Toying with Words: Pondering the Evolution of Language

I love language.

For years growing up I believed the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was in fact Murders-in-the-Room Org. I knew of it only because my mom loved to wax poetic about the 1930s horror film based on it. I imagined a bloody scene in a bedroom ruled by a wrinkly, club-wielding creature: in my immature mind’s eye he looked a little like an illustration from an early childhood tome of the bridge troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” While the movie sounded deliciously terrifying, my psyche was as yet tender and I was not keen to witness that kind of carnage on a screen.

Another memorable mix-up came from the father of my mom’s closest childhood friend, who loved to evoke a mystery character from his own past named “Fyeshadye.” Turns out we all knew Fyeshadye from a familiar childhood prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/Fyeshadye before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take

Fyeshadye’s creator and I were in good company, it would seem: the endearing Mr. Tumnus—inhabitant of Narnia, an invention of one C.S. Lewis—mistook the character Lucy’s provenance as Spare Oom, a delightful take on the “spare room” whence Lucy had stumbled from the wardrobe into Narnia.

In music this phenomenon is known as a mondegreen, a mishearing of a lyric that results in a comical misinterpretation of it. In 1988, “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed skewered presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in a caricature showing each one’s take on the lyrics from “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen’s 1963 party standard (you can imagine). Funnier still, though, was Bloom County character Bill D. Cat’s rendition of the lyrics, as follows (cue the familiar dah-dah-dah/dah-dah organ intro):

Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Ee fi li curl way fra nee
Ee cat-ta shi fo kra-see
Ne sait a shi auuuu lome
Ee newa fwo ma-make I ome
(chorus)
Ree nie (garbled) ail zee
Me tink (garbled) ee (garbled)
(garbled) dwee Li’l Friskies
(garbled) ack
(garbled)
(guitar solo)

©1988 Berkeley Breathed Bloom County

Have any of these mondegreenian misinterpretations stuck in our language permanently through time? Writing about mondegreens in this New Yorker.com piece, Maria Konnikova submits they surely have (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s worth a gander if the evolution of the mother tongue interests you at all.

I started down the mondegreen road after listening to a clip of Terry Gross’s interview with Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper. What caught my ear was Stamper’s account of eavesdropping on her teenage daughter chatting with friends in the back seat of the car, talking in truncated cyber language the way teenagers do these days. In one example Stamper referenced the “A-F” usage that has come into common parlance as a modern-day vulgarity. (For the uninitiated, it’s a stand-in for “as f**k,” for example, We were hungry as f**k—it lacks imagination to be sure, as most vulgarities do, but you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary American teen who does not use it, and I’ve come to prefer it over hearing the actual f-bomb.) Over time, Stamper observed, these kids further truncated “A-F” to simply, “affe” (pronounced like the second syllable of giraffe). Thus, We were hungry affe. Its fate as a future entry in Merriam Webster, perhaps, rests with Ms. Stamper.

I have been at the wheel of that carpooling car, also eavesdropping with interest. Nor has my fascination with this linguistic evolution ended in my post-parenting years: my own Millennial kid still introduces me to all kinds of stylized and acrobatic language at the other end of the thousand miles that separate us. Much of it eludes me until I ask, although I try to parse through it first to see if I can figure it out. One of my favorites is the phenomenon of pressing a noun into service as an intransitive verb. On a recent Sunday morning I explained I could not video chat with him because I was headed out the door to yoga. He messaged back, “Who TF yogas at 9:30 on Sunday morning?” This example includes still another iteration of the “A-F” vulgarity (using “the” in place  of “as”), along with the noun “yoga” now morphing into an action word.

A more common evolution is the smooshing together of words, a phenomenon I struggle with professionally all the time. A case in point: am I a copy editor, or a copyeditor? Depends whom you ask. My copywriting colleagues ask me these kinds of questions all the time, and more often than not I have to survey the opinions out there in the ether before I settle on an answer. Call it verbal co-dependence if you will—one yearns for rules and directions, but often none exists. One thing is certain: our language is a living, breathing thing. And what logophile among us would not love a peek at the condition of the King’s English a hundred years hence?

