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Keep the Sash Down

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Do you know there’s a disgusting part in “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” aka “T’was the Night Before Christmas”? Here it is:

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.

That’s right; he threw up the sash. Yuck! Now, if I’d been copyediting this poem, I would have changed it to “threw the sash up” and suggested the author find an alternative rhyme to replace flash/sash.

I usually let the writer’s style prevail, except when it comes to throwing up. It’s amazing how many times I’ll come across someone in a book throwing up his hands. Oh no, you don’t! No throwing up hands when I’m here!

I’m not alone in having a pet copyediting peeve. A colleague of mine refuses to let the word “snuck” sneak by and always changes it to “sneaked.” Another hates “donuts” saying it looks like it should be pronounced “doo-nuts.” (As in, “He threw up the donuts”? I can’t imagine such a thing happening with doughnuts.) Another cannot tolerate the word “pert”and simply changes it without even querying the author. Ah, if only it were that simple to remove all that annoying, dare I say nauseating, pertness from the world! Who would miss it? Certainly not I.

Luckily for Clement Clarke Moore, most readers are too sidetracked looking up the definition of “sash” to notice any throwing up.

Of Bread, Bugs, and the Little Red Hen

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In this version the Little Red hen shares the bread with her chicks. No doubt a device to make her character more sympathetic

I made bread! This is earth-shattering, even though we’re talking bread mix, because I don’t cook so much as burn things. But the cold weather just lit something in me; call it that old hearth and home instinct, if you will.

I didn’t have much hope for this bread and consoled myself that, if nothing else, it would make a good science experiment. But lo and behold, the bread survived! It was edible. It was actually tasty! To me, at any rate. My son took a few bites and refused any more. Ever.

Now, this guy is not a picky eater. He’s a tall, lanky teenager who is always hungry and will eat anything from plate or package that remotely resembles food.

In fact, the other day he asked, “Mom, can I eat insects?”

I took this as a rhetorical question and replied that yes, because in other cultures insects are a staple and considered a good source of protein. Nevertheless, i couldn’t help picturing him plucking bugs off the grass and asked, “Why would you want to? Don’t we have enough food in the house?”

A few days later I walked over while he was at his desk and asked what he was working on. To my surprise—more like shock—he held up a dried cricket. When I asked if he was studying crickets, he informed me that he was eating them. His environmental science teacher had given out boxes of dried crickets and explained that they were the food of the future.

So…crickets, yes. My freshly baked bread, no.

This bread is so dense and filling that I came to the conclusion I’d unwittingly made lembas bread, something that could sustain even the hungriest hobbit fleeing orcs and uruk-hai. Yes, folks, you can go online and find recipes by Lord of the Rings devotees who have diligently attempted to replicate this elvish concoction. Or you can just hand me a package of Ikea bread mix and et voilà! 

My bread experience reminds me of The Little Red Hen. You know, where the Little Red Hen asks the dog, the cat, and the duck (or variations thereof) who will help her plant the wheat, harvest it, grind it into flour, etc., and they all reply, “Not I.” Until, of course, it’s time to eat the bread, and then everyone wants to help. In every edition of the book there is inevitably that illustration of those three faces, peering hopelessly and hungrily at the Little Red Hen.

I think  every child who has ever read this story has one of two reactions:

  1. Wish the hen would have mercy and give the animals some bread and a chance to redeem themselves.
  2. Yup, feel bad for them, but they didin’t help. Sucks for you, guys!

My own childhood reaction was that the other animals could suffer but not the cat. In fact, the idea of that cat being unhappy distressed me so much that my mother had to retell the story with an alternative ending in which the hen takes pity on the cat, who is allowed to come in and have bread. Which implies I started life as a superficial sort of person who believed that a different set of rules apply for individuals whom I consider cute and charming. Even more disturbing is that I later wondered what cat in its right mind would hanker after bread rather than eating the hen.

Both my cats have turned up their noses at my bread. They also prefer bugs.

A Song of Ice, Fire, and the Coldest Winter in Memory

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Ned Stark was right when he said, “Winter is coming.” First the polar vortex, now another bout of ice, snow, and frigid temperatures. It looks like winter will be with us until Season 4 of Game of Thrones premieres on April 6.

