In this episode I’m joined by Jennifer – a podcaster from the USA, and we test each other on our knowledge of slang from our countries. Listen and learn some informal words from British and American English. Notes & definitions below.
Here’s a new episode and in this one I’ve got a guest. I’m talking to Jennifer from the English Across the Pond podcast. You’re going to hear a mix of both British and American English and you can learn some slang from both sides of the Atlantic. Also you can find out about Jen, her podcast, and the other language learning services that she offers to you, with her co-host Dan on their podcast and also through their website. More on that in a moment.
But first let me give you a little bit of news here before we get started properly.
A little bit of news before we get started properly
If you’re a subscriber to my email list then you will have received an email from me recently with a link to a post that I published on my website. Did you get that email? Did you click the link? Normally emails from me just contain a link to a new episode, but sometimes I send you other stuff, like posts on my website which you might find interesting.
Basically in that recent post I said a couple of things. One of them was that February might be a bit quiet for the normal podcast – I mean, these free episodes (because there’s the free podcast and the premium podcast, you see). This is the second episode I’ve uploaded in February, and this might be it for February actually, on the free podcast and that’s because I’m focusing on LEP premium this month in order to make up for the lack of premium episodes in January.
So if you’re a premium subscriber you’ll see that you’ve been getting new episodes regularly and that’s going to continue throughout the month but the number of normal free episodes will be a bit lower.
Now, this means that all the free subscribers can just catch up on all the episodes I’ve uploaded since the start of the year (which is quite a lot) but if you want more you could just wait a bit for some new ones to come along, or you could consider signing up for the growing library of premium stuff.
New premium episodes this month include ones covering vocab & grammar from my recent conversation with Zdenek Lukas. I picked out over 40 bits of target language for you to learn from that, and so there are about 4 parts to that episode. Then, in the pipeline I’ve got premium episodes focusing on language from the Paul Chowdhry episode and the recent episode with James. Tons of language for you to learn. This is all stuff you’ve heard on the podcast, but I’m doing all the work of explaining, clarifying and demonstrating the language and also drilling it for pronunciation and all that – all to help you not just hear it but properly learn it. I do all that work so you don’t have to. To subscribe to my premium content, go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium
The other thing I wrote about in that recent website post was that I was featured in an episode of the Rock n’ Roll English Podcast. Do you remember Martin and Dan from episode 490. They’re the guys from Rock n’ Roll English, which is another British English podcast. Just recently they had me on one of their episodes and we talked again about how to handle awkward social situations (like we did the first time I was on their podcast), and we covered some pretty funny and fairly disgusting topics, including the ins and outs of giving up your seat on the tube, how long you should hold a door open for someone and how to deal with poo smells in public toilets. Yes, the poo thing is a subject that quite regularly comes up in their episodes.
Anyway, check the episode archive on my website for the recent website post about Rock n Roll English and that’s where you can find the relevant links to listen to that.
Now then, onto this new episode of Luke’s English Podcast…
This is another collaboration with a fellow podcaster. There are quite a few of us out there in podcastland and from time to time we invite each other onto our respective podcasts as you will have noticed.
This time I’m talking to Jennifer from English Across the Pond. Some of you will be familiar with English Across the Pond – it’s another podcast for learners of English, hosted by Jen in the USA and Dan in the UK (that’s another Dan – not Dan from the RnR English Podcast). They do weekly episodes focusing on different topics and you can listen to their conversations which include both British and American English.
In this episode you’ll hear me talking to Jen via Skype (she was in California), and we chose to focus on slang words in British and American English.
UK vs USA Slang Game
We decided it might be interesting to see how much of each other’s slang words we know by playing a kind of UK vs US Slang Game.
What do you think will be the result?
So we both prepared a list of 5 slang words and prepared to test each other, and that’s what you’re going to hear.
There’s a bit of chat between the two of us first, so you can get to know Jen a little bit and then we get stuck into the slang game.
As you listen, see if you can play along with us. Do you know all the words in this game?
Keep listening to hear the words explained, defined and demonstrated. I have a feeling that long-term listeners to my podcast might know some of the British ones because I’ve probably dealt with them in previous episodes of this podcast, but do you know all of them? And how about the American English slang words you’re going to hear?
All the answers to the slang game are on the page for this episode if you want to see them.
And also keep listening until the end to find out about a nice offer that Jen and Dan have for you in terms of the learning English content that they are providing on their website.
Anyway, I hope you’re ready for some real slang from both sides of the pond.
So without any further ado, let’s get started.
Answers to the slang game
1. Buff (adj) You’re looking buff, have you been working out? Meaning = muscular, toned
2. give me / let me have a butcher’s at that thing (noun) Giz a butcher’s at that new phone of yours = give me a look at that new phone of yours Meaning = Give me a look
It’s cockney rhyming slang. “A butcher’s hook” = a look.
3. Chuffed (adj)
I’m really chuffed to bits to have won the prize. When my daughter does something for herself she always looks so chuffed. Meaning = pleased, or pleased with yourself
4. Gutted (adj) How do you feel to have lost the match today? I’m absolutely gutted to be honest. Meaning = very disappointed
How would you feel if these things happened? Chuffed or gutted?
Dan wins a podcasting award, but you don’t.
Tom Cruise crashes his car into your house.
5. Knackered (adj) I’m absolutely knackered this evening. I had an absolutely awful day at work today. I had to work a 12 hour shift with no break. I’m knackered. I’m just going to go straight to bed. Meaning = very tired, exhausted
USA slang words (California specific)
1. a grippa somethin’ (a grip of something) You must have a grippa toys in your house at the moment. I have a grippa things to do today. I have a grippa work that I need to get done today. It feels good when we get a grippa things done. Meaning = a lot of
2. To rock something (clothing) You’re rocking some fresh sneakers. I’m rocking this fresh cardigan. I’m rocking some dope corduroy pants (trousers) this afternoon. My brother rocks a cowboy hat. Meaning: To wear some stylish clothes
3. To post up somewhere If you want to go into that shop, I’ll just post up here and wait for you. I like to just post up at the beach all day long and enjoy the sun. Meaning: To stay somewhere for a while and hang out.
4. To flip a bitch Hey, at the next light, flip a bitch. Meaning = To do a U-turn (to turn around 180 degrees)
5. To trip out I was tripping out because I thought I saw you at the restaurant yesterday but I thought “He’s not here. He’s not in Southern California.” Meaning = to be confused
So there you have it.
Now, if you liked what you heard there and you’d like to hear more, you could check out English Across the Pond – they have weekly podcast episodes, but also you could consider signing up for their Gold Membership Package, which includes loads of cool stuff to help you learn English with Jen and Dan.
I’m just telling you about this because you might be interested in what they have to offer. So here is some info that might be of interest to you, plus a couple of freebies (that means free things)
So you heard Jen mention this near the end of the conversation there.
Basically, if you sign up with their membership package, every week they send you a learning plan which contains loads of exercises, activities, tests, vocabulary lists, grammar explanations and also a speaking task and a writing task each week with real feedback from Dan and Jen. So, each week their members get a study plan with all those things.
Jen and Dad have set up a little freebie for any LEPsters that choose to become members, and that’s two free study plans if you sign up within the first week of this episode being published.
So, sign up and you’ll start to receive their weekly study plans and if you sign up within one week of the publication date of this episode you will get two extra study plans as a free gift.
This episode includes anecdotes and descriptions of our short visit to Las Vegas, including stories of more rental car issues, Las Vegas craziness, winning and losing $$$ and 11 English idioms that come from gambling.
⬇️ Episode script and notes (Idioms list below) ⬇️
It was just as a stopover between L.A. and other areas, and to have a one look in your life, see what all the fuss is about sort of experience.
Take the rental car back to the car rental company.
Remember them, from part 1 of this?
When we picked up the car in LA – just a Nissan hatchback by the way, nothing fancy, at the start of the trip we had to go and wait in a boiling hot car park in Inglewood or somewhere, where I stood waiting on my phone for ages waiting to get through to someone to tell them we had arrived, standing there on hold with my arm going numb and the sun beating down on both me and my pregnant wife, and after about 40 minutes a guy in a rental car came and picked us up, and told us “oh yes, the shuttle busses are in the garage – they broke down on Tuesday”.
We drop off the car, pay the money, ask about the difference in price between the bill and the receipt –
“Sorry Mani, isn’t here today.”
“Can you do it?”
“Sorry, I can’t. He’s the manager.”
(We got fobbed off by the girl behind the counter)
There’s supposed to be a shuttle (bus) service back to the airport.
But it’s obvious that this is a crappy little rental car company that is cutting corners and fobbing everyone off with this talk of the “shuttle” that is mysteriously always in the garage.
Again we’re told that the shuttle is in the garage so we squeeze into another rental car with a German couple this time.
My wife is in the front, and I’m squeezed in with the Germans.
