice when daylight began to lengthen, and was celebrated with abundant candles, gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere.  An early Roman poet called it “the best of times.”

Sound familiar?

“Learn not the way of the heathen…  For the customs of the people are vain:  for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with an axe.  They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, that it move not.”[2]

We can once again thank the Germans for bringing us the symbol of the Christmas tree, which until the 19th century was strictly a symbol of German culture.  Its origins, again, are much earlier:

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”[3]

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for feeding and sheltering birds in the winter.

The use of mistletoe also has its origins in the misty mystical myths and superstitions of the ancient pagan past.  In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality).  Hm.  It is thought that this association with virility may have led to the practice of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe when the Roman state religion adopted the ancient symbolism after the third century AD.

Besides, its great fun at the office Christmas party.

(I have pledged to myself and my friend, Boosie Vox (her radio-personality pseudonym), I will attempt to reduce the number of words contained in my sometimes necessarily wordy blog posts.  Hence, I will wrap it up, believing I have made the point…)

…that virtually no part of the Christmas holiday tradition has any remote association with the Bible, Jesus’ teachings or example, or any thing other than an assembly of practices which long predate the advent of Christianity, and therefore can’t have any real significance in following the Way, as Jesus referred to himself.

Except giving, perhaps, with no thought of return.

Merry Dies Natalis.

1. Luke 2:7, 8
2. Jeremiah 10:2-4
3. “Christmas Tree” 2012

Turning Wasted Space Into…

Can you find where the old trash compactor use to live?

Can you find where the old trash compactor used to live?

The gap left behind after the Sub-Zero refer bit the dust.

The gap left behind after the old Sub-Zero refrigerator bit the dust.

My solution to fill the void in Judy and Dale's kitchen.

My solution to fill the void in Judy and Dale’s kitchen.

Did you guess right?  Third space from the right is now a functional cabinet with two roll-out shelves!

Did you guess right? The old compactor space  is now a functional cabinet with two roll-out shelves!  (see above)


Thanksgiving Memories

I’m reading a book about the “First Thanksgiving.”  Turns out, there was no turkey. No cranberry sauce.  No sweet potatoes.  No pecan pie.  No pumpkin pie.  No whipped cream. There were Indians present, Wampanoags, outnumbering the English settlers roughly two-to-one. They killed five deer and donated the meat to the feast, probably to round out the main dish, sobaheg.  The Native American stew consisted of

“…boiled maize or Indian corn, mixed with kidney beans, or sometimes without.  Also, they frequently boil in this pottage fish and flesh of all sorts, either taken fresh or newly dried….These they cut in pieces, bones and all, and boil them….Also they boil in this furmenty all sorts of flesh that they take in hunting, as venison, beaver, bear’s flesh, moose, otters, raccoons…several sorts of roots, as Jerusalem artichokes, and ground nuts….and squashes.”[1]

Rather than a celebration of plenty, the Native Americans and the settlers were engaged in a diplomatic dance, testing the waters of mutual trust and support in the face of great hardship.  The Indians were threatened by warring neighboring tribes and disease epidemics; the settlers were in dire straights due to the privations of sickness, hunger, exposure and all that goes with trying to carve an existence out of a strange and hostile environment.  “The feast was one of a whole series of meetings at which the English (settlers) and the Wampanoags tried to establish good relations.”

In short, they came together because they needed each other to survive.

The myth of the “First Thanksgiving” is an example of what historians have come to call “the invention of tradition.”  What we call “Thanksgiving Day” today bears little in common with the meeting in 1621 it supposedly commemorates.  In fact, the English (and Native Americans) had a long history of formally giving thanks for the year’s crop and other events looked on as favor from God.  Equally important to them was the regular practice of humbling themselves through fasting and prayer when things were going south.  Not coincidentally, a solemn day of thanksgiving often followed the self-imposed act of humiliating themselves before God, preferably by fasting rather than feasting.  The reason for thanksgiving?  It started to rain after a drought.  An overdue supply ship suddenly arrived.  The epidemic ended.  In other words, their prayers were answered.

So, the national holiday we celebrate every November on the fourth Thursday of the month (a change by President Roosevelt in 1939 to accommodate retailers’ desire to begin raking in Christmas holiday dollars as early as possible) brings families together to share a sumptuous meal and watch football on television, enjoying parades and time off from work.  Apart from the obligatory saying of “grace” before the meal in most Catholic homes, our modern Day of Thanksgiving entirely misses the point of the historical practice of acknowledging God as the source of our good fortune and bounty as individuals and as a nation.  As politically incorrect as it is to say today, good fortune and bounty are just words implying blessings from God.

