© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

out of the office

the Grandpa will be out of the office for the most part this coming week. I will try to check in occasionally. And I'll catch up after the first of the year. In the meantime I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Year celebration and holiday.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Son

I should be glad of another death.

Come away. Forgive my father. His mind.
I used to think we’d learn from him, but look:
he broods; relives those half remembered, half dreamed
journeys through Rome’s aging empire.

A fine sight
they must have made those three — bowing
before peasants. He believes in myths
that come from bending over books too long
and gazing at fires while his own embers grow cold.
Now he looks for meaning from that other’s life
crossed with his.

I often find him silent,
under stars or nodding before closed books,
tamed by too much peace. His time has gone.

Let him shiver — seek out death in this cold
and wait, the way others wait for the returning sun.

Originally published in Ball State University Forum, Autumn 1988 (1989)
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Thursday, December 25, 2008

I didn't have anything to give you, so I stole this

This is Enya. The language is Irish. I found the video at Sukipoet's site. I could not not share it with you. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays

Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope you find joy this holiday season and that next year brings you and everyone with whom you share your life peace.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New definitions

Here are the results of the Washington Post's neologism competition. Enjoy. (You'll probably need to click the button in the upper right hand corner of the screen below in order to read it.)

Washington Post Neologism Contest

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Advent Dance

Yesterday with the tree planted in its stand,
the tinsel being all that was left to do,
and the Celtic music filling the room
with the richness of its Irish brogue,
we danced, father and daughter, a jig.

And as I reached up to drape the branches
in their silver shimmer and felt the pain
make its way across my arm and chest,
I knew the last thing I would say would be
I’m glad we danced.

Originally published in Pivot, No. 54. Summer 2002
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday fun day

This blog is about a life with words. So enjoy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Miracle

It’s as if the statue moved — just a hair
But moved. With my own eyes I saw it turn,
The gold glitter of the crown dance then spurn
All sense to leave its place in the sun. The air
Was charged with stained light and I knelt down there,
Half in fear — yes — but I felt my soul yearn
To touch a marble hem and thereby learn
A secret of God that would be mine alone to share.
There should be, I thought, music, but there was none.
Only the wind through the choir loft — and my breath.
All was as it had been, and I, the only one
To see it, stood alone as at my own death.
With dread I stepped forth, and yet I did so believing
That no loving god could ever be so deceiving.

Originally published in Wisconsin Review, January 1976
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Proof that there is no past or future. There is only now.

And the people I send my money too are guardians of it.

This was in the letter that accompanied our Home Owners Association assessment bill:

The Board of Directors is very pleased to announce that there will be no increase in association dues assessment for 2009.

Vinings Estates, The Registry, and the Ridge residents' assessment will remain unchanged at $550 and is due in total by January 15, 2009.

The Cove and East Gate residents' assessment will remain unchanged at $365 and is due in total by January 15, 1009.

At least the people who live in The Cove are hoping there is only now, because the penalty on that could be pretty steep.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Too good not to share

I got the link for this from The Itsy Bitsy Monkey. It's just too good to not share.

The Mom Song from Northland Video on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Taking First Communion in the Hospital After He Was Struck by a Car

(March 5)
When he heard the angels sing, they sounded more
Like sirens. Strapped to a board, riding through
The red-lighted city, he called out for
His mother to make them stop. He’d lost a shoe.
His stomach hurt, and their song, he knew, was death.

He couldn’t see her, but he heard her speak
To men up front then say to him, It’s best
To let them be. It’s not that far. Just keep
Holding my hand
. He asked her was he dying.
Of course you’re not. God’s not done with you.

When they arrived, they made her let go her hold.
I can’t come, she said, I have to do what I’m told,
And left him by himself in a room, lying
On a table, afraid to think what God might do.

(March 19)
White walls and sheets, white pillow. Pale white light
From fluorescent tubes. Even his gown is white.
The priest wears a black cassock and white surplice,

Takes out a gold case he lays on the white surface
Of the bedside table, and holds up a wafer
Whiter than the prayer book his father placed there.

What did they say he was to say? My Lord,
I am not worthy. But only say the word
And my soul will be as white as this room I’m in.

The body tastes sweet, but not as sweet as the wine
That follows. And when he hears his mother’s voice
It seems an angel speaks and says the choice

To take communion is an early sign
He surely has a place in God’s design.

