Saturday, November 29, 2014

Workers Say, Academics Say

People at Work Say... Academics Say...
Get hired Get funding
Get a raise Get more funding
Work overtime Have a large courseload
Look for a job Go on the [job] market
Boss Adviser
Co-workers Colleagues
Work, the office Campus (or building name)
TGIF ABD (All But Dissertation)

Academia, I've noticed, carries with it a language all its own, often meant to distance the work performed by professors, adjunct faculty, research assistants, and graduate students from the language of traditional 9 to 5 office or labor jobs.  Money, for instance, is referred to less in terms of salaries or paychecks, but instead as funding, and those looking for a new job are said to be on the market (as if they were planning to purchase a new beach house or sport utility vehicle).

What is the purpose of such distancing?  Avoiding the language of the working world creates the impression that the tasks performed by academics aren't actually work at all, but something greater and more important.  This, however, makes more sense when referring to writing or research performed of one's own volition and far less sense when a research assistant performs the same data entry a low-ranking temp would be paid an hourly wage to type out in a cubicle.

Academic jobs involve work the same as any other jobs, and to pretend that they don't is to allow for the type of exploitation worthy of an Upton Sinclair novel.  Considering that academia is experiencing an adjunct crisis as more and more high-paying professor jobs with benefits are transferred to low-paying adjunct jobs with no benefits, one would think that academics everywhere would want to unite themselves with the rest of the workforce by not referring to the work they do as somehow deserving of its own vocabulary.

The new academia is a scary place.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Low-Stakes Fun

I think a lot about writing purely for low-stakes fun (e.g. this blog) and how I don't do it as often as I'd like anymore.  I still keep a journal, which fulfills my need for personal reflection, but I miss pursuing more of the random ideas that spark into something more worthwhile than a Facebook message, but less tangible than a short story.  The things this blog used to be full of.

A big part of this has to do with my being in graduate school (where I've been for over a year), where such writing is hardly encouraged (long story), and social pressures tend to favor a more professional discourse of literary fiction (if such a term even has meaning anymore) published in magazines of note (or those that purport to be of note) to build one's CV (which, unlike a one-page employment resume, concerns itself chiefly with length).  Before graduate school, before work on the novel even, I made more time for this blog and for other low-stakes writing that kept the ideas flowing, kept me writing actively.  I spend more time writing now than I did then, though most of what I do now is novel- or larger project-related work, which in many ways I find disappointing.

Does this shift represent a maturing move toward more important endeavors, or a dwindling of my creative energy in favor of a more regimented structure?  To even phrase the problem in this way disgusts me.  Why can't I continue to work on a myriad of projects, fitting each one into its proper place on a smaller or larger scale that suits that individual idea?

Time, mostly.  There's never enough time.

Have to keep trying, though.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How to Write an Em Dash in Microsoft Word

A hyphen connects a pair of words to make a compound word, like this:

I ate six slices of pizza and got a stomach-ache.

An em dash, though, sets apart elements of a sentence that explain something, similar to a comma or a pair of parentheses:

The traveling vacuum cleaner salesman—always a nuisance to neighborhood residents—hadn't been seen in several weeks.

The hyphen ( - ) is short, while the em dash ( — ) is much longer.  The two look different on the printed page and shouldn't be confused, though confusion often arises because there's no em dash key on a standard keyboard.  Many writers will type hyphens or double hyphens in place of em dashes, which look silly and unprofessional. 

Here's how to type an em dash using Microsoft Word:

1. Type out the text before the em dash, without a space.

2. Press the hyphen key twice.


3. Again, without using a space, type the word you want to follow the em dash.

4. Now, hit Space. Word will automatically substitute the em dash for you.

Alternately, Windows users can access the em dash using the Character Map, that long list of special characters like ©,  ¥,  Ω, ∆, and ♫, to name but a few.  To access the Character Map, click the Start menu, then All Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools, and finally, Character Map.  You'll find the em dash near the end next to its seldom-used cousin, the en dash, and its special character cousin the horizontal bar.

