Glass, Bamboo, Curry


I was intrigued by a recent question posted at Quora about whether there is a bamboo ceiling in American corporate culture, parallel to the idea of a glass ceiling, but with reference to the experience of Asians’ efforts to become promoted to upper management levels in firms. The question is certainly an interesting and legitimate one to ask, but the language nerd in me is wondering whether here is a case of a newly productive phrase pattern in English. Thus, the metaphoric expression itself is the focus of this post.

I don’t know when glass ceiling first entered English, but I’m guessing it has been around for only about twenty years and has mostly been used to reference perceived obstacles to upper management promotions as these relate to females. The Quora discussion cites the writer Jane Hyun as the coiner of the expression bamboo ceiling. If so, this usage came into being around 2005. I’ve not read her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, but the title seems inclusive of all Asians, not just women.

Consider the semantics of these two expressions. It would appear that ceiling has a constant meaning; it’s a metaphorical stand-in for a perceived set of complex social behaviors, some intentional, some unconscious, which create a barrier to promotion in the workplace for members of specific social groups. The metaphoric choice of ceiling supports the idea that there is hierarchy in the workplace and directionality is also used metaphorically in value judgements — moving up is a measure of success. Ceilings are then negative structures which impede further movement upwards. The modifier glass elaborates the metaphor; the barrier is invisible (not described by explicit rules) and clear (the barrier doesn’t hide the desirable level above to those seeking it, they can observe it without ever reaching it).

A bamboo ceiling appears to have altered the semantics of the original metaphor. Bamboo itself does not possess qualities of invisibility and clearness similar to glass, bamboo is a solid material.  Bamboo is being used to reference a social group, namely Asians. Is bamboo ceiling shorthand for bamboo glass ceiling? And why bamboo as the chosen attribute for this newly coined metaphor? Silk and tea also have associations to Asian cultures. Yet speakers of English immediately understand the metaphoric meaning.  Tea or silk ceilings would not be as effective. Perhaps one reason that bamboo is a good choice semantically is that the goal is to break such ceilings. Glass can be broken and so can bamboo, but it’s not apparent how you break silk or tea, for example. (Also, in another metaphoric extension of a physical barrier, curtain, there is bamboo curtain, presumably on the model of iron curtain.)

There was yet a third ceiling mentioned in the Quora commentary, the curry ceiling. Interestingly, the writer giving an answer on Quora pointed out that this expression is not quite appropriate for what it refers to. It refers to a situation in which Asian middle managers have upper management bosses who are Indian. So in this situation, curry is not identified with those seeking to break through some barrier, but is identified with members of a group who are already at the higher level within the organization. The metaphoric ceiling refers to a level in the hierarchy itself and not to a barrier to that level. That is also more consistent with a metaphoric use of curry, which is not a breakable substance, but rather a compositional substance. My impression is that curry ceiling is quite new to English and still in flux with its meaning. For instance, Quora discussants wondered about the nomenclature for social groups, stating that Indians are Asians.

The interesting point is that these examples — forming curry ceiling on the model of bamboo ceiling on the model of glass ceiling — illustrate metaphoric productivity in action in the language.  How productive can such a metaphor become?  Would certain usages align naturally with the barrier sense and others with the compositional sense? And, we haven’t even discussed a third metaphoric sense of ceiling which means limit, as in debt ceiling.  Here are some examples I came up. What would they refer to?

gray ceiling

green ceiling

wealth ceiling

style ceiling

svelte ceiling

blind ceiling

gene ceiling

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Vamp 22: The Neighbor’s House


Dean has the cab drop him several blocks from the bar in Georgetown. Instinctively he pulls his baseball cap lower over his forehead to shield his eyes which are no longer hidden behind dark glasses. He thinks consciously about how he is walking and adds a slight sideways bob to his gait, not a characteristic motion of his normal stride. More camouflage is a good idea right now. In dismay he realizes that his seedy appearance is marked for the respectable urban neighborhood. It’s a preppy place full of young professionals in dark business clothes who are segueing from their day jobs as lawyers, lobbyists and Washington policy wonks into their high-octane nighttime social lives of conversing, competing and carousing with their peers.

Dean stops across the street from the designated rendezvous point, a tony-looking bar with large glass windows and a red brick facade. Dean stands in shadows so he’ll be harder to see from those glass windows, in case anyone is watching. The pub appears to be under the same management as the last time he was here a few years ago; the letters of its name still glowing in purple electric light above the entrance: Pro Bono.  Dean remembers that night with Philip. It was less than three years ago but it feels like a lifetime tonight.

Groups of young men and women continue to enter the bar across the street, but Dean doesn’t see Philip among them. It’s possible he’s there already. And if so, he’d wait at the bar, letting Dean find him. He’s on our team. That sentence from Philip is why Dean isn’t just walking straight into Pro Bono. The guy, Bernard,  in New York was a thug, an assassin. He wasn’t smart enough to be a covert agent working with Philip. Dean feels certain of this. So what’s Philip doing mixed up with Joel Anderson? Dean can think of no scenario that is reassuring. The worst thing is that he has now lost his window of time, Joel Anderson knows that Bernard didn’t kill him, that he escaped. And they know he’s called from a Washington D.C. phone booth within the past hour. The only thing in his favor, at least for now, is they’ll be looking for a guy with a shaved head wearing glasses.