(April 20)
Days pass, then a month. It seems forever.
Then a nun arranges them two by two.
They march across the street together.
They wait their turn in a wooden pew.

Then a nun arranges them two by two
To go inside the confessional box.
They wait their turn in a wooden pew.
They listen while the sister talks.

To go inside the confessional box,
She says, they’ll need to remember their sins.
They listen while the sister talks.
She tells them how confession begins.

She says they’ll need to remember their sins
To ask the priest to be forgiven.
She tells them how confession begins
With an act of genuine contrition.

To ask the priest to be forgiven
They march across the street together.
With an act of genuine contrition
Days pass, then a month, it seems forever.

(May 19)
Once in the church they stand against the wall
As sister shows them how their hands must point
To heaven and their eyes always look down
As if they were little lambs. Then she calls
Them to the altar railing. When they join
Her there, she makes them kneel. Don’t look around.

First wait, then cross your arms over your chest.
Look up, put out your tongue, and close your eyes.
Remember, remember this. Whatever you do,
Never open your mouth and never chew.
Just bow your head. You’ve the living God inside.
Let the host dissolve and know that for the rest
Of your life God will always be a part
Of you, both in your mind and in your heart

(May 24)
On Sunday children gather at the school
And walk across the street, like little lambs.

They enter the church where sunlight filters through
The blues and reds of sainted glass. Their hands
Pointing to heaven, they walk down the aisle.

Sister said no first communion a second time,
And so from a place apart he watches while
Each takes the bread and sees none gets the wine.

In the vestibule he stands off to one side.
His father shakes their hands. The nuns delight
In patting heads of carefully combed hair
And call each a vessel where God abides.

He suffocates in all the filtered light
But once outside dissolves in the sun’s white glare.

Originally published in The Edge City Review Number 19. Volume 6 No. 3 (March 2004).
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I didn't say that

The first article that I actually got paid for (winning essay contests when you're in elementary school doesn't count as getting paid) was an article about an education program run by the local chapter of the Arthritis Foundation. I wrote it for the press office of United Way, and I dropped it off to the editor in person. She told me to have a seat and then took the article out of the envelope and proceeded to read it with a red pen in her hand in front of me. When she finished, she looked up at me, smiled, and said, "Not bad. We just need to add a couple of quotes. We'll put one here, one here, and another one here. . . ." As she said that, she took the red pen and put quotation marks on either side of several sentences.

Writing feature articles -- especially "writing for hire" -- is not the same thing as writing news articles where accurate quotations are absolutely essential. Quotes in an article about treating allergies or building model airplanes generally aren't there to become part of the public record. They are there to add authority, offer a particular perspective, make the writing interesting, and accomplish other similar goals. The rules are different than the rules for putting quotes in newspapers or in an article about foreign policy in The Nation.

So what are the rules?
  • The first one is you don't make things up out of thin air. If you are going to quote someone, what's said in the quote needs to actually have come from the person who said it.
  • The second rule is that while you can selectively use what a person says and actually rearrange the order in which it was said, you provide enough information so you don't take what was said out of context. It's wrong to use it in a way the person would never have intended.
  • The third rule is you maintain as much as possible the actual voice of the person you are quoting without making that person sound like an idiot.

So these rules aren't really that hard to understand, are they? So why do I get copy from "professional" writers writing for an educational Web site like this:

"Stress is certainly a factor in individuals with any common disease," Jones says. "Reducing stress with yoga, breathing exercises or diet are all benefits. I would never say don't take your medication for acute disease management, but it's not just about medication or allergy shots. It's about treating the stress and immune systems and we're learning that every day."

Now if I were Dr. Jones, I'd certainly call the Web site publisher and say, "I never said anything like that at all." The truth is he probably did because, for the most part, we don't talk the way we write. And I'm guessing all the writer did was simply copy the quote directly from her notes or the transcript of her interview tape. But even so, if the writer isn't going to take the time to see if the quote actually makes sense, it would have been a simple courtesy to have reviewed the quotation with Dr. Jones and given the good doctor a chance to show that he actually is literate.

