Nice Job! Not.

sumi-e

The other day, I was chatting with a new resident at my mother’s retirement community. When I told her (solicited) that I was a writer and editor, her response was nearly explosive—about how ill-suited she would be to such a line of work, due to an auditory learning challenge she shares with her son. I maintain a running, mental list of jobs I would be terrible at myself. Here is a sampling, accompanied by the reason(s) for my inadequacy:

  1. Taxi driver. I get nervous with people in my car, have a terrible sense of direction, and would probably decline to “step on it” if asked. I do, however, drive my husband to and from the airport frequently. His name for this service begins with B and rhymes with Uber.
  2. Roofer. I would look down, get dizzy, and fall off—the first day. Years ago, the twin boys across the street, about six at the time, would play on top of their house—as I watched in horror, wondering if I should call Child Protective Services. Incredibly, they are still alive.
  3. Alaskan king crab fisherperson. I have an intense aversion to drowning, hypothermia, and crippling injuries. The hours are long, cold, wet, and dangerous, whereas I prefer short, mild, dry, and safe.
  4. Restaurant server. I lack the upper-body strength to carry a bunch of plates at once. When I was a girl, I saw a waitress pour a tureen of scalding soup down a patron’s neck. I went on to enjoy my own (delicious split pea) soup, but the incident stayed with me.

This month, I have considered adding a profession to the list: nurse. With my mother in the hospital for four days and in a skilled nursing facility for sixteen (and counting), I have witnessed the dedication of nurses, certified nursing assistants, and nurse’s aides up close. These men and women possess all sorts of demeanors—friendly, businesslike, sweet, funny, comforting, cheerful, encouraging, serious. But universally, they are patient. And hard-working. And flexible, moving ceaselessly from patient to patient, wherever and whenever they are needed.

Thank you to Adam, Alex, Daisy, Feybe, Franklin, Marion, Nicole, Sandra, and Vic, who represent many others.

Puppies Are to Dogs as Kittens Are to Cats

scantron question graphic

The correct answer is B, though I prefer E.

When I was studying for the SAT over three decades ago (little sob), I dubbed myself “Queen of Analogies.” I know it sounds vain to confer an exalted title on oneself. (I later adopted the moniker “Cupcake Queen,” so maybe I have a problem.) If it’s any consolation, when I was taking the test, I probably thought of myself as the dunce of analogies. Perhaps good news for college-bound students is that analogy questions were removed from the SAT in 2005.

An analogy is a comparison. It shows the resemblance between two things otherwise unlike. Forms of analogy include metaphor (“All the world’s a stage”), simile (“My love is like a red, red rose”), allegory (“The Tortoise and the Hare”), and parable (“The Prodigal Son”). I recently came up with an analogy that I thought was, well, brilliant! It compared the political situation in the United States to a dress. My vanity didn’t go unchecked, however; my husband seemed less than impressed with it.

white and gold dress

Do you see this dress as white and gold, or blue and black? Our relationship may depend on it.

Remember “the dress”? The one that became an international meme in 2015? The garment was either blue and black, or white and gold, depending on who was looking at the photo. I became mildly obsessed with the phenomenon at the time, especially when the frock turned out to be blue and black (not the combination I saw). Explanations arose for the variance in perception, related to “the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in a sunlit world.” The image “hit some kind of perceptual boundary.”

The color of the dress in the photo became a topic of preoccupation, discussion, debate, disagreement, vitriolic argument, and existential crisis. The Washington Post called the controversy a “drama that divided a planet.” It was the subject of 4.4 million tweets in 24 hours. And neither “side” would give up its position. Indeed, my husband and I just spoke about it in raised tones. (He’s a blue-and-blacker.)

blue dress

Royal-Blue Lace Detail Bodycon Dress by Roman Originals

Now that I’ve refreshed your memory on the dress (assuming it hasn’t haunted you since its original infamy, because that would be abnormal), can you see how the current political situation resembles it? On Facebook, I’ll come across a political post that appears beyond doubt, conveying information from a reliable source. (I won’t give specifics, because the post could represent the views of either “side.”) I find myself thinking, there’s no way anyone could dispute the veracity or legitimacy of the point being made.

But invariably, someone will make a comment to the contrary. And I can tell he believes what he’s saying, 100 percent. He sees a blue-and-black dress; I see a white-and-gold dress. And budging, for either of us, would mean distrusting our senses (which we rely on for survival) and rejecting our perception of reality (a terrifying prospect). [End of brilliant analogy.]

I love analogies, even if I don’t reign over them, because they are stepping stones to understanding. If we understand A but not B, and B is like A, then we can also understand B.

Maybe, in this way, we can get all the way to Z.

A Foolish Consistency

It’s been 10 months since my last post about the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. If that sounded like the prelude to a confession, here it is: one reason I want to win, or at least be a finalist, or at the very least be a semifinalist, is that my victory (or semi-victory) could then become the subject of a blog post—and I wouldn’t have to come up with another idea for that month. So, laziness.