I leave you with the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” as written by R. Berry in 1955, along with the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording. And I defy you to recognize these words when you hear them:

Louie Louie, me gotta go
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never thinks me make it home
(chorus)
Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair
(chorus, guitar solo)
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won’t be long, me see my love
I take her in my arms and then
Me tell her I never leave again

Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

band-aid_box_blunder_2

Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.

On Writing Well: Don’t *Be* a Writer

Lilliputian Lessons
Lilliputian Lessons

In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.

In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.

It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.

That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.

I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.

One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.

Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.

This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine.  Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.

As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.

My Journey to the Corporate World: Don’t Hate

Knoxville Ballet School Level 2B

A ballet friend and colleague recently asked whether I’ve been “itching” to teach again. I had to think about that. These days I’m not sure I would describe my desire to teach as an itch, but maybe—it felt like something more profound when I took the colossal and risky leap of faith to open a small ballet school in 2006. Any kind of business startup demands your full commitment, and I mean full, to say nothing of a healthy bank account—double what you think it will take and then some, buckets of your time, unrelenting nail biting, more time, all your waking hours, and a few sleepless nights thrown in for good measure—did I mention time?

When you start a school there are exactly no guarantees the thing will fly; mine ultimately did not, although had I been willing to leave behind some of my stubbornly held ideas about maintaining a certain artistic “pureness” in my business practices, I believe it would have: when my marriage failed and everything came unglued I was already teetering on the threshold of fiscal success. But teetering falls short of paying the light bill and the rent.

Other benchmarks at the school—teaching standards, community engagement, relationship building—undeniably painted a picture of success. I submit that during its brief life the ballet school purveyed a product of a quality unmatched anywhere in my home town and beyond. What I could bring to the table was complete immersion in classical ballet by way of the pedigree handed me by my own ballerina mom and each of her friends and colleagues, who nurtured along my intense love for the form for most of two decades. We often speak of teaching ballet as commuting the art form to a new generation, our tacit obligation to keep it alive but also to leave our own thumbprint on it, part and parcel of its natural evolution; I saw the school as my chance to do that.

But in 2009 I also made an important business and artistic decision to develop a professional relationship with American Ballet Theatre, which served my community back home in more ways than can be quantified on a spreadsheet; the school’s population—its young enrollees and their families—were the beneficiaries of the collective wisdom of scores of professionals thanks to ABT’s National Training Curriculum. Friendships and professional ties forged at ABT persist; whether they will be called again into “active service” at some point is anybody’s guess, which is the thing I find so enticing about the future to begin with, a kind of counter weight to the uncertainty that can be so disquieting.

The question is, does a ballet school, or any other business, really, deserve to be there in the first place if it can’t self-sustain? Does every struggling business (or ill-conceived business plan or idea) deserve a Kickstarter campaign? I never even thought of going down that road with my own small ballet school.

Instead I sized up my desperate situation and ultimately took a job in the corporate world after a brief teaching stint elsewhere, a “selling out” frowned on in some circles. Even the word itself—corporate—has negative connotations (greed comes to mind), some deserved to be sure. It derives from the Latin word for body, but its implicit meaning now is “all” versus “one.” The corps de ballet, for example, is the main body of the company, apart from its soloists, but without whom there is no ballet. We often think of the corporate entity, though, as antithetical to the individual, and therefore antithetical to creativity.

Working in the corporate world is not a universally wretched condition: I’m privileged to make a living doing the one other thing I love, which is writing, even if it is not always in my own voice. (Is there creativity in my work? In spades.) But when you dance in the corps de ballet, you are part of something bigger, as I am now.

Were I still at the helm of a ballet school, my approach now would almost certainly be broader, making use of the classroom space to generate revenue for as many moments as the day allowed, to reach a wider audience, to tap into the bigger desires of the community—to be more corporate minded, if you will; this is not about greed, but survival. In those days I eschewed these opportunities in the name of artistic purity, of being only the one thing, the best ballet school. Even the school’s slogan spelled it out: excellent instruction in correct classical ballet technique. But it would have been entirely possible to reach beyond the confines of classical ballet instruction and still maintain that slogan, and the highest standards for ballet training. (And in hindsight, the school’s one exceptional product really demanded a higher price tag than I put on it.) I embraced the paradigm of the diva soloist instead of being a team player in the corps de ballet, and it finally cost me my school. Without the corps, there is no ballet.