But obviously, neither one of those things happened. So the editor's job is to sort out the language that's there, decide what the actual message is, and what part needs the weight of authority, what's not important, and what needs to get the emphasis. Obviously, there's more than one way to handle the information. Here's what I did:

“I would never say don't take your medication,” Jones says. “But it's not just about medication or allergy shots.” Jones tells HealthyNewsSite.com that stress is a common problem for anyone with a health condition. And, he says, using techniques such as yoga, breathing exercises, and diet to reduce stress can be very beneficial.

Moving the quote about taking medication to the start of the passage gives the whole passage an air of traditional authority: the doc says take your medicine. But then, the second quote emphasizes there is more to it than just that. The reader has been alerted -- by the doctor -- to the fact that what follows is the important part of the message. Now there's no longer any reason to put the rest of the message in quotes. The good doctor sounds intelligent. The garbled message has been sorted out, and the reader knows it's important to do something about reducing stress.

[NOTE: Dr. Jones and HealthyNewsSite.com are fictitious names. Why? I need to be able to keep working for this client.]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Words in air

There was a great piece on All Things Considered last night about the relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop based on the letters published in Words in Air edited by Thomas Travisano. It is definitely worth listening to, which you can do here.

At one point in the broadcast, talking about Bishop's approach to writing, Jacki Lyden points out, "It wasn't unusual for her poems to take decades to write." I can relate to that.

The poem "Getting On" took close to 20 years to write. I started it before my divorce from my first wife. It was a way for me to explore what was happening between us. I guess I just kept exploring until the poem made sense to me.

Over those 20 years, the poem did not go through any major changes. The metaphor of a migratory journey and the disconnect between the two migrants was obvious from the beginning, as was the general direction of the move from east to west. The images in the poem had sort of all come together over a period of a couple of days that were more or less spent journaling about the history of a failed relationship.

So why did it take 20 years? For one thing I never really had an end to the poem. I thought I did multiple times, but I would let it sit and then go back to it and pick it up and find the ending flat. So I'd rework the images and the lines in the entire poem. I'd take out what I thought was deadwood. I'd rethink this word and then that word. I'd change the cadence, the line breaks. I'd rethink the allusions. And it was all an effort to understand where the poem was going.

During those 20 odd years, my enthusiasm for writing, my energy for making it work, my success, and even my desire to write fluctuated wildly. The one thing that stayed constant was the poem. Then, shortly after I completed the manuscript for my book, I sat down and wrote the end of the poem. It was effortless. It was as if the words were in the air all the time.

the Grandpa's note: I don't really know how to tell the story of my writing career, other than to talk about the things I write. To be honest it helps me when I think about what I do. So thank you, Lilly. And thank you, Braja. I know this probably isn't what you were asking for, but it helps me to put it down. I have one poem (I consider it my best poem) that actually took forty years to write. But I also have some other poems that people have said are pretty good that I basically wrote in an afternoon, or less. I'll talk about them, too.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday fun day

* Once again, I've been stealing (as always I'll give it back if she asks me to) from Gran, who by the way is having a lot of fun with her new camera. Check out her pictures of Seattle and the snow they have there. Anyway she had this link for checking the color of your rainbow, and I just had to share it here because I liked what it said about me.

Your rainbow is slightly shaded violet.

What is says about you: You are a creative person. You appreciate beauty and craftsmanship. You are patient and will keep trying to understand something until you've mastered it.

Find the colors of your rainbow at spacefem.com.

(For some reason, the HTML isn't working to show the colors of the rainbow. But if you try it, you'll get to see the colors of your own rainbow as well as the nice things it says about you.)

* Post Script to yesterday's American Deli sign post: On the wall behind the counter, they had another sign. Unfortunately I didn't see it before I ordered, or else I would have rethought my sense that this was going to be a fast food experience:
We won't give money back once you order and pay and we start to fix your food. So thank you for not asking.
No. I didn't ask. The cook looked mean.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The last line says it all

I saw this sign in a fast food joint ironically called The American Deli.
Dear my customer
The fish suppliers has increased their cost incredibly high, we regret to inform you that we have no choice to raise our fish price for continuous service.

Thank you for understanding.

I'm sorry, what? I don't understand. Could you repeat that?

Friday, December 12, 2008

This was supposed to be in my Spotlight over there in the sidebar==>.

But Google blogger is causing me all kinds of problems tonight. It keeps kicking me out of the URL I want and says it wasn't found on this server. BUT! It was there before you kicked me off to the error page. SO SOMETHING FOUND IT.