I have entered the competition every week since discovering it, even when I’ve been out of the country, sick, or busy with work. Ninety-six entries, ninety-five losses. (Hope springs eternal; I haven’t yet lost the current contest, though I’m well on my way.) I could try to analyze my lack of success, but why? Besides, I’ve already done that. Ultimately, the prescription must be this: be funnier, or at least cleverer.

pie-2A recent cartoon depicted Adam and Eve in the garden, before the fall (as evidenced by their nakedness). She is holding out a pie to him, and he looks concerned as he responds. I submitted the caption that was the most popular among my polled Facebook friends and was also my favorite: “Please tell me that’s rhubarb.”

This post would be very different (jubilant, triumphant, gloating) had my caption been among the semifinalists, which were as follows:

  1. “Maybe we should get that to go.”
  2. “Wait, we have an oven?”
  3. “How much sin would some ice cream add?”
  4. “What do you mean it’s your mother’s recipe?”
  5. “Are the apples local?”
  6. “I hope I don’t regret this tomorrow.”
  7. “I’ll be damned.”

The three captions in bold type became the finalists. It remains to be seen which one will win. I voted for “I’ll be damned.”

And I will continue to pursue the popular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Are You a Consonant or a Vowel?

img_8883_croppedI apologize in advance for the scatological nature of this post. Sometimes I think in metaphors, and sometimes those metaphors involve excrement. Especially when I’m playing Words with Friends. To get the disgustingness behind us, when my tile rack contains all or nearly all consonants, I liken it to constipation. When the letters are vowel-heavy, it’s similar to diarrhea. Too many consonants, and there’s no flow; too many vowels, and there’s only flow. (Either way, a satisfactory move is unlikely.) I guess that means a word, which has the requisite balance of consonants and vowels, is like a healthy bowel movement. Again, I’m sorry.

The other day, I got to wondering if people (aside from their digestive tracts) might be like consonants and vowels. I recalled a scene from the movie Husbands and Wives, in which Judy Davis’s character muses about whether people in her life are hedgehogs or foxes:

I thought how different Michael was from Jack. How much deeper his vision of life was. And I thought Michael was a hedgehog and Jack was a fox. And then I thought Judy was a fox and Gabe was a hedgehog. And I thought about all the people I knew, and which were hedgehogs and which were foxes.

The scene refers to a famous essay in which Russian-British philosopher Isaiah Berlin puts writers and thinkers into two categories: those with a singular world-view (hedgehogs), and those who have a new idea for every situation (foxes). Though others took Berlin’s metaphor seriously, he had meant it to be humorous. Indeed, applying a dichotomy to the entire human race can be quite amusing.

Referring to this helpful page from Macquarie University, I compiled the following table, which compares the characteristics of consonants and vowels:

Consonant Vowel
Closed Open
Constricted Flowing
Discordant Melodious
Less prominent More intense
Valley Peak

So, which list of characteristics describes you better? Do you seek out those possessing the opposite qualities? Are your relationships with these people balanced? Do you have good conversations? How are your bowel movements?

When I asked my husband if he was a consonant or a vowel, he said both: “FU.”

 

Ten Things I Know about Sophie

main

adoption-sophie

The adoption photo I couldn’t resist

When Dante died well over three years ago, people asked if we were going to get another dog. A month ago, when I saw a photo of five-month-old Sophie, I finally thought, “Yes.” She was in a foster home 125 miles away. Though she had spent months with a rescue I follow on Facebook, I had somehow missed all the posts about her. And somehow, she was still available.

Sophie came to live with us two weeks ago. Her introduction to Lucy, 12, and Cota, 9, went more smoothly than we could have imagined; they were all playing together within an hour. Sophie is affectionate, spirited, curious, and a quick learner; I taught her how to sit in the few minutes we were waiting in the exam room for her introductory vet visit. I look forward to learning more about Sophie, as she continues to wag and bound her way into our hearts. In the meantime, here are 10 things I can share about her:

  1. sweaterShe was born on the Fourth of July. Her birthday will be celebrated every year with fireworks.
  2. Her distinguishing features are her big ears, green eyes, and pink nose.
  3. She is very little. She can walk under both Lucy and Cota.
  4. She’s a good watchdog. She weighs 9 pounds but has the bark of a dog of 18 pounds.
  5. She loves the sun.
  6. She gets cold easily, so she often wears a sweater.
  7. She is the subject of numerous nicknames, including Soph, Sophster, Sofía Vergara, Little, Worm, and (Wiggliest of the) Wigglebottoms.
  8. She possesses unbridled enthusiasm.
  9. She murdered a pillow.
  10. She poops Tootsie Rolls.

