Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

This is what I have to deal with

The book and its cover

In her book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl talks about her method of finding the true nature of the place she's reviewing - showing up disguised as someone else. Knowing that critics get all kinds of special treatment, Reichl developed several characters - each with her own clothing, hair, accessories, and personality - so she could get an idea of what her readers can realistically expect to experience.
Reichl says she was surprised to discover that each of her personae was treated a different way, and not just at restaurants. Her loud, gregarious redhead got lots of attention and made friends wherever she went. Her quiet, little old lady was often ignored and usually got poor service.
What's in appearances? Why do we put our resumes on resume paper? How does the use of slightly more expensive paper make us seem like more qualified candidates? Why do people respond better to bullet points? What's the point of watermarks?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

I need a hero

I included the audience participation parts, so you can participate at home.
Part I
So if you've hung out with me at all, you know that I have an obsession with tsuperheroes that borders on creepy. So I'm going to talk a bit about heroes, super and otherwise today, and I promise not to geek out on you too much.
I'd like to get started by learning who your heroes are. Not the super kind, just the regular kind: who do you want to be most like. Can be real or fictional, but I'm going to just ask you to say the name - no explanation because we've all got barbeques to get to.
So what is it about our heroes that makes them heroic? An English proverb says that a hero is a man who is afraid to run away.
I recently read this news story about a guy who found $45,000 in a house he'd just bought and gave it back to the people from whom he'd bought the house. The guy who found the money said that he wished he could say that the thought of keeping it never crossed his mind, but he had bills and wanted to adopt a kid and he really could have used the cash. But he knew giving it back was the right thing, so he did. Something bugged me about this story. It took me a minute to put my finger on it, but I realized what bothered me is you're not supposed to keep things that don't belong to you. If you find somebody else's money, even if you could legally get away with keeping it, you don't give it back even though you could use it or because it's the right thing to do, you give it back because it's not yours. That's what you're supposed to do with stuff that's not yours. And that got me thinking that maybe all heroes are are people who do what they know they're supposed to. Not what society tells them or Sunday school or your mom, but the still quiet voice that hides in the corners and tells us what we don't want to hear - what that voice tells us to do, that's what we're supposed to do.
Let's look at Superman. Superman has super hearing, so he can hear the voice of everyone who calls for help in the whole city. See, if you're sitting in your apartment and you hear someone on the other side of town scream because they're being murdered, and you have the power to stop it, you'd be kind of a jerk if you just stayed on the couch watching Jersey Shore. What choice, really, did Superman have? He was just doing what he was supposed to do.
Peter Parker? Soon as he got his Spider Man powers, he tries to figure a way to make money from them, like most people probably would. But while he's busy making money, he ignores the opportunity to stop a thief, one who later kills his Uncle Ben. Not the same guy who made the rice. Peter Parker finds out the hard way that, as the comics are so fond of reminding us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” You get super powers, you don't get to sit around any more. It's not really fair, but once you've got the power to do something you're supposed to do, you have to do it.

Here's where I quoted myself and read from my own This I Believe essay. But it really fit in this context:

I believe in sticking my nose in other people's business

Part II
In a way, I'm really jealous of Superman. And not just because he gets to wear his underpants on the outside of his clothes. His super hearing always tells him exactly where he's supposed to be. His super powers mean he always knows what to do about it, and unless Lex Luthor is feeling particularly devious, he comes away without a scratch. If it were that easy, we'd all be wearing our underpants on the outside of our clothes.
Christopher Reeves said: A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.
I recently read the memoir Fish: A Boy in a Man's Prison by TJ Parsell. It's exactly as depressing as it sounds, but I wouldn't let that scare me away; it's one of the most beautifully written and powerful books I've read in a long time, and in large part the inspiration for my doing this sermon at this time. Parsell was a seventeen year old boy in 1978 when he entered prison for, among other things, robbing a Photomat with a toy gun. His first night in prison, he was brutally gang raped, and raped many times after that until he was released when he was in his early twenties. He doesn't go into quite how it happened, but he went on to become a successful dot com executive. Parsell talks of the moment, when he was in his mid-40s, that he realized he was supposed to face his past and tell his story:
I had it all - a successful career in the software industry, a Senior Vice President title, and a comfortable six-figure salary that went along with it. My past had been clearly behind me. I was a kid then, and who I was at the time had nothing to do with who or where I was at today. But ever since I walked into a video store in Manhattan and saw some kids laughing at a depiction of prisoner rape on the TV monitors - I decided it was time to do something. In short, I became a human rights advocate dedicated to ending sexual violence in prisons.
Are you sure this is what I'm supposed to be doing?” I said out loud....
I don't think that finding the heroes in ourselves has anything to do with standing on rooftops with capes billowing. I think it's about listening to the still quiet voice inside ourselves, the annoying one that's always telling us what we're supposed to do. Listening and finally saying “Okay. Okay fine, I'll do it.”
So if you're anything like me, sometimes you know what you're supposed to accomplish, but not necessarily how. It's one thing to say you're an advocate, but how do you carry that out? Particularly if you've got limited means and you live in... you know, not the most socially conscious of locations? So I talked to some people that I know who are sort-of self-made advocates. Not people who had the foresight to go to school for doing advocacy things, but people who came to a realization one day that they were supposed to do something and then did it. I talked to my friend Sarah, who is an advocate against animal mistreatment, particularly all the bad stuff people do to pit bulls, and she said that more than volunteering and donating money, it's important to educate people, talk to people about breed myths and and animal cruelty, and to talk to people about spaying and neutering. Andrew Line, whose poem I read earlier, has done extensive writing on the subject of violence against trans people and gay rights in general, and has been working on building our URU GLBT advocacy group. I came to the realization some time ago that I was supposed to advocate for the rights of people with mental illness, and that started with simply coming out of the closet as a person with a mental illness myself.
It's not always easy to hear the still quiet voice that tells us what we're supposed to do, so I'd like us to take a moment here at the end of things, to stop and listen to the voice. We'll sit in silence for a moment and listen, just listen to the part of us who knows what we're supposed to do. The voice might be telling you what you're supposed to do with the rest of your life, or it might just be telling you what you're supposed to do today. So I'm going to ring this chime and I want you to listen to the sound of the tone for as long as you can hear it, and then I want you to keep listening, listening for your still quiet inner voice.

When the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honor scorns to compromise with death - that is heroism. Robert Green Ingersoll

This song came up on my play list Friday and it just seemed really appropriate.

So enjoy yourself, do the things that matter
Cause there isn't time and space to do it all
Love the things you try, drink a cocktail, wear a tie
Show a little grace if you should fall

Don't live another day unless you make it count
There's someone else that you're supposed to be
Something deep inside of you that still wants out
And shame on you if you don't set it free

  • ere's a link to Just Detention International, the organization with whom TJ Parsell works to end prisoner rape.
  • And a Link to Trans Ohio, Andrew's trans charity of choice.
  • And Sarah wants you to help needy puppies by helping the guys at Paws Ohio.

Other sermons
I've since been told that everything
I said about Squanto in this
sermon is wrong, but let's pretend.
Mental Illness

Friday, May 27, 2011

This is the kind of writer I want to be

Trial by Fire
David Grann
The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky...

Read the article first. I'll wait.
This isn't about the content of the story, even though it's sobering and devastating. Being put to death, being put to death for something one didn't do, would be nothing compared to dying knowing the world believed you murdered your babies.
What this is about is the way the story is written. Crafted, actually. Notice how the first half of the article makes it overwhelmingly obvious that the bastard is guilty as sin? And the second half makes you realize you were a sap for believing the first half. Why didn't I question the evidence about his being Satanic, even though I know allegations of Satanism are almost never true? Why did I trust the eyewitnesses in the assessment of something as abstract as the guy's emotions, knowing how unreliable eyewitnesses can be? Why did I find myself not minding terribly, the idea of his dying, even though I don't believe in the death penalty?
Naturally, if I'm so easily swayed by the first half, maybe I'm just being a sucker in thinking the second half is right. Which is why I try so hard not to make judgments until I look at the raw data. But I can't really see myself understanding the whole crazed glass thing on any sort of real scientific level anytime soon, what with having so deftly avoided all the science that goes into knowing these things all my life.
Do you know how many times a day I curse myself for so skillfully avoiding all that learning stuff? Especially when called upon to do simple math in my head. I guess what I'm saying is do the math. I guess what I'm saying is this article doesn't just report a story or send a message or even necessarily sway one's opinion on the death penalty and all that stuff. It reminds us how delicate our minds are, and how easily we can be swayed when we let somebody else tell us what to think.
This is the kind of writer I want to be.