Okay. It was a long day. I edited a particularly hard article that the writer could have made a lot easier. So I'll calm down. Beacuse I do want you to see Braja's post. This is where it is. (Click through for the comments on your own.) If you have trouble keeping it on your screen when you get there, let me know. It means we have to tell Braja somehow. Did anybody copy down her phone number?

As far as the spotlight goes, being a starving artist myself (Thank God S has a job!) Book Boost deserves to stay there a few more days.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Matter of Mind

[Grandpa's note: Lilly from Lilly's Life left me a comment saying she wouldn't mind reading more about my writing career. I would love to oblige, but somehow on a very basic level, I don't know how to do the telling. Writing is just something I've always done. This poem, which is the title poem from my book that was published a few years ago wasn't originally about my writing (the one that follows it was). But it's a way to begin the telling.]

I had no way to tell you because words
made it a matter of mind. But that morning
two hawks in circle dance cried above me
as I longed for their wings, wished to grow wings.

Pictures, perhaps, but I was no painter
who could catch the crow flapping above mowed fields.
Nor was I a musician to make music
like the music of gulls rocked by the wind.

The mind would not do. That night I heard owls
& felt bones of mice under foot while I let
my cigarette burn itself out, wishing
only to extinguish the mind that raced
through thought after thought like a mockingbird
caught in a web of meaningless melody.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, 2004.
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

[The following poem, which I wrote sometime before 1978 (when it was included in my master's thesis--I went back to finish my bachelor's when I was 29) was meant to be about my relationship with writing, particularly writing poetry.]


Her child-combed hair that smells of hay,
Thighs dusted with plowed earth,
She sheds her patterned dress and climbs
The attic stairs to me.

And we collide among the cries
Of angry springs, sterile
Thrusts, and pain of ruined farmers'
Sons. A shotgun across

His chest, her father sleeps. Look. Smell
The sweat of honest work.
This girl works as hard as any
Man. Now she's mine, until

Dawn, when he and I see her work
The fields, saddle shoes filled
with air next to school books along
The road that melts in light.

Originally published in Poet Lore, Winter, 1985.
© copyright 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog.
All rights reserved.

Just a little post script -- For the past six years, my office has been in the attic.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Veils

I’ve won my uncle’s heart and bring you proof
Of your revenge. This platter, Mother, is
My gift to you, who taught me how to put
The hunger in men’s souls. Today I learned
How deep their twisting streams of passions run.

As you had said, my uncle’s cowardice
Could not exceed his beastly lust for me,
And your accuser’s paid the price you set
To satisfy an old man’s lechery.
So here’s your prize. But now I want it back.

If I had known this man whose head I bring
He might have tempted me with righteousness
And certainty. I know this from his eyes.
The soldiers could not close them. Even now
Your hate can’t make them shut. See how they burn.

They threw my uncle’s body into fits
And made him lose his appetite for me.
He lost his dinner too. He’s such a fool.
But here’s no fool. These eyes that will not close
Undress our souls. They see our nakedness.

You’ve had revenge. My uncle’s had his fun.
I’ve one request before we put these things
To rest. Give me the head. Let me preserve
It here beneath these veils. In time, its eyes
Might drive us mad, or teach us how to see.

Originally published in The Formalist, Volume 14, Issue 2. 2003.
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Monday, December 8, 2008

A regifting that works

Sarah at Sarah Laurence Blog is hosting a book boost at her site (see the spotlight post). and lots of bloggers are posting their recommendations for books that make good gifts this holiday. For instance, Bee at Bee Drunken posted her list this morning, and Just a plane Ride Away posted her list on Sunday. If you're stumped about what gift to get someone this holiday season, you'll have plenty of ideas if all you do is check those three sites. (You may even find some additions for your own wish list.)

We have thousands of books. I call them our wealth. But because S buys and I buy, and we both came into the relationship with our own library, we have lots of books that one or the other of us hasn't read.