The Germans are quite nice, but it’s pretty clear they didn’t have the best experience with their car and they’ve driven a really long distance, without cruise control (which is standard for rentals usually) and they’re saying to the driver,
“Do you not have cars with cruise control? Because it’s very uncomfortable to drive 4,000 miles without cruise control, you know?”
I’m thinking – 4,000 miles! Without cruise control. His leg must be knackered.
The driver goes “Cruise control? Yes, there is cruise control.”
“No, there is no cruise control in this car.”
“This was your rental?”
Turns out the “shuttle” is just the same car the Germans just rented.
“Yes, there is no cruise control in this car. It was very difficult for us. Do you not have cars with cruise control?”
The driver is not interested in taking questions. He says “Some of them do and some of them don’t.”
“I think it would be good if your cars have the cruise control”
“I’m just the driver man”
I note in my head that our car had cruise control, and I never used it, not once, but I don’t say anything. I don’t think it would have helped.
“Well, our car had cruise control, and guess what we never used it! Ha ha, it would have been useful if we’d swapped, right? I bet you would have appreciated that after the first 3,000 miles!!”
But I didn’t say that. I just ‘enjoyed’ the really awkward vibe in the car, and the knowledge that my wife was pretty much steaming, but keeping herself under control.
After the Germans got out my wife chose to cross-examine the driver.
“So, where are the shuttles?”
“Oh, they’re in the garage, we had some trouble with them.”
“Both of them?”
“Yes, it’s just a coincidence.”
“OK. When did they go in the garage?”
“Oh just on Friday.”
“Well last week you said they broke down on Tuesday.”
“I’m just the driver”
“I know you’re just the driver but…”
“You’re getting driven there, I’m driving you personally…”
“I know but we just don’t appreciate being lied to, that’s all…”
At this point he got really angry and started making it personal.
“OK, you’re getting personal with me now, and I don’t appreciate you making personal attacks against me, ok?”
As I was taking the bags out of the back, I was trying to say, “Look, it’s not personal we’re just commenting on the service. We were told one thing, we get another thing. It’s not you, right? it’s your management, right?”
He just went “Well I deliver you to the airport and you make it personal” and he just got in the car and drove off.
I couldn’t help feeling bad for the guy. I think he probably has no choice but to lie about the shuttle thing because the crappy management of this company keeps telling their customers there will be a shuttle. It’s written in their emails and stuff. I imagine he’s just trying to keep his job.
He couldn’t really say “Yes, well to be honest sir our company is lying to you. We don’t have any shuttles, it’s not worth it – you know? Because we don’t get enough customers to justify using a whole bus, and there’s obviously nowhere for us to park one anyway, so we just use these cars and I’m always dealing with these problems, but it’s because the management keep lying.”
He can’t admit that the company lies or is wrong. It’s unfair on him. I know, I’m making excuses for the guy, but what can he do?
The management should just say they have a personal car service, it would solve the problem.
That’s the solution. We don’t care about shuttles. Just say there’s a personal car service. The driver can introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Carlos, I’m your driver, where are you guys from?” Etc. That would solve the problem. Instead, Carlos (or whatever he’s called) is on the defensive and can’t start talking to the customers because he knows they’re not happy. Poor Carlos, and poor customers.
I wonder what’s really going on there – at this particular franchise of Wrong Cars™.
Anyway, after that we got on our plane for the short flight to Vegas. We could have driven but we planned this to make sure there was as little driving as possible, because when you’re pregnant it’s not good to sit in a vibrating car for hours on end, and anyway it sucks to be stuck in a car all the time.
We arrive in Vegas
It’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert for goodness sake.
We rent a car from another company this time – more established. Enterprise. Admittedly, it’s a bit more expensive but we don’t want to risk it because we’ll be driving in some fairly deserted spots and we want a car that will not break down and that has customer service that’s actually available by telephone.
So we get to the car rental area – a massive building in airportland. Dazzling service. We’re in the car in a matter of minutes and it looks brand new. We rented a small SUV. The main thing was that it was comfy and could deal with bits of rough terrain if needed. We get a Jeep Renegade. It’s pretty cool. Wife is happy and in comfort. OK.
Staying at New York New York Hotel.
Vegas is completely insane and, honestly, not a great place. In fact it’s the most tawdry, sleazy, tacky place ever.
Pick the most touristy part of any town and amplify it by 1000. It’s like that.
It’s boiling hot outside but inside it’s freezing, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build this massive place with all these things like swimming pools, hotels and golf courses in the middle of the desert.
God knows how they get their water.
And it’s just a weird place cut off from reality in which you are constantly being seduced and distracted by flashing lights and big things and encouraged to gamble your money away. It’s like one huge sales pitch in the form of a city.
Inside the casinos there are no windows. They’re like huge circus tents on the inside, with big restaurant facades around the edge, tables for gambling – playing poker or roulette or the one where you throw the dice and there are loads of different numbers and letters and it’s a bewildering illusion of choice, big individual gambling machines, lamp posts (inside the hotel), fake little streets, massive Irish pubs (which is never really a bad thing in itself) but all this stuff and you look up to the sky and it’s the black ceiling of the hotel above you, quite high and in the background. It’s probably daylight outside, but you can’t see the desert sun. Inside the hotel’s gambling area there’s this black canopy of the ceiling above all this trashy fake stuff.
It’s so weird to come to the desert and then find yourself in this totally synthetic place all set against a black backdrop.
This is some people’s idea of a wonderful place – a vast plastic playground with so many attractions, but there’s something very unnatural and twisted about it.
People smoke indoors and this feels wrong now after 10 years since the smoking ban. No big deal, but still… I think the reason is that they prioritise the gambling, so even though it fills the air with harmful smoke, it means people stay at the tables and don’t go outside to smoke their cigarettes.
There are tourists wandering around, families and stuff but also you spot these grizzled gamblers losing fortunes.
You see some old people who have travelled for miles to spend their money because they don’t really know what else to do with it, so it all goes in these machines.
There are some really drunk people, sitting at the bar.
But also families with kids walking around.
Even some bars have gambling machines built into them, so you can lose money (or maybe win) while you’re taking a break from the bigger tables.
In one casino, where we went to the theatre – there was a girl in suspenders dancing erotically on a table, and kids were wandering around.
It was like a strip club in Disneyland. It was like a cross between Disneyland and a lap dancing club. Adult Disneyland, but with families wandering around in it.
Our hotel had a rollercoaster going around it.
Yep, a rollercoaster, with tracks that actually went around the outside of the hotel.
You can stand in the bedroom and every now and then you hear the rumble of the rollercoaster and the muffled screams of people outside the window. This is from inside your hotel room..
If you part the curtains and look out you can see part of the track twisting around past the window and eventually you’ll see the rollercoaster race past, people screaming.
Take a look into the distance and there are the mountains, some desert and then closer to you just weird, big shiny bright buildings and Trump tower. A massive tower with his name at the top in huge gold letters.
“We’ve got the greatest buildings folks, all the best casinos. You’re gonna have fun, and you’re gonna make so much money. We’re gonna Make America Great Again. Believe me folks.”
And the house always wins.
That’s the thing with these casinos.
You have to enjoy the process of it, because you’re basically paying money to experience the excitement of possibility of having more money, even if the probable outcome is that you’ll end up with less.
You’re paying for the excitement of losing, it’s exciting because there’s a possibility that you won’t lose, but the fact is you will probably lose.
So the chances are that you’re going to lose
but you might win
and that’s what makes it exciting
to throw your money away.
The house always wins.
Sometimes somebody wins.
But most people are losing.
And the house is always winning.
Fair enough though, people choose to gamble and they probably enjoy it. People seem to enjoy it – that’s their choice, but it doesn’t appeal to me very much, beyond just having a go to see what the fuss is all about.
But there are some good things about Vegas, ok!
It’s not all awful! It’s fun for a night or maybe two, depending on what you do.
It is a big spectacle – some of the hotels look amazing and massive, and also there are some spectacular shows that you can see – like dance shows such as Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group and magic shows like David Copperfield or Penn & Teller.
We chose to go there as a stopover but also to experience it and we did have a laugh!
You have to just go with it a bit and just go ‘ wow, look at that, that’s ridiculous!’
A lot of the time we were walking around, couldn’t believe our eyes, saying “this is insane” “Look at that! It’s a massive Egyptian pyramid!
Our hotel was basically a recreation of the New York skyline. Other hotels have things like an Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian Sphinx, massive fountains and light shows.
It was pretty weird to see the Eiffel Tower considering we see it every day in Paris.
Also, it’s a very convenient place – in the sense that it’s really easy to access the airport, it’s not all that big, things are open 24 hours a day.
People are helpful and friendly.
There was a wholefoods there. In fact there are a few Wholefoods supermarkets there – say no more!
Some of the stuff is good fun.
So, that’s that then isn’t it.