Today, the only public acknowledgement of gratefulness for God’s blessings occurs regularly, by rote, about 11:30 a.m. every Sunday – in church (or Friday or Saturday at the mosque or synagogue, respectively.)  This is the definition of lip service.

Giving thanks to God once was a central feature of our cultural mien.  Not only preachers, but everyone from statesmen to street sweepers spoke confidently and comfortably about the graciousness of God in their public and private lives.  We know cultures ancient and more modern incorporated giving thanks to the deity as a way of life, uninhibited and unembarrassed by the show of genuine emotion of gratefulness.

Two years after the “First Thanksgiving,” the English settlers at Plymouth experienced a drastic crop failure caused by an extended drought.  A supply ship from England was long overdue and presumed lost at sea.  Edward Winslow, one of their leaders, recorded they were moved to “humble ourselves before the Lord by fasting and prayer.”  It began to rain the next day, and continued for another two weeks.  Within days, Myles Standish arrived with fresh provisions from the coast of Maine, bringing word the supply ship due from England had not been lost at sea, and would be arriving soon.  Winslow wrote, “So that having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation we thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained.  And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end, wherein we returned glory, honor and praise, with all thankfulness, to our God, which dealt so graciously with us.”

Likewise, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut kept both days of fasting and humiliation, and days of thanksgiving (small T.)  According to records of Reverend William Love, thanksgivings were held for the arrival of ships in 1631, twice in 1632, and again twice in 1633.

The Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1782, as the nation began its heady march into the  future, proclaimed another meaningful thanksgiving:

“It being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf…”

In 1789, George Washington issued the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation, exhorting Americans to express their gratitude to God “in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us” further stating that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”   No mention of the Macy’s parade.

Thanksgiving Day as we celebrate it today came by way of presidential proclamation resulting from the unswerving dedication by Sarah Josepha Hale to create a national festival to rival the Fourth of July.  Hale saw the new holiday as a unifying influence on the nation growing more divisive by the day leading up to the Civil War.  She lobbied continuously for its establishment until, finally, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1864.  For her part, Hale called upon “the people of the States and Territories [to] sit down together to ‘feast of fat things’ and drink in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings…”  Lincoln referred to “the gracious gifts of the Most High God…They should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged.”  The last Thursday of November was proclaimed as a day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

The “First Thanksgiving” probably included a prayer of thanks prior to the meal,  as both the English settlers and the Indians were aware of their place in the cosmos:  mere human beings subject to and dependent on a greater, higher power.  Their concepts of this higher power were clearly different, but each recognized their indebtedness to it for whatever grace they enjoyed in life.

Our modern celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday bears little resemblance to this gathering in 1621.  What also bears little resemblance in this day and age is the way we profess our gratitude to God.  In the not too distant past, and for time immemorial, cultures openly and unabashedly expressed sincere thanks to God for blessings as a matter of course.  However, there has been a palpable shift in our willingness to acknowledge God in the way our ancestors did.  This is the tradition of our forefathers that needs to be recaptured.

Let’s once again begin to give credit where credit is due, and see if there comes some acknowledgement of our effort in return.

1.  All quotes are from A Great and Godly Adventure by Godfrey Hodgson, Public Affairs, 2006.

The Write Stuff

I’m sure Gutenberg is spinning in his grave.  Johannes, that is, not unfunny comedic actor Steve with two ts.  Old JG, inventor of the moveable type printing press, is probably rotating faster than PSR J1748-2446ad, the fastest-spinning pulsar known, with a period of 0.00139595482(6) seconds, or about 24 percent of the speed of light at 161,040,000 miles per hour.

My point in writing this droll bit of esoteric trivia is simply to illustrate that a rather involved statement can be translated into the written word sans typos given a modicum of attention to detail and care.  Johannes G. is polishing the inside of his coffin because the art of accurate spelling which once was second nature to the average literate person has been largely abandoned in just the last couple of years.

I’m not just talking about text-speak.  This screen caption appeared on the local TV news the other day accompanying a story on budget cuts:  “BUS ROUTES SLAHSED.”  Just this morning, CNN Newsroom’s headline crawl at the bottom of the TV screen noted, “…employers plan to higher the fewer workers this holiday season…”  Here’s a recent Facebook post, verbatim:

This sitch isn’t just NYS by any stretch of the truth. Staes ovebler employ so they can keep the votes goingthier way. And by all means someone must get killed before evan a stop sign will be erected. I can not understand how you could think for even a second that NY has a monopoly doing something smart only after all the stupid things have run their course. Voting the dum barstards in or out of office can’t happen. For every time one senceble vote is cast; there is two forced into place to nullify that one right vote. Sorry didn’t mean to carry on.”