A few years ago (I know, this isn't exactly within the guidelines for Book Boost, but it is another gift idea), S and I wanted to scale back how much we were spending at Christmas. The whole gifting thing had gotten out of hand and Christmas had become too commercial for our liking. (Actually we were watching our pennies because of some weird things happening in our employment arenas.) So we each went through our books and chose 15 to 20 books we wanted to "give" to one another. We included notes that we tucked into each book before we wrapped it that explained why we thought it made a good gift for the other. Then we wrapped them and put them under the tree and had a grand Christmas morning filled with surprise.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday fun day

I'm the Grandpa, which means I'm at that age where I'm supposed to do things to keep my mind active. Problem is S works the crossword puzzle before I can get to it, and I'm not a big fan of soduku. (Of course it wouldn't matter if I was, because she works that too. However, there is a puzzle I do like. In fact, if you're good at drawing mental maps (S isn't) it's downright addictive. It's called Hidato, and you can find the puzzle daily here.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

When it's good, it's good

I have been known to criticize sports writing. But I found this lead this morning in an article about today's ACC championship game between Boston College and Virginia Tech, and when a sports writer does it right. . .

Only the baldest of Eagles remember the last time Boston College's football team played in Miami in January. The Orange Bowl was a consolation prize for a perfect 1942 season that was wrecked by Holy Cross, dashing hopes of a second national championship in three years. This time, getting there would be validation for a program that hasn't played in a major postseason contest since Doug Flutie hailed Mary 24 years ago and BC was full of grace.

Now that's a good lead.

The article was by John Powers of the Boston Globe. If you want to read the rest of the article (though the lead was the best part, unless you're a BC fan) you can find it here.

Also, check out the spotlight post. It's one of Braja's. And when you get there, be sure you click on the link for the photos.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Perdix Tells the Tale

[Grandpa's note: I was going to post about how I write a poem and share a poem in progres with you. But S and I are going to dinner and then the symphony tonight with our niece to see and hear "Gospel Christmas" with the Atlanta Symphony Orhestra & Gospel Choir. I ran out of time to get the post ready, so I'll try to post it sometime next week. ]

I’ll tell you how it all began. This man,
Named Daedalaus, could build you anything
You asked. One day, the king calls up and says
His wife has slept with a bull. He doesn’t mean
A stud who’s hung just like a bull. He means
A bull. And then this lady has a kid,
A monster kid who looks a little like
A man but looks a lot more like a bull.

The king tells Daedulus he wants the kid
To be put away. The people talk, he says,
And it’s embarrassing. So Daedulus,
Who’s got some time, says sure, he’ll take the job
And comes and builds a super maze. I mean
This puzzle’s worthy of the New York Times,
And even if you made it all the way
Inside, you’d never find your way back out.

Right in the middle of this maze, the king
Sticks his wife’s bastard kid. Now why he kept
The freak alive and simply didn’t drown
It I can’t say. But kings do what they want.
And you and I can only shake our heads
And pay the taxman what he says we owe.
And what a debt this king collected. He
Demanded neighbor’s kids to feed his beast.

But bless the Lord for heroes. Theseus,
Who’s tired of all this crap, decides that he
Can get a reputation if he finds
Some way to make the tributes stop. He says
He’ll kill the kid and get away before
The king gets wise. But first, he needs some help
To figure out the maze, and so he woos
The king’s daughter who tells him what to do.

They pull it off. They get away. The king
Gets pissed. He snatches Daeadulus and grabs
His kid, whose name was Icarus, and locks
Them up in jail and throws away the key.
This isn’t good, ‘cause Daedalus lives by
His reputation and he knows how quick
The crowd forgets a man who’s out of sight.
So Daedalus has got to make some plans.

The trouble is the only way he sees
To leave this place is going through the sky.
No problem for our man. He builds a set
Of wings from wax and feathers. Then he makes
A junior set and teaches Icarus
To fly. You should have seen them leave. They rose
Like hawks. They soared up through the clouds. They hummed
Like a squad of Blue Angels overhead.

But kids. They’re always running off. They get
Ideas. Won’t listen to a single thing
A parent says. They have to test and see
How far the limits go. And Icarus
Was just thirteen, and his old man had no
Control. The boy took off and wouldn’t stop.
Now what are parents always telling kids?
Don’t go so near the water or you’ll drown.

Don’t stay so long out in the sun, you’ll burn.
Just take the middle road. You’ve got a name.
So make your father proud. But Icarus,
He had to break the rules. They fished him from
The bay. And Daedalus, poor guy, no man
Should ever have to bury his own son.
You ask me how I know these things. My name
Is Perdix and my cousin’s Icarus.

