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Unsubscribing

16 Apr

Today as I delete 531 emails–eBay, Williams-Sonoma, MoveOn, PPKM, Classmates, Dunham’s, Trip Advisor, Twitter, Active.com, Pottery Barn, New York Times, SitterCity, Famous Footwear, The Grommet, My Recipes, Yummly, Goodreads, igourmet, OpenTable, SiriusXM, Kickstarter, Airbnb, Marriott, Hilton, LinkedIn, Travelocity, Travel Channel, more (I’m drowning here)–I search again and again, site after site, for the unsubscribe button, hidden in minuscule, barely-perceptible type on the bottom of the page. I click.

“Do you want to receive fewer messages? How about only these?”

No. Release me.

“Wait! Please don’t go!”

But I have to. I’m, I’m weary of pleas and recipes and commerce, reminders and more reminders. Pleas for donations. Pleas for my business. Pleas to review purchases. Pleas for validation, for friendship, pleas to be liked. On Facebook.

“We’ll miss you!”

I’m sorry. Really. Please release me.

“We hate to see you go. Can you tell us why?”

It’s more a feeling than a reason, really, one of loss. Or maybe it’s a  yearning, for something I used to take for granted. Freedom from being wanted. It’s not that I don’t like your stuff, your politics, your recipes. It’s not that I’ll never visit you again. It’s just that you’re…too clingy. You want too much from me. I’m drowning. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s, it’s neither of us, really. Nah, that’s a lie. It’s you. It’s all you.

 

 

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Found Story: The Box

16 Mar

 

The box of bowls was purchased at Universe All in Iasi, Romania. There is no clue as to where they were made, or more important, where the box was made. There are no other languages on the box, only English. One pasted-on sticker in Romanian tells the content of the box, its weight, and that it was distributed by a company in Romania. Parenthetical directions are mine. All spelling, punctuation, capitalization and words belong to the box. Not one was changed. The mistranslation and non-English grammar were not what drew me to this box so much as the sometimes commanding/sometimes pleading voice of the writer.  Note that bad things will happen to the consumer who fails to follow instructions. They are not likely or possible but predetermined.

(Front of box)

Multi-function

Cooking Bowl

Frozen

Cold storage

Microwave oven

“cooking is the world of discovery. After all the necessary materials gather, the taste depends on your skill only. It’s pleasure to see what dishes will appear.”

(Pictures)

(Left)

Microwave oven OK!

(Middle)

Suitable to contain food

(Right)

The food can be frozen without using special food membrance.

(Back of box)

Cooking bowl

Heat-resisting glass product 5 pcs/Set

[the attention to operation]

glass part.

  • Please make clear if there are any crack and breach etc. In glass before using. if any, do not use. For the lass will be broken easily.
  • The glass is fragile, please be more careful when cleaning & using.
  • Do not beat & scrape the glass with hard object such as spoon etc.
  • Before cooking, please wipe the water drops off from the outside of bowl. If more water needed during heating, do not use cold water. Do not clean the bowl with wet cloth and do not put the bowl in damp place when the glass is still heated.
  • Do not be heated when nothing in bowl.
  • Neither corrodent, detergent or metal brush can be used for cleaning.
  • Avoid the bowl to be dropped from high position. Avoid the gowl to be dashed against other objects.

Attention

The bowl can only be heated through microwave oven, any other way, especially direct heated on fire is forbidden.

Lid part

  • If there is much oil in food, please take the lid off from the bowl.
  • There will be colors and smell adhered to the lid, because of some pigment and smell in food.
  • The lid must be sterilizred with boiling water.
  • Do not wash the glass with washing machine.

Attention

Do no carry the bowl only with the lid, for it will be dropped down to ground and to be broken.

Frozen storage

  • When the food is frozen in bowl, the volume will be enlarged, tension force will let the glass be broken, so please pay attention to the followings:
  • Do not freeze liquid such as extracting juice and fruit juice etc.
  • Liquid food can not be put into bowl for freezing. For rice, it can only be dumpled, then put into the bowl.
  • The liquid such as curry, Jam etc., Should be up to 80% of the bowl volume.

The attention in using in microwave oven

  • Before using, please read the instruction manual of microwave oven carefully.
  • The bowl can not be overheated & there must be something in bowl when heating.
  • After heated, do not touch the bowl with naked hand, when moving is needed, please move the whole bowl. Do not put the heated bowl on the nylon tablecloth which easily burned.
  • Do not wipe the bowl with wet cloth and do not put the bowl in damp place whenthe glass is still heating. For being sudden cold, the glass will be broken.
  • When the glass have some cracks, do not put the bowl in microwave oven, this will cause the glass to be broken and microwave oven will be destroyed.