Someone was probably sent to that phone booth right after he hung up. It’s dangerous to be here as well. Dean isn’t sure why he risked it, even in disguise. Is it because he still, irrationally, holds out hope that Philip can be his trusted friend? Is it because he’s hoping to somehow learn something important here by watching and waiting? A police cruiser drives slowly past him and Dean realizes he can’t stand there any longer without drawing attention to himself. The Georgetown police don’t want scruffy types loiterering about in a fashionable district like this.

He turns his coat collar up and walks down the block, glancing repeatedly across the street. A black town car pulls up in front of Pro Bono and a tall older man, dressed in a tailored black overcoat, gets out of the car. The man’s thick white head of hair seems vaguely familiar, perhaps a senator who’s been in the news?  The man waits for a companion who is getting out of the town car and Dean recognizes at once the sandy hair and thin pale figure of Philip. He turns away, glancing only peripherally at them from beneath the visor of his cap. They look around the street briefly and Dean imagines he sees Philip make a subtle hand signal to someone who isn’t visible on the street.

Dean feels a jolt of adrenalin and forces himself to take a long breath. This is no time to panic. He gets a better look at the older man’s profile and suddenly knows who the man is. It’s a terrible realization, given the situation here. He’s Philip’s boss — the head of the nameless agency that Philip works for.

It’s time to get out of there. Dean’s keen eyes now see the likely recipient of Philip’s hand signal. A broad-shouldered man in business clothes has just emerged onto the street from a narrow brick walkway two doors away from Pro Bono. The man is scanning the throngs of people walking along the street. Dean feels the adrenalin pouring through his body like white water rapids, the muscles in his legs are taut with power, his feet feel light, ready to run. But he reins in this impulse and walks unhurriedly, adding the little sideways bounce. Then he turns the corner and looks feverishly, desperately, for an available taxi.

~

“So this thing is not being over-hyped, in your view?”

Lieutenant Barton stares frankly across the table at Dr. Jeremy Wells, the young physician who treated Marty Gaynor’s puncture wound.

Jeremy Wells shrugs. “I can’t speak for the media, how things get reported there. But, Simon Louis Krall received a nobel laureate in medicine. He’s a world class geneticist.” Wells looks evenly at the Boston police detective. “So, no, it’s assuredly not hype if he states publicly that these samples were taken from a human-like species that we’ve not encountered before.”

Jeremy Wells feels a shivery thrill at his own words just spoken aloud in this small north shore coffee shop.

“Human-like.” Lieutenant Barton shakes his head. “A Neanderthal could walk down the street in a suit and probably nobody would notice he wasn’t one of us, right? So this new humanoid guy, whatever you want to call him, maybe he could blend in, too?”

Jeremy Wells nods. “Sure, wearing a suit is pretty simple. But, speaking a language, assimilating into a culture, heck having a culture, are the harder questions here.”

“So you’re asking where is his group, his peeps?”

“Exactly. This being, this primate, came from somewhere, was the product of some biological reproduction.”

Lieutenant Barton sips his coffee. “So, was a crime committed or was it not? You get a snake bite and it’s an animal attack, you get stabbed by a mugger and it’s a crime. Two patients with puncture wounds and no real memory of what happened. Could be either.”

“It’s why I didn’t initially file a police report. The lack of testimony and the absence of any human DNA on the wound.”

“You’ve never identified the woman your patient reported being with?”

“No. He admitted to having an extremely high level of blood alcohol during that encounter. His recollection of her was vague.”

“I talked to some guys at a tavern your patient goes to. The owner and several of the regulars remember the night your guy encountered that woman. According to their description she was way out of place there, a bombshell redhead in furs and jewels. An A-list Manhattan call girl if she’s a professional and if she’s a professional what the hell is she doing in a two-bit dive in Lynn?  It makes no business sense.”

“There are certain personality disorders, thrill-seeking obsessions.”

“They described her as very smooth.” Barton reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief which he unfolds to reveal a tiny, slightly translucent white object. He offers it to Jeremy Wells.

“Know what this is?” Barton asks him.

The young doctor inspects the tiny object with curiosity, turning it over in his hand and holding it up to the light. “Well, it actually looks like a cosmetic cap for a tooth. It’s made of an unusual material.”

“I took a walk on that Swampscott beach where the alleged assault occurred. I found this in the sand at low tide.”

“A cosmetic dentist can probably tell you the make sand material.”

“Could such a tooth cap be applied to cover a sharp tooth? The kind of tooth, let’s say the kind of fang, that could make a puncture wound?”

Jeremy Wells gives the lieutenant a surprised look. “Caps are affixed permanently, they aren’t like gloves that you take off and put on again.” Suddenly he smiles a little incredulously and shakes his head at the detective. “Come on, Lieutenant, you aren’t suggesting–”

“Now Doc, I’m not going to say the ‘V’ word. And you aren’t either, even though I know it’s crossed your mind.” Lieutenant Barton sees the stunned looked on Jeremy Wells’ face and picks up the tiny tooth cap. “I’ll just ask whether you know a good dental specialist I can show this to.”