I worked my uncle’s shop before these things
Took place. I studied well. I learned the trade,
But maybe learned too much. My uncle tried
To kill me. Now I watch just like a bird
Who hides beneath a bush. I see some things.
I write them down, I pass them on. I trade
My stories for a place to sleep, a tried
And worthwhile job for a nearly flightless bird.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, Kanona, NY © 2004.
© copyright 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic BlogAll rights reserved.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

In a New York Gallery

“I take it then there’s nothing here for you
That suits your present tastes. Again I can
Tell you this man does bronze as fine as Rodin
At his best. And his stone, you’ll note the true
Lines of the Manhattan David, would do
For Michaelangelo. But I understand.
You want to see him make some piece of a man’s
Soul not yet encountered. The perfect statue.”

I would like to see Eve, ten months before
She eats the apple, and Adam embraced
In one glorious coming of the human race
On love’s unloathsome bed at Eden’s core.

Tremoring lips and limbs where perfection lay.
The immortal climax of innocent play.

Originally published in Pivot, No. 54. Summer 2002
© copyright 2004, 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Wow! I didn't know this until last night.

I learned this from my post I stole from You Tube last night. There is an episode of Magnum PI that combined Sharon Stone, Bladerunner, and the second Borne movie. See for yourself.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Got a moment?

If you haven't done so already, you really ought to treat yourself and and take the time to read Bee's post (of Bee Drunken) on the Chronophage.

And while we're talking about time, I often wonder where people need to be so urgently after a movie ends. If the movie's been good, I like hearing the finale while I read the credits. It makes the experience last. Here's the credits for Bladerunner.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


We saw the comet Halle-Bopp stand still
Above the ocean at Ka’anapali Beach,
Not unlike the crow we saw rise one morning
In Boston, a black knight errant holding still
Against the wind, its wings flapping to stay
In place. Others watched, then rode the wind up
Through the sky — one, then three, the ground falling
While the first held still, dipped, then rose to meet them.

We saw Halle-Bopp again in Atlanta
At Stone Mountain, its tail arcing in the night
As stony as the frieze on the mountain’s face,
The infamous past held lifeless until
Lasers called it back and thundering hooves
Like in a page from Faulkner roared inside
The head of a thousand Hightowers then quickly
Died when floodlights shone on the granite wall.

At Ogonquit, I saw black sea birds skate
Across the water’s surface with their wings
Outstretched and necks pushed forward like horses
Gaining speed to rise above the water,
A white spray trailing behind them beneath
The granite cliffs and the slate New England sky.

Originally published in A Matter of Mind, Foothills Publishing, Kanona, NY © 2004.
© copyright 2008 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic Blog
All rights reserved

Monday, December 1, 2008


Did you know that if you google "dust bunnies" you will get -- in about 0.23 seconds -- close to two and a half million hits? If you google "dustbunnies" you still get 486,000 hits in 0.10 seconds. But it seems there are only 646 Websites that include the word "wordbunnies." Of course, I didn't go to all of them, but the ones I looked at were very vague about what a wordbunny is.

Well let's end the confusion. A wordbunny is one of those clumps of words that you see scattered about the surface of text that do little more than simply hold together as a clump of words. They don't really do anything else. It's like some form of static electricity pulls them together, and they lie there making it clear that the text owner doesn't like to text clean very much.

Here is a list of some of the wordbunnies I see most often:

  • at the very least (as opposed to the penultimate least?)
  • at the very most (ditto)
  • not to mention (oops, it's going to be mentioned)
  • that being said (we've already talked about this one)
  • suffice it to say (then what is the rest of the text doing here?)
  • in the final analysis (?)
  • when all is said and done (will we still even be here?)
  • as everyone knows (then please don't tell me again)
  • that's not to say (yes it is, you just said it)
  • every now and then (that means always, right?)
  • with no disrespect (hmm, I'll be the judge of that)

Of course the list goes on. And to be fair (see what I mean?), these pesky little creatures have a way of showing up in even the most meticulous text owner's text, and often times right before company. There's nothing technically wrong with them. They just don't add anything to the text.

What wordbunnies would you like to see added to the list?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's back to work I go

The granddaughters went home today, but not before spending all day yesterday helping S fill the house with Christmas. I do have to admit that the turmoil of Christmas decorating, not to mention the displacement of so many objects that are obviously important as evidenced by their positioning the other 11 months, I'm not so much into. But the kids enjoy helping S so much I kept my bah humbugging to a minimum. It was worth it to be able to watch them, including S, having so much fun.