Once you've located the em dash, click Select to pull it into the box at the bottom of the window, then Copy to add it to the clipboard.  You can then paste it into MS Word and other programs as needed.

Writers: use proper em dash formatting whenever possible!  It makes you look more professional, it's easier on the eyes, and it saves your editors manuscript cleanup time down the road.  You should also know the word processing tools of your trade the same way carpenters know their hammers, biologists know their microscopes, and golfers know their clubs.  There's no reason not to.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Things That Annoy Me About Each of the Batman Movies

Batman (1989):  Michael Keaton's "You want to get nuts?  Let's get nuts" line.

Batman Returns (1992): Christopher Walken not doing anything Christopher Walken-like.

Batman Forever (1995): Most of the coolest stuff getting edited out.

Batman and Robin (1997): The entire fucking movie.

Batman Begins (2005): Christian Bale's raspy voice; training scenes that take up half the film (tie).

The Dark Knight (2008): That scene in the courtroom where the mob guy misfires his carbon-fiber gun and Harvey Dent not only spots it as made in China, but suggests that next time, "I recommend you buy American."  The scene (and much of the China plot that follows) not only capitalizes on the anti-China sentiment that was rising around the mid- to late-2000s, it serves as a hokey call for moviegoers to buy American goods rather than their poorly made Chinese counterparts - a shameless political ploy that's going to date even more terribly than Marty McFly's Japanese boss in Back to the Future II.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): Gotham's citizens rising up against the wealthy.  While working-class revolutions are nothing new, the timing of Gotham's attack on the rich with America's post-recession awareness of the gap between rich and poor can't possibly be coincidental, and should thus be read as overtly political (which the series stooped to in the China relationship in the previous film).  The problem here, though, is that the film portrays Gotham's revolution against the rich as ridiculous, destructive, and corrupting for everyone involved, particularly in the courtroom scene where the Scarecrow sits atop the towering heap of desks like something out of Kafka.  When the common people rise up against the rich, the scene suggests, they do so nonsensically, without bringing real structure to their new order, since they can only sentence rich people to torturous deaths for the crime of being rich.  This in turn implies that any time the masses rise up against the rich or try to change the world they live in, the result will be anarchy, since no sensible alternative to is ever presented onscreen.  The film implies, therefore, that changing the status quo is wrong, that the grievances of the masses are petty and not worth taking seriously, and that order can only reign as long as the rich keep power for themselves.  Not cool.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Some Comically Named Herbicides Tested for Use in Corn, Soybeans, and/or Sorghum in the State of Nebraska

  • Autumn Super
  • Python
  • Sharpen
  • Princep
  • Aim
  • Beacon
  • Expert
  • Impact
  • Hornet
  • Resolve
  • Fierce
  • Fusion
  • Permit
  • Liberty
  • Zemax
  • Cinch
  • Spirit
  • Extreme
  • Steadfast Q
  • Confidence
  • Yukon
  • Rhythm
  • Solida
  • Sure Start
  • Ultra Blazer
  • Breakfree
  • Balance Flexx [sic]
  • G-Max Lite
  • Prowl
  • Cadet
  • Command
  • Valor
  • Verdict
  • Peak
  • Surpass
  • Moxy [not to be confused with the beverage]
  • Paramount
  • Bullet
  • Lariat
  • Warrant
  • Tackle
  • Classic
  • Cobra
  • Raptor
  • Phoenix
  • Rumble
  • Torment
  • Gangster
  • Vise
  • Pursuit

Sunday, July 27, 2014

When the Market Basket Workers Fight Back, Everyone Wins

I didn't make this, but it sums up the movement's feelings pretty well

Market Basket supermarkets, my first-ever place of employment, has made the news for its companywide demonstrations against the ousting of former president Arthur T. Demoulas as part of a longtime family rivalry.  Arthur T.’s firing led to employee demonstrations in front of every store (“Honk if you love Artie T!”), a call for shoppers to boycott Market Basket, and empty grocery shelves as truck drivers refuse to deliver products. 