[Maintenance]

Attention

  • Please clean glass with soft sponge & neutral cleaning agent.
  • Do not clean with nylon brush, metal brush &rough detergent etc. for the glass easily broken and scraped.

Romanian Holidays 2004-2005

24 Dec

There are two ways to ride a train.

Facing forward, your eyes flick from the distance, which blurs as soon as it enters your conscious vision, to the periphery, then back into the distance. Before you can focus on what is ahead, it is past and gone.

The other way is to face the direction from which you have come, a slower, sweeter experience, with time for eyes to linger on the shape of the landscape and the tracks unwinding like ribbon from a spool.

At the station in Iasi, a city on the eastern border of Romania, nearly touching the Republic of Moldova, and our home for the past four months, last-minute shoppers crowd into kiosks to buy bottles of wine or liquor, fancy cookies and candies, small toys and chocolate Santas for nieces and nephews.

Some clutch fir trees under their arms, their hands busy with shopping bags. Some of the trees are four, five, six feet tall, tied into just-manageable spear-shaped packages. These travelers will board the personal trains, slow commuter trains, the dingiest and oldest. On the personal train, no one (well, maybe one or two) will scowl at them for taking up extra room.
We board the Inter-city train, the Blue Arrow, shiny and bullet-shaped, a high-tech beauty.

Scraps of snow appear as we rise, the altitude softening the impact of noise ¬— boys in the seat behind throwing dice onto a hard surface, the beeping of mobile phones, the piped-in pop-disco music.

Outside, the past dissolves into the landscape, disappears behind hills and gets tangled in copses of black trees, their gnarled fingers reaching for the watery winter sun.

At each end of the journey is a flurry of movement, laundry and packing, arrangements of lodging and rides, gifts to buy, things to remember, like paying the Internet bill and buying a good bottle of scotch for the Fulbright driver, who will pick us up at 9:30 p.m. Christmas eve eve.

We will ride for five hours and fifteen minutes, putting more than 300 miles between ourselves and Iasi. We will start counting, and lose track of, the seven stops in between Iasi and our holiday destination, Bucharest, with names like Vaslui, Barlad, Focsani.
Once in that city of more than 2 million, now brighter than it was when we were here five years ago, we will stay in the apartment of a fellow Fulbrighter and friend from that other time, while she spends her holiday in the states.

We will visit other friends, drink champagne and watch the sky fill with fireworks and smoke on New Year’s Eve, walk around Herestrau Lake at dusk when the light becomes soft and misty, photograph the blue and white strands of snowflake-shaped lights strung all down the Bulevardul Magheru. We will buy the International Herald Tribune and read it in a noisy café, and, as we do at home, watch “A Christmas Carol” with Alistair Sim (the copy Gary ordered will be waiting for us at the Fulbright office).

Before earthquakes and tidal waves tear Asia apart, before carolers knock at the apartment door hoping to sing for sweets and money, before we get pelted with strange winter rain, or tour Ceaucescu’s despised Palace of Parliament—the monstrous government building erected to massage his monstrous ego—before we spend evenings drinking the strong brandy called “palinca” or eating Indian food with friends, before a single trip on the stuffy, efficient metro, we spend time on this train.

Outside, just before the light disappears, we pass a grazing herd of dingy sheep, tan and dirty white, scattered like a pile of crumpled papers in the burned-black field, while further down the line a simple wooden carriage pulled by two brown horses waits at the crossing, the driver watching us watch him.

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.

When did I start saying “awesome”?

23 Jun

My friend Chris, English by birth, Romanian by circumstance and love, and an editor/writer/educator (etc.) by trade, once exhorted me (no, no. That’s too strong a word. He encouraged me) to cut back on my use of gratuitous exclamation points. I had already brought this problem up about myself, so it wasn’t unasked-for advice. It was good advice. I knew in my writing (informal writing, on Facebook, for example) that I was coming across like a giddy teenager rather than a mature (ahem) person who takes writing seriously, who, in fact, teaches others to do the same. Because Chris is as serious about language as I am, I take his suggestions seriously. They are always well thought out, always correct, always meant to make me a better writer. The exclamation point, we would agree, has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. It should be added sparingly to those sentences where it truly belongs, where one is truly stating something exciting or outrageous or uncanny or amazing (or, okay, when one is sending birthday greetings).