But will winter linger? Our sun has gone strangely quiet. It’s not the first time solar activity has been minimal. From about 1645 to 1715 Europe was plunged into a cold period that became known as the little ice age. Sunspot activity was minimal, a phenomenon called the Maunder Minimum.

How cold was it? So cold that the sea froze off the coast of France all along the Neptune Line. And I don’t get credit for that line; it’s by Al Stewart from his splendid and little-known song “The Coldest Winter in Memory.” Here’s the master himself, singing not by memory but through the help of one of his many loyal and perhaps obsessed fans (of which I am proud to be one of. Well, except for the obsessed part).

In addition to Charles XII of Sweden’s invasion of Russia, the little ice age brought Europe frost fairs on the Thames, animals and people dropping dead from hypothermia, and famines.

As for the lost town of Dunwich, much of it did wash away due to coastal erosion, although this took place before 1709.

If we’re in for a little ice age, how will that affect climate change due to global warming? Will our cities follow All Saints Church of Dunwich to sink beneath the waves? Curious minds might want to read this (WARNING: Shamless plug) thought-provoking story, Fire, Flood and a Strong Chance of Storms.

Now, about that Dumpster . . .

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Bravo, Timothy Egan, for your column “Words for the Dumpster,” on words to put out to pasture for 2013.

But the column makes me ponder the word “Dumpster” itself. There is much ado as to whether the word should be capitalized or if it has become generic, making it permissible to lowercase it as “dumpster.” According to Merriam-Webster, the word is still captialized as a brand name. But as Doug Fisher writes in his blog, Common Sense Journalism, we can rest assured that lowercasing “dumpster” is okay, since the AP has given this the nod in its 2013 stylebook.

Did you know the Dumpster was originally called the Dempster-Dumpster after its inventor, George Roby Dempster? Dempster and his brothers formed the Dempster Brothers Construction Company and were responsible for building roads and railroads in the Appalachian region in addition to the aforementioned Dumpster. Dempster was also active in politics and a humanitarian who hired people with disabilities and supported desegregation.

The Dumpster has inspired the art of Dumpster diving. Mac Premo’s Dumpster Project is a repository of memories, while Professor Dumpster’s Dumpster Project is a lesson in waste and environmental sustainability. I can’t but help pointing out that Mac capitalizes Dumpster while the professor does not (unless when referring to himself, of course).

George, in your honor, I will continue to capitalize “Dumpster” and help keep it from sinking into the morass of words that have lost their trademarks. In other words, let’s keep Dumpster, capitalized, out of the trash bin.

Pulling a Humpty Dumpty

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Humpty Dumpty in one of his better moods.

The other day in a meeting a colleague advised we not have more than about 200 words per web page for fear it would cause “cognitive dissonance” in our readers. What followed was empty looks as everyone tried to make sense of what she’d said. Did she mean they’d be confused? Overwhelmed with information?

In the real world—not that of pompous internal meetings—”cognitive dissonance” means: “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”

She’d pulled a Humpty Dumpty! Surprise!

By pulling a Humpty Dumpty, I am not referring to falling off a wall or being aided and abetted by the king’s employees. “Pulling a Humpty Dumpty” is assigning a word any meaning you want instead of its dictionary-designated definition.

Consider the following discourse from Through the Looking-Glass between Alice and our egghead friend:

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ “

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs: they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”

“Would you tell me please,” said Alice, “what that means?”

“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”

“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”

“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

“Ah, you should see ’em come round me of a Saturday night,” Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side, “for to get their wages, you know.”

(Alice didn’t venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can’t tell you.)

I wonder if the words “cognitive” and “dissonance” came to Ms. Dumpty’s house after our meeting to demand their wages, time and a half for putting on such a spectacular performance and causing what I shall call “cognitive dissonance” among those in attendance.

I must away! I hear a knock at the door; it looks like I owe two words payment of some sort.

What’s Not to Like?

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Quite a bit. “Like” has overstepped its boundaries. It used to describe a state of affection, as in “I like Ike” or “I like bananas because they have no bones,” or as a comparison, “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Those uses alone should be enough to keep any word happy.