Penn & Teller
Gambling in the Casino
We played some one of the “one armed bandits” – the fruit machines. It’s like one dollar to pull the arm and watch some things spinning around. We put aside about 50 dollars for fun. My wife enjoys the one armed bandits and she’s actually very lucky. I’m a lot more sceptical about it.
But she thinks she’s blessed with luck or something.
(Actually she’s blessed with Luke, but anyway… I’m not sure “blessed” is the right word – “married to” is probably better)
In England, when we had first met each other, we took a trip to Brighton, on the south coast, and we went to the pier (a wooden walkway that stretches out over the sea, wooden legs supporting it – a pier) where there are lots of arcade machines and gambling machines and other attractions, and she was convinced she would win money on the machines and I was going “ but the house always wins” and she was saying “no I’m magic!”.
I was shaking my head thinking “there is no magic, only the force” and she put one pound in a slot machine and promptly won £20, and said “I told you I was magic”. We walked away £20 richer. We didn’t continue gambling. I think she’s smart enough to know that you quit while you’re ahead.
The same thing happened years later, we were in a little resort in the north of France where you find some casinos. She’s not a gambling addict or anything. She just likes playing the machines a few times when we’re on holiday sometimes.
We went to a casino and chose to spend no more than 50E. A 50E limit. Ooh, big bucks, right?
We were walking around trying to find a good machine. There were some slightly sad looking people just sitting there plugged into these persuasive light shows – it’s a sort of low level basic addiction (or high level for some people) – an addiction to the sales pitch, basically.
I was being very sceptical, and making various sceptical noises.
We ended up leaving with 80E, 30E up from when we went in.
We quit while we were ahead.
In Vegas we did some gambling on the machines. I was thinking, “Well, she is magic. Maybe we’ll win enough to get a half decent dinner.”
We lost all the money we took in. All of it.
It was a steady one directional flow of us putting money into the machines and getting nothing in return. Las Vegas just ate our 50 dollars like a crocodile eats a chicken. One gulp, all gone, didn’t even chew. It didn’t even touch the sides as it went down.
We won nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We always seemed to win a few credits just before our money ran out, which I’m sure is a little trick to encourage you to put more money in because you think the machine is going to ‘start paying out’ at some point.
Obviously, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no clue and I’m sure those machines were the wrong ones to be playing, and some of the casinos are better than others, but anyway we weren’t really there for the gambling. We were more interested in playing it safe.
11 Gambling Idioms (that don’t just apply to gambling)
to be on a winning streak (when you’re winning)
to be on a losing streak (when you’re losing and nothing is going your way)
to break even (when you take the same amount of money that you spent – in gambling or in business. No profit, no loss.)
to quit while you’re ahead (stop when you’re winning)
the house always wins
to bet (to gamble) “I bet you £20 that Arsenal win the game” or (a challenge) “I bet you can’t throw this paper ball in the bin from there!” or (an expectation) “I bet all the tickets are sold out”
to show your hand (show the cards in your hand / reveal your position)
a poker face (a facial expression which reveals nothing – used while playing poker, or in any other situation where you keep a straight face)
don’t push your luck (take a big risk and try doing something that could end in failure – it’s a bit like saying “watch what you’re doing” or “be careful”)
to raise the stakes (the stakes = the money which you have to gamble in a round of poker. The expression is used to mean to increase the amount of money you can win or lose in a gambling game, but also to raise the general level of what you can win or lose – e.g. this line from a recent Daily Mail news article “Mr Trump raised the stakes in the escalating crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats, suggesting drastic economic measures against China and criticising ally South Korea.” www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/pa/article-4847836/North-Korea-conducts-nuclear-test-making-hydrogen-bomb-claims.html
the chips are down (chips = the plastic coins you use while gambling. The expression means – when you’re feeling bad, or when the situation is bad) E.g. in cricket – “When the chips are down for England, Moeen is often the side’s most useful player.”
I once saw a great documentary by Louis Theroux about high stakes gamblers in Vegas. Some of them lose thousands of dollars, but they keep gambling because they think they’re going to eventually start winning it all back. I’ve put some videos from the documentary on the page for this episode. I love Louis Theroux’s documentaries. They’re fascinating.
The phrase that I take away from one of the videos: Louis and a high-stakes gambler are standing in the biggest hotel suite in the city, looking out of the window at the huge hotels and Louis says “Vegas – they didn’t build these casinos on winners you know” and the guy says “I think in the lifetime, everyone’s a loser. But the thrill of being able to win today, lose next month, win the year after. I think it’s the challenge. I think it’s the thrill. I think it’s the entertainment in this city.”
Louis Theroux Gambling Documentary – video clips
Louis hangs out with a high-stakes gambler in a very expensive hotel suite in Las Vegas
Here’s the same guy, after losing about $400,000 dollars in 3 days
Louis gambles with a couple of gambling “enthusiasts” (addicts?)
Louis plays the “one armed bandits” with Martha (these are the machines that took our $50 in just a few minutes) Martha says “I lost 4 million dollars in the casino in 7 years.”
Louis gets lucky playing Baccarat
“Because I resigned myself to failure that night, Lady Luck had decided to tantilise me by making me win.”
How gambling can be dangerous
It seems that this is how it goes:
You might begin by winning some money. Then you feel lucky so you bet bigger, but you lose it.
You then start digging yourself in deeper and deeper, expecting your luck to change but there is absolutely no certainty that it will.
Some people talk about ‘the law of averages’ – suggesting that in time any sequence will balance out. E.g. you might spend a certain amount of time losing, but ultimately this will be balanced out by the number of times you win.
But that’s assuming that gambling in a casino is random. Usually it is subtly weighed in favour of the casino so that the pattern is that the casino wins more often than you. Even if you win a lot, the casino can afford it because more people have lost overall.
Often these high stakes gamblers keep betting because they think they’ll eventually start winning. They often don’t and then leave utterly devastated by the loss.
The house always wins.
Then what might happen is that you’ve lost, you’re dejected. You resign yourself to failure but play another game because why not, and then you hit a winning streak.
What a powerful combination of defeat and then victory, all out of your control. You’re at the mercy of this external force, playing around with “luck”. (Not Luke)
And the house always wins.
We drove along the strip. It’s madness out there! Just all the flashing lights and the spectacle, it’s like Picadilly Circus on steroids and the steroids are also on steroids.
Unbelievably massive plate of pancakes for breakfast.
Then we got out of town.
I told you I would talk about nature and canyons, and big rocks! All that stuff I really loved seeing, but I got carried away – distracted by tales of gambling in Vegas.
Las Vegas – a place that seems diametrically opposed to somewhere like Bryce National Park or The Grand Canyon.
I’m glad we only spent an afternoon, one evening and a night there.
Natural beauty is so much more real.
Well, anything is more real than Las Vegas, I suppose.
Thanks for listening.
Join the mailing list.
Thanks to the Orion transcription team and Andromeda proofreading team.
Shout out to the comment section crew.
Shout out to the Long-Term LEPsters, you know who you are.
Shout out to the new listeners, I hope you stick with us.
Shout out to every single one of you all around the world, listening to this right now and united by the fact that you are all citizens of LEPland or Podland or whatever we are calling this community which crosses international boundaries.
Be excellent to each other and party on!
The holiday diary continues and in this chapter we visited Bel Air in L.A. and so here is an analysis of the lyrics to Will Smith’s rap from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, a famous TV show (and a very serious piece of work, haha) from the 90s which was set in Bel Air itself. Topics covered: TV pop culture, racial politics, slang English.
By the way, these are flapjacks, just in case you were wondering. Yum.
Flapjacks (these ones are made with honey, oats and peanut butter) Click the pic for the recipe.
Did you get The Fresh Prince of Bel Air on TV in your country?
I used to watch the TV show a lot when I was younger (in the 90s).
Yes, the Fresh Prince is American English but I consider it also to be global English and you should too. Also, I think everyone should know or at least be able to repeat one or two of the lines from this rap, right?
So let’s listen to it and analyse some of the lyrics.
It’s not even a great rap, that’s the thing! It’s just a laugh! It’s not exactly the Wu Tang Clan or anything… Anyway…
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air – language analysis & cultural commentary
Summary of the story
This rap basically sets up the scenario of the show. Did you work out the details of the story?
Will Smith is an ordinary guy from a rough part of Philadelphia. The area where he lives is too rough and dangerous, so his mum decides he has to move in with his aunt and uncle, who happen to live in Bel Air, in Los Angeles. The aunt and uncle are rich and successful. The uncle (Uncle Phil) is a top lawyer. This is obviously possible, but quite rare.
Is it just a funny TV show, or is it about race relations and racial politics in the USA?
I’m not sure I am fully qualified to talk about racial politics in the USA. The fact is, despite the American dream which says anyone can make it, it appears to be much harder for a black guy to become a millionaire than for a white guy to do it. I’m not saying why that is, I’m just saying it. In fact, I’m reporting it as something I’ve heard Chris Rock say, so fine – not my words, the words of Chris Rock.