The rivalry between the two Demoulas families has been longstanding as the board of directors split into two factions: one in favor of keeping employee benefits substantial and its store prices ridiculously low (Arthur T.’s side), and the other (led by Arthur S., a.k.a. the Bad Arthur) plotting to make more money by raising prices and looting the employee profit-sharing pool.  The pictures on the movement’s Facebook page sum it up pretty well.

I don’t work for Market Basket anymore, but the Warner store was a big part of my life for a long time.  I spent most of high school and college there, used its paychecks to buy my first two cars, and spent a great many hours in its dairy cooler goofing off with my friends. It’s also where I learned about work, how not to fake sick when going to a music festival, and how to balance a part-time job with school, creative work, and a social life.

It’s more than just nostalgia, though, that drove me to follow the saga of the company where I once earned my living stocking the half and half shelves; it’s what the Market Basket battle represents in our country’s struggle to counter trends of increasing imbalance.

Right now, Market Basket employees earn twice yearly bonuses, varying in size depending on the worker’s wages and the time spent at the company.  They’re also offered shares in an employee profit-sharing program where they can cash out a large sum of money after retiring.  Again, this amount varies depending on the time spent with the company.  In an age where the pension and profit sharing programs of the post-war era have been dismantled in favor of individual retirement plans, Market Basket offers its workers (even the part-time ones) a long-term deal that rewards loyalty and discourages job-hopping. 

Think of it this way: if the grocery store across the street offers an experienced worker with profit-sharing benefits a higher salary to do the same job, that worker is less likely to accept because the offer involves a greater long-term loss.  Employee longevity offers pluses for both sides as workers enjoy higher benefits and the company spends less money training new employees.  It also gives workers more incentive to stick up for their rights, while a culture of job-hoppers will just grumble and seek out a better deal somewhere else.  The people in charge don't always like that.

Profit-sharing weighs heavily in company politics, as when Arthur T. replaced a full $46 million in bad investments lost in the 2008 crisis.  Such an act did not go unnoticed, and with Artie T. gone, workers fear their profit-sharing and other perks could be taken away. 

Financial matters aside, though, building a loyal worker base offers social benefits that, as Arthur T. has stated, “can’t be measured in dollars and cents.”  Higher benefits mean workers can put their children through college, buy houses without being foreclosed on, and take vacations to improve their quality of life.  Developed skillsets and company loyalty also yield positive results for communities as customers enjoy consistent service and interact with happier employees rather than a revolving door of untrained workers and policies favoring anonymity.  Customers are growing tired of the big-box model anyway, as this 2011 NewEgg commercial suggests.

These values go beyond company profits and bottom lines.  Contrary to what Mitt Romney might think, corporations are just abstract entities existing around the people who work for them.  When real, human workers (the people who make up the majority of the company) are seen as transient and expendable rather than loyal members of the group, it becomes easier for CEOs to dismiss them as undeserving of the company rewards while they quietly increase their own salaries.  Americans are becoming more aware of increasing gaps between the top and bottom of the corporate hierarchy, and one way to discourage such behavior is to consider all members of a company as playing for the same team.

It’s one thing, though, for us to sit around on the internet discussing poor working conditions and another to actually do something about them.  The Market Basket delivery boycotts and employee protests (thousands attended the Tewksbury rally on Friday) are the closest I’ve seen to a full worker strike in my area, the kind of Upton Sinclair/Sylvester Stallone-style protests that gave us the five-day workweek, safer working conditions, and hundreds of other benefits that people every day take for granted.  The strength of the Market Basket protests sends a clear message that corporations can’t manipulate workers and get away with it, and that people will take action when they’re treated unfairly.

Some may argue that with capitalism, workers are free to get a new job if working conditions don’t meet their satisfaction, and that a competitive free labor market can only help workers as companies fight to win their favor.  Unfortunately, though, with nationwide unemployment still at 6.1% and some states as high as 7.9%, finding a new job is easier said than done.  Worse still, if every company offers low wages and minimal benefits, what incentive does a new company have to offer more when it knows that workers will settle for less?