~

It’s early afternoon the day after the ominous meeting at Sam’s Somerville apartment. Sam has been on edge, wondering when the next call or message from Dean will come, wondering how increasingly dangerous it is for him to attempt to reach her at BubbleTrendz, even via her private cell phone.

Rina can barely stand to look at Evan and he notices this change in her attitude and now assesses her with a harsher scrutiny. It’s not clear whether Evan will be eager to slip out for some social time with Rina at this point.  Even if he did leave for an hour, Rolf is still there, coming out of Dean’s office at odd intervals to wander the hall, fetching himself a cup of coffee, peering into offices.  And there’s Sandor. He looks especially pale today and Sam knows that Sandor has trouble masking his emotions far more than even Rina. They cannot afford to have him lash out at Evan just now, they need to keep their heads down and wait for the opportunity to plumb Evan’s files, snare him with digital proof. Dean will know whom to contact once they have proof.

Sam’s cell phone vibrates in her pocket. Dean! She almost tears the phone from her pocket. It’s Anatol, her investment partner.

“Are you watching the markets?”  His rich voice is uncharacteristically strained, distant.

“Not this afternoon.”

“Zaira, Hong Kong is in free fall. Gold is down twenty percent in the past thirty minutes! The Dow is down a thousand points. It’s insanity.”

Sam realizes another call is coming in. “Anatol, whatever you do with our positions I’m with you. There is a call I must take now. I’ll get back to you!” She switches to the new caller.

“Sam?”

“Dean! The markets are tanking! I-”

“Sam, it’s bad. It’s much bigger than BubbleTrendz.”

“What then?” She glances up and down the hall, no Rolf at the moment.

“The one person I trusted to help me, help us, is working for Joel Anderson.”

There is a long silent pause between them. Finally, Sam asks. “Where are you?”

“Delaware.” He sounds defeated, exhausted.

“Dean, listen. Come back here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Not to BubbleTrendz. To my place.” When he doesn’t reply she offers more. “I have a house outside the city, remote, where you can hide out indefinitely. You can reach it by bus to Salem then a taxi. Go after dark.”  Glancing sharply down the hall, Sam whispers the address of her Marblehead mansion to Dean, promising to meet him there.

“Sam, I don’t know what’s going to happen. With us or with the world. But, thank you.”

~

That same afternoon Stephanie Nichols offers coffee and a slice of homemade cranberry-lemon pie to Lieutenant Barton. He had politely displayed his credentials to her, saying he was merely seeking some local information. She’d cheerfully consented to help in whatever way she could.

“Mrs. Nichols do you and your husband go to The Cat’s Cradle often?”

“It’s a place all the locals go, Bob and Jan have been running that place for twenty years I guess.” She adds cream to her coffee and stirs it.

“You get many non-locals there?”

She gives him a puzzled look, so he adds, “Have you ever seen a young, red-headed woman at The Cat’s Cradle? The flashy kind, you know, with jewels and a fur?”

“Yes! We were there recently and a woman had this gorgeous fur which I happened to accidentally knock from her chair — how embarrassing is that — and then I recognized her as my neighbor!  She lives right down the road.”

“She lives here?” This unexpected tip is exciting.

“Uh huh. She bought Jack Pearson’s property about a year ago I think it was. Jack passed away and his children didn’t want to maintain the house. It is a grand old place although I’d certainly want to do some renovations. We don’t really know her, I’ve rarely seen her. Oh, but I have seen her at the Salem train station.” Stephanie smiles at him. “But no fur then, it was blue jeans and a leather jacket.”

“What kind of car does she drive?”

“Beats me.” Stephanie Nichols grows more serious. “She doesn’t have anything to do with these, well these vampire stories going around?”

“Vampire stories?”

“A beautiful bejeweled female vampire bit a local sailor. Hey, people need stories to get through the long winter nights!” She laughs. “Face it, a female vampire is more glamorous than Big Foot running amok in New York City. I read those stories about that DNA thing. You cannot believe everything you read, though. New Yorkers are prone to hysteria, just look at Yankees fans.” She grimaces, then gives the lieutenant a confidential wink. “We New Englanders are made of tougher stuff, we’ve weathered our Salem witches after all.”

“What’s your neighbor’s name?” Barton asks.

“I honestly don’t know I’m embarrassed to say. We should have her over for drinks one of these days.”

“Which house is it again?”

“Just straight down the road. Turn left from our drive and you can’t miss it. The big gray stone place with the sea wall. Oh my god.”

“What is it?” Barton looks at her sharply, waiting for more.

Stephanie Nichols points to her flat screen TV which had the sound off during their conversation. “The stock market is down over 1300 points!”