“Don’t hate the player, hate the game”.
“You don’t get plaques for getting rid of plaque.” (two meanings of the word ‘plaque’ – listen to hear the explanations)
“The black man gotta fly to get something the white man can walk to.”
“I had to host the Oscars to get that house.”
Listen to the episode to hear my language analysis and some comparisons with British English.
I’ll tell you which bits of vocab are “standard” (i.e. not specific slang – the stuff everyone should know) and “slang” (i.e. the stuff that’s more specific to the informal English you might hear from Will Smith or the social group of the time)
Fresh Prince of Bel Air – Rap, Long version Now, this is a story all about how My life got flipped, turned upside down And I’d like to take a minute So just sit right there I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air
In west Philadelphia born and raised On theplayground was where I spent most of my days Chilling out, maxin‘ relaxin’ all cool And all shootin some b-ball outside of the school When a couple of guys who were up to no good Started making trouble in my neighborhood I got in one little fight and my mom got scared [UK – mum, USA – mom] She said ‘You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel Air’
I begged and pleaded with her day after day But she packed my suit case and sent me on my way She gave me a kiss and then she gave me my ticket. I put my Walkman on and said, ‘I might as wellkick it‘.
First class, yo this is bad Drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass. Is this what the people of Bel-Air living like? Hmmmmm this might be alright.
But wait I hear they’re prissy, bourgeois, all that Is this the type of place that they just send this cool cat? I don’t think so I’ll see when I get there I hope they’re prepared for the prince of Bel-Air
Well, the plane landed and when I came out There was a dude who looked like a cop standing there with my name out I ain’t trying to get arrested yet I just got here I sprang with the quickness like lightning, disappeared
I whistled for a cab and when it came near The license plate said “FRESH” and it had dice in (on) the mirror If anything I could say that this cab was rare But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, holmes to Bel Air’
I pulled up to the house about 7 or 8 And I yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo holmes, smell ya later‘ I looked at my kingdom I was finally there To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel Air
Welcome to episode 293, which is in fact part 6 in this mini series based around my recent trip to California. There’s still a lot to talk about, and in this episode I’ll tell you about our time spent in San Francisco and that’s going to include these things – my interview with AJ Hoge the well-known online English teacher, more British and American English, earthquakes, a short biography of Robin Williams, a history of the peace & love movement in San Francisco, more descriptions of our trip down the west coast of California, and some more tips about how to talk to waiters and customer service staff.
It seems pretty obvious to me that this is too much for one episode, so I think there will probably be a part 7 to this series, and after that we’ll return to normal podcasting and English teaching, with perhaps some more UK oriented topics in future episodes, and more episodes featuring authentic unscripted conversations with my friends Amber and Paul.
Here’s a video of the Periscope live feed I did while recording this episode. Watch the video for about 20 minutes of extra video content, and to watch me recording this episode.
AJ Hoge Interview
I think I should start this episode with my interview with AJ Hoge. This took place in San Francisco in the lobby of the hotel where we were staying.
Who is AJ? ajhoge.com and effortlessenglishclub.com
AJ is an American-born English teacher who started his career as a social worker (what’s a social worker?) before going into English language teaching. He taught English abroad in Thailand, Japan, Korea and other places, and at home in San Francisco before becoming an independent self-employed teacher on the internet. He has created his own online English teaching courses and has written a book about learning English, and he sells all those things on his websites (see links above). He’s also a public speaker who has been booked to do conferences, speeches and presentations about learning English, sometimes to thousands of people at a time. He’s probably the most well-known English teacher on the internet (yes – more well-known than me – he’s good at marketing himself!) and I’m sure that you’ve come across him. I’m very impressed by what he’s achieved as an independent teacher and it was really interesting to meet him and find out about his work. I recorded our conversation and I’m going to play it to you right now.
Unfortunately I had a bit of a technical problem during my meeting with AJ. I was using a new portable audio recorder and for some unknown reason it kept turning itself off during our conversation, which was very frustrating indeed. So unfortunately some parts of our conversation are lost. That explains why the conversation cuts out a couple of times, particularly at the end. Fortunately, the main part of our conversation was recorded, so let’s listen to it now!
Part 1 – You’ll hear an introduction, but then the recorder switched itself off after a couple of minutes, which is why the conversation stops abruptly.
Part 2 – I started again after discovering that the recorder in my hand had in fact switched itself off again. We spoke for another 20 minutes or so and then the recorder switched itself off again! This is why the conversation stops abruptly before I had the chance to say thanks and goodbye to AJ. We plan to stay in touch though, and we might talk again via Skype in a future episode of the podcast.
More British and American English Vocabulary (Part 3) – Clothing
Trousers – Pants Clothing
Nappy – Diaper Babycare
Jumper – Sweater Clothing
Tights – Pantyhose Clothing
Waistcoat – Vest Clothing
Trainers – Sneakers Footwear
Braces – Suspenders Clothing
Dinner Jacket – Tuxedo Clothing
Polo neck (sweater) – Turtleneck Clothing
Wellington Boots (Wellies) – Galoshes Footwear
Let’s go back to the day we left Yosemite, before I met AJ in San Fransisco. Remember that this is after we had our long hike in the mountains and my wife sprained her ankle and had to use crutches to walk down.
In the morning my wife tentatively tries walking a bit on her ankle and thankfully seems ok after all that rest, and because she managed to keep her weight off it during the rest of trek with the help of the crutches. She’ll be able to rest it even more in the car, and take it easy for the whole day as we won’t do much walking.
We drive out of Yosemite. It’s a bit of a pity to be leaving all these huge rock formations like El Capitan and the Half Dome. We’ve got to know them quite well, and it’s always an exciting surprise to see them through the gaps in the trees. They’re like the big celebrities in this park and whenever you see them they dazzle you with their charisma and charm. As we’re driving out of the valley we stop a few times to just stare up at them for a while, particularly El Capitan, which I think is one of the biggest vertical rock faces in the world. Rock climbers enjoy climbing it, but it can take 4-5 days to go up the whole thing. The climbers actually sleep on ledges on the rock face, or they set up beds which hang from hooks in the rock face. Imagine sleeping on a tiny camping bed, hanging from the cliff, with thousands of feet of air below you. I’d never be able to sleep in those conditions! But it must be an incredibly thrilling way to enjoy the place.
We’re going to miss these mountains and rock formations, but it’s time to drive to our next stop – a place we’re looking forward to very much. San Francisco.
As I outlined in the second part of this series when I talked about California’s history, SF was originally a Spanish settlement for missionaries, but then when gold was discovered at almost exactly the same time that California became part of the United States, the city grew really fast to be a gold rush town, with thousands and thousands of people moving into the area, including many Americans, but also Europeans and Asians. That multicultural mix is still evident today.
SF is also known for its earthquakes. There was a big one in 1906 that destroyed large parts of the city, but it rose again, like a phoenix from the ashes. In fact, the flag for San Francisco shows a picture of a rising phoenix to commemorate the city’s recovery. There have been a few big earthquakes here over the years, including another one in 1989. The city is still expecting another really big earthquake to hit at any time, which is a bit of a worrying thought, and one that I suppose the residents of the city don’t think about too much. Does that idea give San Francisco a kind of laid back and open-minded atmosphere? Possibly. I suppose if you know in the back of your mind that everything could be destroyed any minute by a big earthquake, it makes you a bit more philosophical, or it makes you enjoy every moment while it lasts. That feeling does pervade the place a bit. It’s got a peaceful, meditative and bohemian atmosphere which is really refreshing.
San Francisco is also known for being the focal point of the beatnik and hippie movements of the 1960s. Haight Ashbury in particular is the district that was associated with those movements. More on that later.
Long drive to SF.
First views, Bay Bridge.
Obligatory Wholefoods stop.
Our hotel and the area. Polk Street. Home for the next few days.
We’re staying near a place called “Nob Hill”. In fact our area is known as “tender nob”, which I found particularly funny, because ‘tender’ means soft, and a ‘nob’, well, it’s a bit rude – it’s a willy, a penis… So…
Being in SF was like being back to civilisation, and a really great kind of civilisation. A really bohemian and cool atmosphere, with interesting places, loads of originality, lots of good little shops, cafes and bars with long lists of local beers, coffees, wines and ciders. We pretty instantly fall in love with the whole Russian Hill/Polk Street area. We walk up the street looking for places to have dinner and breakfast the next day.
Bookshops, bars, cafes, the boardgames shop (Sherlock Holmes boardgame) and pizza & beer. Settle in nicely.
Next day, explore. Russian Hill, Pacific Heights. Those hilly streets and amazing views!
