Sunday, January 10, 2010

Is Is What Is Is

The unusually long drought between my last column and this one—brought on by technical computer difficulties that, to some degree, are still being ironed out—has given me the opportunity to ponder deeply about the myriad of problems plaguing our nation, our culture, and the broader world, and to focus on my own role in making the world a better place.

Luckily for me, though, that opportunity was quickly and utterly ignored. I didn’t ponder deeply about diddly-squat. Deep thinking is hard work, better left to people who can actually handle it. I’m better suited to shallow thought, the kind that lends itself to TV sitcoms, fart jokes, and making fun of people who probably don’t deserve it.1

In my regrettably extended time off from Bowling in the Dark, with my hours upon hours freed up for deepless thinking, I’ve come to the conclusion (reached when I wasn't searching online for audio and video drivers I couldn’t name for hardware I couldn’t identify) that the most difficult-to-understand word in the English language is is.

This may seem a little silly to you now, but stick with me, it’ll get much stupider. No other word since supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (which, if spoken softly—according to expert linguists and chimney sweeps—can have a hynpocious effect) has led to so much consternation and confusion as the wily, deceptive, mystical is.
Exhibit A: “The thing is, is . . .”
I won’t speak for anybody else—no matter how much I’d like to—but I’ve been hearing this strange little verbal fart more often lately than I used to. I can’t figure out whether the speaker has lost track of the first is or the second, but nobody seems to notice that they’re obviously redundant. Re-arranged into the form of a question, Jeopardy-style, this statement becomes “what is the thing is?” which doesn’t qualify as grammatical even for Yoda.2 Do me a favor: next time you hear this, please correct the speaker immediately and harshly, even if he’s the keynote speaker at your annual board meeting. Your willingness to sacrifice your job for good grammar will be duly noted.
Exhibit B: “It is what it is.”
While I haven’t studied this scientifically, it seems like I most often hear this bit of nonsense coming from professional athletes who probably don’t realize they’re not actually saying anything at all. The statement basically cancels itself out of existence; it’s as informative as saying that all bachelors are unmarried men, or Napoleon’s white horse was a horse.3 Stating that “it isn’t what it is,” while as logically impossible as saying “the Oakland Raiders will make the playoffs someday,” would at least be an interesting start to a discussion, rather than an admission that one has nothing intelligent to say. It can’t possibly be anything other than what it is. I suppose I should probably give pro athletes a bit of a pass for this. For good reason, they’re not generally known for their deep thinking (although this does little to deter them from talking about anything and everything at great length).4 Pro athletes are better known (for example) for their willingness to change their names to their jersey numbers . . . in a language they obviously don’t know how to speak, so maybe we should focus our efforts towards preventing things like “it is what it is” from crossing over into the general population.  
Exhibit C: “It’s it.”
And, of course, Exhibit B begs the question: if it is what it is, what is it? While philosophers/rap-metal pioneers Faith No More explored this question to epic lengths in 1990, not only could they not come to a definitive conclusion, but they ended up seemingly running in circles: It’s it. What is it? It’s it. What is it? The band was able to determine, through dogged research, that even if it can be felt, seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted, it doesn’t matter anyway, because the speed at which it occurs will render it impossible for you to understand. The mysterious “it” also apparently knocks you off your feet—suggesting the possibility that it is some kind of explosive, or perhaps a kangaroo with boxing gloves. Since the late 1990s, however, Faith No More has been silent on the issue.   
Exhibit D: Ayn Rand.
The novelist and verbal diarrheticist’s Atlas Shrugged—a book that, to borrow a phrase from Futurama’s robot devil, is as lousy as it is brilliant—spent around 540,000 words and 1,168 pages describing her philosophy of objectivism, a fundamental part of which could be summed up by the very pithy and obvious phrase “A is A.” Seriously, that’s three words. Three. Or, if you want to get technical, a single character—repeated twice—and one word. It somehow takes Rand another 539,997 words to explain, mostly by way of long-winded speeches by characters with no idea how English is spoken on this planet, what “A is A” means and why it matters.  
Exhibit E: A guy we actually elected President.
While George W. Bush is probably most folks’ go-to president for examples of mangling the English language, this isn’t who I’m talking about at the moment. It was that other guy:

Yes, you heard that (and probably remember it) correctly: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” That’s Bill Clinton—described by supporters, the disinterested, and even many of his detractors as a brilliant guy—desperately trying to suggest, on the air and in front of any number of people with recording devices, that there’s more than one meaning to the word “is.” Dude—ahem, I mean Mister President—if it weren’t several years too late to make a difference, I’d suggest that you stop before you embarrass yourself. Put quite simply, is = is. Or less mathematically, is is is. There’s already a word in place for what isn’t is—that word is isn’t.

So if the most powerful guy in the most powerful nation on Earth can’t comprehend the meaning of the word “is”—or even if he’s merely playing dumb because he didn’t have the sac to admit that he cheated and lied to approximately 260,000,000 people, and got caught—what chance to the rest of us, mere shallow-thinkers or millionaire athletes, really have? Is there any hope but to go with the flow, and admit that the thing is is what the thing is is?

God, I hope so. Just typing that out right now gave me a tiny little brain aneurysm.

1. The good news for them is that they have something like a ten in six billion chance of ever knowing I’m making fun of them.
2. Although actually, when you get right down to it, Yoda’s pattern of speech, while sometimes a bit hard to follow (and, in the more recent movies, a bit forced, so to speak), is pretty consistently grammatical. Yoda, you have taught us all so much.
3. No shit! I literally couldn’t make something like this up.
4. Which makes them a lot like movie stars, except that for some reason we’re willing to believe—or at least somebody is willing to believe—that movie stars can occasionally be smart. How else to explain Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist in The World is Not Enough?


  1. "epic lengths"? That's punny. Was it intentional?

  2. Yup. Wasn't sure if I should be proud of that, or embarrassed.

  3. Is that it?? or is is is??

    A is A is one of the three basic laws of logic. Why it takes 500,000+ words to understand that, I do not know....I guess it is what it is....
    ah crud, I did it too, and who said ath-a-letes are not role models

  4. I just loved how you incorporated Faith No More as some sort of voice of reason. Yet another first in history right here on Bowling in the Dark!