— To be continued

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Plural Logic


Forming the plural of a noun in English is pretty easy — mostly you add final -s to the singular form (with occasional spelling modifications:  story -> stories).  Linguists refer to nouns that form their plurals with final -s as count nouns.  Another group of nouns referred to as mass nouns generally don’t take final -s because what they refer to in the world is viewed not as countable items, but as an undifferentiated whole, e.g., starlight, fog, dirt, rice.  It’s easy to count three stories, four boxes, five dogs, but starlight, fog and dirt are not so easily countable. Of course specific contexts can override the ordinary mass noun interpretation; a chef might speak of different qualities of Asian rices, for example, or an ichthyologist might refer to fishes of the Indian Ocean. In such contexts, plural -s signals a comparison among kinds of an aggregate or substance.

There are also some curious English nouns which refer to countable items, but such nouns in the singular nevertheless take final plural -s.

  • pants
  • trousers
  • shorts
  • breeches
  • culottes
  • tights
  • drawers, boxers (clothing sense only)

Breeches is a double plural, having added plural -s to what was already the plural brec for the Old English noun broc (a garment covering the thighs and loin).  Trousers comes from Gaelic triubhas (close-fitting shorts) and may have gained its r on the pattern of drawers.

The human body is symmetrical and it’s not surprising that body garments come in pairs. We have pairs of gloves, sleeves, stockings and shoes. But it’s also natural to speak of tearing or losing a single glove, sleeve, stocking or shoe. Yet no one refers to tearing a short, tight, or pant — the garment’s ‘pair plurality’ remains intact.

  • he tore his pants/*?he tore his right pant
  • a rip in her tights/*?a rip in her left tight

Evidently single garments which include covering for paired portions of our anatomy maintain a precarious semantic balance between being a single unit and a paired (plural) unit. This contrasts with gloves and socks, where a pair of gloves always means two separate items.

But it’s not so straightforward. Single coverings for the upper portion of the human body that include covering pairs of appendages (arms, hands) seem to be simple count nouns.

  • shirt
  • blouse
  • coat

A pair of blouses means two separate garments whereas a pair of pants means a single garment. But then we have tails — an informal reference to the single upper garment tailcoat.  The phrase the tails he wore for the wedding were taken to the dry cleaners refers to a single garment, not two garments. Hmm. Could it be because tails is a part of the coat which covers lower anatomy, not upper anatomy?

The noun clothes is an interesting case; it has final plural -s, but refers to an aggregation, not a countable set of items. The expression he took his clothes off  implies that more than one piece was removed, but the word clothes resists numerical precision. (This is similar to the situation with mass nouns such as fog and rice.) Whereas you can easily say he removed three hats or he put on two gloves, it’s really odd to say he removed three clothes. Quantifiers which don’t enumerate the quantity are more natural: he removed some/all/few of his clothes.  Cloth was the singular form in Old English for clothes, but the meaning of cloth has shifted over time and no longer serves as the singular form of a garment. Did clothes become more of a mass noun as a consequence?

Other semantic domains exhibit ‘pair plurality’ to some extent, including tools with two matched appendages.

  • scissors
  • pliers
  • shears

The above terms occur naturally with pair, as in pair of scissors, and they follow the lower-anatomy body garments in those cases by referring to a single item, not two items. SImilarly, it’s odd to speak of  a shear, a plier or a scissor.  These are more natural in the context of being a modifier, as in a scissor blade (similarly, a trouser seam).

Finally there is trou. The word was unknown to me, but a rower tells me that it refers to streamlined shorts worn by scullers. Given that, it certainly looks like a shortening of trousers. Is it a recent innovation? Does trou take final plural -s?  Can it occur with pair as in a new pair of trou?  Perhaps it’s more of an aggregate along the lines of clothes, where only context or quantifiers indicate how many items are referenced.  I would love examples if you have them!

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More Linguistic Asymmetries


The English prefix un- comes directly from Old English (and shares a common Indo-European root with Latin in- and Greek a-) Prefixed to an adjective A, the resulting new word means ‘not A’ and can convey either positive or negative sentiment, depending on the meaning of the adjective.

  • selfish/unselfish, pretentious/unpretentious  (un- has positive sentiment)
  • happy/unhappy, flattering/unflattering (un- has negative sentiment)
  • usual/unusual, aware/unaware (un- context-dependent sentiment)

Prefixed to a verb, un- conveys the reversal of a process:

  • load/unload
  • tangle/untangle
  • wind/unwind
  • do/undo

However, not all verbs form their opposite by adding un- as a prefix. For example

  • break/*unbreak

You can’t unbreak a teapot, you can only repair it. (Perhaps the special context of watching a film in reverse would lend itself to such a usage ‘watch the teapot unbreak in frame 254.’ ??)   Notice that there is symmetry for the associated adjectives — an object is either in a state of being broken or intact, or has the potential to be in one of these states.

  • broken/unbroken
  • breakable/unbreakable

Other examples of verbs that are not symmetrical with respect to un- include

  • clean/*unclean
  • develop/*undevelop
  • squander/*unsquander
  • release/*unrelease

You must dirty, retard, save, or retain. Similarly, verbs that denote speech acts are not symmetrical with respect to un-.

  • promise/*unpromise
  • announce/*unannounce
  • insult/*uninsult
  • marry/*unmarry

You can only renege, retract, apologize or divorce. Verbs that describe mental processes also don’t have corresponding opposites formed with un-.

