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On Crosswords

26 Sep

I am a happy crossword geek. Witness: It made me geekily gleeful the other week when I went to the café in our campus library for my usual (refill, half decaf/half dark, plenty of room for cream) and saw that the students behind the counter were doing crosswords from the campus paper in their downtime. They’d started a contest to see who’d finish first and then business picked up. It made me happy just to know that college students do puzzles. That something so low-tech could hold their attention. And: I feel a bit bereft when I miss the puzzle on Weekend Edition Sunday, with Puzzle Master Will Shortz.

I toyed with an electronic version, an iPhone app, so I wouldn’t have to pack a puzzle book to Europe, but found a keystroke to be no substitute for the tactile satisfaction of pen in hand, filling in those tiny squares with capital letters. Yes, in ink. As Weeza says in Six Degrees of Separation (I paraphrase): “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t do it in ink.” “It” being the granddaddy of all puzzles, the New York Times Sunday puzzle.

Yes, in ink. In ink, though far, far from perfect. My puzzles are full of ink-overs, hard scribbles to X out whatever dumb thing I put in there while not thinking hard enough, or not looking ahead. I don’t seem to get much better, either. Forget doing the Sunday puzzle, except for those rare times when the trick behind the long clues just hits me (so satisfying). The Saturday puzzles usually stump me too, and the Friday ones. I’m more of a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday type of puzzler. The used-up crossword books stacked up on my bathroom shelf have pictures of bubble baths, kittens, flowers, and cafes on their covers. Their titles say “easy,” “coffee break,” “mild,” and “tension-taming.” Nearly all are NYT puzzles edited by Mr. Shortz. A couple are from the 1980s, edited by Eugene Maleska. I find those almost as impenetrable as the Sunday ones. I get the recent ones better, get their humor, their word play. Like this one where the long answers are lobsterpots, backstop, sunspot, newyorkpost: the second words are all anagrams! (Well, duh, you say.) Or this one, where “assorted hydroxides?” is “packoflyes,” and “always use the term ‘coloring agent’?” is “neversaydye.” Oh, to be so clever! Since I can’t be Oscar Wilde, maybe at least I could create cool puzzles?

One of my favorite pieces of family lore is this: that my Greek immigrant grandfather learned English by doing crosswords. Of course, he had to know enough English to begin filling in those little squares, to even understand the synonym clues, much less the more clever, punny or cryptic ones. Rather, I suspect, it was the way he acquired a large vocabulary, and a deep understanding of the syntax and playfulness of his adopted language.

Puzzles have gotten me through a lot of crap. They protected me from leering men on buses in Huntington Beach and Long Beach, back when I was young and cute and just wanted to get to work and back. They’ve since occupied my mind and hands during scary takeoffs or bumpy flights. They’ve kept me from getting bored or nervous in waiting rooms and lines. They probably feed some obsessive need in me (yes, I do wrap the poles with imaginary string while riding in a car). Too serious. Too rhapsodic. Mostly, they are just freaking fun. Play with words and expressions, play discovering the theme, play fitting letters together on a grid, play with order and symmetry.


On 50,038 Words

11 Feb

Poor, neglected blog. Life has been all words lately, with none to spare for you.

Mainly, it was the National Novel Writing Month, fondly NaNoWriMo. I did it! I won! I never win anything. But I won that. Winning means that I completed the challenge, 50,000 words in one month, the month of November, which was a busy month, what with holiday dinner and parties and final-essay grading. The glow lasted a while, several weeks at least. I did it! I wrote 50,038 words in one month, 158 pages, all original, all mine. That does not mean the beast I ended up with was a novel. Or only by a huge stretch of imagination. Maybe a series of stories, some linked, some not. I do not care. NaNoWriMo has a space for rebels. Next year I will claim my place among them. What I ended up with was mostly crap. Throwaway, or maybe hold on to the idea for some better means of execution some day. Most of that throwaway junk was stories taken from personal experience. I can’t seem to step away, even from childhood, enough to write with humor and interest about my life, except the recent bits. It always comes out tawdry. Tobias Wolff can do that, write with unfiltered honesty and humor about people and experiences from his life. He is a master. He also signed two books for me. He is my hero, and what I strive for. But turning outward seems to work best for me.

