Archive for July, 2009

On the Beauty of Highly Specific Words

Monday, July 27th, 2009

When I was in 9th grade, I applied to work in a pet store. (I have always been an animal freak.) It was a good pet store–no dogs or cats, cages cleaned daily–and the owner required that every potential employee take a six-week course and an exam. During the course, she taught us a word that has been a favorite ever since: zygodactyl.

Zygodactyl: having two toes projecting forward and two projecting backward, as certain climbing birds.

Of course, plenty of science words are super-specific, but I love that there is a single word to describe this toe arrangement, and that word does nothing other than describe this toe arrangement. And what a fantastic toe arrangement it is!

Then there are words with slightly broader meanings which nevertheless seem to have been coopted for a single purpose. Example: prehensile. Technically, it means more than just “able to wrap and grab”; it can also mean “insightful.” But have you ever heard it used as anything other than the first half of the phrase “prehensile tail’?

Maybe I’ll make it a personal mission to free “prehensile” from its limited purview.

Wipeout: The Weekly Heartbreak

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

I make no secret of my love for Wipeout, the zany obstacle course show on ABC. It can be offensive, mostly in its mocking of fat people, but it reliably brings such sweet belly laughs that I tend to overlook both the sexist commentary and the snide slow-mo’s of jiggling chub, which in any case are pretty rare.

However, there is a bigger problem, which is that women almost never win. Every week, I live in hope. And every week, those hopes are dashed, often by mere seconds.

There was one week in which only women made it to the final round, such a glaring anomaly that it pointed to a difference in the course; i.e., that week’s tasks favored agility over upper-body strength. So . . . surely they could continue to mix it up? Because as long as they keep releasing 1000 gallons of water in one dump down the slide in the final round, they’re going to wipe out more women than men. Plus, I’m tired of that gag already.

Mix it up, Wipeout people.

On Getting Spam from People You Almost Know

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Today, I received a message from Deena Nielson. In high school I was friends with someone now named Deanna Nelson, and for a moment I thought she had emailed me. “Hey!” I thought. “Dea–no. Oh. Huh. Guess not.” The hope lingered: Maybe Deena Nielson had something to say to me, too. Maybe she was just like Deanna Nelson. But she only wanted to talk about non-accredited diplomas.

A few months ago, the same thing happened, only with slightly deeper emotional consequences. I received a message from, let’s say, Marnie Opperman, when Marny Opperman and I had had a falling out 5 years ago. I’d like to hear from Marny Opperman. It would be an important first step on the road to reconciliation. But it was not Marny Opperman. It was Marnie Opperman. Sigh.

Spammers. Never who you want them to be.

On a Scatalogical Novelty

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

The other day, while waiting for my car to be washed, I came upon a novelty product in the car wash gift shop. (Yes, there is a gift shop. And it’s not half bad.) The product: My Poo Journal, in an appropriate shade of brown.

It had to be a joke. I picked it up, opened it, and found a detailed daily log, in which the user was invited to record intimate specifics about her crap. Shape, consistency, color — I had to put it down before reading much more, because I was both embarrassed and grossed out.

Who buys this book? Men? But the book is designed with girly fonts and swirly graphics (no poo images, as far as I could see). So, gay men? Women? Which women? Because isn’t the woman who records details about her daily defecation the same woman who uses Excel spread sheets and can’t be bothered with cutesy bullshit?

I wish I could see the proposal for My Poo Journal. Demographic: yogically inclined, chick-lit-reading city dwellers recently introduced to ayurveda.

The Art of the Surprising Cover Letter

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

I’m a believer in the unconventional cover letter. Partly, I get to be, because I’m a writer, and the hirer is seeking written competence; creativity matters. But I think any good cover letter, for any position, should be both lively and memorable. These people are sorting through hundreds of letters, all of a type. They’re weary. They’re bored. Their eyes are googly with jargon. Entertain them, and they’ll be grateful.

Here are the first few paragraphs of a cover letter I just submitted to Underground Advertising, a company that develops smart, funny campaigns for non-profits:

Hello, Underground.

I’m in love with you.

At least, I love what you do. And if I believed in killing, I’d kill to be a part of it. I’m an irony-loving copywriter who’s been itching to get into the non-profit ad world for, basically, ever. When I found your site, it was true love. Or at least, it was a whole lot of very positive projection.

There’s another paragraph or two, very short, about what I do, including links to my website. (If they check the blog, they’ll read this. Hello, Underground. Call me.) Because I also believe in brevity. If they want more, they know how to click.