The Market Basket workers have said they’re not going to give in until Arthur T. comes back.  Meanwhile, the bad publicity, empty store shelves, and lost revenue have prompted rumors of Arthur T.’s buying out the other side as the quickest path to resolution.  No matter what the outcome, the New England grocery world isn’t likely to remain the same, and if we’re lucky, both workers and board members everywhere will take notice.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Midwestern Candy Review: Cherry Mash

It's like an orgasm in my mouth and everyone's invited.  Oh yes.

This bad boy is a midwestern-only specialty from St. Joseph, Missouri: Cherry Mash, a regional discovery whose greatness outranks both Zero bars and Ruby Red Squirt.  Like all good early 20th century packaged foods (the label proudly boasts "Since 1918"), it still retains its cute cartoon mascot: the Chase Cop. 

Inside the wrapper hides this chocolatey ball of nugget.  It's misshapen, bumpy, and resembles a small turd, the least attractive candy I've seen in an age where candy bars come with smooth outer chocolate shells (sometimes with that wisp fused to the top where the machine dripped a final line of melted chocolate back on to the bar.  Funny how what started as a natural twist of the baker's spatula can be reproduced so precisely by a machine).  This effect causes the candy to resemble something made at home with baking chocolate and a bag of nuts rather than in a factory using the artificial flavors listed on the wrapper.

I can't believe how good this candy is.  The inside consists of a thick cherry fondant, a mix of maraschino cherries and that cherry flavoring one finds in popsicles and Life Savers.  I love cherry cordials, but this - the inside of this compresses all the flavor of a cherry cordial into a marshmallowy ball of sugar goodness. It's richer than a regular nougat-based candy (think Snickers or Milky Way), which it can get away with due to its small size (I finished mine in four and a half bites); a full bar of this would yield a sugar overload and cost as much as a small cake.  I paid $1.29 for mine at an outmoded convenience store/car wash, a haven for these kinds of regional treats.

Those driving (or residing) in the Midwest would be wise to check out Cherry Mash (the Chase website offers a location map).  Others can try making Cherry Mash at home - your hand-rolled mashes shouldn't look much different than the ones made in the factory.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Daily Grind (or, What I've Been Working On Lately)

Few things bore me more than hearing about other people's writing habits, but here are a few words about mine:

Summer's here, grad school classes are done, and aside from some paying work not worth mentioning, I've been living out an entirely self-motivated schedule, something I've been working toward for a long time.  My biggest task is finishing the novel (the current draft, anyway) once and for all, a goal that's nearer now than it's ever been.  Mornings are good for that, a chance to wake up, plan a point of attack while in the shower or frying eggs, and sit down at the computer (internet cable safely unplugged) until lunch.  Getting started can be rough, and reading a few pages from an old favorite (most recently Catch-22, Murphy, Lucky Jim, The Mezzanine, or Something Happened) helps get me motivated and starts the words flowing.  Reach a stopping point, eat lunch, and schedule the next novel-writing day.  Repeat until done.

Having more time also means more devotion to side projects - undertakings both necessary and dangerously distracting.  Foremost has been this year's Art Swap project, more complex than I'd planned, but moving toward an ideal that combines both writing and graphic art.  (More on this later, though my last entry sprung from an Art Swap outtake.)

Then there's been my real and always arduous attempts to get more of my writing out there (like, in places where people can actually see it).  For a long time, I've been torn between how much time to devote to creation vs. self-promotion: given our limited creative energy, does submitting and researching publishing outlets detract from the (more important) process of creation?  This question's hounded me for a long time, but I've realized that I spend far, far too little time on the distribution end of things, especially since the two tasks occupy different portions of the brain, can be done at different times of the day, and aren't mutually exclusive.

So I've been delving into realms both traditional (fiction slush piles) and non (podcasts, literary essays, travel fiction, etc.) in hopes of snagging some bites.  I left one success sadly unmentioned: Sam Roman was kind enough to feature my short piece, Korean-Man Purse, on her new project, Non Finito, the journal of unfinished writing.  I was glad to help Sam out (getting this thing started meant a lot to her), and I found...relief in sending out a scene (and a character) from the novel that ended up on the cutting room floor. Jackson did a lot to form the first draft's quick pacing and irreverent tone, and if all goes as planned, we haven't seen the last of him.

