Weltanschauung

A Word a Day continues to deliver odd little treasures to my mailbox each day, or in this case, ridiculously long German words that barely fit in my mailbox. Weltanschauung is a noun that means world view; philosophy of life; a framework through which to interpret the world. I think everyone should have one.

Here’s an excellent example of one and its usage: “Gwyneth Paltrow summed up her weltanschauung thus: ‘My life is good because I am not passive about it.'” –Richard Dorment; Gwyneth Paltrow Feels Good — And So Can You; Esquire (New York); Sep 16, 2009.

So, I think we need to get us some weltanschauungs. I don’t know if I have one except the simple Do what makes you happy. I’m jealous of Paltrow’s weltanschauung;  I want it to be my own, except that while my life is good, I may actually be more passive about it than she is; I’m not eating my way through Spain with Mario Batali and a film crew, starring in movies, and living with a rock musician. But when I think about it, I wouldn’t really want to be traveling with Mario, having a camera in my face, or dating a band member (what do you mean, unlikely?). I’d rather be traveling anonymously with my boyfriend or cooking at home. Still, I feel bad that Gwyneth Paltrow has the perfect weltanschauung and I’ve got nothing.

What’s yours?

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Beach musings

Is there anything more wonderful than cresting the steps to the beach when the horizon opens up and you feel all small? Why, yes. It’s amazing enough that you’re at sparkly Crane Beach, all sticky from the car and ready to trudge along the boardwalk to cool off down by the water, when you discover this ocean chalkboard. A poem unravels at your feet:

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The letters erode along with the beach, and I like the faint whisper of words clinging to the worn wood.

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It’s not cricket

Cricket, that ever-so-civil sport of the Continent, plays a major role in the book Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. It’s a sport that unites immigrants trying to make New York City home; to one, it represents his American dream. It’s also a model of behavior reflected in the saying, “It’s not cricket.” After a player pulls a gun on the field and the other players talk him down, the umpire gives an inspirational speech about what it means to play cricket in their adopted country. The gun incident, he tells the teams, is not cricket.

Now that’s a saying we should adopt. I’m gonna try it out in the  grocery store when a rule breaker rolls in to the 10 Items or Less line with a cart full of food. “Excuse me, ma’am, that’s not cricket.” If someone interrupts me: “Hey, man: not cricket. And when someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m gonna yell out the window, “That’s not cricket.” But then, I guess that wouldn’t be cricket.

It's not cricket

It's not cricket

All the Living

I just finished a lovely little book called All the Living written by C.E. Morgan. And while it’s true I picked it up initially because of the cover—it features a black and white landscape with a barn; I’m a sucker stories set on farms—I found the writing superb and the story satisfying. 

All the Living

A young woman moves to Kentucky to be with her bereaved lover who is left to manage his family’s tobacco farm. While he retreats into monosyllabic communication, Aloma dreams of returning to the piano; their days are fraught with friction: she’s waiting for a proposal while he exhausts himself trying to save the farm. Aloma’s friendship with a preacher makes things…interesting.

Plus, as The New Yorker review points out, the author uses rare words like “letheless” (forgetfulness) and “mortise” (cavity in a piece of wood) that require me to get the hefty dictionary. No lazy words here.

Cruciverbalists unite!

Today I’m nursing a neck injury sustained during a weekend of fierce competition. I feel like a spent triathlete…except this wasn’t a sporting event. In fact, the only physical activity involved was putting pencil to paper. Yes, my boyfriend and I embraced our inner nerd and competed in the Boston Crossword Puzzle Tournament at Harvard on Sunday. For real. Competing as a pair, we twisted our necks, leaning and craning over each other and the puzzle trying to fill in empty square after empty square. It’s amazing we escaped without a pencil injury.

The event, hosted by New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, drew hundreds of cruciverbalists who competed in four timed puzzles. As casual crossword lovers, we had low expectations for ourselves, mentally preparing for a last place finish. After all, other competitors attempt—and complete—the Times crossword puzzle every day and quickly. We were ecstatic then to even complete one of the four puzzles before the 25-minute time limit was up—until we heard the guy next to us had whipped it off in six minutes. Show off.

You will not defeat me, puzzle. OK, maybe you will.

