Helpful Responsesto Important Questions

(almost a blog) 



Q:  What is meant by the phrase "We should bomb them back into the Stone Age"? 

--G.W.B., Washington, DC 

A:  "Stone Age" is an archaeological term used primarily in the Old World to designate the era beginning with the appearance of tool-making hominids. During this long period, which began some 2 million years ago, various types of stone (e.g., flint, chert, quartzite, obsidian) constituted the primary--or at least best-surviving--raw material for tools. The Stone Age ends by convention with the emergence and diffusion of metallurgy (the working of copper and, not long thereafter, bronze), ca. 4000 BC in the Near East. 

     The phrase "We should bomb them back into the Stone Age" dates to the Vietnam War era. It has been attributed to U.S. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay (1906-1990), who was, without a doubt, the scariest Cold Warrior in American history. We might note in passing that the Vietnam War inspired a number of other colorful but dark phrases, including the Vietnam-era "We had to destroy the village in order to save it [from Communism]." 

     But Dr. Petruso digresses. It is technically impossible to bomb an enemy back into the Stone Age. Doing so presupposes mastery of time travel, which technology (if we had it) probably would not involve the use of explosives. It is theoretically possible, however, to bomb an enemy into a Stone Age mode of subsistence (i.e., hunting and gathering/early agricultural), if enough of the enemy's modern infrastructure is "degraded," or "compromised," to use a few popular military euphemisms. 

     Some readers may well be wondering whether Afghanistan can be bombed back into the Stone Age. Perhaps. But Dr. Petruso is reminded of Gore Vidal's observation at the end of Fellini's Roma, when he noted that--with reference to the concept of Italian efficiency--it wasn't impossible for Mussolini to get the trains to run on time. It was pointless.

Q:  What is the best cut on Steely Dan's recent Grammy-winning CD, Two Against Nature? 

--D.F., Los Angeles, CA 

A:   "West of Hollywood," without question. Chris Potter's tenor sax solo channels Bird.

Q:  What neologisms, solecisms and fad phrases do you find particularly odious? 

--K.B.J., Fort Worth, TX 

A:  Dr. Petruso is glad you asked. Here are a few. Additions will be posted when they reach DEFCON 4 on the grating scale."on the ground," as in "My people on the ground tell me that … " This is military jargon, suggesting that the speaker is a can-do, mission-oriented, strategy-and-tactics kind of guy. Unless you happen to be Gen. Tommy Franks or some other highly-placed ops or logistics officer, please spare us this image.

"at the end of the day," a particularly silly CEO-speak metaphor used in lieu of the perfectly adequate "when all is said and done" or "in the final analysis."

"is is," as in "The problem is, is that … " Why speakers should feel obliged to reduplicate this verb mystifies Dr. Petruso. The only persons who should be permitted to get away with daisy-chaining these two words are womanizing former U.S. presidents.

"weaponize" and "weaponeer" -- a pair of truly loathsome verbs given wide currency by the current geopolitical crisis. They have been used by DoD types and journalists to refer to what can be done to anthrax and airplanes, respectively, to render them lethal.

"securitize," a word actually spoken by President W in a sentence which also contained as a bonus the word "nookyular" (weapons, that is) during his visit to Berlin in May 2002, as he attempted to rally support for the US-led war on terrorism. Dr. Petruso is not making this up.

"No problem," when the speaker means to say, "You're welcome."

"Absolutely," when the speaker means to say, simply, "Yes." There is no need to stroke the listener, at least in most cases.

"Not really," when the speaker means to say, simply, "No." Don't pussyfoot around: if the answer is no, say no.

"issue," when the speaker means to say "problem."

"out of pocket," which many use to convey the idea "out of town" (this is a common phrase in Texas). "Out of pocket" should be reserved to describe business-related expenses, typically incurred while traveling, which are unanticipated and/or which one must absorb immediately, and which might not be reimbursed by one's employer (e.g., meal and taxi tips). The phrase is usually transitive. Example: "I'm out of pocket $30."
     In football, a quarterback is often described as dropping back into the pocket--a zone of protection in which he is defended by his linemen--to pass the ball. Subsequently he might venture out of the pocket, at his peril. But in this case the article provides important information, and is essential.