I've also let my personal reading slip by the wayside, and the stack of unread books next to my bed recently rose to rival my nightstand in height.  Reading's always been important to me, and I felt disgusted at my inability to prioritize it against grad school assignments.  Highlights of my return to the page include The Loved One (a solid comic novel by the underappreciated Evelyn Waugh), Don Delillo's White Noise, and a supermarket crime novel (i.e. a crime novel set in a supermarket) by my last workshop teacher Sean Doolittle (here's his actual webpage, not a Wikipedia entry). 

Of my last month's reading, though, I most recommend Steve Martin's Shopgirl to anyone looking for something smart, funny, and incredibly observational.  The Shopgirl movie's good, but the book is better, while also being a fast read (barely over a hundred pages).  The absurd commentary of Steve Martin's storytelling makes it all work in a way that's just fun to read.  Here's a piece:
Jeremy took Mirabelle on approximately two and a half dates.  The half date was actually a full evening, but was so vaporous that Mirabelle had trouble counting it as a full unit.  On the first, which consisted mainly of shuffling around a shopping mall while Jeremy tried to graze her ass with the back of his hand, he split the dinner bill with her and then, when she suggested they actually go inside the movie theater whose new neon front so transfixed Jeremy, made her pay for her own ticket.
Wish I'd written that.

Community's important too, and long, solitary days have led me to venture out to SP CE (pronounced "Space"), Lincoln, Nebraska's own poetry studio and writer's workshop group (prose and all hybrids welcome).  It's been good having people to talk writing and just share observations with a few hours a week, plus interacting in an environment that's primarily about the work itself, and not what it can do for one's professional career.

That's all for now.  I won't lie - I miss this blog tremendously, and as my entries become fewer and online traffic merges from blogs to Facebook, what I post here has become even more focused toward an audience of one (though Google still rates me as an authority on people who hate being called "buddy").  I've also been inspired by my former roommate and partner-in-writing-crime Randall's return to blogging with the creation of his Magic the Gathering-inspired card game 21 Others, which he's been writing, assembling, and testing.  No one stays away from the process for long.

Someday, I imagine, I'll have a bona fide website (or at least a Wordpress one) with pictures, more links, and a flashy design scheme, but for now, I'll just keep posting stuff here.  You know, because it's fun.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is a Writer?

The first long story I ever wrote was about a travel writer who drank too much and had sunk into a morose depression because he wasn’t a real writer.

“What do you mean,” my teacher asked me, “when you say he isn’t a real writer?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, but had I been able to explain myself, I would have argued that a real writer wrote novels, or at least important nonfiction books.  I don’t know why I made this distinction at the time, though I now find it incredibly arbitrary.  Who are we to say that some people who write are writers while others who write are not?  Is being a writer defined by the type of writing one does, its frequency, its quality, or whether one writes to earn a living?

People use and withhold the word writer in so many situations that the term comes to indicate only the speaker’s values, what criteria that individual uses to decide which people are writers and which are not.

Using the word writer in this way doesn’t help anyone.  Either everyone who writes is a writer, or no one is.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Open Letter to the Marketing Executives at Super 8 Motels

Dear Sirs:

I'm writing to complain of your recent advertising partnership with Pizza Hut restaurants. Though your use of the red-roof Pizza Hut logo on your motel room keycards is itself mildly intrusive, more egregious is your obliviousness to said logo’s resembling a large arrow that would appear to designate the proper direction for inserting the keycard into the lock, when it reality the roof’s direction points toward the back of the keycard. The problem is worsened by the actual card insertion indicator, a small, dull triangle banished to a lower corner of the keycard where tired guests can easily miss it and (guided by the more massive and eye-catching Pizza Hut logo) insert their cards in the wrong direction. The likelihood of this mistake is such that during a recent stay, even the senior motel desk clerk inserted our card incorrectly and determined our door's lock to be low on batteries.