Have breakfast in a place called “Toast” which seems to me like the most American breakfast place ever, and I order a big American breakfast plate loaded with pancakes and fruit, with butter and maple syrup. It’s absolutely delicious, but later that day I feel like my blood-sugar levels are such a mess that I really shouldn’t eat more food like that and decide to try to be more healthy.
Again, I’m reminded of films which are set here, including Dirty Harry and Bullitt.
Beautiful multicolour houses and quirky doorways. Very expensive neighbourhood.
We come across a tribute to Robin Williams outside a house where they filmed Mrs Doubtfire. It’s exactly one year since he died. We hang around there, thinking about Robin Williams.
Who Was Robin Williams, and What Happened to Him?
Let me give you a brief history of the life and death of this great comedian.
Trained at Juilliard School.
Had a particular gift for improvisational comedy.
Became famous in Mork & Mindy.
Also did stand-up.
Had big problems with alcohol and substance addictions, particularly cocaine.
He managed to quit when his first child was born. Lived as a recovering alcoholic.
Went on to do some very popular movies, in both comic and straight roles.
Won an oscar for his role as a psychiatrist in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s film Good Will Hunting.
Apparently he was a very sweet, very generous and warm guy, but he was affected by bouts of depression.
As a performer I find him incredibly versatile and animated. His comedy seems almost to be compulsive in its nature. He’s a whirlwind when in front of an audience, full of impressions, different voices and many bizarre tangents which are often dialogues between different characters, all played by him at break-neck speed.
In interviews he seemed to occupy two modes – the first was the extrovert comedian, the other was the sweet and sincere actor. He seemed a bit bipolar. I guess part of his talent was that wildly free sense of instant creativity, but it might have been quite difficult for him to deal with on his own.
He fell off the wagon (began drinking again) in 2006 while filming in Alaska. It’s kind of understandable that he turned to alcohol again considering the circumstances – I mean, he was in Alaska. (just kidding)
He went into Rehab but I think the return to alcohol was a symptom of a difficult time in his life.
He later had heart surgery which involved part of his heart being replaced, and apparently this affected him quite badly as his physical and mental condition seemed to get worse and apparently from that time forwards he suffered from depression, anxiety and paranoia. He was wrongly diagnosed with Parkinson’s too, and given medication and treatment that didn’t help the real condition that he was experiencing, which is called Lewy Body Dementia, a degenerative condition in which nerves cells in the brain are blocked by protein clumps (bodies) that interfere with function. Apparently the Parkinson’s medication made the Lewy Body Dementia worse and may have exacerbated his low state of mind, pushing him to suicide.
He killed himself almost exactly a year ago to the day that we found ourselves at the shrine to his memory on this San Francisco street.
I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad about this because I really enjoyed Robin William’s comedy, but also it’s just such a pity that he had to go through such misery, and that anyone has to go through any kind of misery caused by physical and mental conditions. I hope with more research and the right kinds of treatment, this sort of thing can be prevented in the future.
Anyway, I just wanted to mention Robin Williams there, as a sort of tribute.
End of Part 6 (Oh my goodness, will I ever finish this series!?) Part 7 coming soon…
Hi everyone, here’s part 4 in this road trip mini-series. How are you? Are you keeping up with all these new episodes? I suppose if you’re listening to this it means you are keeping up, but don’t feel rushed. Take your time, listen to them at your leisure, in your own time and at your own speed. I hope you’re finding this series interesting. In this one I’m planning to cover these things: Hollywood Boulevard and celebrity culture, an analysis of the mysterious lyrics to Hotel California by The Eagles, a visit to the extremely wealthy area of Beverley Hills, some more differences between American and British English vocabulary, the church of Scientology and then Yosemite National Park.
Let’s see how much of that I can actually get through in this episode. I expect there will be one or two more in this series before we get back to normal podcasting as usual.
L.A. Continued… Hollywood Boulevard
I can’t remember which day this was as I’m losing track of time, but it doesn’t matter. At some point we took a walk along Hollywood Bld – that’s the one with all the stars on the ground and the names of celebrities. If you make it as a celeb, they put a star on the pavement here and you know you’ve made it because hundreds of tourists walk all over you and spill coke and ketchup on you every day. That’s the American Dream isn’t it.
Walking along Hollywood Blvd, and looking at the stars there, I wondered – how do you actually get your name on a star here? (Not that I want to of course) I just wondered – who decides which names are added and how does it happen? Since then I’ve done a bit of research (I read a TIME article based on an interview with a member of the selection committee – you can read it here: newsfeed.time.com/2013/07/16/how-to-get-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame/), and so…
How to get your star on Hollywood Boulevard
Essentially anyone can apply, as long as they have $30,000 dollars to spare, but the application will not be accepted unless it meets these criteria:
1. Do some iconic work in entertainment.
This means that you have to have produced something genuinely notable and celebrated in the entertainment world, like made a popular film, done some great acting on TV or in movies or made some music that’s popular enough to have made you famous. The emphasis is on accomplishing some expertise in the entertainment field, which means that reality TV stars are excluded, because it’s not counted as proper work. So that means no Kardashians. But they do accept animals. In fact several animals have their names embedded into the ground there, including Lassie and even fictional animal characters like Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Weird. You also need to have been working for at least 5 years. The main point is that this is a tourist attraction for the entertainment industry, so your name needs to be famous enough to attract tourists to come and see it. Apparently it’s working because the street is jam-packed with tourists and it’s almost impossible to actually walk along the street in some places.
2. Promise that you really want a star.
All applications require a signed statement from the applicant saying that they really want one, and that they will come to an unveiling ceremony if the application is a success. Basically, the star selection committee that is in charge of the process wants to make sure the celebrities are fully prepared to come and promote the addition of their star on the pavement. Again, this is to make sure it gets the proper media coverage, and those tourists keep coming with their dollar bills, their mobile phones and their instagram accounts.
3. Pay $30,000.
That’s how much it costs to enter the application process. Usually it’s not a problem for celebrities to pay this because other people pay on their behalf, for example management companies or other sponsors who have an interest in the person become more and more famous. Half of the fee goes to the Hollywood Historic Trust which maintains the whole street. The rest is used to pay for the paving stone with he star embedded in it, and also the security and photographers at the unveiling ceremony. It seems that people’s desire to be recognised as a famous person is what fuels the economy around here.
4. Impress the selection committee.
It’s a bit like a job interview process I suppose. In your application you need to impress the committee and show them what you’ve achieved in your career, proving that you really are a big star.
5. Choose your spot on the Boulevard.
It is possible to choose where your star is placed. The bigger you are as a celebrity, the more control you have over this. Do you want to be placed in front of McDonald’s or in front of the famous Chinese Theatre Cinema where all the premiers happen? Your power to negotiate this depends on your status in Hollywood. Apparently Clint Eastwood, a high ranking member of the Hollywood establishment, was accepted by the committee years ago but never completed his application, but nevertheless they have kept a space free for his star in a prime location – in front of that famous cinema. That’s how much of a star he really is in Hollywood – they’ve kept the best space free for him. Muhammad Ali didn’t want people walking on his name, so the committee agreed to put his star on the wall – the wall of what? You might ask. Ali’s name is on the wall of the Hollywood and Highland Shopping Centre. I wonder if you can buy a George Foreman grill in that shopping centre.
So that’s how you do it, if you’re interested.
What’s it really like there on Hollywood Boulevard?
Essentially, it’s like a bigger version of Oxford Street. It’s full of cheap attractions and huge crowds of tourists, and it’s a bit tacky. You can’t get much decent food there except burgers and pizza. I don’t recommend it really.
As we walk along the street, squeezing between people, we see names of people. Most of them are dead. There are loads that I’ve never ever heard of.
I’m struck by the thought that fame is fleeting. I mean that it doesn’t last. What’s the attraction of fame? To be so well-known that your name is embedded into the ground or onto a monument so people never forget you. Maybe people are attracted by this because they feel like it’s a way to live forever. But true long lasting fame is only gained by a tiny minority and even then it isn’t immortality it’s just a version of yourself that lives on in popular culture. A ghost.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: L.A. is a mysterious place.
I’ve tried to describe this already in this series. It’s just a general feeling that’s hard to put into words.
There’s a lot of light and dark here. Movie stars shine bright, and there’s so much glamour, but there’s also poverty, homelessness and broken dreams. So many young people have come to L.A. and then ended up corrupted by the place, or hurt by their own idealism and naivety. Some of them died young in tragic circumstances. Think of the girl Peg Entwhistle who jumped off the Hollywood sign in 1932, or young movie stars who died or hurt themselves as the result of a dangerous intake of drugs. River Phoenix for example. He was a fresh faced young movie star and musician, who died from an overdose on the doorstep of the Viper Club, which at the time was owned by Johnny Depp. Why so much oblivion?