In this market, I don’t expect a response. But I do hope for one. And now, at least, they have a little piece of who I am.

On Wells Tower and Exhausting Language

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I’m late to the Wells Tower buffet, I know. And when I first began to read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, I was doing a lot of lip-smacking. The language was so chewy. And dude knows how to wield a pen.

By the end of the collection, though, I was exhausted. In fact, I couldn’t even make it all the way through the titular story, last in the book, which is at least partially a George Saunders rip-off. (Right?) Because by that point, I was tired of wading through the thick pile of cleverness, the ironic delivery system that keeps Towers’ characters from ever having to get too personal or pained.

Of course, not everybody puts intimacy so high on her list of requirements for narration. But I do.

On Billy Collins and Accessibility in Poetry

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Billy Collins is so famous and beloved that it’s tempting to dismiss him. Because don’t Americans, even Americans who like poetry, always choose the easy over the difficult? And Collins is so easy, so entertaining, so companionable. When reading his poetry, you don’t even really have to try. It’s all right there in front of you, including the jokes.

And yet. Collins is delightful and even, in his latest book, cutting. We’ve chosen a new poem of his, called “Hippos on Holiday,” for our wedding ceremony, even though it doesn’t say a single thing about relationships or marriage. (It says something about living large.) And here’s his poem called “Divorce”:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tined forks

across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.


90% Plot

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Can you get away with that, in literary fiction? I don’t think so.

I just read A Family Daughter, by Maile Meloy. Brisk, fairly entertaining read, but 90% plot. Each character had precisely one quality, or occasionally a single counter-quality. That’s it. No substance to the book. No point, either, although a few floating points here and there, with nowhere to stick.

Where was the editor to point this out and make Meloy focus?

The Great G

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

After hearing Studio 360’s excellent hour on The Great Gatsby, I reread it. And I thought, a) It really is a masterpiece of prose (duh), and b) Its meaning is pretty clear. Or is it?

I read Gatsby first in high school, when I pretty much missed the point. As in, I was more attracted to Daisy and Jordan than repulsed; I wanted to be them, and I wanted to live like them. I couldn’t quite see anything wrong with Gatbsy, either–I think I found him very romantic. The parties were glamorous; people said clever things; the dresses were drapey and elegant.

I could see that Tom was an asshole.

Of course, I was living in a rich and superficial place and time–the 80’s in Potomac, Maryland–and I had not yet fully grasped the pointlessness of massive amounts of money. Or of behaving in a particular way merely because it was stylish. I couldn’t see the class thing, either. At least, not deeply.

The second time I read the book, I tore through it to get the plot. I was helping a teenager write an essay for English class, and I needed to remember who was driving which car, and when. This time, I was left with the impression of despicable people doing despicable things. John corroborated. He said when he taught Gatsby, he felt covered in grime. “The prose is beautiful,” he said, “but the message is dirty.”

Is it? What is the message? This time, here’s what I got from the book: 1) Gatsby is a fantasist, and his fantasies are America-sized, and one fantasy (Daisy) is hopeless; the other (money) is pointless. So, that feels sad. But not dirty. Because the book knows that Gatsby is a kind of American fool. 2) People who are born into poverty will never be accepted by the East Coast establishment. That’s obviously absurd (though who would want to be accepted into the East Coast establishment, anyway?), but the book knows it. 3) There is a reckless, superficial kind of living that’s morally bankrupt. Which the book also knows. Right?

Maybe. Gatsby’s criminal behavior is likely responsible for the suffering of at least a few collaborators, and we don’t tend to remember that about him. Nick is privy to all manner of debauchery, and adultery, without doing anything about it; at the very least he could have the backbone to separate from these people sooner rather than later. But he’s young and lost (away from home, as they all are) . . . I don’t know. There’s a kind of attraction, a seduction about the Gatsby landscape, where while we understand that the behavior is almost wildly cruel, we still want a piece of it . . . I’m still puzzling. John’s supposed to read it soon, so we can discuss.


Sunday, July 5th, 2009

Recently I remarked to John that blood smells like iron.

“It smells iron-y,” I said.

And then: “Oh. Could that possibly have any relation to irony?”

I just looked them up: no. “Irony” is probably from the Greek (via Latin and Old French), from the words that mean “feigned ignorance” or “dissembler,” and possibly from a word that means “to say.” (To speak is to ironize.) “Iron,” on the other hand, is from the Old and Middle English for, you know, iron.

Still. Fun to think of ironic blood. Blood that is the opposite of what you’d expect. Or blood that says the opposite of what it means.