I recommend that you either A) Switch the direction of the Pizza Hut logo so that it matches the direction in which the keycard is inserted, or B) Make the insert directional arrow larger and the Pizza Hut logo smaller to avoid confusion.

I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely, &c, &c.

(will post reply if one is received)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

5 Words I Can't Stand

Some words I love, others I despise.  The words I despise I don't use, but they still fill me with trembling hatred when I encounter them in books, online, and everyday speech.  Expounding on them here seems a good step towards clarifying their inadequacies for my own benefit, or perhaps even finding others who hate them as much as I do.

Note: Since I've already beaten to death my hatred of the words utilize and buddy (not to mention my annoyance with unnecessary quotation marks, which have an entire blog devoted to their misuse), I've left them off the list.

#1. Various

People overuse this word to expand on a list or topic in a way I find frustratingly vague.  What do you mean your work has been published in "various magazines"?  How can I imagine the "various artists" in your exhibit?  If the item you're expanding on is that important, I recommend using examples, or trying a more specific adjective:
X  The banquet will feature coffee, tea, and various hors d'oeuvres.
O  The banquet will feature coffee, tea, chicken fingers, cut-up pieces of fruit, and a large platter of cheese and crackers.
O The banquet will feature coffee, tea, and lots of hors d'oeuvres.

#2. Disseminate

The second of two Officespeak words to make the list, disseminate shares a root word with semen, thus making it a strange term to use in the workplace.  It means simply to pass on, to spread widely, or to let people know, but expresses the sentiment in a fashion both pretentious and inadvertently evocative of ejaculation.

#3. Earbud

Granted, this is a useful (and accurate) way to distinguish earphones worn over the head from ones worn inside the ear, though I never liked this word and avoid it as much as I avoid wearing earbuds themselves.

#4. Chapbook

Used almost exclusively in the literary world, this word has its origins in early publishing practices.  Now, however, people use it to refer to short collections of poetry not quite long enough to call an actual book, but long enough to warrant a binding and title.  I find the word derogatory, as if such collections were inherently unworthy of the term book.  It also reminds me of elementary school-era transitions from picture books to chapter books (many of which still had pictures).  We stopped using the term chapter books once we'd phased picture books out of our reading lists, and who now would refer to Lolita as a chapter book?

#5. Apparatus

A meaningless word, common in dense theoretical texts and self-aggrandizing works, its technical definition is
n. 1. a combination of instruments or materials having a particular function.
but I more commonly hear it used as a way of overcomplicating a machine, structure, or invention.  Some writers even use it for governments or organizations (e.g. the state apparatus) in a way that doesn't seem entirely appropriate. 

But more importantly, apparatus is a word that fails to create a clear image in the reader's mind and transforms the sentence around it into mere jargon.  Try to picture an apparatus: you can't do it!  (The closest I can come is an assembly or pipes within a wall, an image I know to be inaccurate but instinctively think of anyway.)  When language fails to convey a specific meaning, that language isn't doing its job, and when such obfuscation becomes commonplace, we accept it as part of the status quo and submit to its vagueness.  That's the danger in such language, and one we must avoid at all costs.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Honeggers Grain Elevator

Driving or walking in Lincoln, one sees old agricultural buildings like this one, the Honeggers grain elevator and feed plant on 6th Street and G, rising above the rest of the neighborhood.  Some are still in use, while others lie as vacant as the Honeggers plant.  Unlike churches and other multi-use buildings, what does a community do with a grain elevator that's no longer needed?  Nothing, until someone tears it down.