I like the deadpan style of exclamationmarkless written speech. I like words, expressions and punctuation marks to adhere to their original meaning. No, I don’t mean that. I like American English because it is such a linguistic stew. I do not believe in keeping American English “pure” (which is hardly possible anyway, considering its origins and development). I like the way American English picks up bits of immigrant and foreign speech. I like the regional differences that reflect history. The thing is, I like English. I like it. I like the combination of smooth and guttural sounds. Like all living languages English is adaptive. It mutates. It evolves. But as it evolves it seems to be getting muddier and grubbier, rather than more clear and precise (and isn’t communication the point?). Sometimes now I come across written stuff I cannot comprehend, not because it’s difficult subject matter, but because it’s written in some sort of code known only to the writer, some combination of punctuation marks, symbols, upper and lower case letters thrown together helter-skelter. I’m not even talking about text-writing here. Extreme brevity has its place, especially when the writer is being charged by the character. But in most forums for regular written English, notes and signs and adverts and status updates and email, blogs and online news stories and essays, the writer should have enough time and leisure to make it right, to write the right thing, even to write the elegant thing.

That was a digression, I see. I set out to compare the overuse of exclamation points with the overuse of “awesome.” Both have been stripped, through sheer ubiquity, of their power. While watching a home show the other day (my guiltiest pleasure), I counted more than 20 incidents of “awesome” in half an hour. It began to grate on my ears, much like “like” or “uh.” Or, do you remember “not”? It was a trend (thankfully dead now) to make a statement with which you did not believe, and add “not” to the end. I still shudder.

What is an exclamation mark for? To show astonishment, wonderment, awe. Oh, there’s the connection (here I’m tempted to add an exclamation mark, especially since this is an actual exclamation, but I’d feel sheepish doing so). Are you really astonished that someone bought new shoes or got a “B” on a test? Really? Do you usually live in a cave with no human interaction? Okay, then. You might well be astonished by anything your fellow humans do.

F. Scott Fitzgerald advised (no, that’s not strong enough. He exhorted): “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

The exclamation mark and the word “awe” are similar. They have specific purposes, to indicate some thing, or quality, or experience that is exceptional.

Dictionary.com defines “awe” as “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like.”

The key word here is “overwhelming.” Awe is the kind of experience you have that leaves your knees weak and watery, maybe after coming face to face with a Great White Shark that decides not to have you for dinner. It’s not a “nice” feeling. It’s not benign or small or cute. A bit of décor cannot actually be awesome. Really. It’s not “grand, sublime,” or “extremely powerful.”  It’s a chair. It might be sleek or lovely or well-made or shabby or of a pleasing color. But it’s a chair. What power could it possibly have over you? Why would it inspire dread? Wait, you have a phobia of chairs? Okay. But you are an exception.

Maybe “awe” has lost its power because we have lost our power to be awed. Maybe nothing, now that our idols (political, artistic, athletic, musical, etc.) have all been knocked down to earth, now that we have instant access to information about the universe, now that we can watch a revolution happening before our eyes or a volcano spewing, now that we can easily get the “back story” of practically anyone in moments, nothing is really capable of filling us with feelings of wonder, of reverence, of dread. When I stand on the edge of a precipice, looking down, often looking out at the woods below, and I think “I could fall, I could be swallowed up into that vastness,” I remember as a student reading about the “sublime prospect,” the capital-R Romantic idea of nature’s power (think of a raging river or a tremendous storm or the view from a steep canyon), that inspired dread and reverence.

http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/romantic/topic_1/burke.htm

Then again, maybe it’s just another example of laziness, of growing linguistic vagueness. It’s not English’s fault. The words are there. But it’s easier to use a catch-all word than to find the more precise one.

I don’t know the answer to my question. I don’t remember when I started saying “awesome” to describe quite ordinary things. I like to think I have some tiny effect on keeping language from becoming a meaningless blob of gobbledegoop. I like to think that as I hold out I can inspire others to come over to my way of seeing, to start caring, to start a whole new generation of great English users. But it seems the other side has grabbed me—Graboid style—instead. At least I can do this: just stop already.

Pause

29 May

Pause

This is my original joke. (You should imagine it said in Paula Poundstone’s deadpan style.) Why do they call it menopause? What’s it going to do? Take a little break and then start up again?

I can’t really say this in a nice way. If you don’t care about, or believe in, menopause, you should stop reading right now. If you are female and young (I’m sure I didn’t believe then), it will come to you, so enjoy your relatively steady hormone levels while you can. If you are female and mid-life like me, I commiserate with you, my sisters. If you are a man with a partner in this stage, trust that it won’t last forever. You will get her back. Just be patient, a little more patient than usual. Same with you young guys who will eventually partner up with a woman who will go through this. Prepare to be patient.

And what does this have to do with language? Stay tuned.