So I answered my friend’s question yes, with an asterisk: some day in the future, I would enjoy standing at the front of the classroom again, at a time when I don’t absolutely need the income from an unwieldy teaching load to (barely) make ends meet. Teaching ballet really is a luxury; working as I do now is a necessity, but is honorable, I believe, and satisfying, a pleasure for which being vilified by some folks out there in the ether feels misguided. These days I pay the light bill and the rent as a member of the corps, no Kickstarter campaign required.

Deb and Celia at ABT 1

With one of my young Knoxville Ballet School students at ABT in 2012

Learning to Write in Bits and Bytes

Digital Marketing Blog Post 2

How many of your speech and language neurons are you willing to prune away?

I write and edit wide-ranging content for a successful digital marketing content company, where we keep abreast of the latest in best practices. Maintaining high standards is important because we hand our clientele deliverables that ultimately affect their bottom lines, and of course the quality of our work speaks volumes about us as an agency. We want everybody to be profitable and happy. And we want to continue to give our clients the best advice to achieve those ends.

Lately the trade chatter’s been all about writing shorter content. And still shorter content. Why? Mainly because we are tethered to our smart phones all the livelong day, and for a message to effectively reach us, it has to fit nicely on that little glass screen without beseeching us to scroll and scroll and scroll, because we might grow impatient and move on. (To be sure, I’m not slamming the device itself, which is pretty dang amazing when you stop for a nanosecond to think about it—an entire computer, widely available, globally connected, with the same power as your laptop. And it fits in the palm of your hand.)

When I say shorter content, I don’t mean the web descriptions limited to a certain number of characters or fewer to avoid the dreaded Google nip and tuck in the search results. This is about writing less. And less. For example, cramming your marketing message into a blog post a consumer can read at a glance before going on, but hopefully not before the desired “conversion” that ends in an e-commerce transaction—maybe not right then, but the seed will have been planted. (And if you’re really lucky, they’ll share it via social media—that’s a digital marketing high five, right there.)

The thing is, we’re not talking about an ad slogan made to fit on a T-shirt (USAir Begins With You). We’re talking about writing, preferably using the King’s English with art and skill to thoughtfully engage a reader, ulterior motives notwithstanding. I find this trend to trim more than a little disquieting.

Remember when your prep school English teachers or college professors urged you to be concise in your writing? To express an idea in fewer words, with “tighter” language and presumably more clarity? They were absolutely right about that—wordiness is wearisome. If you can express the same thought more succinctly, without changing its meaning, your message usually packs so much more punch.

But this is a different economy of words, a writing style dictated by our collectively shorter and shorter attention spans, where paragraphs are replaced more and more by bulleted or numbered lists, for example. Waxing poetic has no place here (although Haiku as a form handily fits on the little screen: Click on this here link/Go buy cheap stuff from China/Happy consumer). But so much must be clipped in the interest of space (and time, because nobody seems to have enough of it to parse through a longish article these days), critical ideas—and beautiful language—often fall through the cracks, or get poked through them.

When short digital content is good, it can be very, very good (and by the way, there is a distinction to be made between “good” and “clever.”) But that is so rarely the case. The funny thing is, I have seen some minimalist content out there that is so badly written it still somehow manages to be wordy. Unbelievably, sometimes it’s even celebrated as excellent writing. Go figure. At the risk of sounding like a cynic (okay, I’m a cynic), I submit much of it is tripe.

Back to those neurons: does that sound like rubbish to you? It might be. In fact, I hope it is for the sake of us as a species. But consider the toll this here digital era has taken on our language to date, where words are reduced to snippets that don’t really make much sense at all out of context. I know, because I’m the proud parent of a young millennial whose daily messages to me are often so reductionist I have to ask two or three times for clarification. (I have been known to correct his spelling and grammar on Facebook. I know, but he’ll thank me someday.)

Lest you think I weep for the future, fear not: I see this emerging code for writing the best digital content possible, using the fewest words, as the most magnificent professional challenge: how to effectively engage your audience with the most spartan language imaginable. Evelyn Waugh once said of his own writing, “I put the words down and push them around a bit.” It is a nice metaphor for what we do in this biz, only the data size keeps shrinking (see ‘bits and bytes’ above).