You will not defeat me, puzzle. OK, maybe you will.

I’ve always liked crossword puzzles, but I’ve only recently applied myself, so to speak. Let me tell you, there’s a whole vocabulary out there and plenty of puzzles to challenge the intellect. I became a crossword regular after seeing the documentary Wordplay, which was way more entertaining than you’d think a movie about crossword puzzles could be. After that, I was addicted, jumping in anytime I heard my wordsmith co-workers working on a puzzle and hoarding newspapers to work out a puzzle or two on my commute. Now my boyfriend and I do them together for fun. We’ve been known to cheat at home when the answers were handy.

When we finished the day yesterday, dazed and cramped, we were curious to see how we did (not last) and to satisfy ourselves with the solutions. We never did find out the answers though to that tricky down clue, Run out of Time? or the 4-letter across clue: View from Buffalo. The puzzles plague me still. Luckily, the four puzzles will appear in The New York Times today through Thursday (we got a sneak peek), so we I suppose we will find out the answers with the rest of the world, even though I want to learn the words that defeated me now so I can excise them from my vocabulary. Bad words.

Naming things

I mentioned yesterday how tricky I found it to name this blog. I have trouble naming everything really. It started with dolls. I was never a big doll girl, but I remember feeling pressured to pick just the right name to reflect my doll’s personality. It’s probably why I latched on to Cabbage Patch Kids; they came with their own pretty little names—first and middle—a relief for a kid like me.

The naming conundrum continued when I got my first pet. The tawny hamster went nameless for a week until my mother dubbed it “CJ” a combination of the first letter of my name and that of my sister. Never liked it. 

When we got a pair of long-haired guinea pigs, I commandeered the naming duties, calling the calico one Floyd (perfection! he was such a Floyd) and the white one Andrew. The nickname Andy never felt right, so I was always correcting people: “It’s Andrew.”

When I smuggled in a cat in my 20s, the pet I’d demanded for years, I wanted a cute, cuddly cat and a cute, cuddly cat name. The perfect name. Something fuzzy-sounding and adorable. But after a week of hissing, the feral cat showed no signs of cuddliness, and I finally settled on a name I’d heard somewhere: Malakai. It sounded sturdy and Hawaiian.I tried soothing the feisty cat by saying its name in a quiet voice while petting it, but Malakai would have none of it. He scratched and bit my forearms until I wanted to bite him back. I started referring to him as Satan.

“You know Malachi has something to do with the devil,” my friend told me one day. In fact, I did not. I was happy to discover, however, that it was the perfect name. 

This problem doesn’t seem to be hereditary. Several years back, my mom bought one of those fluttery red fish that eats only the plant growing in its bowl. She named it Robert Redfish. Just perfect, I thought. So, when he went belly-up and she got a new fish, he became Robert Redfish Jr., simple as that. She’s now on Robert Redfish the 46th—and there’s not one iota of stress over naming the little guy.

My vote for Word of the Year

Every year, the New Oxford American Dictionary chooses a Word of the Year—a newly coined or ubiquitous word that reflects the spirit of the year or is used so much that it becomes uber-annoying. Well, that’s my take on it, anyway. Hypermiling is this year’s word, which describes drivers’ extreme efforts to conserve gasoline such as trailing a semi at high speeds or gasp, observing the speed limit. 

I was so convinced that this year’s word would be staycation, an inexpensive vacation spent at home with, I don’t know, a beach umbrella in the living room. The word was inescapable this summer as people compared their stupid staycations. The word, did, however, make the shortlist, so that’s something. But it’s still my word of the year.

Merriam-Webster chose bailout as its word of ’08, a word that was on the lips of every newscaster every. Other. Second. But it’s kind of anti-climactic and frankly, depressing. And while maverick was in the top 10, mavericky would have been a better choice.

Webster’s New World Dictionary went with overshare this year, which is apt given the proliferation of bloggers, and my experience with people who divulge too much. They’re everywhere, no?

An ’07 top vote getter was verbing Facebook, and ’06 saw truthiness all over the place. One that caught my eye this year though, was topless meeting, which does not mean what you think it means; apparently, it’s a meeting sans laptops, Blackberries, and cell phones. Huh. Sooo not as interesting as it might have been.

