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Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth
president of the United States and ordered the detention
center at Guantanamo Bay closed within a year. George
W. Bush gave his final press conference. “Abu Ghraib was a
huge disappointment,” he said. “Not having weapons of mass
destruction was a significant disappointment.” A federal
appeals court in Texas ruled to permit the sacrifice of
goats. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael
Steele announced an “off the hook” Republican publicity
campaign, targeting “urban-suburban hip-hop settings.” “We
need to uptick our image with everyone,” Steele said,
“including one-armed midgets.” When asked about the state
of the Republican party, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty
said, “It’s kind of like asking whether the stock market
has bottomed out.” Thirty-nine million Americans were on
food stamps, 54 percent of graduating U.S. business majors
lacked job offers, and two gunmen robbed a man of one
dollar in the parking lot of an Ohio Wendy’s. A top
Pentagon official said that “cutbacks at Best Buy” made it
easier to recruit better-qualified young people for the
military. The war in Iraq turned six; the war in
Afghanistan turned eight; SpongeBob SquarePants turned
ten. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban threatened to chop
off the fingers of anyone who votes, the government passed
a law allowing men to starve wives who refuse sex.
Sea levels continued to rise, and a 40-yard-wide asteroid
just missed the earth. The Mediterranean Sea was plagued
by blobs. Pope Benedict XVI visited Africa; in Angola he
warned against witchcraft, corruption, and condoms. Papal
archaeologists in Rome authenticated the bones of Saint
Paul the Apostle, and Jesus Christ was dismissed from jury
duty in Alabama. Toxic-mining wastes in Idaho were killing
tundra swans; a man in Munich received a two-year
suspended sentence for beating another man with a
swan. Highly aggressive supersquirrels were menacing gray
squirrels in England, where the Law Lords were replaced
with a new Supreme Court whose justices wear no wigs, and
where cosmetic nipple surgery was increasingly popular. A
London taxi driver tied one end of a rope around a post
and the other around his neck and drove away, launching
his head from the car. Anglican hymns were sung at
Darwin’s tomb. Two Yellowstone National Park workers were
fired for peeing into Old Faithful. Sarah Palin published
a book, and Sylvia Plath’s son hanged himself in
Alaska. Scientists in San Diego made a robot head study
itself in a mirror until it learned to smile.
Newspaper circulation in the United States declined to its
lowest level in 70 years. It was revealed via Twitter that
President Obama called Kanye West a “jackass” and that a
coyote ran off with Jessica Simpson’s maltipoo. The Taco
Bell chihuahua died of a stroke, and Sonia Sotomayor was
sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. Walter Cronkite,
Merce Cunningham, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy died, as
did Michael Jackson. Ariel Sharon was still alive. Hamas
and Fatah held peace talks in Cairo. Israel approved the
construction of 900 more settler homes in East Jerusalem,
and ten Florida middle schoolers were suspended for
participating in Kick a Jew Day. Chicago rats fed a diet
of bacon, cheesecake, pound cake, Ho Hos, and sausage
began to behave like rats addicted to heroin, and a
Minnesota man pleaded guilty to driving a La-Z-Boy while
intoxicated. China created a small black hole, and NASA
revealed that a mysterious streak of light spotted by
onlookers in the night sky above North America was a
fortnight’s worth of astronaut urine. Physicists said
that the aural jitters picked up by a German
gravitational-wave detector may indicate that we all live
in a giant and blurry cosmic hologram. The United States,
searching for water, bombed the moon.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”