I am not a disciplined person. But I am also (something I noticed as the finish line loomed) not a quitter. Me. I never realized. A good lesson to learn about oneself. As an undisciplined person, I often got stuck and fell behind. Okay. The average daily word count to finish on time is 50,000 words divided by 30 days, or 1,667 words per day. I started strong, with a couple of good days over 2,000. Then, oh, a 1,300 word day, and a completely skipped day. It happens easily. You get stuck for ideas, you falter, you slip, you stare at the paper or screen, you go back and read what you’ve written, which, frankly, isn’t great. You are uninspired. But, I am not a quitter. I determined to do this thing, no matter what I ended up with.

Suddenly you have a 4,000-5,000 word day staring you in the face, the enormous number you need to catch up. Just write something. Something. Anything. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it’s original. As long as it’s you writing it, now.  Even if it says “I am writing complete crap, I have nothing to say, this is pointless, this is stupid, I hate this, come on brain, come up with something!” A few times I resorted to what I tell my students to do, just keep pen on paper/fingers on keyboard, keep going.  NaNoWriMo is a community, though I mostly lurked at the edges of it. I didn’t want to meet real live other NaNoWriMos in my lovely town. I didn’t want the pressure, and, frankly, I didn’t want to spend time going out to a coffee house rather than scribbling away. But I did read tips, inspirations, fun ways to procrastinate. One tip was about being stuck. I think it said “bring in a Ninja, bring in a ghost” or vampire, or other improbable creature. I don’t care about Ninjas or ghosts, and vampires have been done to everlasting death. So I thought a bit, not long, a few minutes tops, and a rhinoceros appeared in my head, just appeared.

Back in the inconceivably ancient past, the 1980s, in Long Beach, my now husband of many years, Gary, his roommate and our close friend, Tony, and I used to sit around Tony’s rented house with Larry the dog as our audience, reading from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist plays. At the Doolittle Theatre in 1988 we saw a production of The Bald Soprano and other works read by, among others, Rene Auberjonois, Patty Duke, and Tom Waits. The Tom Waits. The playwright himself was to have been there, but was aged and ailing in Paris. I love Ionesco. And years and years after loving his plays I lived for two non-consecutive years in his birth country of Romania. So, a rhinoceros it was, as a tribute or allusion, but without the theme of fascism. Oh, didn’t I say? In 1959 he wrote a play titled Rhinoceros.

I didn’t know where my rhinoceros would lead. I just started with an adolescent girl seeing an improbable animal outside her typical American suburban home on a bright spring Saturday. From there it rolled. This was something I’d heard of (and like allergies, before I experienced them myself, didn’t really believe in). I took an idea and sat down with my laptop and let my fingers go clickety click, tappety tap, and let the words come through them. Just flow. They came like water from a tap, so easily. Never has that happened to me before. I was happy with what came out. I was excited. I didn’t want to stop, but had to sleep, and then to work, and then to get back to it the next day. It seemed longer, days and days, because of the intensity of the writing project. In two days I had a story, with a beginning, middle and end, of 6,457 words, 19 pages double spaced. And it wasn’t crap at all. This is embarrassing to say, but I have to be honest: when I read the finished story I choked up. It seemed like something much larger than I’d started with, than I’d thought. Something about what we see and miss, and what we have to give up, and how we have to keep moving along with our lives.

The whole month went that way: slow and plodding and grueling, then quick, fluid, delightful. Sometimes I made myself laugh. It seemed kind of schizo, but there it was. My favorite thing to do was to write for a while, then do a word count, reenter my word count into the NaNoWriMo site, hit refresh, and see my improved progress chart, my words remaining diminishing, words per day to finish on time shrinking.  During this month we ate a lot of pasta, or I’d make big pots of chili or soup to eat for days. Or easy casseroles. Usually I’m more focused on cooking, planning menus, flipping through foodie magazines and cookbooks, searching cooking websites. It’s obsessive, and it was good to switch over to a different obsession for a change.