A poem’s journey

I spent an inordinate amount of time today at work enjoying an extensive interview with Billy Collins in the Barnes & Noble e-newsletter, in which he talks about his poems and the world of Poetry with a capital “P.” In particular, I was intrigued by his style of beginning a poem with a familiar, concrete first stanza and finding a way, at the end, to a newly created space. The interviewer provides an example in the excerpt below after which Collins describes one poem’s journey that starts as a simple memory, landing us eventually in an imagined world, a deft movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the known to the unknown.

Interviewer: The poem in the new book that I’m thinking of right now is “What Love Does,” which starts out with a familiar entry point, love songs on the car radio: 

A fine thing, or so it sounds
on the radio in the summer
with all the windows rolled down. 

Collins: So we’re all with that, we’re all together in the same car. Right.

Interviewer: Then, with a little twist that’s poignant in the exact sense, we come to: 

Yet it pierces not only the heart, 
but the eyeball and the scrotum 
and the little target of the nipple with arrows. 

And you proceed through a small catalogue of love’s effects, in which each of the three-line stanzas might be the kernel of a John Donne poem exploring love as arrows, or love as wrestling, love as a flower-hopping bee, and so on. All of this imagery is recognizable and easily embraced. But at the conclusion of the poem, you set us down in a strange land indeed, with an unexpected evocation of the puzzling ominousness of love, setting off on a journey to a forbidding city: 

It will travel through the night to get there,
and it will arrive like an archangel
through an iron gate no one ever seemed to notice before.

You’ve led us from a summer joyride, listening to the Beach Boys or Frank Sinatra or the Supremes, and then deposited us at the gates of a bewildering city both promising and fearsome.

Collins: The poem wants to move from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place, in this case, an imagined city. The theme is the way love passes quickly from one person to another, like a bee going from flower to flower. Even as the ink is drying on the new beloved’s name, love is off to visit someone in another city. It’s one thing to leave it at that. But the temptation is then to imagine this city, to actually particularize it. Where is this city? What city? Well, it’s a city of the imagination, obviously. But then, it’s particularized. It has chimney pots, and a school with a tree-lined entrance. So suddenly, the convertible we were driving in is forgotten, and we’ve moved into the reality of this city, which is a kind of unreality, but it’s particularized as if it were real. Then you have this metaphor of the archangel arriving at this city, in the spectral way of archangels, through a gate that somehow no one in the city ever noticed before — and that would be the entrance to the heart, now that I think of it. To commit an awful act of paraphrase on the poem: you don’t realize you’re susceptible to love because you’ve never noticed the possibility of that door being opened. And yet it appears to you in the guise of an archangel.

Nicely put. Even if Collins feels paraphrasing his own poem is a sin, the idea that love is not only a door to be opened, but a door that you never even noticed is an intriguing idea in itself. I love how the poem evokes memories of listening to the car radio, but even more, I would like to visit this city of chimney pots and tree-lined streets. In poems, you can experience both on a single page.

What happened to David Mamet?

I used to feel all elitist attending a David Mamet play, greedily devouring all that pompous, gritty dialogue. His masculine-heavy themes were fleshed out with scenes and lines that were maddening, yet rhythmic, in their stylistic tics. Mamet speak, it’s been called. My friend and I act it out this way:

Me: Did you get the thing?

Friend: Did I get the thin–did I get the thing? Maybe I got the thing. 

Me: I suppose you got the thi–

Friend: Maybe I did get the thing. Maybe the thing is the thing.

And on and on. Speed-the-Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Oleanna—they’ve all got it; his movies too—House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner. But when my friend and I saw November last night, his latest, we were not seeing classic David Mamet. And hey, good for him if he wants to change things up and write a farce, stretch himself, but sometimes it’s not a good idea to go all Sting and venture into country music.

In November, Mamet takes aim at our culture of uber-PC-ness, a familiar theme in his plays like Oleanna that explored the nebulous area of sexual harassment. But his signature tension was missing—no clever plot twist, no vein popping rage, no death. The most interesting part of the play was listening to the unregulated woman sitting behind us guffaw at all the wrong places.