We use “shares” and “likes” to measure success, and sometimes the most horrid content still emerges victorious by these standards. Still, I like to think quality prose prevails over silly numbered lists, like good over evil in classic literature. In the world of digital marketing copy, my opinion does not matter: strategies and yardsticks for success can be discussed in focus groups and around conference room tables ‘til the cows come home, but the only thing that finally matters is the bottom line.

Reflections: Loss, Life’s Frailty, & Gratitude

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho MarxNYPL Digital Collection Woman and Dog

Mind you, this is not too profound. After last weekend’s disappointing discovery of the incipient decline of many, many of my books I am feeling better about them tonight. I’m lucky to live with somebody who loves me and pushed up his sleeves without provocation to help me save the rest of my collection. A tall bookcase came out of storage last Monday and stands smooshed between a window on one side and a gigantic china cabinet that belongs to the landlord on the other; it seems a little out of place, like it has not yet been properly introduced to the cabinet, but I am ever so grateful there was room on that particular wall for it.

I’ve emptied three large boxes of books, then cleaned and shelved them. There are many more to go and a couple more bookcases to bring out of storage and somehow squeeze among the rest of our belongings—it’s a little like forcing a puzzle piece that does not really fit. Like so many other things in this transitional chapter, it’ll have to do.

The Book Project will continue to unfold over a couple of weeks before it’s done. For now I’m wiping the sweat off my brow, in a good way.

It still does not take much these days to get me thinking about loss, and the books were a predictable catalyst for it: the loss of my home and family, my hard-won ballet school, many of my personal belongings, and then my beloved canine companion Clarence a short while before the very livelihood I moved to Vermont to pursue in the first place was yanked out from under me. There was a moment when I was shaking an angry fist skyward: it all seemed like too damn much.

And then I blew my nose, pushed up my sleeves, and got on past it. Doesn’t mean I don’t still have moments of angst, bitterness, and even stronger feelings. I don’t like going down that road, but I do sometimes when little things set me off: a landscape, a news story, a piece of music—or a book. I think humans are hard wired like that, and it’s part and parcel of continuing to heal and move forward, so long as we’re relatively healthy and stable to begin with.

I don’t live by silly quotes of the kind you see découpaged on living room walls, that are meant to daily remind us how to live our lives. Nothing against them if they really help people, but the cynic in me tends to snigger. Maybe if there is a judgment day I’ll be forced to recant: Sorry I did not live, love, nor laugh when instructed; my bad.

But I do reflect on the higher meaning of things I’ve experienced. Recently it’s been all about living without the things and people once near and dear to me, every. single. day. In the last year since I’ve started fiscally rebuilding my life I’ve been gobsmacked by this simple idea: you really do learn to appreciate the things you can’t have anymore.

This thought tugged at me a couple of weeks ago when I left the dentist’s office after not having the luxury of dental care for about four years. And again last Saturday when HCB and I joined a small group of <mainly> new friends to break bread together and enjoy each other’s company—something I once did routinely, never imgaining that too would soon be a luxury.

Last night HCB and I visited a local inn whose proprietors he has known for years, where we had an indulgent glass of pinot noir and shared a flourless chocolate torte in an intimate bar: divine. I also spent a few minutes enjoying the company of the oversized yellow lab who owns the place. This invoked in me equal parts of joy and overwhelming sadness.

It came bubbling right up to the surface again: you have no dog. YOU HAVE NO DOG. I have lived very few years of my life without a dog. In my professional life as a marketing writer I spend a lot of time writing about dogs for a particular client. The research is fun and so is the writing. But I am almost daily reminded I still have no dog. We’re not allowed to have a dog in this house, and when Clarence and I once came here as visitors, the tricky spiral staircase was too much for him. There was a lot of pacing and vocalizing when we were not all together on the same level of the house. A lot. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed loving on the big ‘ole yellow lab. It was magical. Did you know I have been writing stories about you? I wanted to ask him. When I finally have a dog of my own again, I am confident I will appreciate him more than I ever appreciated a dog, if that is possible. (Yes, it will be a “him” and his name will be Jeeves. Or Wooster. Or Jack.)