  • remember/*unremember
  • dream/*undream
  • see/*unsee

The natural opposite of remember is forget, and there is the related misremember which implies recall of something not factual. (More on mis- in a moment.) Dream is more difficult; perhaps the opposite of dreaming is realizing? There seems to be no natural concept corresponding to a reversal or opposite of the event of seeing.  In summary, it appears that English uses un- only with verbs that describe events which are simple, reversible physical processes, seemingly ignoring the arrow of time (even though each act of covering/uncovering, folding/unfolding, winding/unwinding is indeed moving in one direction through time).

But what about the prefix dis-?  Its occurrence with verbs doesn’t appear to conform to the above patterns. The following symmetrical pairs include both speech act verbs and mental process verbs.

  • allow/disallow
  • like/dislike
  • please/displease
  • regard/disregard
  • invite/disinvite

Allow, please, regard and invite entered English from Old French, along with the Latin-derived prefix dis- which meant ‘not’. Dislike, however, is a hybrid form that replaced the native English mislike, which was at one time the opposite of like. The native English prefix mis- meant ‘wrongly, in error’ and we see it today in the verbs misjudge, misremember and probably mistake.

  • I took him for an honest man
  • I mistook him for an honest man
Notice the somewhat inconsistent modern-day distribution of dis- and un- with please and pleasure. 

  • please/displease/*unplease
  • pleased/displeased/?unpleased
  • pleasant/*displeasant/unpleasant
  • pleasure/displeasure/*unpleasure
Finally, the verb dislove was in use during the 16th century and meant ‘to hate’ or ‘cease to love’.  The new symmetrical verb pair friend and unfriend have now entered Internet English. Why not use the existing verb befriend? Perhaps because it seems archaic, along with its be- relatives befoul, besmirch and betroth. Curiously, belittle is still a verb with a presence. But notice that the negative member of the new verb pair is unfriend and not disfriend. The language is showing its Germanic pedigree.  While we’re on the topic of linguistic asymmetries I’d like to alter one — the current annoyance of having only a like option on so many web postings, reviews, tweets, pins and such. It would be nice to express an opposite view on occasion. Dislove anyone? 🙂
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Vamp 21: Old Friends


Fatigued and hungry for blood, Sam opens the door to her Somerville apartment and switches on a light. The others, Rina, Gil and Sandor, follow her in.

“The suspense is killing me, Sam! What’s going on?” Rina cuts to the chase.

“And where is Dean?” Gil asks her, a little short of breath from the brisk walk.

Sam feels their eyes on her, full of questions for which she has answers to only a few. But it’s time to tell them what she does know. “Dean is hiding.”

Hiding?

“He’s on the run. Joel Anderson is trying to kill him.” There is no point in understating the facts.

Gil stares at her, pale with shock, but also understanding.  “Why Dean didn’t pull me in on Evan’s hiring starts to make sense now. But, Dean was totally blindsided by those guys. Totally.”

Sam continues. “He’s been calling me from undisclosed locations, and asked me to send money, which I did.” She sees Gil’s expression. “I lent him my savings. It’s okay.”

“Why kill him?” Rina asks, her brown eyes wide, incredulous.

Sam spots an empty carton of boxed blood on the coffee table and snatches it up as nonchalantly as possible and tucks it under her arm. “Dean discovered that Joel was intentionally hacking into client sites, allegedly as a security service to them-”

“Yeah right,” Gil interjects derisively.

Sam nods at him. “You were absolutely right to believe Evan was behind the Star break-in. Dean thinks Joel is running a velvet glove extortion racket.”

“Let us protect you from what we can do to you?” Gil adds, mockingly.

“Why would companies put up with it?” Rina demands.

“Because it’s happening all over,” Gil replies quietly. “Paying off cyberhackers is the cost of doing business nowadays it seems.” He sighs.

Sandor shakes his head. “The flash crash on the stock exchange was more viral than hacking the database records of a business. Was Joel Anderson involved there?”

Sam looks at her tall, sallow cousin. “Dean doesn’t know.”

Gil walks to the couch and plops down, head in hands. He looks up at Sam. “We’ve got to help Dean, keep him away from Joel and…not let on to Evan that we know what’s up.” Gil laughs bitterly. “That won’t be hard for me, given that he fired me.”

“Should we try to steal Evan’s passwords? I’ve never done such a thing.” Rita’s voice is dark with excitement and apprehension.

“That’s a start,” Gil replies, “but you’ll have to get system logs and not leave footprints behind you.”

“I can probably get those,” Sandor offers, “It would be safest when Evan is not there.”

“He could go for coffee with Sam,” Rina suggests.

“He doesn’t like me.” Sam smiles at Rina. “He likes you, though.”

Rina grimaces. “He scares me a little.”

“He should,” Gil says emphatically. “Joel Anderson trusts him and that’s enough to scare me.”

“I’ll make something hot,” Sam tells them, turning toward her kitchen with the empty carton still under her arm. “We have to come up with a plan. Dean’s life may well depend on it.”