In the end, I blame it on conservatives. An article in the Globe last year profiled Mamet and his surprising shift from staunch liberal to conservative with a tongue-in-cheek comparison to him coming out of the closet. Really, a right-leaning artist? Is there such a thing? There may be, but in this case, the edge is gone.

Book loathing

The Sunday Times published an article last month asking critics and writers to list the books they couldn’t stand to re-read or even finish. It was refreshing to hear that even book critics struggle through reads they find unbearable and that they even—gasp—give up on a book now and then. Even classics. Especially classics.

I used to feel such guilt over abandoning a book, like it was my fault I couldn’t appreciate it. Then, a few years ago, I revised my thinking; my free time is precious. Why would I feel the need to endure a mediocre novel when another book would satisfy, enlighten, or if I were really lucky, transform me? So, if after a chapter or two I found myself already losing track of characters or skimming over bland descriptions and cliches, I was outta there. It wasn’t my fault, I realized; it was the writer’s.

Of course, there are plenty of books I’ve quit that are well written. My fault, of course. Salman Rushdie and Michael Chabon are two authors whose obscure references make Dennis Miller sound like a toddler and make me feel inadequate. Sure, I could read them by marking up the text with marginalia and sleeping with a dictionary, but that’s more critical reading skills than I want to bring to my pleasure reading. Don’t get me wrong, I like learning new words, especially when reading British texts that offer an assortment of charming words, and I keep a little notebook of words to look up by my bed. Yeah, I’m nerdy like that. So, I like a challenge. I just prefer stories where I don’t have to look up say, every third word. 

I quit Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, but I was clearly in the minority. J. M Coetzee’s Disgrace was brilliant but after suffering through a couple of his other books that also depress the soul, I’ve had to abandon him for my mental health. The Inheritance of Loss didn’t hook me, and please don’t ever, ever mention The DaVinci Code in my presence. 

What book made you want to hurl it down a canyon? 

100 commonly mispronounced words

OK, people. Dust off the fluorescent peep dust. We’re going to delve into the world of correct pronunciations today and we’re all gonna learn a little something. In fact, let’s start with “pronunciation,” which is not spelled or pronounced like “pronounce” though you think it would be. Sound it out. Ah, English; you’re crazy.

I was looking up the word “tenterhooks” the other day (to be on tenterhooks is  to be in a state of anxiety) when I stumbled on this great site that covers a whole host of words commonly mispronounced words, which for a word person means hours of diversion. Let me admit up front that I’m also an offender. I’ve been saying jewelry wrong for years, switching the “e’s” around so it sounds like “jewlery.” And I’ve always thought it was “chomping at the bit” when you’re excited about something (or a horse), but it’s really “champing at the bit.” Say that though, and people think you can’t speak properly.

Here’s a handy tip for coffee lovers from the list: it’s “espresso” not “expresso,” so don’t embarrass yourself at Starbucks, because the people in line and the barista are already looking for a reason to laugh at you.

Now, even though the polar ice caps are melting faster than a chocolate bunnies at the beach, it doesn’t mean we can go around mispronouncing Arctic and Antarctica by dropping those “c’s.” Antarctica is suffering enough indignities without us mangling the name.

Here’s one we’re all probably guilty of: despite that tricky “t,” the word “often” is pronounced “ofen” even if it sounds all Old Englishy.

Finally, pronouncing “etc.” as “excetera” is one of my pet peeves so you should seriously snap to attention. The abbreviation is short for “et cetera,” so pronounce it that way; then you can go all Latin on other people who pronounce it incorrectly.

Kerfuffle

“Kerfuffle” is a word that my co-worker reintroduced me to recently, and we feel strongly about raising its profile. “Kerfuffle” means a commotion or disturbance and is chiefly British (those Brits get all the cool words). In order to restore “kerfuffle” to its greatness, we must all pledge to use it liberally. The Super Bowl and the upcoming primaries offer ample opportunity. In Boston, the confluence of these two events could result in a Patriots victory parade falling on Super Tuesday, the perfect storm for a kerfuffle.

Be warned, though, lest an extra “l” find its way into the word if, like me, you are tempted to spell it “kerfluffle.” Any word containing a derivative of “fluffy” is automatically cuter…but in this case, is incorrect.