So, does the fact that I read something in The New Yorker and it didn't sail so cleanly over my head  that I was pretty sure it was just gibberish mean that I've finally made the transition to snooty intellectual?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Said Sugar, take it slow, and things will be just fine

I've got really no idea what to write tonight. This is partly because I waited until after Kung Fu, thinking that somehow I'd be more loquacious after all the punching and kicking and... being slimy. I don't even have the energy to do a post about the etymologies of martial arts words, which is usually what I do when I can't think of anything to write - look up the etymologies of words related to whatever I'm doing. But I'm tired.
I've been thinking a lot about Doing Something Meaningful with my life. Having a minor existential freak-out, if you will. It's funny about my job. I think I've mentioned before that you'd think this kind of writing would suck out my soul. And while I can't say for sure that the fluorescent lights and lack of windows aren't doing a little bit of sucking here and there, the job part, the writing part, seems to do the opposite. I remember when I was working in the group home, having my writing dates with Megi every time we worked together. I remember sitting at the table with one of the people I love most, with nothing to do but write and... nothing came out of my pen. I mean, words came out, and I wrote them down, dutifully, for three hours, and nothing. I go back and look at those notebooks and all I could really write was how terrified I was that tonight was finally going to be the night that one of the clients beat me to death. How worried I was about Megi. How much pain I was in and how ruthless the bill collectors were and how I never should have majored in English and how I wasn't going to be able to afford my meds this month.
I stole this photo from Megi's Facebook album, 
since I was talking about Megi anyway. Hope she 
doesn't mind.
They say that this kind of drama is supposed to inspire great writing. There was nothing great about it. They were the terrified ramblings of someone too mired in the negative to write anything meaningful or insightful about it. It was just words. Grousing, self-pitying words at that. Looking back over my life, the times when my writing has been the weakest have been the times I was struggling the most - with depression or brokeness or job stress or whatever. Now that I'm all medicated and not getting paid $9 an hour to have people threaten to rape and murder me all day, I'm freaking Hemingway. Which is to say that I'm a drunk who hates women and has a fondness for six-toed cats.
Anyway, point is, I'm finally in a place where I actually have the capacity to sit down in my spare time and write decent stuff. And damn, I want to turn that decent stuff into something that's really going to shake things up and help the world and stuff. But I feel like you need a platform bigger than a blog. But what do I know. This post was largely useless, but, you know, tired. 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Post Con Glow

As it turns out, the only people who love acronyms and intialisms more than computer programmers are Unitarian Universalists. To wit, I spent this weekend at an event for the OMDUUYAN - Ohio Meadville District Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network. I've been a member of the OMDUUYAN for coming up on two years if I math correctly and I still never say it right on the first try. Oh, that's right, I just verbed math. Because that's how I roll.
Unitarian Universalists get a lot of words thrown in their direction. Elitist. Sanctimonious. Smug, snide, disdainful. But I spent this weekend with some of the most ardent and active young UUs I know, and hardly any of us (myself excepted of course) are elitist, pompous, sanctimonious, smug, and stuff. We were freaks and geeks and gay rights activists and nurses and parents. Despite the fact that UUs are all supposed to be affluent, we've got folks representing every level of income. People with PhDs and people who didn't finish, or barely finished high school. We're supposed to disdain other faiths, but we're as pagan as we are Buddhist as we are agnostic as we are Christian as we are confused as we are open-minded.
Plus the weekend was super hero themed, and we all know super heroes make everything just that more awesome. Lots of excellent fodder for my sermon next week at the UUCGC (Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Canton). You should stop on by if you're in town. I am good for some laughs, if nothing else. As usual, if you are a bum and would rather sleep or go to your own stupid church (see? Unitarians do disdain other religions!), I'll probably post my notes sometime Sunday afternoon.
We had an open mic last night. Even that wasn't elitist and sanctimonious. Mike read Neil Gaiman's The Price, and if you haven't read the story, it is absolutely worth picking up a copy of Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors if you think you can handle all the awesome. The Price is a story about a cat who is far more than a cat, and I don't know that I've ever read or heard it without crying. And not just because I'm a crazy cat lady.
I read Kerouac's Silly Goofball Poems, which begins:

The Moose is a noble dolt.
The Elk is a fool.
The Rhinoceros is the biggest bore of them all.
The Hippopatamus is a Giant River Pig.
The Hyena is a striped dog who thought he was a laughing Horse.
The Lion is a Queer Cat who by the power of his Queerness became a great Jowled Cat.
The Tiger is a pure cat
The Panther hates cats.
The Cheetah is a dog who thought he was a Fast Cat.
And only gets more awesome from there.
Then Tim kind of blew my mind by reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl. In high school and college, I loved the poetry puzzle, interpreting the rhythm, rhyme, and alliterations of them. But Howl was always well beyond my powers of comprehension. I went to some beat poetry reading at a museum back in high school, and they read Howl. I remember it being about the most boring seventeen hours of my life, because I was pretty sure it was nothing but a long string of unrelated words, the emperor's new clothes. And then Tim read it. It made me wonder if there's a point to sitting in English classrooms solving puzzles and riddles, missing the things we would see if we stopped figuring and started listening.
This cat is also far more than a cat.
He's also pretty much pure evil.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


So on Facebook, you can click a little link below a photo, an ad, a link, or someone's status to "like" that thing. So if Aunt Esther has a wedding anniversary and can pull herself away from Farmville long enough to post a status about it, you can click this little link, and a little message will appear saying "Brigid Daull Brockway likes this!" with a little thumbs up next to it. In case you're too lazy to type the words "Congratulations Aunt Esther and Uncle Walter!" That is a lot of words, after all.
Now, ever since Facebook invented the "like" button, users have been loudly and ardently demanding a "dislike" button, so that if Aunt Esther pulls herself away from Farmville to tell you that Uncle Walter died, you can click a little link and a "Brigid Daull Brockway Dislikes This!" message could appear. Comforting people with casseroles is so last century. 
NPR told me today that the reason Facebook won't keep its users happy and give us this much-needed tool (because it takes a really long time to just type out "Brigid Daull Brockway Dislikes This!") is that advertisers wouldn't like it very much. I can see where a company that pays for and maintains a Facebook page would not want people flocking to their page just to proclaim their hatred for it. Bad for business. Unless you ask Rebecca Black, who probably owes the omnipresence of her song Friday to the millions of people who posted and reposted the video just to make fun of it. 
Side note: Yes, it's an incredibly annoying song. But she's a little girl and the Internet should probably stop collectively advocating her death. It's certainly no worse than, you know:
Although I do recall spending quite a bit of my tween years loudly advocating their deaths. And I'm not going to say I regret it.
But I digress as usual. Anyway, here are some terms for you, courtesy of my friends at the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Facebook (n): From 1983, when it referred to a directory with names and pictures; some colleges gave them out to Freshmen.
Friend (v): The verb sense of friend, as in "I friended her on Facebook" became popular around 2005, although, apparently the friend has been used as a verb periodically since the 14th century
Unfriend (v): Doesn't show up until about 2007, allegedly. Apparently, everybody needed two years to figure out that the people they hated in high school are just as bad now as they were then. However, unfriend as a noun meaning enemy has been around since the 13th century, mostly among the Scottish, although it fell into disuse in the 19th century.
App: Computer jargon from 1992, it's short for application.

Edit: I just saw a news story that a couple in Israel named their baby Like, after the Facebook phenomenon  Good luck, kid.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


A friend recently posted a link to this article about whether high school teachers need to focus less on classic literature and more on the basics of grammar and basic writing skills. Does it have to be either/or? Maybe it could be a little less of one and a little more of the other?
The first person who introduced me to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style wasn't a professor or mildly intimidating nun, it was Stephen Freaking King. The Elements of Style is an 86-page guide to the basics of grammar. It's basic enough to read in an hour, but comprehensive enough that it's the first resource I turn to when I'm not sure on a point of grammar. It doesn't contain absolutely everything you need to know to be a good writer, but it sure tells you everything you need to know to write a decent writing 101 essay. If all high school English teachers did was make kids read the thing and take a test on it once a year, English 101 professors in colleges all over would be much happier people. If high school English teachers ran every paper by Strunk and White, made kids write and rewrite until they pass the Strunk and White test. I mean, I realize English teachers have a lot to deal with. Maybe the author of the Slate article is a little bit right - maybe we could forgo a Moby Dick or a Young Goodman Brown. I mean, did I really have to read both David Copperfield and Great Expectations my Freshman year? I still have nightmares that involve taking a test on... crap. I can't remember a single thing about either book. There was something about an old lady in a wedding dress, I think. Possibly about someone running into the ocean, but I may have that confused with The Bell Jar. What I'm saying is that, while we don't have to throw the dead white guy cannon away entirely, the author's right - we could probably dedicate a bit more time to the practical. Filling out a job application. Writing a coherent college entrance essay. A cover letter. A letter to your kid's teacher. Nouns, verbs, punctuation. 

  • Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's
  • In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  • Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  • Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause
  • Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  • Do not break sentences in two
  • A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject
  • Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
  • As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words together
  • In summaries, keep to one tense
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end

That's it. You learn those things and you're a heck of a lot better off than if you remember what the heck David Copperfield was about (something about moors, the Ides of March, baseball? Seriously, nothing. Not a single thing).

For that matter, how come I had to learn about sines and proofs and right angles, yet I still don't understand compound interest, the metric system, or my health insurance explanation of benefits statements?
Why did I dissect a baby piggy when I had to learn not to give my cat lettuce the hard way? Okay, well, I dissected a baby piggy because I took comparative anatomy to avoid having to take physics. But I doubt learning the... learning whatever it is you learn in physics would have been any more practical than what I learned gutting poor little Wilbur. Although I gotta say, I had a lot more fun hacking up the poor little guy than I probably should have.
I wonder whether pre-college education in general could be a tiny bit more practical and less... eggheady?

Edit: I just read an online synopsis of David Copperfield. STILL doesn't ring a single bell. Though I have always found Dickens' sense of humor to be rather opaque. 

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Press one for grousing

I've been kind of putting off tackling the whole debate about immigrants speaking English because this seems to be one of those issues that folks just can't discuss rationally. It often starts out civilly enough, but the invective hurling starts before too long and five sentences into the argument, one party is accusing the other of eating babies.
You can probably guess that my tendencies are toward the mealy-mouthed side. My argument is not, however, that immigrants shouldn't have to learn English. My argument is that a lot of the time, especially in areas with low immigrant populations like mine, the debate has little to do with whether people should learn English. In other words, I think there are two completely separate debates going on. A debate whether immigrants should learn English, and a debate about whether immigrants - specifically brown-skinned immigrants - are a threat to American culture.
You see, I think that there are few people who don't think that having most Americans speaking a common language is a good thing. While I'm not for a law mandating it, I do think it is preferable for immigrants to learn English if they can. And actually, 90% of Hispanic people agree with that sentiment, according to Made in America author Bill Bryson. According to Bryson, immigrants are learning English at the same rates they were learning English before; the language is in no more danger now than it was a hundred or so years ago when there were a lot of Italian and Polish immigrants getting off the boat with poor English skills. So if one argues, "Everyone should learn English," the answer is "Most agree and most do." There isn't much left to argue there. 
The thing I think people fail to understand is that it's not always feasible to learn an entire language the second you cross the border. There's also the fact that having stuff in English and Spanish isn't just for people who don't know or refuse to learn English. I'm pretty sure, for example, that with the limited amount of Spanish I know, I could use the ATM in Spanish mode. But it would take two or three times as long for me to get my money, and it would be an inconvenience to everybody in line behind me. It's not a threat to the national identity to make ATM lines shorter.

When I worked at an ice cream shop back in high school, there was a lady, for instance, who came with her husband and kids. The kids picked up English pretty fast, but she spoke with a great amount of effort. It was kind of a pain, especially when we were busy, to try and piece together what she was ordering. But after three summers of my working there, she spoke English like a champ. It wasn't that she refused to learn English, it was just that she hadn't learned it yet. It would have been kind of a dick move on my part to treat her like crap those first couple of summers on the assumption that she was some kind of bad American.
There's also the fact that it's really hard to learn one language while immersed in another. For example, I know somebody who got straight As in French all through high school who barely spoke enough French to reserve a hotel room in Paris her Freshman year of college. You don't really start learning a language functionally until you're immersed in it. 
I think it's funny how in most other countries, being bilingual is seen as a good thing, a thing that shows intelligence and education. Here in America, people bitch see bilingualism as a threat. People bitch about Dora the Explorer because she teaches our children half a dozen Spanish words an episode, as if having our kids know how to say hola is a threat to the American way of life. 