Still, even after a triumph, like the rhinoceros story, I’d get stuck. Once I pushed through the block by deciding to write one sentence. Back in grad school we literature majors all had to take pedagogy classes, as teaching was part of our education (and the way we earned our tuition waivers). I remember the idea in one such class of having students write a “labyrinthine sentence,” a single sentence that is just one long string of clauses, lists, parenthetical asides. I began a sentence that became a list and continued till 1,808 words, 6 pages later, about death, the big joke.  I was having fun! Playing with words. Just playing, like a kid, having given myself permission, because I am not a quitter, to just keep writing and if that entailed playing, so be it!

There are other parts I like. A story about Gus, a despondent sign twirler who tries not to be noticed, and one about bare teenage feet in summer, and one about how kids don’t believe in cold.  Maybe half is worth keeping, and that isn’t bad.

So I spent November in wordsmithery, broken up by bouts of proofreading, my other job (can you spell f-r-u-c-t-o-o-l-i-g-o-s-a-c-c-h-a-r-i-d-e-s?). Then came the holidays, travel, parties attended and thrown, no time for writing. Time for not writing, in fact, a break from writing. And now, a new quarter with two freshman writing classes. I’d love to make them care like I do. Questions of how to pass this caring on. How to help them feel it like playing sometimes. How to break them out of the ruts they were placed in in high school, the 5-paragraph essay, the topic sentence, the inverted pyramid.

I’ll keep working on that as long as I teach. It’s always an experiment. And I’ll keep writing till I can’t anymore. I’ve had my break, almost two months now. Back to the beautiful grind.

On “Back in the Day”

6 May

I’m not an old crank. Really. But last blog about my mom was nice, clearing space for a bit of bitchiness. Top on my current list of things people need to quit saying: “back in the day.” Like other meaningless or vague newish utterances, it seemed to appear everywhere at once, freshly sprung from some anti-literate collective brain. Its irritation quotient for me must be similar to that of the vexing “they” of my childhood to my parents, and all adults. “Where did you hear that?” my parents/other adults would ask.  “They said so,” I/other children would reply. “Who are ‘they?’” “I don’t know. The ones who said it.”

“They” made all kinds of presumably factual and historical pronouncements. “They said so” was the lazy person’s answer to the question, “where did you get that ridiculous idea?”

Because I was a tot, or, really, a preteen, I was lazy. I had no use for newspapers, magazines (other than Seventeen), encyclopedias, dictionaries, atlases, or any other textual sources of information and knowledge. Don’t misunderstand me. I read, and I read real books (Wuthering Heights, Huckleberry Finn, plays, collections of short fiction). But I couldn’t be bothered to look things up. I didn’t really want to know how to find information in an encyclopedia. I had zero interest in tables of content and indexes.  Generally, I’d meet suggestions that there was anything beyond my puny world view worth considering with a shrug or a “huh?”

This created additional family strife, for we older kids were given the task each week to find out some piece of information (note “given the task,” which is grammatical, simple, and fine, not “tasked,” which is ugly, wrong and lazy), such as the name of one of our state senators, or the governor. I never knew the answer.  Yelling at the dinner table would always result from my not knowing. Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t I look it up? “HOW DO YOU LOOK THINGS UP?!” my inner voice would yell back. I didn’t even know what that meant, other than using the card catalog at the library. And I didn’t live in a library. Besides, I had many more important things to do during the week than look things up, such as daydream about a boy with long, shiny black hair named Joe.

I’m cutting myself some slack, though, because I was a kid. Kids can get away with being mentally lazy. So much growing and changing is going on in their lives. And as you noticed, when I was a kid it took quite a lot of effort to find information. (Pre-Internet, heck, pre-computers!) I had to go to a place and then figure out how to find the right source of the information, and I was ridiculously shy about talking to strange adults, so asking a librarian was most likely out of the question.

