Cleaning the Slate Mistakes of the Past, Make Way

ELLEN GOODMAN

December 27, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston--Each year, I like to close out the calendar by purging myself of the mistakes, misjudgments and misstatements that crept into this space over the past 12 months. My annual Media Culpa ritual is good for the soul, good for humility and good for the clean-slate business.

Mind you, my errors are on a relatively modest scale. It was not I who said the recession was over or that the Soviet Union would hang together or that Mario Cuomo would run for president. It was the Post Office that printed 300 million Hubert Humphrey stamps with a wrong date. And the Agency for International Development that sent millions of condoms to Egypt, where they ended up being sold as balloons.

Nevertheless, I had my fair share of errors. Consider for example the Clarence Thomas hearings. One day, I declared with ringing certainty that the hearings showed how much ''less suspense, less intensity, less emotion'' the Supreme Court appointments provoked in the country these days. Then Anita Hill showed up. Circle false on my answer sheet.

During the same hearings, I wrote that no politician facing confirmation dares to say what he thinks about abortion. Wrong. After the Thomas fiasco, William P. Barr showed up at the Senate Judiciary committee to get confirmed as attorney general and said flatly that the Supreme Court decision should be overturned. A flabbergasted Joe Biden said,''You should be complimented.'' I wouldn't go that far, but Bill proved me wrong.

How far would I go? In one column on gossip this year, I managed to link Papa Joe Kennedy and Rita Hayworth in a romantic liaison. As any number of gossip historians informed me, it wasn't Rita Hayworth but Gloria Swanson who had the alleged affair. This raises the interesting question: How do you run a correction on a rumor? Like this.

Speaking of Kennedys and Allegedlys, since Patricia ''I Am Not a Blue Blob'' Bowman came out on ''Prime Time,'' people have asked whether the William Kennedy Smith case changed my mind about protecting the names of alleged victims of rape. The short answer is no. The long answer is that the best way to get to a post-shame society is still by allowing women to withhold or (preferably) volunteer their names.

However, I confess to having violated the privacy of a male this year. A cardinal. The flying kind. The bird I named Knocko was bashing himself into my barn window in Maine last spring when I used him as column fodder. The Audubon Society said that Knocko would quit when his hormone level went down and I relayed that. Guess what? Maybe they have a lot of testosterone in Maine, but Knocko's making a career of hitting himself in the head. When last seen, in November, he was still at it.

As for male-female relationships, this was the year of ''he said, she said'' stories. One way to bridge the gap of changing sexual mores, I suggested, is through more public and private ''conversation.'' A letter writer spotted a double entendre in his dictionary. One of the meanings of ''conversation'' is sexual intercourse, he said. ''You're putting us on, aren't you?'' Nope. I was just talking about talking about sex.

So, can we talk? In writing about Magic Johnson and promiscuity, I heard from more religious scholars than basketball fans. Their worry? My use of the Seventh Commandment. It appears that there are two sets of commandments with slightly different lineups. In Exodus, the Seventh Commandment is Thou shalt not commit adultery. But in Deuteronomy it's the Sixth Commandment. Next time, I'll offer a multiple choice.

On another subject in this, uh, fertile year, I wrote a piece about the bewildering estrogen controversy. In the course of it, I described the onset of fertility as menses. No. It's menarche. Now that we have the terminology straight, how about the chemistry?

Sometime this year, I gave out a kudo. This was meant as a compliment, but some wordsmiths were insulted. There's no such thing as a kudo, they wrote. Kudos is always singular: Two vTC kudos, one kudos. The Oxford Dictionary and the American Heritage concurred. Indeed, the Heritage huffed: ''The singular term kudo, which is not acceptable in standard usage, is the invention of those who misconstrue kudos as exclusively plural.'' Call me Ms-construe.

Finally, allow me to recant my diatribe against the merchants who started Christmas in September. It turned out that there was some good news in the way they rushed the calendar. The After-Christmas Sales started at Thanksgiving. Now, Christmas is over and we can tell it's New Year's by the Valentines.

Welcome to 1992. Make no mistake about it.

Ellen goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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