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I spent the long Thanksgiving weekend cocooned in the mountains and returned to news of the WikiLeaks brouhaha and to two stacks of essays. These piles, filled with feedback from fellow Lighthousers, had been awaiting my attention for, um, nearly two months. Cup of tea in hand, I settled onto my chaise to revisit these metaphor-laden drafts and read what my colleagues had to say. In a word, cliché. To be fair to myself and to my careful and generous readers, there was some good stuff in there. But, touchée, I could not deny that a bunch of trite phrases had slipped into my prose, like members of a sleeper cell, ready to wreak havoc on the bits of writing that had been fresh.
With banalities on my brain, I turned on NPR while driving to Sunflower Market to restock my fridge. The host had ditched his customary sober monotone and, his voice crackling with excitement, practically gushed about how the leaked diplomatic cables contained some strong and colorful language. I increased the volume. My ears twitched because, once upon a time, a few thousand miles away, I had a job with secret clearance where I was privy to certain embassy cable traffic. Back then, hard copies arrived to my desk in double interoffice manila envelopes, the kind with a thin red thread that could be looped around two cardboard circles to “secure” the contents. Usually I received them several months after they had been written which, for my purposes, rendered them useless. Nevertheless, to honor protocol, I stored them in a locked metal filing cabinet behind my chair, leaving the key in the desk drawer. As I recall, the embassy dispatches were more likely to induce a deep sleep than a profound insight. Was it possible that the writing of these documents had since improved?
The NPR host began to read what had been written about the German Chancellor, who is referred to as “Teflon Merkel” in several cables. Yawn. Doesn’t the phrase “Teflon _____” (insert name of politician) date from the Reagan era? I imagined my fellow Lighthousers marking up these cables and returning them to embassies around the world. Show, don’t tell. Include sensory detail. I was about to change the station when the host read an excerpt of a cable, written by former ambassador Christopher Dell, about Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
“He is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand).”
The last line got my thumbs up as a humorous and succinct character description. As I pulled into the Sunflower’s parking lot, I felt somewhat hopeful about the state of wordy affairs. Perhaps these leaks might encourage the current consular corps to polish their prose; after all, their audience might be larger than they think.
P.S. I also wondered why WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has not yet outed this blog; after all, it has Top Secret written all over it. You’d think he might be interested.