What's confusing about Nebraska's old farm plants is that it's difficult to tell which ones are vacant and which ones still function.  Railroads are one indicator: the Honeggers plant isn't connected to the tracks anymore - but even those plants on the main lines aren't always in operation.  For those passing through who don't know the difference, the plants function as signs of both urban activity and decay.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Very Special Wave of the Hand 250th Post Listless List

Things I Currently Possess At Least 250 Of (in no particular order)
  • Grains of rice (in 25-pound bag)
  • Dollars (in bank account)
  • Gas in gas tank (in ounces)
  • Blank pieces of paper (for printer)
  • Lined pieces of paper (in notebooks)
  • Feet of thread (in sewing kit)
  • CDs (blank, purchased, and accumulated from mix CD swaps)
  • Dollars (in Monopoly money)
  • Pieces of shredded cheese (cheddar, monterey jack, colby jack)
  • Articles of clothing (if a pair of socks counts as two articles)
  • Problems (with apologies to Jay-Z)
  • Staples (from jumbo-sized box purchased on school shopping trip in 1995)
  • Tissues (collected from Japanese street advertisers)
  • Posts (in blog)

Thanks to all you readers out there, and here's to 250 more.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ice Field

There’s a vacant lot on 6th Street in Lincoln where Arctic Glacier stores ice chests of the kind one finds outside convenience stores, and the chests look like they’ve been there a long time. This might be because of the surrounding snow, or it might be because fewer convenience stores sell ice now, and some of the chests really have been there a long time.

Places visited out of season fascinate me. Hampton Beach in wintertime, or the Mount Sunapee ski slopes bare in summer, long meadows running up the mountain with unused mechanical chairlifts strapped to the peak. In the rush and thrill of the season, we forget this is what these places really look like. So much goes unused for so long, and we miss it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Purple is the Loneliest Color, or, What Happens When You Look Up Color Names in the Dictionary

Gray is one of several deceptively easy words I can never remember how to spell correctly, though my Random House dictionary says that both a and e are acceptable.  The rest of the entry reads

gray (grā), adj. 1. of a color between white and black.

That a color can be so easily described in ordinary English I find astounding.  Try to outline the specifics of red, orange, or blue without using examples: you can’t do it!  Sure, you can stumble over words like bright, somber, or subtle to describe its hue, or words like rosy, fiery, or murky that are further dependent on familiar images, but each attempt comes down to the word itself: red is red, blue is blue, orange is orange. 

Gray is one of several colors that it finds its identity as its place between two others.  We could say the same thing about the other in-between sections of the color wheel, for example, green:

green (grēn), adj. 1. of the color of growing foliage, between yellow and blue in the spectrum.

Here, the writers have again used other colors to assist readers in imagining the color green, but they’ve also—first and foremost—compared it to a familiar image: growing foliage.  Not autumn foliage, but green summer foliage.  (Though I would never have thought to use those two words together, it’s a beautifully succinct way of describing green leaves without using the word green.)

Growing foliage is the idea the Random House folks believe will help the largest number of readers imagine the color green without ambiguity.  It’s a diplomat into the indescribable realm of colors, an honor held by a few other images:

yellow (yel′ō), n. 1. the color of an egg yolk or a ripe lemon.

Here again the images are from nature, this time two foods.  Yellow, it turns out, is the only color to have two dictionary images, probably because egg yolks and lemons both readily present themselves to readers.  Here’s red:

red (red) adj. 1. any of various colors resembling the color of blood.

Fairly morbid, but clearer than anything I can think of.  Orange, through the magic of homophones, takes care of the problem for us, though we can also find it on the color wheel:

or•ange (ôr′inj) n. 1. any of various reddish yellow, edible citrus fruits.  2. a tree bearing such fruits.  3. a color between yellow and red.

Though orange as a fruit is technically a separate definition, it still does the job.  Blue, meanwhile, uses an image ubiquitous to any kindergartener:

blue (blōō) n., adj. 1. the pure color of a blue sky.

Which brings us, last but not least, to purple:

purple (pûr′pǝl) n., adj. 1. any color having components of both red and blue, esp. one deep in tone.

This is fine—after all, the orange definition was a little convoluted too.  However, why aren’t the writers able to capture the color with a natural, determinable image like they are with all the others?  The rest of the entry provides little help: purple can specify a kind of royal cloth, denote something as imperial, describe exaggerated literary devices, or be used for the shocking or profane.  Nor can my edition of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary help, though it does list purple as a mollusk of the genus Purpura that yields a purple dye.  (That’s right, purple is a kind of mollusk!)