"feel like that," as in "I feel like that the referee made a bad call." This is another colorful Texasism (or perhaps Southernism). "That" alone will suffice in such a construction.

"might could," as in "We might could go to Luby's for dinner tonight." See above, under "feel like that."

"as far as," when not followed up by "goes" or "is concerned." This ungainly phrase leaves the listener hanging as the speaker launches off into another clause.

"very unique." Now hear this: The word "unique" is exclusive. There are no degrees of uniqueness. Something is unique or it is not unique. Period.

"If you're ... , " when the predicate is a collective noun rather than a person. Dr. Petruso first heard this nails-scraping-on-blackboard construction during the O.J. Simpson trial, when it was voiced frequently by Jack Ford (NBC's legal consultant/pundit) in such sentences as, "If you're the prosecution, you have to be worried about the testimony of that witness." Nowadays it is quite common to hear it voiced by sports announcers (e.g., "If you're the Packers, you have to wonder about that out-of-bounds call.").
     Memo to Jack et al.: Syntax! Avoid nonparallel constructions! A group is not and cannot be a person. Please dummy up.

"It's about ... " This peculiar clause came to Dr. Petruso's notice in NBC's Motown 25th anniversary tribute to Berry Gordy in 1983. Diana Ross was one of a dozen or so certifiably supergalactic (not to mention superannuated) Motown stars who padded onto the stage to gush over Gordy. Her paean was terse and cryptic: "It's not about who leaves. It's about who comes back." Ummm ... huh? What's about who comes back?? This construction is especially noisome when repeated several times over. Predictably, perhaps, it has come to roost most comfortably in advertising copy.

Numbers in parentheses. Some authors love to reformat and repeat numbers to give their writing an official or authoritative air, as in "Students must complete eighteen (18) credit hours in the minor." Pay attention here: The only reason to repeat a number in a different form is to guard against the possibility that the first version might be misunderstood or (more to the point) corrupted. In the sentence above, it is far more likely that the shorter (numerical) version of the number will be corrupted. We write out the dollar amount of a check in words in order to keep unscrupulous persons from performing mischief on the numerical version (by, e.g., moving the decimal point). Thus, the only way a reduplicated construction makes sense is if the numerical version comes first, i.e., "Students must complete 18 (eighteen) credit hours in the minor." The second version confirms and clarifies the first.

"deodorancy," a word that is now featured on Arm & Hammer deodorant. It is a highfalutin neologism and a stupid attempt to turn body odor into High Concept. This is a stretch.
      And while we are on the subject of advertising hype, it might be noted that the DVD of "The Last Waltz," the music documentary (let us avoid the term rockumentary) of The Band's final concert, is, as of this writing, being sold with an impressive gold sticker on the shrinkwrap proclaiming that it is a LIMITED EDITION PACKAGING product. Presumably this superamazing packaging will be available for only a short time ("Once they're gone, they're gone, folks!"), but there is nothing at all remarkable about it; nor is it clear how the next generation of this particular DVD's packaging will be any less worthy than the current one.
Here are two of the most nauseatingly overused terms in bureaucratese in the early 21st century: "moving forward" or "going forward" (when the speaker means to say "from now on") and "transparent," as in "the process should be transparent." Both of these terms spread like SARSophobia, and were touchstones of flaks in the W administration as it bumbled its way through nation-building operations in Iraq.

"Prior to" is used in temporal, never spatial, contexts. You do not see a traffic backup prior to Exit 23, you see it before Exit 23. Traffic helicopter pilots especially take note.

"Poster boy for ..." Please, can we stop using this stupid metaphor? Please?

"Wake-up call," which now signals any event that causes one to be on guard.

"Push back," to describe resistance of any sort. Nice phrase, but terminally overused.

"Having said that, ..." an idiotic expression which goes some distance to negating, or at least taking most of the force out of, what the speaker has just said. Can you say mealymouthed?

"Please RSVP," the literal translation of which, for those who have no French, is "Please respond if you please." It's redundant. Get it? It's redundant. And repetitive.

"Perfect storm," a metaphor so overused that it has by now lost all its mojo. The book and movie that inspired it are so twentieth-century.