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies, Sideways, which HCB and I watched on the telly Friday night. It was this movie to inspire our glass of pinot. And it is a scene that so beautifully expresses many of the emotions I’ve felt (and still struggle with) the last few years. But it will make you laugh, I hope. Go forth and live and love, also.

Warning: this clip is most emphatically NOT kid-friendly. Do yourself a favor and watch it in high def if it does not automatically load that way. Oh, and hat tip to my new(ish) friend Deb, who put the New York Public Library Digital Collections link on my radar, whence comes the great doggie image at the top of the post. Cheers!

All That Glitters: Making Effort Look Effortless

When I was eight I had a Russian ballet teacher who thought nothing of whapping me and my classmates in our tummies in ballet class. The message was clear, if unrefined: flatten the belly. He could have said it, of course. Despite his accent he was still understandable and I’d probably have internalized this as a verbal correction. But the physical sting of a slap in the gut was clear, effective, and uncomplicated communication. I worked on tightening my belly every day in class and grasped this as part and parcel of the classical ballet aesthetic: ballerinas have flat tummies. Check.

Chandelier 1

This also marked the opening of a chapter in which the difficulty of classical ballet began to unfold: it was not really about tutus and tiaras at all, but physical discomfort that sometimes kept me from falling asleep at night, even as a third-grader. It was also fun—were it not I’d have abandoned it. But soon it would also be about blisters on the knuckles of my toes, the first signs of what would become chronic injuries I can still feel, and a daily sweat-induced stink. When my ballerina mom opened her dance bag you could smell it, a pungent mix of rosin, leather, and other seasoned textiles.

Still, I loved fingering the things in that bag: the soft chiffon of wraparound dance skirts, the hockey socks she’d long recomissioned as leg warmers since her days as a young ballet student in Canada in the 1950s, loose hairpins and bandaids, the requisite bottle of Jean Naté (so you could go somewhere in public after class or rehearsal and not clear out the place), and shoes upon shoes: soft leather ballet shoes in varied states of decline with blown-out elastic and holey toes, or pointe shoes with ripped out shanks she had consigned as class or rehearsal shoes, or maybe just thrown into the bottom of the bag to be forgotten. And sometimes shiny new pointe shoes without elastics or ribbons, whose platforms were not yet darned. I loved sticking my nose inside them and breathing in the distinct new-shoe smell of layers of materials glued and hardened to form the satiny toe box, caressing the tidy pleats on the bottom with my fingers. I would soon feel betrayed by my first pair of those clunky shoes that refused to comply with my wishes as my soft leather ballet shoes always had. Damn pointe shoes, you lied: you are not pretty at all.

Ballet must be pretty in the theatre on the stage, though: nobody wants to buy a ticket to see ugly. I used this little anecdote in class all the time with my own young students in lieu of whapping them.

This weekend a photography exhibit opened in London, of images by Rick Guest showing dancers with all the sparkle and glitter stripped away. In his artist’s statement Guest says,

[Dance] deliberately conceals the enormity of effort that goes into its creation … but I think that this does a great disservice to the dancers, and that having a sense of what lies beneath both enhances our experience of the performance and leads to a more profound appreciation of the dancer’s essential being.

Maybe: I’m still on the fence about this. The photographs are revealing and interesting, possibly only to dancers. They do not portray ugliness in the sense of tummies hanging out (there are no tummies on these dancers) or egregious classical technique, but more of the sort that lived at the bottom of my mom’s dance bag: the grit that is part and parcel of being a dancer.

In the third grade there were little boys who routinely said ballet was for “sissies.” That language incensed me and sent me over the top. In those days I’d agree the sparkly veneer was indeed doing us a disservice, that those smarty-pants needed a reality check about the real moxie one needed to be a dancer. It would not have mattered, of course.

But my inclination is not to think of this Big Lie so much a disservice as a gift: learning to show effortless beauty is a life skill that transcends classical ballet (in the classroom or on the stage) and serves us well in our “civilian” lives, too. I try to use a little of that moxie in my own professional life—the unrelenting drive that insists on the best output delivered in the most professional and elegant way possible, even when it is uncomfortable. There are plenty of professionals who missed that meeting.