Visit Cuddly Canines or the website of another animal rescue or shelter, to find your Sophie or to support the valuable work they do.

It’s Headlinese to Me

big-rig

Since the 2016 presidential election, many of us have been devouring the latest news, keeping a close watch on unfolding events. How does an article get our attention? Through the headline, of course. A headline must be concise in conveying the gist of the news story or article that follows. But did you know that the compressed style of headlines, which often defies conventional grammar, adheres to certain rules and even has a fun name?

To write a headline that is not English at all but its own language, follow the syntactic conventions of “headlinese”:

  1. Don’t use articles (a/an, the). (“Woman Vandalizes Car for Six Hours”)
  2. Omit any form of the verb to be. (“ISIS Plots Discovered”)
  3. Replace the past tense with the simple present tense. (“Natalie Portman Slams Hollywood”)
  4. Indicate the future tense using the infinitive. (“Sheriff to Block Access to Dakota Campsite”)
  5. String nouns together flagrantly. (“College Football Bowl Projections”)
  6. Replace and with a comma. (“Wildfires Destroy Homes, Hotels”)
  7. Refer to people by last name only. (“Obama Offers Bleak Assessment of Situation in Syria”)
  8. Use contractions, abbreviations, shorthand, and short words. (“3 Dead in Calif. After Thanksgiving Charity Dinner”)

Speaking of short words, below is a sampling of petite verbs commonly used to save space in headlines. You may notice that these terms show up relatively infrequently in everyday language.

  • Curb: control, restrain, rein in, suppress
  • Dub: label, call, nickname, designate
  • Hail: cheer, acclaim, welcome, approve
  • Ink: sign one’s name to
  • Laud: praise, extol, glorify, commend
  • Mar: spoil, damage, ruin, impair
  • Nix: veto, reject, cancel, put an end to
  • Quiz: examine, test, question, interrogate
  • Vie: compete, fight, contend, strive
  • Vow: swear, promise, pledge, declare

The constraints of headlinese can lead to humorous uncertainties of meaning, some of them legendary:

  • “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim”
  • “Red Tape Holds up New Bridge”
  • “MacArthur Flies Back to Front”
  • “Iraqi Head Seeks Arms”
  • “Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung”
  • “Stolen Painting Found by Tree”
  • “Prostitutes Appeal to Pope”
  • “Dealers Will Hear Car Talk at Noon”
  • “Lack of Brains Hinders Research”
  • “NJ Judge to Rule on Nude Beach”

I wish I encountered such amusingly ambiguous headlines more often. It might make the news more palatable.

You Could Be a Shakespeare Expert and Not Know It

witches

Earlier this month, I saw a production of Macbeth. While 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, Shakespeare felt very current that night. The tragedy, about the destructive consequences of political greed, seemed well-timed in the midst of what may go down as one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history. In addition, the play’s witches—the three “weird sisters”—served as a fitting prelude to Halloween.

Ultimately, however, the vitality of “The Scottish Play” came from its language—the beauty of it, but also its lasting impact. Sitting in row E, seat 1, I was awash in nonstop famous lines, along with everyday expressions we may not be aware were popularized by the Bard. I have seen multiple performances of Macbeth, however, and studied all the female characters’ lines for an audition—so I can’t be completely objective about how well-known the words are.

Still, I am prepared to pose a bold thesis: Macbeth has had such a great impact on society and language that an English speaker who hasn’t read it since high school (or ever!) will be able to recognize many quotations from it. To test this theory, I have created a fill-in quiz that should make even sufferers of metrophobia (the fear of poetry) feel pretty smart. (The answers appear at the end of this post.) The numbers after each quote refer to the corresponding act and scene from the play.

  1. lady-m“Double, double toil and _____.” (4.1)
  2. “Out, damned _____!” (5.1)
  3. “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something _____ this way comes.” (4.1)
  4. “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard; what’s done is _____.” (3.2)
  5. “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell _____?” (4.3)
  6. “Eye of _____ and toe of frog.” (4.1)
  7. “That but this blow / Might be the be-all and the _____ here.” (1.7)
  8. “It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and _____, / Signifying nothing.” (5.5)
  9. “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’ the _____ of human kindness.” (1.5)
  10. “Is this a _____ which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” (2.1)

Who but an expert in Shakespeare’s works could know 10 (not-so-random) quotes from Macbeth? Based on your number of correct responses, here is your ranking:

10 Shakespeare scholar
9 English teacher
8 Lit major
7 Theater aficionado
6 Honors student
5 CliffsNotes browser
4 Non-nerd
3 Not a fan
2 Hermit
1 Clodpole
0 Extraterrestrial

How didst thou fare? Please shareth thy results!

Answers: 1. trouble, 2. spot, 3. wicked, 4. done, 5. swoop, 6. newt, 7. end-all, 8. fury, 9. milk, 10. dagger.