"800-pound gorilla in the room," used by the most unimaginative newly-elected Democrats in Congress to refer to Iraq. If this is an indication of the extent of creativity and subtlety of the loyal opposition in the 110th Congress, we will be in Iraq for the long haul, no question about it. 

Q:  What about the whole postmodern lexicon thing? Don't some of the terms used in literary scholarship also just drive you around the bend?

--F.J., Chapel Hill, NC 

A:  Dr. Petruso loves questions like this. The following ultrasilly terms, which are among the most execrable flotsam and jetsam of postmodern scholarship, are to be avoided at all costs.


Other  (when preceded by the article "the")
 (as in "The project of capitalism is …")
Space  (in non-spatial conexts)
 (see above, Space)
Territory  (ditto)






Parentheses, underlines and slashes within words
Intentional cutesy misspellings
Quotation marks
 (when used ironically)


--R.G., New York, NY 

A:  This is a tough one. Since 9/11/01 this country has been an unfathomably weird, gloomy and jumpy place. Unfortunately, however, as of this writing it's not yet clear what the hell is going on here. Dr. Petruso would like to be able to give you succor (a wonderfully archaic word that Secretary of State Colin Powell has revived to threaten nations that harbor terrorists). As an empiricist and fan of the Heisenberg Principle, however, Dr. Petruso feels obliged to reserve judgment at this time (not "at this point in time," as the dissembling three-piece-suited bagmen and assorted bottom-feeders who ran the Nixon White House were wont to say). 

     But please stay tuned. As soon as Dr. Petruso figures out what the hell really is going on here, he will post a sage explanation to this web page. Bookmark it.

Q:  What are you sitting on that makes you so insufferable?

--N.S.P., Arlington, TX

A:  We assume you refer puckishly here to Dr. Petruso's chronic case of existential dyspepsia. What it comes down to, he has concluded, is this: An exhilarating combination of the license to say just about anything--which tenure provides--and the irrelevance and pointlessness of this license in the end. 

Q:  The lady at the AARP office says she doesn't know where I can get a Passing Lane Camping Permit. Where did you get yours? 

--M.A., Nazareth, PA 

A:   The first thing you need to understand here, M.A., is that Dr. Petruso is a professional. Yes, camping in the passing lane might look glamorous and all, and it certainly makes for good cocktail party conversation. But never lose sight of the fact that it is dangerous. It demands quick wits and catlike reflexes. It takes years of practice at an extremely high and sustained level of commitment to be able to do do it well. In short, M.A, passing lane camping is not for everyone. 

     The fact that you called AARP for information on camping in the parking lane suggests that you are one of what your PC types nowadays refer to as our "senior citizens." Far be it from Dr. Petruso to cast aspersions on the esteemed geezers of this country, but I'd suggest that you consider carefully whether you still have the mental acuity, nerves and physical stamina required to make you successful at this exciting and demanding activity. 

     If, upon reflection, you decide to take it up, Dr. Petruso can provide you with a PLC permit for a fee of only $100.00 (postpaid).

Q:   So I was watching Monday Night Football when my worldview was shattered by the comment of one John Madden. Thanks to his acute observational powers, he had noticed that punts were not traveling very far in some less-than-conducive-to-long-punts conditions (it was a cold night in Green Bay). There were some awkward mumblings. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of rust breaking away from a hamster's exercise wheel (something has to power his brain, right?). And then came his explanation of those poor punts that challenged my conception. He turned to Al Michaels and asked, "Below 32 degrees, that's when things freeze, right?" And Michaels never responded to his question. Was he as troubled by the implications of Madden's observation as I was? So my question for Dr. Petruso is simply this: When do aforementioned "things" freeze? 

--B.V., location not provided 

A:  Interesting that you should ask. Dr. Petruso has long pondered a related question, namely whether the wind-chill factor affects machinery. Will your car be harder to start at, say, 27 degrees with a wind of 20 mph than it will be at 27 degrees on a calm day? Dr. Petruso must admit that he doesn't know the answer to this. Perhaps they've done studies on it. 