Also, so much of the writing, films and music – the really good stuff at least, seems to be essentially about some sense of a loss of innocence, the end of the American dream, the darkness under the surface of American values or dealing with vice – particularly in the form of alcohol and drugs, and the dark side of these things. As if California represents the highest attainment of the American Dream, and is also the place that can turn into a grim and empty wilderness of the soul. Think of the detective stories of Chandler, the songs of The Eagles (not as sunny and nice as you expect) and other bands, the writing of Ginsburg, Bukowski, Burroughs, Kerouac, the comics of R Crumb and so on.
I realise that I’m talking about slightly dark themes here, in what you might have expected to be just a description of a romantic honeymoon. Well, we did have some really nice romantic moments together of course, and there was plenty of sunshine and good times, but as well as that we had a really great time getting to know the place and soaking up the atmosphere of the places we visited and one of my aims in these episodes is to get under the skin of California a bit.
Let’s consider some songs that deal with the things I’ve been talking about.
There are loads of interpretations of the meaning of this song, including some pretty far out suggestions that it’s about satanism, drug addiction. I think the latter is far more likely than the former but let’s see.
Here is a summary of the song’s meaning – both the narrative of the lyrics and the themes the song explores. In fact, this song seems to sum up pretty well what I’ve been trying to say about LA and the excesses and dark side of the American Dream.
In this part of the podcast I’m going to read from a page on Shmoop.com. Here’s a citation and a link:
Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008, November 11). Hotel California Meaning. Retrieved August 25, 2015 from www.shmoop.com/hotel-california-eagles/meaning.html
So, if you want to follow what I’m saying just click the link above.
LA Confidential, The Big Lebowski, Beverly Hills Cop, Pulp Fiction. Any film noir like Chinatown or The Big Sleep.
Beverley Hills – this is a really rich town, which is undeniably beautiful and well kept with palm tree lined streets, lovely properties and very smart shopfronts and boutique stores but some parts of it are filled with unbelievably fake looking people with loads of plastic surgery. There are Kim Kardashian clones everywhere with butt implants that mean they can’t walk properly. The streets are full young guys in rented sportscars which self-consciously zoom between sets traffic lights. It’s quite ridiculous and fairly ugly really.
And yes, I did just mention Kim Kardashian.
I always thought I would never mention that family on this podcast because I don’t really like what they do. I mean, I think it’s a bit empty and I don’t know why they’re so popular but if I’m going to talk about celebrity culture in L.A. then how can I do it without mentioning the Kardashians (reluctantly).
Who’s Kim Kardashian?
She’s the daughter of a rich West Coast socialite, and a powerful lawyer. She’s famous for being famous. She’s like Paris Hilton basically. That’s how she first became known in the media, as a friend of Paris Hilton. What a claim to fame! “So what do you do Kim?” “I hang around with someone who doesn’t do anything”. Wow, that’s like being famous for doing even less than nothing! So she’s famous for being friends with someone who’s famous because she’s famous. That’s actually quite impressive. Well done! Maybe that’s the appeal. She makes it look easy. Then in 2003 I think she decided that in order to get even more famous that she would have to actually do something, so she released a sex tape. That’s basically a home made porno. Classy. In my opinion, that may be the quickest and least respectable way to make a name for yourself in Hollywood, but fair play to her – it worked. She then continued to sell off her private life in a reality show called Keeping Up With The Kardashians in which the viewer is invited to follow her and her sisters through their pampered and vacuous every day life.
An example of what happens in a show?
I just had a look on Wikipedia for some show summaries. Here’s what I found from a random entry in series 3 of the show. “Episode 22. Khloé faces pressure about her weight when she decides to do PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign. Kris and Kourtney confront Kim about her shopping addiction. Kim gets laser eye surgery after struggling to see herself in a mirror at a dance rehearsal. (I imagine that was a huge crisis – not being able to see herself) Bruce is anxious to talk to Kendall and Kylie about his colonoscopy.”
What’s a colonoscopy? That’s when a doctor inspects your colon by sticking a big camera up your bum. Ok, so you’ve got the general idea.
My problem with the Kardashians is that I don’t get it. I don’t get the appeal. I must be wrong because Kim is one of the most followed people on Twitter and it seems that everyone seems to love her. So, I must be wrong – so if you’re a Kardashian fan, let me know why. I’d love to know the appeal.
Is her reality show popular because we just like to look at the lives of the rich and famous? Is Kim Kardashian a role model? Apparently, for some people she is a woman who has taken careful control of her image and is now rich and successful as a result, like Beyonce or something. But, it helps when you start out rich in the first place, doesn’t it? And at least Beyonce can sing and dance. What can Kim Kardashian do? Well, she can take good selfies. She can use Instagram well. She can market herself well. I suppose that’s it isn’t it.
She married Kanye West, the rapper, which I imagine only happened because Kanye West is not allowed to marry himself. Yes, he loves himself, or that’s what people say anyway. Maybe Kim Kardashian fell in love with him just because she was so impressed by the size of his ego. Surely nobody’s ego is as big as mine, she thought – but then she met Kanye and couldn’t resist his charm, and by that I mean his media status. Good luck to them, I suppose. Maybe I’m being cynical and they just really love each other. Well, if that’s the case – good luck to them! I hope they stay together and prove me wrong, and everyone lives happily ever after.
What do you think? I’d love to know.
More American English & British English
These words are all related to food in some way.
UK word – USA word
Chips – Fries
Crisps – Chips
Biscuit – Cookie
Jelly – Jell-o
Jam – Jelly
Sweets – Candy
Treacle – Molasses
Candy Floss – Cotton Candy
Aubergine – Eggplant
Courgette – Zucchini
Hello, welcome back to the podcast. This is part 3 in what could turn out to be quite a long series about my recent trip around California. Normally I tend to focus on British things in this podcast but every now and then I go travelling somewhere and report back on what happened. This time I went to California on my honeymoon. The itinerary for the trip was to fly to LA, then drive to Yosemite National Park, then across to San Francisco, then down the coast back to LA and then home again. In this series I’m telling you about the trip, but also I’m branching out in order to ramble on about the history and culture of California and some of the differences between British and American English, as well as some other subjects.
At this point in the series I’m still just a few days into the holiday, and there’s plenty more stuff to cover. In this episode I’m hoping to talk about Venice Beach, Baywatch, Segways, the grammar of telling stories and anecdotes in English, some facts about the Hollywood sign, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, British and American English vocabulary related to driving, the dark side of Hollywood and celebrity culture, and an analysis of the lyrics to the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles. That’s a lot of subjects to cover, so I’d better get started right away!
Saturday 8 August
Drove to Venice Beach which is just along from the world famous Baywatch Beach (Santa Monica beach).
Long Boardwalk with lots of shops, cafes and bars.
People performing and busking.
Bikes and segways.
The Segway – the most stupid invention of all time?
What we need is some way of propelling us forwards at just a few miles per hour (you mean like walking speed?), but with the ability to go slightly faster (what, like running speed?) facing forwards so we can see where we’re going, with our hands free so we can hold coffee or mobile phones. How on earth can we do it? (How about our legs sir? We could just walk, jog or run.) Don’t be ridiculous!
And the Segway was born – bringing human laziness to new levels. And you thought escalators and moving walkways were bad enough, now the Segway. It’s very hard to look cool or even dignified on one of these things. I imagine there are some people who cruise around on a Segway all day and then go to the gym to run on a treadmill in order to stay fit. Something doesn’t make sense here. OK, so it doesn’t produce harmful emissions, but neither do your legs. Sure, a person can fart – that’s an emission, but you can still fart on a Segway so it’s the same. Maybe it’s for people with mobility issues, but it seems that in order to use a segway you need the full use of your legs in order to stand on it the whole time, and balance properly. Well, I’m sure it must be useful for something – like maybe doing specific jobs, but it seems a bit silly to use one when you can just use your legs to do exactly the same job. It seems like reinventing the wheel to me. (This is a phrase which means doing something unnecessary – like working hard to do something which is already done by something else)
“Introducing a new innovation in green personal transport – legs!”
Went to the beach or sunbathing. Really huge beach covered in pristine bleached sand.
Swam in the sea. Big waves.
There are lifeguards, exactly like in Baywatch but somehow I expected (or hoped) that it would be more like Baywatch there.
Baywatch: A show which I think was ‘single handedly’ responsible for bringing a whole generation of boys into puberty – no pun intended.
But it was pretty normal, compared to the TV show. I mean, the people looked pretty normal. It wasn’t just hundreds of David Hasselhoffs and Pamela Andersons everywhere, except for me and my wife of course.
Shopping in the huge outlet mall. The place looked like Bowser’s castle from Super Mario Bros. Totally fake modern place that was vaguely like a castle and a huge castle courtyard.
Bargains on jeans. 4 items for the price of one pair of jeans back home.
Seemed incredibly luxurious. Big marble toilets with acres of space.