I’m tempted to criticize my dictionaries until I attempt to find my own image to describe purple.  An amethyst?  Not common enough.  A violet, as in the type of flower?  This would work, but it makes for awkward wording, and doesn’t match the power of sky or blood.  A certain part of a sunset?  No way of telling which part.  A bruise?  Again, not all bruises are purple.

Purple, then, becomes a color lacking the natural familiarity we find in the others, a foreign, man-made hue.  This may be what led its rarity to be prized by earlier civilizations, and why purple is a traditional color of royalty, though under different circumstances the reverse could easily be true: without an easy way of identifying purple with the world around it, purple becomes a lost, misfit, lonely color.  Like anything that doesn’t synch with the natural, we can view purple in different ways, with the result that how we finally do view the purple in our lives becomes a litmus test to determine our relationship with the abnormal. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

On the Writing of "Salinger's Wishes"

An essay I originally wrote for this blog about the leaked J.D. Salinger stories recently appeared in The Millions literary magazine.  For those who haven’t heard, back in November, a manuscript entitled Three Stories by J.D. Salinger surfaced online and has been passed around widely since, in discordance with the author’s wishes that they (along with his other work) not be published until specific intervals after his death.  The essay proposes that Salinger kept the most polished of the three, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” hidden because it tells an earlier version of Holden Caulfield’s brother’s death and focuses the tragedy for the reader less effectively than The Catcher in the Rye does.  The subject matter and timely nature of the essay seemed to make it worth submitting, and a few e-mails was all it took.  Writers like to pretend that submitting is an arcane, secretive process, but having never submitted a literary essay before, I found it surprisingly easy.  Click here for the link.

I don’t take a strong stance on Salinger’s strict, almost obsessive desire to keep his writing and personal life hidden.  If anything, I believe the man was entitled to his privacy, though I venture that his reclusive behavior probably did more to rouse attention (intentionally or unintentionally) about his life, writing, and personal relationships than a New York literary life would have.  Though we don’t know enough about Salinger to judge why he stopped publishing, the leaked stories provide some clues.  Two of them are rough drafts with crossouts, misspellings, and incomplete character relationships.  That Salinger chose not to polish them implies that he’d lost interest in them.  When I read “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” however, I saw a story that was ready for publication but showed three Caulfield brothers that were different than the ones in Catcher.  Because Salinger chose to change their relationships and the presentation of events in the story, we can infer that there’s something inherently unfinished about “Bowling Balls,” something that wasn’t what the writer wanted.  While Salinger’s reasons for guarding his later, finished writings may be shrouded in mystery (for a few more years, at least), his reworking of elements from "Bowling Balls" into Catcher provide more telling evidence.

I found myself drawn to Salinger’s process because, as a writer, I know it’s hard to get it right the first time.  This goes double for writers just starting out, as Salinger was in the 1940s.  While we can enjoy a novel or movie sequel safe in the knowledge that we can pick up our favorite characters where we last left them, readers of “Bowling Balls” must remember that its characters aren’t fully developed the way Salinger wanted them, and can't exist in the same world as Catcher.  Can we still enjoy stories like “Bowling Balls” with the understanding that they’re prototypes?  Of course.  But it requires extra effort to avoid being pulled out of the story, effort that isn’t required when we read Faulkner’s novels or watch Kevin Smith movies, and effort that’s harder for most casual readers to muster.  Salinger understood this, which is why he didn’t want “Bowling Balls” published but was fine with leaving it in the library for the scholars to read.

I expect, though, that as more of Salinger’s works are released and more facts revealed about his life, Salinger fans will understand more about his secrecy and his existing canon.  But we don’t have those answers yet, which is why people have made pilgrimages to his house or traveled to research libraries to read his early stories.  It’s natural to want to know more about the things you love, and frustrating when you can’t find the answers.  Nick Hornby writes about this in Juliet, Naked, where online myths and legends run amuck about a rock star who’s left the public eye, and when we find out how banal his life really is, the legends appear all the more ridiculous.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t read the Three Stories manuscript, but I do think that, as I write in the essay’s final sentence, they should view the stories as experiments from an earlier time.