     And, as it happens, Dr. Petruso was talking with a physicist colleague just the other day about why a slab of marble always feels cooler at room temperature than a wooden board--clearly they are both the same temperature, i.e., precisely "room." The physicist temporized and equivocated, and after dancing around the question for a few minutes, finally provided a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer, full of abstruse technical terms like "thermal conductivity" and "density" and "molecules." Is it any wonder that the W administration is suspicious of pointy-headed intellectuals? 

     But Dr. Petruso digresses. It is a safe bet that things actually do freeze below (actually, at) 32 degrees--Fahrenheit, that is. How does he know this? Because he used to own a Ford Explorer, and for several years drove on Firestone's Tires of Death before Mrs. Petruso forced him to trade it in. Anyway, it had a digital thermometer mounted above the rearview mirror, you know, 747-style, to give one the feeling that he is piloting a powerful, sophisticated vehicle. Whenever the temperature dipped below 32, it flashed "ICE", I suppose to alert the pilot to dangerous road conditions, or maybe to suggest that he call the de-icing truck to get hosed down. 

     So you can trust John ("Boom! Boom!") Madden on this. He is a professional. He knows a Nickel D from an audiblized bootleg. 

     Bottom line: Be on your guard when the temperature drops to 32. 

Q:   What's the deal with those machines in supermarkets that convert your coins to paper money? 

--T.M., Arlington, TX 

A:  Long has Dr. Petruso mused over the question of whether these Coinstar® machines have any socially redeeming value. It seems that every other time he sashays into his local Tom Thumb ISO radicchio and arugula, he sees some feeb pouring a coffee can full of coins into a Coinstar® hopper. The charge for this useful service is 8.9¢ on the dollar--that is, nearly 9% of the total wad. And just check out the big bright sign on the machine, which announces, "Turn your change into cash!", suggesting that coins are not, in fact, legal tender. 

     Whoever thought up this idea is a cynical genius. He showed that all-American quality of generating a totally gratuitous concept--itself easy enough to do--but then he acted on it. He bought and set up in public places machines that are identical to those in banks. You know, banks, where you can get your coins counted and converted from specie to paper currency for free. Even more incredibly, at Dr. Petruso's Tom Thumb, not forty paces away, also within the store, is a Wells Fargo Bank branch. 

     And you wonder what makes this country great. 

Q:   Why does Dallas Cowboys head coach Dave Campo make such boneheaded 4th-quarter decisions?

--T.D.B., Tacoma, WA 

A:  Dr. Petruso (winner of an honorary Heisman Award in 1994 for Monday Morning Quarterbacking) unfortunately can't help you out here. NFL fans will recall three recent strategic muffs of humiliating proportions in the 2002-03 season alone, the end result of which arguably cost the Cowboys their playoff chances:

October 6, 2002:  Down by 4 points, Campo calls for a punt in a 4th-and-9 situation on the Giants' 48. Did he think that the 2:03 remaining was time enough to regain possession and score a TD? (A field goal wouldn't have cut it.) New York runs out the clock. 

November 22, 2002:  It's 26-10 Denver in the 4th. Dallas scores, then opts for the extra point instead of a 2-point conversion. Then Dallas astonishingly scores again, with less than 5 minutes on the clock; but by this time they are down by 9, so even a 2-point conversion would not have helped. Denver runs out the clock. (Yo! Dave! A 16-point deficit requires two TDs and two 2-point conversions. Just to tie, Dave.) 

December 8, 2002:  With 2:21 to go in the game, it's Dallas's ball, 4th and less than a yard. Dallas leads San Francisco 27-24, and the 49ers have burned all their timeouts. Instead of relying on Emmitt Smith (who has been having a very good day) to make a first down so Dallas can eat up the clock, Campo calls for a 47-yard field goal from a kicker who by most accounts should not be on any NFL roster. He misses. The 49ers take over at their own 28 and march down the field for a touchdown with 12 seconds left on the clock. The Cowboys get the kickoff and, with 0:02 remaining, do the obligatory Hail Mary thing, unsuccessfully.

     What was Campo thinking? A FG, even if successful, would have increased the Dallas lead to 6 points, and thus would not have been proof against the TD-cum-extra-point that Garcia-Owens ultimately put up. Final score: 31-27 San Francisco.