Yamashiro restaurant in the evening for a romantic candlelit dinner with a stunning view of the city. The restaurant was amazing, with Japanese gardens in the middle and lots of sliding doors – like the scenes from Kill Bill.
Amazing views of the city.
STOP! Grammar Time – A Note on the Tenses Used in this Episode
Usually when you’re describing what happened in the past you use past tenses (past simple, past continuous, past perfect) and so on. So far I’ve been using past tenses in this series of episodes when talking about what we did, but as I’m now reading from the notes I made during the trip, I’ve noticed that I wrote it all in present tenses and it feels tempting to slip into the present tense while reading it. Why? This sometimes happens when we tell stories that we want to make engaging, captivating and in-the-moment. Past tenses accurately report past events, but past tenses can be quite remote. They place the action in a finished time period. When people tell long stories, they sometimes slip into present tenses in order to avoid this remoteness, and make the action and events seem more real and captivating.
Also, using present tenses to tell stories and anecdotes is more common in spoken English. In written English it can be frowned upon (some people don’t like it) but the main thing when writing is that you stick to one perspective (either past tenses or present tenses, throughout). For example, a person at a dinner party might begin telling a story about their holiday using past tenses but then might subconsciously switch to present tenses to make the events more immediate, and that’s considered ok. But if a novelist writes a story and some of it is in past tenses, and other bits are in present tenses, it’s usually considered to be sloppy writing unless it is obviously a stylistic choice. What I’m saying is: you might notice some moments where my tenses move from past tenses to present tenses and this is more acceptable in spoken English than in written English. As my podcast is presented to you as primarily a form of natural spoken English, that should account for this.
Past tense version: So we were sitting in the Japanese restaurant and eating sushi, having a lovely romantic evening, when suddenly loads of ninjas dropped down from the ceiling but I wasn’t worried because I’d spent 3 months in the mountains learning the ways of Chinese kung-fu and so I dealt with them all, and went back to the sushi.
Present tense version: So there we are eating our sushi, having a lovely romantic evening when suddenly loads of ninjas drop down from the ceiling but I’m not worried because I’ve spent 3 months in the mountains learning the ways of Chinese kung-fu, so I deal with them all and then go back to the sushi. (The present tense version is more immediate, and more common in spoken English, although it might sound a bit colloquial).
Slipping into present tenses when telling a story is usually a subconscious thing, rather than a planned thing. I think people just end up using present tenses when they’re recounting events as they actually happened. So, let’s see if it happens to me while I continue to tell you this story.
Another point: This habit of slipping into present tenses that I’m talking about… This doesn’t mean that you don’t need to use past tenses. It’s not a loophole which you can use to avoid making sentences with complex past tenses. This is not a way for you to completely avoid having to deal with irregular verbs and past participles and auxiliary verb conjugations and things. No. If you get a grammar test at school about narrative tenses and you use present tenses, you can’t justify it by saying “But sir I was just using present tenses to make the story more immediate!” Sorry, it doesn’t work like that. You still need to master past tenses before you can abandon them in certain cases. You need to know the rules before you can break them. You need to have full control of the language in order to make these subconscious shifts in tone. So, keep studying those past tenses, practising and being mindful of how you’re using them. If you want to listen to a podcast episode about using past tenses (simple, continuous & perfect) to tell stories, check out episode 29 which is called “Mystery Story / Narrative Tenses”. It’s one of the most commonly listened-to episodes of my podcast. It’s got a short story featuring The Doctor from Dr Who, and a full explanation of how to use narrative tenses properly, pronunciation drills and everything. Click here to check it out: www.teacherluke.co.uk/2009/11/12/mystery-story-narrative-tenses/
So, you can study the tenses directly. Alternatively, don’t worry about it too much and just let the words wash over you and focus on the general meaning of what I’m saying to you, and imagine yourself there and just focus on the meaningful content – the more natural and contextualised English you hear the better it is for your acquisition of grammar at an almost subconscious level, creating that sense of instinct for what is correct or incorrect usage.
Anyway, on with the story…
Sunday 9 August
Breakfast and then took a drive up into the hills for a trek. (Am I using present or past tenses? I’ve become self-conscious now, so I’ll probably stick to past tenses, but I’m sure that if I get carried away with the story I’ll end up using present tenses… we’ll see)
The whole time in LA I felt very bizarre deja vu. This was of course because of the films and movies I’d seen, but more specifically because of Grand Theft Auto 5, which is very accurately modelled on LA, down to lots of small details. I felt exactly like I was in GTA5 a lot of the time. It’s an amazing game.
Stopped off at a pharmacy on the way. Vast.
I think you get the idea – everything in the US is big. Big cars, big buildings, big beds, big meals, big people. Although we didn’t see many of these huge, fat Americans that we all hear about. I think that’s because in California people are generally a lot healthier. Still, people in general are larger than in the UK.
Park the car and begin a trek into the hills around the back of the Hollywood sign.
Very dry. In fact the whole state is on high alert for forest fires. There are fires burning in various parts of the state all the time. California has been experiencing a severe drought for years. In LA they redirect water from hundreds of miles away in the Colorado River Basin. The water then gets used by rich people in Beverley Hills to spray in their gardens to keep their lawns green. Again, pretty crazy right? Welcome to Los Angeles.
L.A. is a city with a little mountain range running through the middle of it (Ok they’re hills not mountains) and if you like hiking a bit then it’s worth going up these hills.
We do get amazing views of the city sprawling away on both sides.
Arranged in lines.
Mild hike behind the sign and then down the right hand side.
Views of the sign.
Here are a few quick facts about the Hollywood sign:
– The sign is about 45 feet high and was originally built in 1923 when it was originally put up as an advertisement for a huge real estate company selling top quality real estate in Hollywood. The company was called Hollywoodland. In fact the sign used to say Hollwyoodland, but the ‘land’ part was removed and the sign became an icon of the region of Hollywood, and everything that represents – glamour, movies, fame etc.
– In 1932 a young actress called Peg Entwhistle committed suicide by climbing up the sign and jumping from the letter ‘H’, falling to her death. Apparently she was depressed because she couldn’t make it as an actress in Hollywood. Ironically, her death made her quite famous.
– The sign used to be covered in lightbulbs, which must have looked pretty cool when it was turned on, but the bulbs didn’t last long as they were too expensive.
– The sign was repaired lots of times and almost completely rebuilt in the 40s, but in 1978 it was in such bad condition after the O fell off and tumbled down the hill and also some arsonists set fire to one of the letter Ls. The city decided to repair it and it cost over $250,000 to do that. Who came up with most of the money? Hollywood’s celebrity class. In fact PLayboy owner Hugh Hefner organised a big party at the Playboy Mansion in order to provide the money. Rock star Alice Cooper also provided money to help repair the letter O.
– It was replaced in 1978 and while the work was being done there was no sign there for 3 months.
– The sign is owned and protected by the city of L.A. and there’s quite an advanced security system which monitors the sign 24 hours a day.
In fact you can’t actually get that close to it. There’s a big fence surrounding it, and a big telegraph aerial. You can get around the back, like we did, but you can only really see the letters “HO”. But when you hike around to the front you can see it pretty well, and it looks cool. Again, it’s amazing to actually see something that you’ve seen so many times on television. But it’s not just the power of TV. It is a great location, with some attractive landscape and a really good view of the city below.
We ended up quite far from the car and got lost in the winding streets under the sign. Lots of properties nestled in to the hills. Attractive places and no doubt expensive but not as expensive as other places like Bel Air etx.
No phone reception so kept walking.
Then uber back to the car.
Life in LA is life in a car.
You never drive above about 60mph. I wonder why there are so many powerful sportscars. You never drive over about 50-60 mph. Sums up the place a lot. It’s more about show and image than about practical living – for some people. In fact there are plenty of ordinary people living in LA, who drive ordinary cars, and who do all the ordinary business of life. There also happen to be plenty of rich movie industry people here too, rock stars, and their children. In fact, one of those rock stars is Anthony Keidis from The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He used to live in the Hollywood Hills, and he sang about them too. In fact, I’d now like to recommend another audiobook download for you. So, here’s some more promotion for Audible – that company that provides loads of audiobooks, and they’re giving you the chance to sample their service for 30 days and that includes a free download of any book you like. Here’s another California related book you could get…
Audiobook Download Suggestions
“Scar Tissue” by Anthony Keidis
This is the autobiography of the lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Chili Peppers have an amazing story. They’re from L.A. originally, they’ve been going for about 3 decades, they’ve been through numerous guitarists, ups, downs, deaths and near deaths, epic highs and devastating lows, and yet they’re still going. Anthony himself was a heroin and cocaine addict during much of his career and in this book he tells his own very personal story of growing up in Los Angeles and his experiences of living with his Dad who was basically a drug dealer to the rich and famous. He talks about struggling for years with his experimental band the Chili Peppers – doing intense live performances, sometimes naked on stage, developing their funk-rock sound which ultimately catapulted them onto the world’s stage. You can hear exactly what was like and listen to descriptions of all the complicated things that went along with that stardom. It’s a powerful story, full of sex, drugs and rock and roll but also a genuinely moving and candid account of Anthony’s success, strengths, weaknesses, friendship, personal hardship, the music business, his addiction and his eventual recovery from addiction. The book is an international bestseller and you can download the audiobook version from Audible. Get it free by going to www.audibletrial.com/teacherluke, or click one of the Audible buttons on my website.