But the next thing you know, “like” impinged on “as if/though” and “such as.” We like things on Facebook, causing “like” to morph into a noun as we count how many likes a page has. Most egregiously, “like” has eradicated such verbs as “said,” “thought,” or “felt,” among others. Hence comments along the lines of “She was like, ‘hi,’ and I was like, ‘What’s going on?'” Or, “I was like, oh my god.”

Thus my admittedly lame attempt to reinterpret Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” for a modern audience:

It was really late at night and I was texting and tweeting,
Updating my Facebook status and eating,
When some dude started tapping,
And rapping and shit on my bedroom door.
I was like, what the fuck, who the hell could be knocking this late,
‘Cause his fingers must be sore.
But that sound was damn hard to ignore.

Man, it was damn cold outside,
And I had the heat up; it was going to cost me tomorrow,
Or maybe next month or something and I’d have to borrow
From my ex-girlfriend, that damn Lenore—
A really hot beyotch that her parents for some reason named Lenore,
The one who dumped me, that goddam whore.

And the curtains were like, flap, flap,
Got them at the dollar store, such crap,
And now I was like, what asshole could be here,
Banging on my front door—
Some crazy homicidal maniac come to murder me and nothing more?
Then why wouldn’t he just break down my door?

So then I was like, may as well see who’s there
and what they’re knocking for,
Why they decided to bug the shit out of me,
Knocking on my goddamn door,
“All right, already, I heard you, what the hell do you want?”
Darkness there, and nothing more.

I turned back to my phone, glad it had left me alone,
When I heard that damn tapping even louder than before.
I was like, holy shit, what am I gonna do about it
Except open the window and check it out,
It’s some pigeons, I gotta get them out.
Before they bomb the hell out of my front door.

I opened the window, and with a bang and display
In strutted this like black bird-thing that looked sick
Like he’d been in some Alfred Hitchcock flick
From a long time ago before I was born.
And that bird flapped up and parked himself on the Chia Pet,
That Chia Pet of Homer Simpson’s face,
And there he sat, like he owned the place.

I was like, what is this bird’s deal,
I think I’d seen something like it in a store
Was it a blackbird or a crow, maybe making a cameo
In some movie, or did someone teach it to steal?
And then I knew I’d seen his type before.
I was like, “You’re a raven! What are you doing at my door?”
And the raven was like, “Nevermore.”

I was like, holy shit, the skivvy-ass bird can talk
Not just sit on Homer’s face and squawk
Which is pretty cool, I got to admit
But why would this creepy dude sit
outside my bedroom door,
And say a word no one says anymore,
Something so freaky like Nevermore?

Then I figured I knew what this was about
And who had sent this raven out
It must have been my ex, Lenore
I was like, “I get it. You belong to Lenore.
Who I was really into before she
dumped me, and is she coming back like before?”
And the raven was like, “Nevermore.”

I was like, “Seriously? Not gonna lie;
I don’t know anyone else who would send
A creepy bird like you knocking on my door.
Will you tell me what you’re here for?
Because I’d like to know, for sure.
And the raven was like, “Nevermore.”

I was like, fuckin-A, he had that word tricked out
Probably something its owner used to shout
Till this raven creepazoid knew it inside out
And had nothing else to talk about
But this word, or maybe two words, I couldn’t be sure,
Is it nevermore or never more?

“So, bird,” I said, “tell me if we’ll ever
Find each other, get back together
Maybe be like a couple once more?”
But that bird just blinked his beady eyes
Like he was trying to cut me down to size
And just when I thought he’d say something more
The raven was like, “Nevermore.”

Now I was like really pissed
‘Cause I thought Lenore maybe missed
me and was trying to find a way to say
We should get together once more
But that bird thing just gave a flap
Like he was through with my crap
And then opened up his trap
and said that word I was waiting for
That word that was like, Nevermore.

“Get the fuck out! Go back to whatever jackass
sent you here to get on my case and harass
me, because I have better stuff to do, for sure.”
I really just wanted him to cut and run,
Get off that bust of Homer, be done
and take his sorry ass out my door.
But the raven was like, “Nevermore.”

