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



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


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


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.

Adventures in Copywriting


On this blog, I often talk about my experiences as a copyeditor. But I rarely discuss my work as a copywriter. I create written content for business Web sites, mostly in the hospitality arena. I also help with the naming of entities such as hotels and restaurants. These projects have taken me to Atlantic City; Manhattan; Miami; Dublin; Washington, DC; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and down the hill from my house in Santa Barbara. Most recently, I traveled to the Central American country of Belize, to be a guest at a client’s two resorts there.

jaguarOn the trip, my husband and I visited several sites of Maya ruins. To traverse one of them, we had to hike through the Guatemalan jungle, where we saw some exotic animals and insects. These included the fearless coatimundi, ratlike gibnut (which supposedly tastes like ham when smoked), and magnificent Morpho butterfly. We didn’t run into any jaguars, although the roads are dotted with signs warning of their crossing. My hubby did encounter a harmless green-headed tree snake at the coast; we don’t speak of it.

chivesThe copy for a hotel or resort Web site has to be factual, providing information about the rooms, amenities, dining venues, spa, event facilities, and neighborhood. In equal measure, it must evoke what it feels like to be there. Sipping a watermelon mojito at the bar, devouring chaya tamales in the restaurant, sleeping in the comfy king-sized bed, ordering room service for breakfast, rinsing off in the outdoor shower, lounging by the pool, touring the on-site organic garden, going on local excursions, taking a Maya cooking class, and enjoying the tiny pastries left during turndown service prepare one to convey the guest experience. (Sometimes, research doesn’t suck.)

But I don’t always have the opportunity to visit a property I am writing about. In such cases, I have to educate myself by doing some or all of the following:

  • Talking to people who have been there
  • Examining photographs of the property
  • Reviewing press releases and marketing materials from the client
  • Reading news and feature articles about the property
  • Studying guest reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, and similar sites

The final step: using my imagination! Then it’s up to the client to decide whether I have captured the essence of the place.


Confessions of a Ghost Editor

ghost editorFor four weeks, I had to pretend to be someone else. I messed up once, signing my own name to an e-mail. I concocted an excuse for the mistake, and didn’t sign an e-mail after that.

The person who sends me most of my work was out of the country, without her computer. She didn’t want our projects to lag during her absence, so she asked me to deliver work via her account. I didn’t really mind.

I am a ghost editor. I am not anonymous, because I don’t exist—even namelessly. Rather, my work is presented as someone else’s. As I temporarily assumed this person’s identity, I couldn’t help but wonder: How important is it to get credit for what we do?

This question strikes me as one the ego would ask, as well as rush to answer. Naturally, the part of us concerned with accomplishing something demonstrable in the world desires to be openly acknowledged. Or at least not to have its being negated.

It’s not my business why someone would allow a client to think she did work she didn’t. What is my business is why I have remained contentedly in the shadows for so many years, not developing my own reputation—a name for myself, based on merit and achievement.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Cassio laments the loss of his good name: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” I think I disagree.

Reputation is the estimation of others. But the “immortal part of us” is beyond estimation. So reputation must be associated with the “bestial” aspect of our nature—our body, acting upon the earth.

The immortal part of me doesn’t care about seeing its name in the acknowledgments.

Not that it has a name.