No literate human being in a technologically advanced country with any access to said technology today has any excuse for “back in the day” though. Are you talking about the 1960s? The Eighteenth Century? Your childhood? A decade ago? Before your divorce? Before your marriage? Before the invention of sliced bread? During the time of the big flood?  During your wild years?  Your college days?  Before you ever heard Tom Waits? Before your first kiss? Back when you wore plaid pants with checkered shirts? Since we all live in time and space, there has to be a time frame for your reference, unless it’s all made up. In that case, make one up to go with.

Die, “back in the day.” Give me “the good old days,” those good days before the creation of whatever vexes you now, like the widespread use of meaningless verbalisms caused by mental laziness. Oh yeah, the good old days.


One single day after posting this, I was in the car listening to “Prairie Home Companion.” Twice during a sketch or narrative (he made me forget) Garrison said “back in the days when,” which is fine, a perfectly good expression. But I felt a sinking. I knew what was coming. Yes. He did it. He uttered the dreaded “back in the day.” Right there for all of his admiring listeners to hear and thereby get license to emulate. (Are you reading my blog and then mocking me, oh mighty creator of POEM, the “Professional Organization of English Majors?” I think not. No one much reads my blog, and certainly not you, oh great one.) I’ll get over it (really, life is overflowing with more pressing concerns), but for the moment, I feel like the holdout, the last one who believes and cares, Kevin McCarthy trying desperately, futilely, not to be turned into a pod. Sigh.


3 Jan


Q: What made you interested in jellyfish blooms?

A: So, I saw one when I was a kid and just started asking questions about it.

Q: How do you get your cakes to come out so nice and fluffy?

A: So, I use whipped lard instead of butter.

Q: How was the concert the other night?

A: So, it was awesome. So, we go and there’s all these losers waiting outside and this guy with like really cool hair tells us to come in cuz he’s a roadie and he can invite friends and we’re really cute.

Q: What’s your favorite season?

A: So, it’s fall.

The questioner is not immune:

Q: So, how do you get your cakes to come out so nice and fluffy?

A: So, I use whipped lard instead of butter.

“So” appears to be the new “like,” the way “like” was the new “uh.”  “So” has become a grunt, a noise, a non-word, a placeholder, an awkwardness posing as fluidity.

At first, I thought of this new verbal phenomenon as akin to coming into a conversation in medias res.  You start a conversation and the person you’re conversing with treats it as though it has always been going on, with brief interruptions.

“Hi Brad.”

“Hi. So, I saw Sam the other day and he said to say hi.”

But it’s not an interrupted conversation. You haven’t broached this topic before. You might not even be broaching a topic now. You might just be greeting someone on the street. You might be interviewing someone on public radio. You might be relating to your instructor why you weren’t in class for the exam. And you might be a teenager, or a scientist, or a financial analyst or even a teacher having a private and informal or a public and formal conversation.

It is a corruption of the conjunction “so.” Where conjunctions join, show relations, hook back to previous thoughts, this version of “so” hooks back to nothing. It joins no two things. It stands there all alone, grunting and filling the air with white noise.

The placeholder “uh” and its cousin “um” indicate awkwardness in speech. They tell us that the speaker is searching for the next word or thought, possibly having lost his or her place (something I must sympathize with: see “Lethologica” for more on that). “Well,” another placeholder, also suggests that the speaker is searching, needing a little more time to frame the next sentence, to find the more perfect expression. I’ve heard “well” used in classrooms and conferences as a way to clear space for the speaker to respond to an awkwardly stupid question in a gentle way. “Well, that is one possibility. But here I am focusing on something a little different.” “So” is just a mindless jerk, a jab, a foot kicking in the door of conversation, a harsh and rude entry with an aura of self-entitlement.  The speaker assumes the listener’s interest and attention.

I’m afraid. I’m afraid that we will only hear “so” as hemming and hawing more often. I’m afraid I will get used to it, the way I’ve almost gotten used to “their” referring back to a singular subject, or the way I feel less and less inclined to draw a line between “every” and “day” on signs. I’m afraid I’ll even adopt it as I have “like” (causing much yelling at myself to STOP THAT!). I’m going to try to hold out.  Want to join me?