Some women breeze through menopause. My mom doesn’t even remember hers. Sigh. We can’t really relate on this. Edith Bunker had a hard time with hers, but it didn’t seem to last very long. We women can have all kinds of levels of “symptoms” (so they’re called, even though they have nothing to do with sickness). Some get hit in the emotions more than the body, like Edith. Some get it in the body, and bad. I can’t say which is worse, only describe my own experience. My worst symptom is this: my heart feels like it’s pounding out of my chest. It is a constant, almost adrenaline-like feeling (at least you’d expect weight loss as a result, but that is as hard as ever), that during the day I am usually too busy to pay much attention to, while at night it rocks me in my bed and often keeps me awake. It was disturbing enough last year to send me on a quest to figure out what was happening to my heart. I wore a Holter Monitor for 24 hours, that thingy with the probes stuck on your chest, a portable EKG. I saw two cardiologists and a sleep doctor, as well as my own physician, a very understanding certified nurse practitioner. I had numerous EKGs. My blood pressure was up too, and my cholesterol (cripes, never happened before, ever: they were always normal and healthy), more side effects of menopause. I even had a stress echocardiogram: more probes, then some amount of time on a treadmill, with incline and rate increasing, followed by an ultrasound of the heart.

I passed every test. My heart is strong and healthy, but sometimes slow. Slow. That’s bradycardia, a resting heart rate that dips below 50 beats per minute. Seems counterintuitive, but that’s what the tests showed, along with some skips. Nothing to worry about, they say. So here it’s the next year, I’m off hormone therapy (which seemed to help with sleep at first, but then stopped helping at all, so became pointless) and just letting nature take its course. My doc recommended magnesium to help with sleep. I take it daily now, and at first, for a few days, it seemed to help me sleep more deeply, but not anymore.  The trick is to override the pounding so my brain can shut down, and very little works.

The hot flashes are back too, and mad. I get them all the time, any time, except while I’m actively exercising. I get them in the morning, afternoon and evening. I get them at night, sometimes when I’m trying to sleep. I get them whether I’m drinking wine or tea or cold water, whether I’m eating or doing housework or trying to write. Worst, by far, I get them when I’m teaching. Now, I never heard anyone discuss this specifically, but for me, when a hot flash hits my brain stops. Language stops. Nothing I can do but wait to recover. The hot hits, my face gets red, and in the middle of a sentence I completely forget what I’m saying. And even when I haven’t actually forgotten what I’m saying, my speech becomes halting, loses its fluidity. Writing is so much more forgiving.

I have this word (see post: “Lethologica”) that I tell my students is useful to keep on hand for times when you forget what you’re saying. It sounds impressive, and gives you time to recover while your listeners are shaking their heads in wonderment at your fab vocabulary. (Imagine my delight when encountering this word on the last page of a student’s rough draft as she trailed off, struggling to find an ending!) It’s a useful word, but can only do so much.

Anyone who teaches knows that it’s performance. We are up there, in front of a group of people who may or may not (and since I teach required writing classes for freshmen and juniors who are NOT English majors, you can imagine) want to be there. Some are afraid of writing. Some hate to read. Some only want to write about subjects they choose. Some hate doing research. Some hate using sources. This is what we always potentially face: a hostile audience. So teaching is a performance. We are on stage every class. We work to engage them in wanting to do this work. We have tricks and methods and are attentive to the mood of the class. We have to give a little, and we have to be strict most of the time. We have to set rules and penalties for not following them, and like good parents, we have to follow through. We have to talk, a lot, and set ourselves as examples. We have to speak well, but we try not to be dry. We often want to express our own love of language, to convey the sheer joy that can be found in words and composition and reading and learning. This is what teaching writing is really about. Not following some drab curriculum but an attempt to change minds, to bring students over to our side, while still giving them the knowledge they need: how to form transitions, how to evaluate sources, how to choose and integrate quotes, how to use apostrophes, how to do deep reading, how to form an argument that appeals to emotion and logic, so many things.

When you have a good class, one that seems like a cohesive group, that laughs at your jokes, that has some fun but also respects deadlines and tries hard to do well, it’s easier to lose your words in the middle of a sentence. It’s less damaging, anyway. You make a joke of it, and go on. How annoying, though, to be an articulate person and sometimes, through some stupid quirk of biology, lose your language. Language is my trade, my skill, my profession, my passion. And to lose it seems like an especially mean cosmic joke.

Between the sleep-stealing heart pounding and the mental/verbal assault of the hot flash, hell. I’m sort of a mess. But holding myself together as well as possible, looking forward to the end of this. And it will end, right?

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.

So

3 Jan

So

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?

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