Sam quickly disposes of the empty blood container in the cabinet beneath the sink and  puts on a kettle of water. Sandor stands in the doorway of the kitchen and their eyes meet. She hopes he understands the meaning in hers: we must not reveal ourselves in the situation here.

Aloud she asks him, “Do we have anything?”

“There’s ginger tea,” he replies and fetches it from the cupboard.

Sam takes a sudden, sharp look at Sandor and tells him in an intense whisper, “You’ve lost the cap on your upper left canine! Don’t smile.” She sighs anxiously. “I’ve got to order you a proper set.”

Sandor shrugs at her and carries an opened box of crackers to the living room. Rina, who has seated herself cross-legged on the floor by the coffee table, looks up at Sandor and shakes her head, smiling. “You don’t eat anything. I’m going to cook you a good Russian dinner.”

Gil glances at her wistfully and Sandor’s face blanches a paler shade of white.

A few minutes later, Sam returns with steaming cups of ginger tea.  A dose of blood will have to wait until later. The foursome return to the solemnity of the  situation and the unknown menace they are facing.

“Who is Joel Anderson?” Gil muses aloud softly, “And what is he after?”

~

The geneticist in upstate New York who analyzed the swab taken from Marty Gaynor’s neck wound receives a new DNA sample from the Ninth Precinct of the New York City Police Department. The news of the NYPD’s medical case has already reached the papers and has been written up in the sensational style of modern journalism. The media are abuzz with references to alien races, lost tribes and humanoids.

Upon reading such accounts, the geneticist had contacted the forensics lab, telling them of the human-like sequence he had recently analyzed and puzzled over. Baffled by their own results and curious whether a comparison of data might shed light on their case, the Ninth Precinct has sent him what they have.

What he finds lead to further discussions with a colleague, a renowned geneticist. Their analysis confirms that, although certain sequences show significant overlap with human genetic code fragments, there are other fragments alien to any known human DNA. Of even greater interest is the closeness of certain sequences between the New York sample and the Boston sample.

The renowned geneticist is impressed and mystified by the similarities of the unknown code fragments. He sums it up in one sentence. “We’re either dealing with a genetic bottleneck of some species of uh, hominid, or these are possibly samples from a single individual of such a species.”

“How could a human-like being have avoided detection until now?” exclaims the other geneticist, thrilled and baffled by the possibility of a profound scientific discovery.

“Indeed.” His renowned colleague gives him a frank look. “And can we now locate the individual or individuals — the beings — whose samples we’ve analyzed.”

“That’s a job for the Ninth Precinct detective in New York.” The geneticist picks up the phone. “There’s also a doctor, a GP, in Boston who might prove useful.”

~

It’s not a good neighborhood and Dean is doubtful the phone booth on the street corner is actually in working order. He waits for a scruffy, emaciated man, probably a junkie, to walk past it before he approaches it himself. Dean slips inside the booth, his eyes now making an accustomed sweep of the surroundings. He inserts a coin, hears a dial tone and dials. The phone seems to be working,  it’s ringing. Then he hears Philip’s voice.

“Yes?”

“Philip. It’s Dean.”

“Well hello! You’re in the D.C. area?”

Startled, Dean remembers that Philip’s phone is almost certainly displaying the number of the pay phone, including its local area code.

“Uh, yeah. I am. Philip, I need to talk to you.” Dean looks around outside the booth, Bands of tension arch across the back of his neck. “I’m in a real pickle and I need your help.”

“Are you in some kind of danger?” Philip sounds technical, already in problem-solving mode. It gives Dean a shot of confidence.

“So it seems. Ever hear of Joel Anderson? He runs an investment fund, Scorpio II.”

There’s a pause before Philip answers. “Yes.”

“I sold a chunk of my company to him, Philip. And I was trying to sell him more until he creeped me out by his open admission of cyberhacking as part of his business model.”

Dean hears Philip clear his throat quietly, it’s one of Philip’s familiar, comfortable idiosyncracies. “Mr. Anderson is a POI.”

“A person of interest?”

“We’re not on a clean connection here, Dean.”

Dean sees two men across the street and scrutinizes them. They walk past a seedy-looking convenience mart and disappear around the corner. “Philip, this guy has thugs. One was going to kill me I think. I didn’t stick around to find out.”

“In New York?”

“Yes! How do you know?”

“He’s on our team.”

“Bernard? Not possible.”

“We can’t continue this conversation on this line, Dean.”

“Can I come to your place?”

“Sure. Better yet, remember that bar in Georgetown where you flirted with the female bartender from Chile? It’s still there. Nice and noisy, very private.”

“Okay.”

“Will I recognize you?” There is a measure of humor in Philip’s voice.

“Maybe not. I’ve shaved my head and I’m wearing big black geek glasses.” Dean is amazed at how easily this lie slips off his tongue, but he makes sure there is a touch of humor in his own voice when he relays this to his old friend.

— to be continued

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Vamp 20: Black Running Shoes


Rina, Sandor and Sam are jammed together at a small table in a loud Cambridge pub. They’d left work a few minutes early today with glum, defiant faces. Leaving early was their symbolic protest against Evan’s treatment of Gil. A pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos now sit on the small table in front of them, but remain largely untouched.