On Babbitt

17 Dec

My little Signet paperback of Babbitt is falling apart. It came into my hands used, dozens of reads and 20-odd years ago, and now has clumps of pages coming loose. I lie in bed reading, pinching them together, knowing that I’ll have to put this book away for good soon. I’ve resorted to sticking clips all over it. I love this copy. Being used, it holds the traces of others’ lives as well as mine: on the inside front cover is a drawing of a curly-headed girl named Barbie Mack.

I’ve preserved a bookmark, a folded slip of paper that notes that Barbie, or Babs, was given this book by her friend, Janet, for her 19th birthday, indicated by the drawing of a birthday cake.  


The map of a street on the other side of the slip might show that the two friends lived near each other. (I can’t help thinking that Janet, knowing nothing about this novel, made a connection to her friend’s name—Babs/Babbitt—and that’s about all the thought that went into the selection. But I could be wrong. Still, I can’t rectify the image of young women who draw childish pictures for each other with this deeply satirical novel.)

Babs annotated bits of the text. Mostly these are light underlines and exclamation points.

But my favorites are more editorial. On one page Babs has crossed out a line and made   changes:

Here (right) she has moved nearly a whole paragraph describing Babbitt in sleep. The “Yet” of the remaining sentence now makes no sense, as it has nothing to attach to, Lewis’s point being that this very ordinary looking chap, a bit babyish with his pink, round face, harbors in his subconscious fanciful and escapist dreams. Babs has ruthlessly dispatched the sentence which Lewis used to link the end of Babbitt’s fading dream of the fairy child with the jarring clangs and clamors that threaten to wake him.

On the following page (left), she makes a more subtle editorial change.

Lewis’s sentence reads, “He glanced once at his favorite tree,   elm twigs against the gold patina of sky, and fumbled for sleep as if for a drug” (7). But Babs  doesn’t like the sound of that “gold patina of sky,” so changes it to “golden sky.” (Babs, I fear, may have gone on to be a critic.) The difference between these two expressions is what  makes one thing worth reading and another not. The hard sound of “gold,” the even harder, metallic sound of “patina.” This is not a soft, comforting sky, a welcoming sky: Babbitt clings to his dream because he has begun to lose his faith in the everyday world, he’s begun to question and doubt and feel something missing.

My friend Lynn once asked me why: why Babbitt? She’d read my Facebook profile, scanned my book list, and seen that I read that novel every year, at least, usually when I’m feeling, something. I don’t know. When I feel like I need it. I reread many books. Rereading is one of my greatest textual pleasures. One, I do not have a good memory, so I’m constantly rediscovering wonderful lines and words and scenes and descriptions. Two, rereading is taking a book to another level of ownership. I own these books over time, after reading 10, 15 times. I own them. No one has the same relationship with them that I do.

But that’s not why Babbitt. That why rereading. I can understand why someone would wonder why I am so in love with this novel. It’s far from obvious, though I’d never thought about it before. Why this traditional novel, written by the long-dead Sinclair Lewis in 1922, many years before even my parents were born, much less me? It’s not such a distant world that it’s unrecognizable, like a Medieval tale of knights and damsels, or a Renaissance play of crowns and intrigue. It’s very much in the modern world. Let’s start with the obvious differences. George Babbitt is a middle-aged man, at 46 several years younger than I am now; though I’m older, I perceive myself as much younger than Babbitt. He’s balding; I have too much unruly curly hair. He runs his own successful real estate office; I’m a part-time college writing instructor. He blithely cuts corners and justifies cheating his employees out of commissions; I am constitutionally incapable of cheating on anything, to the point where I come off as strident and prissy. Babbitt is a booster, clubman, and believer only in what his Republican newspapers tell him; I’m left of left, never boosted anything, have never been a joiner, and am practically paranoid about being sold a bill of goods by any media outlet. He cheats on his matronly, clueless wife; I adore my husband, who is much hipper than I am.