MEMO TO DAVE: Please notify your offensive coordinator that Dr. Petruso watches Cowboys games with his phone at his side, and is available to call in plays every Sunday afternoon. (xc: Jerry Jones) 

Q: Why can’t newscasters—that is, people who read prose professionally—pronounce the name of Russia’s president correctly?

--D.S., Arlington, TX

A: One need not know any Russian to suspect that the “t” in Putin is pronounced, not swallowed. It is POO-tin, not pootin’ (as in rootin’ tootin’). In linguistics terms, the “t” is an aspirated alveolar stop. This is yet another piece of evidence, if evidence were needed, that Americans have lazy, provincial tongues. 

Q: Who is the rudest, most obnoxious and most supercilious news announcer on BBC World Service radio news?
--K.P., Arlington, TX

A: Oliver Scott, hands down. His interviews are unswervingly hostile. He mercilessly interrupts his guests. He speaks in an offensive sneer, dripping contempt. He is, truth be told, the Beeb equivalent of our own Bill O'Reilly. He is absolutely insufferable.


Dr. Petruso posts below in full a turgid, bureaucratic email response from one "Graham", who purports to be on the staff of the BBC, received 2/27/04 (bracketed comments added by Dr. Petruso for purposes of clarification and/or sarcasm):

“My apologies that pressing matters such as the appointment of the new DG [Director General] of the BBC [as a result of the sordid Tony Blair/ "sexing up the WMD intel report"/ suicide of David Kelly affair] have prevented me from picking up on and responding to your comments ("Ask Dr Petruso") about Oliver Scott's presentational skills. Please be assured that your views have been noted and that Oliver's future as a presenter for the BBC World Service will come under close scrutiny as part of the wider review being conducted into delivery of the Corporation's main aims.

As you will doubtless know, the World Service dimension of the Corporation's output has been fundamental to the delivery of the founding belief that "Nation will speak unto nation". Although at times it may appear that this is best achieved by everyone speaking the "Queen's English", it must be recalled that this reflects to this day the vital role assumed by the Service during the Second World War and indeed even more so during the painful period of reconstruction that followed. The Board of Directors' decision in 1997 to "virtualise" the Service in partnership with Microsoft reflected the Corporation's desire both to maintain public confidence in a widely respected if somewhat "hoity toity" news service and to work within silly--I mean really silly--budgetary constants. The result is what you hear. Oliver Scott for instance is an amalgam of various interviewers' voices heard over the years withal a bit of Churchill, Sir John Mills and a pinch of Herr Hitler [!], I understand, thrown in. John Humphreys (currently being trialled [trialled?] on domestic Radio 4) is considered to be a better blend altogether. It really is a matter of time as the bigger the data base becomes the more reassuringly cosy it will all again be. In the Greenwich Mean time, tune in to the Shipping Forecast (Do you have Long Wave?) and just let things go "Sailing By"....... ”

Can it be? Oliver Scott not a real individual, but rather "an amalgam"? Why? To protect the actual announcer, whoever he is, from retaliation by offended interviewees? Oh, puh-leeze. "Oliver Scott" is not exactly a restaurant reviewer whose identity needs to be kept a secret.
      Looks to Dr. Petruso as if the Beeb has caved, abandoning all pretense of journalistic reptuation to American-style infotainment, and more's the pity.
      Not to mention the fact that this email leaves no doubt whatsoever that BBC management now has nothing better to do than troll the web for mentions of its announcers' names.

Q: Hello. My name is Muffy Merkin. I am a college student and I frequently have to write personal statements for applications for scholarships and awards. Please give me some pointers on writing these things. How can I make my personal statements stand out from the rest of the crowd?
--M.M., Cambridge, MA