Talk about dum barstards.

We don’t even have to get into grammar, continuity and punctuation, as the three go hand-in-glove with correct spelling.  You either care enough to send the very best, or you’re a dum barstard.

I take small pride in being a stickler as defined in the wonderful, typo-free book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss (Gotham, 2004) about punctuation and ways simple errors can change meaning.  (Her 2005 work, Talk to the Hand vents her spleen at rudeness, incivility and boorish behavior prevalent in society today.)  As a stickler I appreciate when someone  puts two words together in an interesting and literate way, but also abhor lazy writing.  Misspelled words, truncated phrases, bad grammar, gibberish, poor punctuation and nonsense are hallmarks of the modern written word.  I blame the internet.

Like everybody else, I also bang out the words when typing into a search engine without a second thought to spelling:  “whatt is sped oflight?” yields “Showing results for what is speed of light?”  All the incorrectly spelled words are magically corrected by the search engine because they don’t want you to be frustrated in your search by your own ignorance.  Frustrated consumers don’t have time to scan ads and superfluous content if they are attempting to find the speed of light at less than light speed due to dead-end search results.

Why don’t “smart” phones, social media sites, email, advertising, and other forms of written communication have this miraculous feature and save everyone a lot of unrealized embarrassment?  Problem is, because the problem is ubiquitous, nobody calls anybody else out when they make egregious errors in writing.  It’s the elephant in the room that just keeps smashing into the furniture and crapping all over everything.

Another great read is The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson (Crown Publishing Group, 2010) chronicling a cross-country crusade to write the wrongs of modern word usage.  Equipped with writing utensils of every stripe and medium, these two latter-day linguists hunt down and (with permission) correct myriad malapropisms and misprints at every turn of their journey on a circuit of the United States (or “Staes” as noted earlier…)  Men after my own heart, I’m afraid we are just voices crying in the wilderness.

I’m guessing if every one who emails or posts (and who doesn’t?) would only take a moment or two to click on “review,” “spell check” and “proofread writing” periodically during composition or when completing a missive, 90 percent of offending verbiage would evaporate into a black hole in cyberspace.  As I write this, misspellings are consistently called out by a red squiggly line underlining each one.  I mean, it’s obvious.  No one, not even we sticklers, is mistake-free.  What we need is a bit more self-awareness and concern for the decline of our language to take responsibility to clean up our own act when it comes to good writing and writing well.

Read the dictionary for fun.  Buy a thesaurus (no, it’s not a kind of dinosaur…)  Use spell checker.  Reread your writing to spot obvious flaws easily corrected.  Pride yourself in your written communication skills.  You might not see the difference, but everyone else does.

By the way, don’t rely 100 percent on your spell checker to get it right vis-a-vis correcting spelling errors.  As you know, “vis-a-vis” is spelled thusly.  Here’s what my spell checker suggested as the correct spelling(s):  bis-a-vis, via-a-vis, vi-a-vis, vs-a-vis and, of course, is-a-vis.

Happy hunting and pecking.

Life is a Four-letter Word

When I was young, no one, but no one said the “F” word out loud.  This pertained to any situation.  You also didn’t see it in print.  (Norman Mailer was constrained  to using “fug” as the frequent curse of his characters in The Naked and the Dead.)  Accidentally hitting your hand with a hammer, for example, elicited other, albeit equally colorful language.  Casual conversation especially avoided this word, as it was a sign of coarseness, disrespect or, at best, a limited vocabulary.  Use of the word was stereotyped as part of the vernacular of soldiers, sailors, lowlife and perverts.  Today, the F-bomb is routinely dropped by children, seasoned politicians, texters, posters, comedians, movie characters, gangsta-rappers, rockers, women, men, disgruntled customers and, literally, the average person holding an average (calm) conversation with another average person.  We hear it all the time, in any setting (except maybe church, but keep listening…)  “Foul” language of former times, say ten years ago, has become the lingua franca of modern society.

Why?  What has shifted in our perception of ourselves and others to allow what was once highly offensive and off-putting to become a commonplace?

There are other signs of change for the worse.