I was like, why do I get stuck with this zombie bird
Who just keeps repeating only one word?
I figured, he’ll just crash here tonight, that’s the rule
Staying longer than that is so not cool
Then he’s gotta go back to where he was before
And the raven was like, “Nevermore.”

So that was all like ages ago
And that dude is still here, wouldn’t you know,
parked outside my bedroom door.
Not much I can say,
Just wish he’d go away,
But I know the answer, ’cause I’ve heard it before
The answer is, like, Nevermore.

Reach Out and Have a Conversation with Someone

What a capacity language has to irk people. Why else would various organizations compile their lists of overused, annoying, or ridiculous words or phrases they wish would disappear in 2013?

We have “Twitterverse,” “whatever,” “like,” “fiscal cliff,” and “YOLO.”  Such phrases as “at the end of the day,” “it is what it is,” “just saying,” and “no worries.”

But nowhere do I find two phrases that are becoming fixations in the workplace. The first is “reach out,” which seems to have replaced contacting, calling, or even getting in touch. And second, talking to, discussing, or speaking with have been ditched in favor of “having a conversation.”

What are these words doing in the business world? I think of them in terms of “Reach out to Aunt Bessie and see if she needs help after her hip replacement,” or “Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bingley had a conversation over tea and biscuits.” Not “We need to reach out to Roger and have a conversation about why IT refuses to address why our network keeps crashing.”

Maybe it’s just me, but reaching out and having a conversation implies a  touchy-feely moment that’s informal and friendly. Which is fine, except when the people you’re reaching out and conversing with aren’t equals and could be responsible for you not getting that raise or promotion or being reprimanded etc. So the next time at work I need to contact someone to talk to them, I’m going to say just that. Quite likely, my choice of words will annoy someone.

Writers Got Game

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My son is currently obsessed with BioShock. Not the shooting people to bits part, but the story, the characters, the music, and the world depicted in the game. BioShock takes place in 1960, in an alternative reality in which a businessman named Andrew Ryan creates an underwater utopia called Rapture. The story line involves a substance called ADAM, genetic mutation, Big Daddies and Little Sisters, and it is indeed compelling.

For the most part, video  games usually offer one of these two scenarios: 1. fire at a moving target and destroy it or 2. navigate through some sort of obstacle course. There have been occasional video or computer games that offer more than interesting graphics and effects, such as Myst and Beyond Good and Evil. Now, according to CEO Aunim Hossain featured on Galley Cat, games are taking the BioShock route toward more complex content, and therefore they’re going to need writers to develop plot and character.

Although the fact that Ossain mentions Zynga threw me for a loop. Is Farmville going to feature, say, discontented cows and philosophizing farmers?

Meanwhile, I have been obsessively playing BubbleShock. It takes place in this amazing underwater world in which a boy named Aquatic must save the Seven Seas by firing against an onslaught of bubbles in order to retrieve the magic pearls.

Well, it’s actually called Aqua Pearls and involves this little blobby guy shooting at what I assume are bubbles.  But if the developers decide to bring in a writer to give this game more depth, I’m available.

Find Your Voice and Fix It

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In “They’re, LIke, Way Ahead of the LInguistic Curve,” Douglas Quenqua in the New York Times discusses how linguistics trends start with young women and make their way through the culture. It mentions the overuse of the word “like,” “uptalking” or the “high-rising terminal,” which involves ending declarative sentences on a higher note as if asking a question, and what’s called “vocal fry,” or going into the raspy lower registers.

A similar article on, like, younger people quack talking  (invoking a nasal quality that makes one sound like a duck, see also: Kenley Collins) and stuff with the kind of delightful title “What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness” basically, you know, ran in the City Journal in winter 2011.

On CNN we see the “habitual vocal fryer” Zoey Deschanel, not only frying but employing plenty of juvenile lateral eye shifts and gestures like playing with her hair that I associate with seventh grade. And Deschanel is 32! What gives? Why would someone in her thirties want to act this way?

As the site points out, younger women aren’t the only ones rasping, quacking and uptalking. Witness the older, executive women in the second video. How ironic that the video ends with the statement “Find your voice and use it.”