A: Pay attention here. This is important stuff:
(1)  Never begin a personal statement with the word "Hello." This goes for letters, too, and even e-mails, like the one you have just sent to Dr. Petruso. As long as we're on this subject: Never type the word "hello" in the subject line of an e-mail. Dr. Petruso finds that whenever he opens such messages, they are, without exception, spam ads for products which allegedly will lengthen either his love life or a certain part of his anatomy. He now consigns all such "hello" messages to the trash, even if he recognizes the name of the person who sent it. So if you want your e-mails to be read, put something pertinent and comprehensible in the subject line. But Dr. Petruso digresses.
(2)  Never begin a personal statement by stating your name. The reader will already know it. If you are worried that your bio might be confused with that of some other applicant, sign the document at the end, as if it were a letter.
(3)  Scholarship review committees will want to get to know who the real Muffy is, what makes her tick. Use your personal statement to make clear what exactly it is that makes Muffy Muffy. There are some tried-and-true strategies for this. For example: Readers are always favorably impressed to learn that applicants have overcome adversity in their lives. Have you completely kicked that heroin addiction? Then shout it out, proudly. Have you outgrown your desire to be a contestant on American Idol ? Did you grow up in a Republican household? (Note: Even if you yourself voted for George W. Bush in the last presidential election, most scholarship committees will regard that as a youthful indiscretion, and your lapse will not automatically put you out of the running. Keep in mind that many criteria are considered in selection processes, of which appalling stupidity in the realm of political beliefs is only one.)
(4) Muffy is a risible nickname. Lose it before sending out your next scholarship app.

Q: In reference to the list of literary terms that you feel can only be safely dealt with as biological waste, I question the inclusion of "recursive." Do you prefer the awkward "self-referential," or do you contend that works of literature are incapable of using themselves as topics? And you might consider that if a work of literature were to include itself as an element of its own narrative, describing it as self-referential may not be strong enough, leading us to such prodigies as self-inclusive and monstrosities like tail-biting and ourobouric. Do you want to encourage this sort of abuse of the language?
--J.A.W., University Park, PA

A: Works of literature have no business referring to themselves. That kind of thing is way incestuous, if you know what I mean. Haven't you ever heard of the Quaker Oats Box Syndrome? That way lies madness.
     This probably goes a long way toward explaining why so many researchers who wallow in po-mo scholarship suffer from brain damage.

Q: So what do you think of the "Recycle!" brochure distributed by the City of Arlington to remind everyone of the environmental benefits of recycling?
--R.C., Arlington, Texas

A: It certainly is garish. But one of the benefits listed on the brochure is that "Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a TV set for three hours." Dr. Petruso asks his readers to ponder: Is there a net advantage to using the energy so conserved to soak up the drivel foisted upon the American public by the plug-in drug? Of course not.
      Having learned about the unhappy relationship between aluminum and television, Dr. Petruso has decided to throw his cans into the garbage henceforth, as a public service. With humility he accepts the accolades of a grateful Arlington citizenry, whose aggregate IQ has already begun to increase.

Q: When did the polite "May I have?" become "Can I get?" Did I miss something?
--S.L.S., Arlington, Texas

A: You have identified a real Dr. P bugagoo here. We were in line at our local Starbuck's the other day (double decaf latte, half-skim, half-2%, with a dash of amaretto, thank you very much), when we heard three customers ahead of us use this ugly construction when placing their orders. It very nearly put us off our coffee for the morning. These maladroits seem blissfully unaware of the difference between permission and capability on the one hand, and accepting and grabbing on the other. Please don't do this.

Q: I am reading Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged. Have you read it? What opinions do you have of this piece of literature?
--M.C., Arlington, TX

A: Dr. Petruso surmises from your question that you are young--late teens, early twenties, tops. At least he hopes this is the case, since that would be less troubling than the possibility that you are older, in which case you should know better.
       Two types of people read Ayn Rand: young idealists casting about for interesting ideologies to try on for a while, to see how they fit; and heartless old warmed-over radicals desperate to have something distinctive and unusual to believe in.
       Most thinking American adolescents of the generations following WWII have gone through an Ayn Rand phase (as did Dr. Petruso his ownself, many decades ago, when he dipped rather deeply into the Rand oeuvre, and he makes no apology for it now). But, like television, facial piercings, droopy trousers that reveal your underpants, and an inability to speak a complete sentence that does not include the word "like", Dr. Petruso hopes that a fascination with Rand's "philosophy" of objectivism will eventually pass, at least for most thinking youths in this generation, as they move on to more adult pursuits.
       The last time Dr. Petruso heard anything about Ayn Rand's legacy was a few years ago, in the context of a rant from her breathtakingly strident, even combative, intellectual heir, the raving lunatic Leonard Peikoff (like Rand, an addle-brained ex-Bolshevik). Among the offensive stands he took was that persons who are incapacitated physically, mentally or emotionally have no right to expect compassion, much less assistance, from either government or society; and that they should get down on their knees in gratitude for any sops and dregs they might be thrown. Shrill, brutal and, in the end, deplorable, untenable except by provocateurs and unfortunates with deep-seated pathologies.
       So by all means continue your explorations for an identity, young M.C. And don't neglect to peruse the writings of Albert Camus, whose existentialist/absurdist philosophy (not to mention his persona) Dr. Petruso has always found a whole lot more fascinating than those of Ayn Rand. Not to mention the fact that Camus always looked terminally cool in a trenchcoat and fedora, sucking on a Gauloise ...