And what of us glittery “sissies?” Some of us did okay for ourselves.

P.S. If you are inclined to follow the link to the exhibit, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. If you are not a dancer, do you find the images interesting? Would they enhance your enjoyment of a classical ballet performance?

 

 

(Dis)Comfort and Joy

IMG_20151213_170758

Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I spent yesterday Christmas shopping over in Saratoga Springs. We had fun, observed people, marveled at humanity, privately assessed it as we are wont to do for amusement. We ate lunch and dinner out, rare for us, and arrived home content if a little weary, with a bargain Christmas tree tied to the top of the Subi.

On the ride over to New York I lamented the absence of friends, a void I’ve felt since I moved to Vermont. Once you leave a tightly knit community it is difficult or maybe impossible to rebuild the kinds of relationships that happen when you raise a family there. HCB and I compared notes about the kinship we once felt between our own families and others during our respective marriages.

For my part, I will say those relationships grew out of two important institutions in my life at the time: neighborhood and church. There was much overlap between them, and two families in particular emerged as important cornerstones in the life of my young family.

There is nothing like that here in my new life in Vermont. I have not felt connected to any church community since my arrival here save one, and that was in my first year when I lived near the New Hampshire state line in Vermont’s Upper Valley. Community and neighborhood have a very different connotation in general in a rural state where neighborhoods in the traditional sense are rare, unless you live in one of the few towns with any critical mass to it.

But anyway the reality is HCB and I work hard in our professional lives and spend much of our time outside work mainly dotting i’s and crossing t’s. We are still in survival mode, the two of us, and will likely be a while longer before we can really figure out how the horizon looks, much less try to establish friendships with others of our ilk.

This morning I grinned when I slid into the driver’s seat before my yoga class and found it adjusted for a very tall chef. After class I headed to a little café like so many others you’re likely to find on Main Streets in New England villages; I was there to meet up with a recent acquaintance, another writer with a keen desire to see her own work published, but who also spends her professional life writing as do I. We were united initially by an online lament that it is just plain difficult to do justice to your own writing at the end of a long day spent writing for someone else. I have come to realize it is a good problem to have, and am not really complaining.

When I arrived at the café a jazz trio had just set up and were about to start their Sunday afternoon set. It was quirky and odd to find a straight-ahead jazz trio in this kind of venue on an early Sunday afternoon to be sure, but Vermont itself is pretty quirky and odd. In spite of that the musicians were tight and the original compositions they played were good; the band’s spokesman explained each piece to his attentive audience using humorous language suffused with just the right amount of technical jargon. Jazz can be discordant, and much of this jazz in particular was written in seven—don’t try to dance to this, he jokingly chided. I still found it interesting and listenable.

It is good to be pushed outside one’s comfort zone from time to time; I have been all kinds of pushed outside my comfort zone in the last three years. The comfort of cherished friendships is elusive; forging relationships is more challenging now and requires different skills in this still-new landscape. To borrow the music metaphor, there may be only discordant, complicated harmonies written in confusing time signatures. As Jack Nicholson’s character Melvin Udall (ironically a writer) famously asked a roomful of anxious people in a psychiatric waiting room, What if this is as good as it gets? 

Maybe this new, discordant landscape of hard-to-forge relationships is as good as it gets. Who can say?

But maybe an uncertain landscape brings with it something edgier and distinctly more interesting than a wistful yearning for a chapter long closed. Maybe there will be dancing to music written in seven.

Rituals And Boundaries: Important Life Lessons

Butter Dish III Edit

Yesterday I hollared to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, Hey, don’t put a new stick of butter in the dish ’til I have a chance to polish it—it’s looking a bit gnarly.

You must be feeling better, he said.

It’s true, I was. For the first time in over a week I was feeling somewhat restored after the first full night of sleep I’d had in as long. I have not been this worn down by illness in recent memory. I can power through a head cold as well as the next guy, and have been known to teach ballet with laryngitis on occasion. But this stuff is sinister.

Last week was a blur. My workweek rituals were derailed right out of the starting blocks on Monday with my request to telecommute, the workday spent on the sofa in my jammies, no routine packing of a lunch or gym bag. I felt grateful for a compassionate employer and work-at-home privileges.