Jack-in-the-Box ads in recent years have become consistently sexually suggestive in their drive to sell processed meat.  An example has two teen girls on a bed texting with their phones; their conversation leaves everything to the imagination:  “He just said, ‘It’s big.'”  “How big?”  “Really big.”  “Tell him to send a pic.”  “No!  Okay…”  “Whoa!”  “Whoa!”

Cute, huh.  Of course, the “really big” reference is to a hamburger, not a penis, but we get the idea, right?  The commercial ends with the company’s namesake character, Jack, saying to the male who’s texting to the (underage?) girls in their bedroom, “Oh, and tell her I’m easy.”  Because of the drive-through.  Uh huh.

Advertising has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by cable TV and shock jock radio:  “Sex sells” is a trope and a truism.  Now, obscenity sells as well.

The latest Smurf movie offering is replete with plays on sex and vulgar language:  The official website address is; one of the characters is a female “Naughty” named Vexy; and Neal Patrick Harris has the immortal line, “I’m just smurfing with you.”  Too cute.  Apparently cute (and contemporary) enough to earn a PG rating, so pack up the family and go; you can always lie to the kid who asks what “smurfing” implies…

CreditKarma offers their “free” credit score service in a TV ad depicting four people on the street, including a little girl, each saying the bleeped- and pixeled-out f-word, except it turns out they’re only saying “free.”   Hilarious, to quote the YouTube caption…

The use of children in these ads is disturbing.  My neighbors’ kids learn enough profanity from their parents, as I am a regular witness to, without hearing it promoted on commercials during their favorite Smurfs episodes.

And we can’t ignore the uptick in exposure to public profanity engendered by the wildly popular “reality” shows and ubiquitous video captures gracing every medium known to man.  A national news program offered this plum feel-good on-camera reaction by a woman whose husband surprised her on his return from active duty:  “Are you f***ing  kidding me?”  Touching.

I’m not sure if this is a symptom of a limited vocabulary or just an annoying speech affectation, but using the word “like” to punctuate conversation is another post-modern phenomenon we could do without.  Sitting in the sushi bar recently my wife and I could not help overhearing a garrulous young woman talking to her companion who couldn’t seem to get in a word with a shoehorn.  At times three words out of five were “like.”  I tried to memorize some of what she was saying to memorialize it in print, but was unable to keep up with the gist.  So I asked my wife to count 60 seconds while I counted “like.”

On average she said the word “like” 20 times a minute, or 1,200 times an hour.  I wanted to point out this statistic to her (and her friend whose limited contributions also were peppered with the filler word) but didn’t because I knew my wife wouldn’t “like” that.

As a society we are obviously lowering our standards of literacy and propriety, although some will always argue twas ever thus, there’s just more “opportunity” to experience this moral morass.  But other harbingers of decline are obvious because they are new and newly widespread and “acceptable.”

Take for example tattoos.  As we say in the Midwest, “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone with a tattoo” today.  Again, tattoos used to be the way sailors (and bikers) proved their manliness, usually after drinking themselves into a mindless stupor.  If, as is known, judgement is the first mental process to suffer from the effects of alcohol on the brain, what is the excuse of the multitude of average people, men and women, teens, grannies, grampas, soccer moms and goth girls who decide getting a permanent ink drawing engraved into their body is a good idea?  As a public service tattoo parlors should offer prospective clients a computerized age-progression image of the desired tattoo, or at least suggest they go look at Uncle Joe’s sagging blue-black Merchant Marine tat on his flabby chest.  Maybe that would stem the tide of reckless ruin of perfectly good skin.

Don’t get me started on piercings.

At this point a little perspective on the issues is warranted.  Obviously I am biased against tattoos and piercings (as is my barber, I was pleased to find out.)  But what does the great moral compass, the Bible, say about the subject of “body art?”  Before you stop reading and accuse me of all sorts of prudery and sanctimoniousness, note what a smattering of historical figures thought about the Bible as a guide to right living:

Daniel Webster (1782-1852), American statesman and political leader, said, “If we abide by the principles taught by the Bible, our country will go on prospering.”

Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), regarded as the father of the American space program, wrote, “In this age of space flight, when we use the modern tools of science to advance into new regions of human activity, the Bible—this grandiose, stirring history of the gradual revelation and unfolding of the moral law—remains in every way an up-to-date book.”

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third U.S. president, stated: “I have always said and always will say that the studious perusal of the Sacred Volume will make better citizens, better fathers, better husbands . . . the Bible makes the best people in the world.”