I could go on, but that’d be, like, relating the whole book. The fact is that I do identify with this man who wakes grumpily and reluctantly from dreams of the “fairy child” at the beginning of the book, after a night of prohibition drinking with his booster friends, to find that his perfectly ordered and ordinary world no longer thrills him. The rest of the book follows Babbitt as he drifts, grumps, badgers himself to get a grip. The usual pleasures: securing a slightly-shady property deal, trading kidding barbs with his club pals, just don’t do it for him all of a sudden. He makes several social strides. His booster speeches get him past previously closed doors. But even his successes don’t curb his yearning for that something intangible represented by the fairy child. He questions his beliefs in the native goods of business and capital and boosterism and conformity, for a while. Politically he is a bit of a mush-head, so is easily led from one set of uninterrogated beliefs to another by a group of silly flappers and young men who call themselves “the bunch.” His disapproving friends, most of them businessmen and “pillars” of the community, punish that treachery with social ostracism, he panics and repents, and back he goes to the refuge of the stodgy and familiar.

Babbitt is a novel about materialism, dissatisfaction and restlessness. But that makes it sound drab and dull. If that were all it was, it wouldn’t be readable, much less rereadable. The thing is, it’s funny. It’s witty and warm and very real. It is writing like this that keeps pulling me in year after year (pages opened at random, really).

Businessmen meeting on a train:

“That’s right, brother. And just look at collars, frinstance—”

“Hey! Wait!” the fat man protested. “What’s the matter with collars? I’m selling collars! D’ you realize the cost of labor on collars is still two hundred and seven per cent. above—”

They voted that if their old friend the fat man sold collars, then the price of collars was exactly what it should be; but all other clothing was tragically too expensive. They admired and loved one another now. They went profoundly into the science of business, and indicated that the purpose of manufacturing a plow or a brick was so that it might be sold. (119)

Babbitt’s character:

The whole of the Glen Oriole project was a suggestion that Babbitt, though he really did hate men recognized as swindlers, was not too unreasonably honest. …

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practise, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor-speeding; he paid his debts; he contributed to the church, the Red Cross, and the Y.M.C.A; he followed the custom of his clan and cheated only as it was sanctified by precedent; and he never descended to trickery—though, as he explained to Paul Riesling:

“Course I don’t mean that every ad I write is literally true or that I always believe everything I say when I give some buyer a good strong selling spiel.” (40-41)

Babbitt getting ready for the day:

He roused himself and spoke gruffly to his bath-things. “Come here! You’ve done enough fooling!” he reproved the treacherous soap, and defied the scratchy nail-brush with “Oh, you would, would you!” He soaped himself, and rinsed himself, and austerely rubbed himself; he noted a hole in the Turkish towel, and meditatively thrust a finger through it, and marched back to the bedroom, a grave and unbending citizen.

There was a moment of gorgeous abandon, a flash of melodrama such as he found in traffic-driving, when he laid out a clean collar, discovered that it was frayed in front, and tore it up with a magnificent yeeeeeing sound. (80)

If language has flavor, Babbitt is written with a sharp but pleasing tang. Lewis has chosen every word for its sound, its specific meaning and its connotation. “Golden” is a soft and mundane description of a morning sky. “Gold patina” is vivid. He’s grabbed the speech of his day and laid it out there, a ridiculously difficult thing to do for most of us. He’s poked fun and peeled back layers of hypocrisy and exposed the silliness of his characters, while never being mean or removing their humanity (as Dickens does, but does oh so perfectly). Any fool can pick up a pen (how Luddite an expression!) and write something with a plot. Anyone can “write” a piece of fiction. That is easy. Just make some crap up and throw some words onto a page. Load your prose with mushy adjectives and trite expressions. Repeat the lazy thoughts and clichés of the populace and you’ll probably even have a hit. Anyone can do that, and too many people do. The works of hacks will die, though. And I’ll still be reading Babbitt, I hope, in 40 years.

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