Q: I am curious about the musical genres and artists that speak to you. Is there a musician who can make tears come to your eyes? Or perhaps a singer whose words draw you so close to him/her that you feel a true connection with the person? I feel such a connection with Dave Mustaine of the band Megadeth. His lyrics, many of which are political, draw me in, as does his astonishing guitar work. What do you think about heavy metal music?
       Also: what does it mean to "exchange a walk-on part in The Wall for a lead role in a cage"?

--B.B., Arlington, TX

A: Yes, B.B., there are indeed musical works that Dr. Petruso finds profoundly affecting. Here are some of them, always in heavy rotation on his iPod: Pat Metheny's more soaring and more contemplative guitar compositions (e.g., "Phase Dance," "September 15th" [the latter an hommage to Bill Evans]); Tom Waits's mid-'70s melancholy down-and-out ballads in beat verse and prose (many of the songs on The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner); Joni Mitchell's songs of loss, missed opportunity and redemption ("Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," "Shadows and Light," "Song for Sharon"—in fact, all of Hejira); Franco Corelli's over-the-top rendition of "Vesti la Giubba" from the opera Pagliacci; and Arlo Guthrie's amusing but biting "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," which brings to the surface a jumble of conflicted emotions about Vietnam (the defining event of Dr. Petruso's generation), and about war in general. Then there are Dr. P's guilty pleasures, including the works of Leon Redbone and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which the current Mrs. Petruso unaccountably cannot abide, and forbids him to play in the house.
       The lyric you quote (erroneously), actually goes like this:

"Did you exchange a walk-on part in a war
  for a lead role in a cage?"

Dr. Petruso has always taken these lines to be a reference to what would later inspire The Wall, namely Roger Waters's rage at his father, who in Waters's view abandoned his family to go off and die in WWII. The Wall did not come out, though, until four years after Wish You Were Here, which is the album on which the aforementioned song appears. The anguish Waters vents, incidentally, was first expressed in literature nearly 3000 years ago by Homer, who recounts Odysseus's visit to Achilles in Hades in Odyssey XI, lines 556-58 (you can look it up). It's a very creepy scene, and it expresses a deep and remarkably unheroic, even un-Hellenic, anxiety. Be warned that Homer can suck you in, though; you just might find him more compelling than Megadeth.

Q: How does Dr. Petruso feel about ring tones? People search for that perfect ring tone in a public restaurant, movie theater, library, church, etc. As a society, we seem to be on a quest for our own special theme songs, as if to validate our identity. All this leaves me utterly confused. Please help me, Dr. Petruso!
--B.B., Arlington, TX

A: If you have carefully studied the companion piece to "Ask Dr. Petruso," you will know that he regards people who feel compelled to babble into their cell phones every waking hour--including while eating, driving, and tending to their excremental functions--as total morons whose identity should by no means be subject to validating, at least if thinking people have any say in the matter. If ennui was the malaise of the late twentieth century, the compulsion to reach out and touch someone by satellite is already a contender for the malaise of the twenty-first.
       But Dr. Petruso appreciates the opportunity your question has provided to pontificate on telephone etiquette. Listen up: The perfect ringtone is "vibrate." And consider for a moment what a wonderful world this would be if everyone recorded the following message on his or her voicemail: "I am not available to take your call at this time. Come to think of it, I am not interested in taking your call. Ever. When you hear the tone, please hang up. And have a nice day, you moron."
       By the way, B.B., have you finished reading the Odyssey yet? Get on it.

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