But boy, did it ever get so much worse before it got better.

And however unwelcome illness, the derailing of daily rituals is as objectionable, speaking only for myself.

I recently saw a candid piece of video shot on a U.S. Marines base playground. In it a handful of kids are seen swinging and playing, while in the distance can be heard the first few trumpeted notes of evening Colors. Instantly and without provocation, the children stop playing and swinging and stand respectfully at attention. There are no adults seen in the video. The music ends and the kids return to their boisterous play. (Go here if you want to see it.)

It is obviously an important ritual the children have learned to respect. The video felt timely to me,  upended as my own cherished weekly rituals have been and will be a bit longer.

That little video got me thinking of all kinds of rituals, and how they serve humanity.

It also recalled an embarrassing moment in my brief life as a ballet school director. I had a guest artist at the school teaching an open master class, meaning I had advertised the class and made it available to the general public. A couple of my own students were there, but the class was attended mainly by kids from other schools in the area—whose decorum and general deportment were beyond my control. While the instructor was in the classroom getting his notes and music organized ahead of class an unknown teenage girl blew into the classroom and flung her dance bag in a corner, kicked off her street shoes, and shoulted across the room at him: “Hey! I saw you at DEA Nationals!”

Stunned, he looked up and said, “Excuse me?” “Hey, weren’t you a teacher at DEA Nationals?” “Yes,” he said and put his head back down to his notes. “I thought so,” she said without so much as a smidge of shame.

After class I apologized to him and underscored she was not one of my own. He laughed and said, “That girl obviously has NO sense of boundaries.”

Seems nobody ever taught her to stand quietly at attention for evening Colors.

If ever there were a universe fraught with ritual, it is classical ballet. From attire and grooming, to entering and leaving the classroom, there are time-honored rituals observed in classical ballet institutions across the globe. Long hair is swept into a classical bun. Class ends (and sometimes even begins) with the ritual of révérence, a formal display of respect and gratitude to the teacher, the purveyor of the art form, and often from one student to another. In some schools children enter the classroom in a formal way, when they are invited, in an exercise called pas marché. It is a lovely thing to observe, and an excellent way to teach a young child respect for the learning environment. In the professional world, every day begins with the ritual of ballet class; a famous dancer once likened it to brushing your teeth in the morning. It is how you reorganize your body after sleep, said another.

None of it is frivolous. We sweep long hair into a neat classical bun to keep it from interfering with movement, and to show the face and the neckline. Even the act of combing the hair and fastening it to the head is an important ritual that helps ready the mind for the discipline that is about to unfold. The rituals of pas marché and révérence teach the important skills of walking as one would walk on the stage (much more difficult than you might imagine), and of taking a bow in a show of gratitude at the end of a performance. And, of establishing all-important boundaries, from student to student, and student to instructor. And even from performer to spectator.

The professional begins each day with class to organize and prepare mind and body for a busy day of rehearsals. All of it, from the tiniest ballerina wannabe learning to take a tentative curtsey, to the professional warming up in  class, making a careful head-to-toe inventory of potentially bothersome injuries and other concerns for the rest of the day and the workweek—it all matters.

Important rituals reach into every corner of our lives. Nighttime bathing and stories prepare a young mind for sleep. Daily exercise maintains the body and prepares it for the rigors of life. The ritual of holy baptism (and rituals of other faith traditions) nutures spiritual lives collectively and entrusts an entire community with the spiritual stewardship of an individual life.

And what of animals? Rituals exist in the pasture and barnyard as much as they do in our own back yards. Bestselling author Jon Katz documented the braying of his beloved donkey Simon, which happened almost on cue, every single morning—it was Simon’s “call to life,” as Jon said. A ritual through and through.

None of it feels silly to me. With rituals and boundaries come preparedness for life and a sense of peace in a world over which none of us has much control. And daily rituals create an environment ripe for intellectual life and creativity. At least, that seems to be what happens in my life: rituals build a framework that somehow allows me to think and create, and also to handle the curve balls that are thrown my way from time to time.

No gym bag again tomorrow. Butter dish looks great, though, and I’ve spent some time today thinking and writing. How satisfying.