Double Rainbow: What Does it Mean?

A huge thanks to awesome blogger and fellow Gleek who rescued this post and e-mailed it to meCheck out her out at
In All in a Word, Vivian Cook tells me that the Welsh language only has two color names - black and white. Whenever I hear factoids like this, I wonder what the catch is. I'm guessing the entire country isn't color blind, and while I realize it can be dreary over there, one would assume they still need to, you know, be able to tell whether a banana's ripe or not.

So what gives? Do they borrow words from other languages? Speak of color only in comparison - the color of bananas or the sky or haggis? Maybe they do have color words, but they just talk too fast for anybody to catch them. 
Are you aware there's a condition called synesthesia, in which people's brains inexplicably and arbitrarily associate sensory experiences with concepts or ideas. So the number one is a yellow square and the number five is a red circle. The colors aren't universal or anything (although it would be really cool if they were); everybody gets their own shapes and colors. I saw a documentary about a synesthete who had a distinct shape and color for like, one to one thousand or something absurd like that. Wild. 
So let me lay some Roy G. Biv on you, courtesy of Online Etymology Dictionary.

  • Red: Goes all the way back to Indo European, common ancestor of languages as diverse as Latin, German, Sanskrit, and English.
  • Orange: Color came first, before the fruit. Related to the Sanskrit narangah which is remarkably close to the Spanish naranjah. Which is pretty damn cool.
  • Yellow: From the Indo-European ghel. Perhaps came to be associated with cowardice as a result of the belief that humors like yellow phlegm controlled temperament. That's not according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, just a guess.
  • Green: From Indo-European base ghre. Green as the color of envy goes back to at least Shakespeare. Green as a type of political party or movement shows up in 1978 - same time I showed up! 
  • Blue: Words similar to blue have been used to describe every shade from black to yellow, according to Etymology Online. The Japanese have two blues, ao and mizuiro, according to All in a Word, and both native speakers of Japanese AND non-native speakers who become fluent in Japanese see the two as very distinct colors and not, in fact, as two shades of the color blue.
  • Indigo: Named after India. Perhaps because India is purple? According to All in a Wordpurple is not a universal color term, meaning it's not universally recognized as a color. Perhaps speakers of other languages see what we consider purple as just a shade of blue. The language you speak determines what colors you see. Just think about that for a minute. Okay, minute's up.
  • Violet: First came the flower, then the color. Etymologically related to iodine, which gets its name for the color of the vapors given off by heated iodine crystals.
And because I just can't get enough of the Songify folks: 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Technical Difficulties

Uh... blogspot seems to have eaten my last post. Gone. Weird. More content to follow.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Capestrano gets swallows, Ohio gets buzzards

It's the Ides of March and the sky becomes dark. You look up, and the dim, gray disc that passes for the sun these days blotted out by the mottled black wings of buzzards, swooping crazily toward the earth and then looping as crazily upward. To sane humans, this horrific sight would portend a coming apocalypse. To the good folks of Ohio, this horrific sight portends spring.
Every year on the 15th of march, a great wake of turkey buzzards descends upon the city of Hinckley, Ohio, and the city actually celebrates this. Although by the middle of March here in Ohio, you'll take any change in scenery you can get, I guess. I would have blogged this back in March, but I just found out about it.
The word buzzard descends from a Latin version of a word for hawk, making the term buzzard inaccurate - a hawk is defined as a bird of prey, but a turkey buzzard is a scavenger. Because England apparently doesn't have any birds that live solely on carrion, so early English settlers assumed that all large birds soaring overhead were hawks.
The correct term for the ominous bottom feeders of the sky is turkey vulture; vulture may come from a Latin word meaning to pluck or tear. The turkey part of the turkey vulture's name refers to the fact that the critters resemble wild turkeys - or at least, they look like a terrifying caricature of a wild turkey - sort of like how It looks like a terrifying caricature of a circus clown. I told you about the etymology of the word turkey in this post.
Facts notwithstanding, given the choice,
I'd take on the clown.
The collective noun for vultures is a wake, and although I've not found an official etymology, I assume this refers to the fact that you'll always find them keeping watch over a dead body. Wake is descended from old Norse waka, meaning vigil
It's interesting to note that turkey vultures don't actually kill their prey - unlike other kinds of vultures, they rarely even kill off weak and vulnerable members of a herd - although they do share in the spoils when their buddies the black vultures do. They're creepy because they're heralds of death, but they don't bring on the death themselves. If anything, they're just being eco-friendly.
Cleveland's iconic radio station, WMMS The Buzzard, by the way, is not named for the city of Hinckley's mascot. The station adopted the buzzard in 1974, in reference to the city's disastrous economy. I once heard a Cleveland journalist argue that Cleveland would probably suck less if Clevelanders talked less about how much the city sucks. What do you do about a city that centers its identity around self-deprecation?  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Roger Ebert: Remaking my voice