American & British English (Part 1) Vocabulary Related to Cars & Driving
*A note on British and American English*
As you are well aware, there are, broadly speaking, two types of English – American English, and good English, I mean British English. (Just joking – I’m not one of those Brits who has a problem with American English) There are other types of English too of course, like English in Australia, South Africa, Ireland, India and so on.
Can Brits and Americans understand each other? Yes, they can – except for some slight misunderstandings sometimes, there’s no problem in understanding each other.
Really the differences are in the accents, vocabulary, spelling, some grammar and the culture or communication style.
There are definitely some differences in vocabulary. Sometimes these cause misunderstandings. E.g. I said “Are you in the queue? ” and the woman just looked at me. Then I worked out the problem and sad “Are you in line?” and bob’s your uncle. The vast majority of the words we use are the same, but there are differences that are worth knowing. These differences may be more obvious when talking about different systems (e.g. our political and legal systems are a bit different so we’ve developed different terms to talk about them) but in general English there is a relatively small group of key words that are different and it’s worth knowing them all. I’m going to go through a lot of those words with you in this series of episodes.
In terms of culture, although we speak the same language, we don’t necessarily think in the same way and this can cause some problems in communication. For example, Brits tend to be more indirect in their use of language as a way of being polite, diplomatic, tactful etc. It can seem to be a more complicated message, but we see it as being more respectful and considerate. We don’t want to seem bossy or aggressive, but the Americans might take it as weak, unclear and even unsincere (not just the Americans) E.g. “I was wondering if you could…” or “I think there might be an issue…” instead of “Could you…?” or “There’s a problem”. I’m not saying all Americans are direct all the time, but in my experience I think there is truth in what I’m saying. If you want more evidence, read this article written by a Brit who’s done a lot of business communication in America www.forbes.com/sites/sungardas/2014/08/14/lost-in-translation-overcoming-the-language-barrier-as-a-brit-in-america/ So, there is a bit of a difference in communication style and culture, despite the fact that we speak the same language. The old saying goes “Britain and America are two nations separated by a common language” (which I think was said originally by George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright and one of the founders of the LSE – not the London School of English, but the London School of Economics).
Accent or dialect can cause problems, particularly stronger regional accents. To be honest I think this is more of a problem for Americans understanding Brits (and other forms of English like Australians, South Africans, Irish etc) I think the average Brit would probably understand most American dialects and accents, but the average American might have trouble with some local British dialects. For example, in the USA they often require subtitles on TV when someone with a strong non-American accent is speaking (e.g. a local Brit from Liverpool, Glasgow or Newcastle). I’ve seen interviews on US television with actor Colin Farrell that had subtitles to help the Americans to understand what he was saying. He’s Irish and has a fairly strong accent, but it’s not extraordinarily difficult to understand in my opinion but apparently it was necessary to provide subtitles for the American viewers, even though he was speaking English. However, I doubt that a UK audience would need subtitles for an American, even if they have a strong accent from pretty much anywhere in the country. I think this is because in the UK we are exposed to lots of American English from TV and films – even the really colloquial stuff, but British English is comparatively less known in the USA due to lack of exposure.
The Brits and Americans do spell some words differently as I’m sure you’re aware (famous differences are things like colour/color and theatre/theater) and there are some differences in grammatical usage, but that’s less obvious and as a result less problematic.
Anyway, the point is – there are differences between British and American English but the vast majority of the time we can understand each other without any problems at all. If you’re wondering what kind of English you should learn (which you’re probably not wondering to be honest, because if you’re listening to this then you’ve probably decided that you like British English, and you’re right of course – you are wise wise people indeed) But seriously, you can choose to learn British or American English, or a bit of both. In fact, I personally think it’s ok to mix it up a bit as long as people understand what you’re saying.
For your learning of English, I’d say the main things are that you’re able to identify the difference between a British and American accent, and that you know the main differences in vocabulary. For more information about the differences between UK and USA pronunciation, listen to a previous episode I did on this subject – Episode 14 “British and American Pronunciation” teacherluke.co.uk/2009/10/19/episode-10-british-and-american-pronunciation/.
The subject of British and American English is really interesting and very relevant so I’d love to come back to it in the future but for now, here are some different British and American words. I’ve chosen ones that are related to driving.
Let’s see how many you know. I’ll define the word first – try to guess it. Did you come up with the British or American version, or both? Let’s see…
British Word – American Word
Petrol – Gas (gasoline)
Petrol/fuel tank – gas tank
Caravan – Trailer
Lorry – Truck
Junction – Intersection
Tyre – Tire
High street – Main street
Windscreen – Windshield
Motorway – Freeway/Highway
Number plate – License plate
Bonnet – Hood
Pavement – Sidewalk
Boot – Trunk
Right-click here to download this episode.
Listen to Steve Jobs’ famous speech to graduates of Stanford University, read the transcript, notice some useful features of English, and learn some important lessons about life.
Tributes to Steve Jobs from Reuters News Feed
(Reuters) – President Barack Obama was among the many people who paid tribute to Steve Jobs, calling the Apple co-founder a visionary and great American innovator.
“Steve was among the greatest of American innovators — brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it,” Obama said of Jobs, who died on Wednesday.
“The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.”
The president was joined by political, technology, entertainment and business leaders around the world in paying tribute to Jobs. A selection:
BILL GATES, MICROSOFT CO-FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN
“Steve and I first met nearly 30 years ago, and have been colleagues, competitors and friends over the course of more than half our lives. The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come. For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it’s been an insanely great honor.”
STEPHEN ELOP, NOKIA CEO
“The world lost a true visionary today. Steve’s passion for simplicity and elegance leaves us all a legacy that will endure for generations. Today, my thoughts, and those of everyone at Nokia, are with the friends and family that he leaves behind.”
FRENCH PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY ON FACEBOOK
“His capacity to revolutionize entire sectors of the economy by the power of imagination and technology is a source of inspiration for millions of engineers and entrepreneurs across the world. His efforts to render new technologies more attractive and simple to use have made a success of businesses that have changed the world of computing, the distribution of cultural content, telecommunications and even animated cinema.”
RUPERT MURDOCH, CEO OF NEWS CORP
“Today, we lost one of the most influential thinkers, creators and entrepreneurs of all time. Steve Jobs was simply the greatest CEO of his generation.”
Steve Jobs’ Stanford University Speech
This is a prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, on June 12, 2005.
I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one of the finest universities in the world. I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation. Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No big deal. Just three stories.
The first story is about connecting the dots.
I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife, except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: “We’ve got an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?” They said: “Of course.” My biological mother later found out later that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would go to college. This was the start, in my life.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.
It wasn’t all romantic. I didn’t have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends’ rooms, I returned coke bottles for the 5¢ deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the 7 miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on. Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path, and that will make all the difference.
My second story is about love and loss.
I was lucky — I found what I loved to do early in life. Woz and I started Apple in my parents’ garage when I was 20. We worked hard, and in 10 years Apple had grown from just the two of us in a garage into a $2 billion company with over 4000 employees. We had just released our finest creation — the Macintosh — a year earlier, and I had just turned 30. And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started? Well, as Apple grew we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well. But then our visions of the future began to diverge and eventually we had a falling out. When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him. So at 30 I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.
I really didn’t know what to do for a few months. I felt that I had let the previous generation of entrepreneurs down – that I had dropped the baton as it was being passed to me. I met with David Packard and Bob Noyce and tried to apologize for screwing up so badly. I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.
During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who would become my wife. Pixar went on to create the worlds first computer animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance. And Laurene and I have a wonderful family together.
I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life’s going to hit you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking. Don’t settle.
My third story is about death.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I had a scan at 7:30 in the morning, and it clearly showed a tumor on my pancreas. I didn’t even know what a pancreas was. The doctors told me this was almost certainly a type of cancer that is incurable, and that I should expect to live no longer than three to six months. My doctor advised me to go home and get my affairs in order, which is doctor’s code for prepare to die. It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes.
I lived with that diagnosis all day. Later that evening I had a biopsy, where they stuck an endoscope down my throat, through my stomach and into my intestines, put a needle into my pancreas and got a few cells from the tumor. I was sedated, but my wife, who was there, told me that when they viewed the cells under a microscope the doctors started crying because it turned out to be a very rare form of pancreatic cancer that is curable with surgery. I had the surgery and thankfully I’m fine now.
This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960’s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.
Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.