Rina has texted Gil and left voice mail but he hasn’t replied to any of her messages. Privately, Sam is increasingly worried about him. She believes without a doubt the thing was a setup and that Gil is certain of this also. But, will Joel Anderson and his thugs leave Gil alone at this point? Or is it the first step in an even worse scenario from their playbook? Sam feels she is running out of time, especially after her phone conversation with Dean an hour ago.

Rina leans her elbows on the table, pushing her dark, red-streaked bangs from her forehead.  “Can you believe that Evan could do this?” she says softly. “I just couldn’t realize he was such a prick.” She shakes her head in disgust. “I really want to punish him.”  The words ‘prick’ and ‘punish’ carry a special punch conveyed by her Russian accent.

“Gil had no motive to hack the client’s site. He wouldn’t risk his job for such a silly prank.” Sandor drums his long pale fingers uneasily on the table top. He’s wearing the new long-sleeved black shirt Sam bought for him.

“That’s absolutely right, Sandor. I had absolutely no motive for something I did not do.”

They look up to see Gil standing at their table.

“Join us!” Sam pulls back the remaining chair at the small table and Gil takes a seat next to her. He digs into the plate of nachos. Rina hails the waiter for another mug and she then fills it with beer and sets it in front of Gil. Sam watches with slight amusement as Gil immediately downs two-thirds of the contents of the mug and tops it up himself. She recalls that he barely touched alcohol at other social occasions with coworkers.

“Where the heck is Dean?” Gil asks in a resigned voice. “He’s just abandoned Bubble Trendz. I thought it was his dream.”

“Don’t you think it’s pretty strange that he’s not back when the new guys are here?” Rina says.

Gil nods. “I never expected this from him. Guess I’m the fool, though. Guess the money was always what he was really after. After all, he’s the one who hired Evan.”

Sam looks at him with dismay. They’ve all got it so wrong. Without further reflection on the matter and without a clearly defined plan, Sam states simply, “This takeover by the Anderson group is a hostile one and I’m not even sure it’s legal.”

Sam sees the startled looks on the faces of Rina, Gil and Sandor. She doesn’t want to say Dean’s name in public, even here where there is only a remote chance of the wrong people overhearing it. In a low, soft voice she tells them, “Our guy, the boss, has not abandoned his company. But this is not the place to discuss it.”

“What are you saying, Sam?” Rina asks in a hushed tone.

Sam knows there is no turning back now. She’s going to put her trust in all three of them. She should have talked it over first with Sandor alone, but it’s too late for that. Quietly she says, “Let’s get out of here and go to my place. It’s close-by in Somerville.”

~

Dean is startled at his own reflection in the restroom of the fast food restaurant where he just finished a quick meal. His normally fair hair is a dark brown, and there is five days’ growth of stubble, also dyed dark brown, on his face. The hair dye looks a little harsh in the fluorescent light, his tired pale face looks chalky in contrast. You’re a pretty seedy-looking character he thinks to himself, staring through the cheap pair of sunglasses he bought at a drugstore. He wonders whether he should have shaved his head instead. It’s still an option for later. How much time does he have? This is the crucial variable: whether Joel Anderson now knows that he is still alive.

Dean exits the restaurant with a take-out coffee cup in hand and walks along the bustling road of a nondescript stretch of gas stations, car dealerships and fast food chains. The bus station is still another half mile away. He maintains a brisk walk, glad for his cardiovascular fitness. It’s probably the reason he’s alive right now.

For at least the hundredth time, Dean replays those minutes of his life in New York City last Thursday afternoon. From the start of it, he’d felt something was off. Then, Joel Anderson had turned suddenly, unexpectedly, mild after an overly long and harsh explanation of why their clients would appreciate having the holes in their computer security systems revealed to them. He’d then introduced Dean to a new fellow, Bernard, whom Joel said worked with the bankers and would be able to take Dean over to their offices to meet them after all. Joel would join them within the hour.

Bernard presented himself to Dean with quiet, deferential manners, but he didn’t project the air of someone in finance. For one thing, Bernard’s well-muscled physique asserted itself through an ordinary off-the-rack suit, more jock than stock analyst. They didn’t speak much in the elevator on the way down, despite Dean’s efforts to engage him in talk in the hopes of getting Bernard to reveal more of himself, more of the bankers’ angle in all of this. Bernard only mentioned in the briefest sentence that the office they were going to was ‘two blocks west’ and mostly avoided eye contact, looking neutrally ahead.

As they pushed through the heavy glass revolving doors and entered the loud, busy Manhattan street, Bernard’s strong index finger pointed the direction they should go. He seemed even bigger and bulkier than in Joel’s office and Dean felt himself moving slightly away from the man whose proximity was just overstepping the boundary of Dean’s personal space, even giving allowances for the throngs of people crowded along the street.

“You grow up here?” Dean remembers asking Bernard as they crossed the first intersection at a light. Bernard said “no” and kept his gaze focused ahead. That was the moment when Dean glanced down and noticed Bernard’s shoes — black running shoes, not the expensive Italian loafers favored by investment bankers.  A bolt of instinctual clarity flashed through Dean’s mind and body and he knew at once what he must do. Run.