This is long but truly amazing - Roger Ebert speaks about re-finding his voice after losing his ability to speak. Ebert lost his lower jaw to cancer something like four years ago, and hasn't been able to speak or eat since. According to an article in Esquire, he doesn't remember the last thing he ate, the last thing he drank, the last words he said. How very strange that his last meal was probably bland hospital food. 
I always saw him as gruff and unpleasant. Has he changed, or has my perception? Is it simply the fact that his face is stuck in that strange grin he's wearing?
There's a line in the Nick Hornby/Ben Folds song Doc Pomus about the blues singer who went by that name that goes "And he could never be one of those happy cripples. The kind that smile and tell you life's okay. He was mad as hell; frightened and bitter..."
I wonder if people like Roger Ebert go home and feel like Doc Pomus. How much is genuine sentiment and how much is just the facade you put on to keep yourself sane and keep your friends comfortable? 
Did Lou Gehrig really consider himself the "luckiest man on the face of the earth"? Or did he go home and bawl and pray for God to take it all away? Did part of him wonder if he convinced the world and himself that he had accepted his fate, God would let him off the hook, like he did Abraham? Did he think about killing himself, as so many people with ALS seem to do?
Does Michael J Fox cry himself to sleep at night? Did Christopher Reeves play his accident over and over in his mind and wish desperately he'd never gotten on that horse? Does Roger Ebert curse God every morning?

Monday, May 2, 2011

We both know this is not your best work

I have this little chest of drawers crammed fill of Things I've Written. Journals, clippings, articles from the school paper, and school assignments. Most of them are crap. I have this pile of writing assignments from ninth grade, assignments that should have been right up my alley. Good, creative assignments from a good, creative teacher. Every one of those is terrible. And not just ninth grade terrible. They're messy, impossible to follow, and they've got grades on them to match. And I'm not sure why. Maybe it was crippling depression, maybe it was that I wrote most of them the morning they were due, maybe it was that I couldn't stand said creative teacher for reasons I can't quite recall. Whatever it was, if you look at those assignments, you won't see them as diamonds in the rough, and you won't see the work of someone who would grow up to be a writer, even a technical one. 
I got better. By sophomore year, I had teachers telling me I knew I could do better, by junior year, they were telling me that I wasn't living up to my potential, and by senior year, they were telling me how gifted I'd be if I just applied myself. All of which are the best compliments I was going to get under the circumstances (the circumstances being my epic underachieving). I'm getting somewhere. I swear. 
A lot of writers and writing teachers will insist that you have to have at least some natural aptitude to be a good writer. As Stephen King put it "if you're a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one."(And I love me some Stephen King, but seriously Stephen King? Lawnmower ManLawnmower Man.) I've tried seeing it that way, but I just can't. 
Maybe it's just me wishing myself a better writer, but I believe that anyone can become a good writer, or a competent writer at the very least, who is brave enough to strip their writing naked. Competent writing boils down to precise nouns and strong verbs. It boils down to using the fewest, most effective words possible to express a concept. Competent writing begins the same way competent reading does: with Dick and Jane. If you can learn to write Dick and Jane, in my opinion, you can learn to be a competent writer. After that, how good a writer one becomes depends on how hard one works. That doesn't mean we'll all ever publish bestsellers, and it doesn't mean any of us will ever get published. It does mean that if we choose to, we can write clear effective stuff that means something to somebody. And all of us, I promise, can write something better than Lawnmower Man.

Sorry, Mr. King, I kid because I love.