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), sixth U.S. president, wrote, “So great is my veneration of the Bible that the earlier my children begin to read it the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens of their country.” He also stated: “My custom is to read four or five chapters of the Bible every morning immediately after rising . . . It seems to me the most suitable manner of beginning the day . . . It is an invaluable and inexhaustible mine of knowledge and virtue.”

Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), seventh U.S. president, said, “The Bible is the rock on which our republic rests.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), 16th U.S. president, stated: “I believe the Bible is the best book God has ever given to man. All the good from the Savior of the world is communicated to us through this book.”

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), 28th U.S. president, stated: “I have a very simple thing to ask of you. I ask every man and woman in this audience that from this day on they will realize that part of the destiny of America lies in their daily perusal of this great Book [the Bible].”

Harry Truman (1884-1972), 33rd U.S. president, said, “The fundamental basis of this nation’s law was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teaching we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days.”

Queen Elizabeth  (1926 – ), Queen of England said, “To what greater inspiration and counsel can we turn than to the imperishable truth to be found in this treasure house, the Bible?”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States said, “It is necessary for the welfare of the nation that men’s lives be based on the principles of the Bible.  No man, educated or uneducated,  can afford to be ignorant of the Bible.”

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), 18th President of the United States said, “Hold fast to the Bible.  To the influence of this Book we are indebted for the progress made to civilization and to this we must look as our guide in the future.”

Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), General of the Confederate Army said, “There are things in the old Book which I may not be able to explain, but I fully accept it as the infallible Word of God, and receive its teachings as inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

Convinced?  If Grant and Lee can agree on the importance and provenance of the Bible, maybe there is something to it.

The question was:  What does the Bible say about body art?  Not a lot, but to the point (pun intended):

“Ye shall not make any cutting in your flesh for the dead, nor print (tattoo) any marks upon you:  I [am] the Lord.”  Leviticus 19:28, King James translation throughout

“They shall not…make any cuttings in their flesh.”  Leviticus 21:5

“Ye [are] children of the Lord your God; ye shall not cut yourselves…”  Deuteronomy 14:1

Repetition is the best form of emphasis, so, you may take this for what it is worth; while you’re thinking about this you might look up a few references to other social quirks, like gender roles, pacifism and greed.

On a lighter note:  The decline of sane social norms can also be tracked in hair styles.  Compare these looks:

Another fashion trend that speaks volumes for the end of civilization as we know it is the really attractive practice of revealing your underwear in your effort to summit the height of haute couture.

I checked out at the grocery store the other day and was looking both ways to decide where to exit the store:  To the left a woman walked away displaying her bra straps badly aligned with the spaghetti straps holding up her top; to the right a woman one-upped her by leaving her bra straps “neat” with no other distractions on her shoulders from the halter top she was wearing.

In line at the post office yesterday a young “man” was attired in the pants du jour that look like they were tailored by Omar the Tent Maker.

Trying to discern his legs in the swathe of fabric, I suddenly realized there was a strategically ripped section in the right buttocks region allowing me full view of his red-patterned underwear.  Oh joy.  Could have been worse, I guess…could have been blossoming out of the waist band of his “pants.”

I’ve wondered why these fashionistas never choose to wear briefs:  always boxers.  Huh.

And what did we do ten years ago to keep up with the world before we had the ability to check Facebook and email and texts while staring at iPhones on the job or walking across the street blind to oncoming traffic?  I mean, having to wait for the evening news and pushing the play button on the answering machine when we get home is so 2003!  Talk about not being able to swing a dead cat!  Have you looked up from YOUR iPhone recently to see all the lonely people living their lives in the cloud?  Eating at a restaurant with a friend who’s staring at the little screen?  Standing on the curb surfing the net until someone yells your name to open the car trunk to put in the packages?  Walking across the street oblivious to traffic while catching up on the latest posts?  Drifting into oncoming traffic while updating your status?  Checking Tweets while talking on the phone while smoking a cigarette while riding a bicycle?

All of this brings to mind Mike Judge’s prescient if ridiculous 2006 film “Idiocracy:”  Everybody has a tattoo.  The Congress is full of rude self-servants.  Pro wrestler politicians are idolized.  Internet search engines are porn hubs.  Restaurants really let you have it “your way.”  Corporate sponsorship is ubiquitous.  Smoking is cool.  New cars have one button (“Go”) to start the engine .  And everyone has devolved to the level of stupid half-wits bent on gratifying their basest desires:  food and sex.

Food and sex.

Sound familiar?