He bolted from Bernard’s side into traffic, running at full speed, his peripheral vision guiding him past collisions with taxis and a delivery truck, a bicyclist. He didn’t look back, he knew Bernard was coming after him. He just ran, elbowing past pedestrians, sheer terror driving him forward at amazing speed. He ran for blocks, adrenalin coursing through him, his lungs fiery with exertion, eyes ever vigilant for the safest escape route. When he spotted a wide alley he raced into it and flattened himself against the worn brick exit door of some building, catching his breath, trying to listen for his stalker above the pounding of his own heart. At once he realized this was a mistake — he would be safer in a crowd. Bernard was a hired assassin and would welcome the opportunity to catch him in an alley.

His calves shaking with fatigue, Dean darted once more onto the main avenue, now trotting, allowing himself a furtive glance to one side and the other. Ahead in the cold bright sunlight was an entrance sign to the subway and he descended the stairs, moving quickly, trying to disappear into the crowd. He bought a ticket and jumped on the first train, having no idea where he was going. Exhausted, he found a seat and slowly quieted his breathing and wiped the perspiration from his brow, trying to relax his demeanor, blend in. No passengers paid attention to him, all were absorbed in texting, reading or just their own thoughts as the train rattled on. But Bernard could be anywhere and there might be others as well. Many hours and several train rides later, Dean had found a secluded pay phone, one of few remaining, and placed his first call to Sam.

Dean’s thoughts refocus on the present as he continues walking along the side of the highway. He would bet every cent of the deal he signed with Joel Anderson that Perry Hinds’ death was not a suicide leap from a building. He knew Perry. The guy was a great entrepreneur at the top of his game. Probably just like Dean, Perry had learned too much through initial negotiations with Joel and then had refused to sign on, so Joel threw him out a window. Dean shudders. It was probably Bernard who had done the throwing. Has Bernard confessed his bungled job to his boss? What’s the punishment for such a thing? This is the one consideration that gives Dean hope that Joel doesn’t yet know that Dean remains a free man.  But why is Joel Anderson playing such mean ball? What’s at stake — some extortion of companies to avoid having their databases hacked? That’s not a plan to take a two-billion-dollar investment firm to the next level and Joel Anderson is no fool. Something bigger, more sinister, is afoot and Dean hopes he’ll have enough time to figure it out, and to convince the one man he can trust and who might be able to stop it. Philip, his college friend, who works for a nameless agency in Washington.

Dean sees the bus station ahead and finds himself looking forward to a few hours of rest on his journey south toward the capital. Time to sleep and time to figure out what exactly to tell Philip. He hasn’t been in touch with his friend in several years, and Philip will need data, not stories. He can show up at Philip’s in his disguise and on the run, and Philip won’t conclude that he is a delusional psychotic.  But, Philip will want to look at hard evidence. Dean discreetly touches the money belt under his shirt and thinks gratefully of Sam. Can she help him with this?

— to be continued

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Teenage, Middle-age, New Age


English can form adjectives from the past participles of verbs. Consider:

  • break:broken  the vase was broken -> the broken vase
  • fall:fallen   his popularity has fallen recently -> his fallen popularity
  • bake:baked  the bread was baked in a brick oven -> baked bread
  • age:aged  the wine is aged in oak barrels -> aged wine

Concerning age, the combination adjective teenage almost never appears in current usage with the past participle final -d.  You almost always read or hear

her teenage daughter

not

her teenaged daughter

English dictionaries do include the word teenaged as an adjective, along with teenage, although teenaged (1952) appears several decades later than teenage (1921) according to the Online Etymological Dictionary. Teenage is more in line with new age (new age music) and ice age (ice age relics) with age as a noun, not a verb, i.e., a period of time.  Similarly, there is mid-life crisis, not mid-lived crisis, again related to a period of time.

What about the adjective middle-aged? First, it almost always appears with a hyphen in written English (unlike teenage/teenaged). And the situation is nearly the opposite of the case for teenage/teenaged.  You almost always see the forms middle-aged men, middle-aged women, or simply the middle-aged.  Kind of  interesting, too, that we have teenagers but not middle-agers.  So, my linguistic intuitions were a bit jarred to read in print “middle-age men in shorts” recently — without the final participial -d.   Is that because middle-aged is more verbal, referencing a weathering process, rather than a time period?   But then why middle-age spread (abdominal fat accumulated in mid-life) and not middle-aged spread?

What about other cases of modifiers that usually take the final -d? Are the d-less alternates as acceptable?

  • three-fingered glove/three-finger glove
  • left-handed presidents/left-hand presidents
  • right-angled turn/right-angle turn
  • bare-fisted fight/bare-fist fight
  • three-toed sloth/three-toe sloth
  • three-cornered hat/three-corner hat
  • heavy-handed methods/heavy-hand methods
  • strong-armed tactics/strong-arm tactics
  • underhand pitch/underhanded pitch  — these mean something quite different 🙂
My intuitions don’t like either middle-age men (no d) or new-aged men (with d), but teenage boys and teenaged boys are both fine. What do you think?
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