So tomorrow it's back to working with words.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Signs of the time

There's a dry cleaning shop down the road from us that has hit on the perfect advertising slogan and put it on two signs out front as well as painted it on the window:
Non Toxic Cleaning

That is definitely going to keep me out of all the competing establishments. It also explains what happened to a blue blazer I had dry cleaned a while back.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Friday off

I haven't taken a Friday off in what seems like ages. I took it off today. My daughter made pancakes for breakfast and then I spent the day at the Georgia aquarium with my granddaughters. Tonight, we're all going to eat pizza. I think I'll take Friday off more often.

Today's quote

This came from a Power Point slide show that was forwarded to me by a very good friend:
If you woke up this morning in good health, you have more luck than the one million people who won't live through the week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

There are better ways.

Let our thoughts, positive energy, and prayers be with the people of India today.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

......45 and Aspiring has a special request on her blog today. It would be nice if you could stop by and offer her a little of your creativity over the holiday weekend.

And speaking of the weekend, whether it's official where you are or not, have a healthy, happy, fun filled Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Odds and Ends Again

Consolidate, Consolidate, Consolidate

Here is a passage from an article about hormone replacement therapy.
The best evidence for the risks and benefits of postmenopausal hormone use comes from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI), a large randomized clinical trial of over 16,000 healthy women ages 50 through 79, in which half of the participants took hormones and the other half took a placebo pill (which does not contain any drug). The trial, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was halted early when, in July 2002, investigators reported that the overall risks of estrogen plus progestin, specifically Prempro™, outweighed the benefits. The WHI found that use of this estrogen plus progestin pill increases the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, stroke, and blood clots. The study also found that there were fewer cases of hip fractures and colon cancer among women using estrogen plus progestin than in those taking a placebo.

The author seems to be trying to get too much information into too little space. The problem is the reader feels as if she were just hit by a truck. Now did I get that license number or not? Consolidate means to bring together as a unit. Now if the writer takes the time to think what the actual intent of this paragraph is, he might come up with something like this.

A lot of what is known about the risks and benefits of hormone use comes from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is a large clinical trial of over 16,000 healthy women between the ages of 50 and 79. Half of the women took hormones. The other half took a placebo. In July 2002, the trial was stopped early. That’s because the data showed the overall risks of estrogen plus progestin outweighed the benefits. Using the combined hormone pill increased the risk of:

· breast cancer
· heart disease
· stroke
· blood clots

On the other hand, women taking the pill had fewer cases of hip fractures and colon cancer.

The important question to ask is what does the reader want to know? And how can I make sure the reader can find it?

Need to know vs nice to know

When you work in the area of patient education, or investor education, or legal client education, or . . ., there is one very important distinction that a writer (or an editor) needs to make. That is the distinction between what the reader needs to know and what is nice to know. Too often, the writer has information he or she wants to share just because he or she has it. But unless that information advances the reader's ability to do what the reader needs to do, it can get in the way of the information the reader needs. Consider this passage from a question and answer article about dietary supplements.

What is a dietary supplement?

Congress defined the term "dietary supplement" in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. A dietary supplement is a product taken by mouth that contains a "dietary ingredient" intended to supplement the diet. The "dietary ingredients" in these products may include: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites. Dietary supplements can also be extracts or concentrates, and may be found in many forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, or powders. They can also be in other forms, such as a bar, but if they are, information on their label must not represent the product as a conventional food or a sole item of a meal or diet. Whatever their form may be, DSHEA places dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of "foods," not drugs, and requires that every supplement be labeled a dietary supplement.

Now I ask you, what is a dietary supplement? I'm not sure the following edit clearly answers the question yet, but it at least gets rid of the DSHEA, which really has nothing to do with what the reader needs to know.

A dietary supplement is something you take by mouth that gives you something your diet may be missing. That may be:

· vitamins
· minerals
· herbs
· other botanicals
· amino acids
· substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars, and metabolites

Supplements can also be extracts or concentrates. They may be found in many forms including:

· tablets
· capsules
· soft gels
· gel caps
· liquids
· powders

They can also be in other forms. For instance a supplement may come as a bar. But by law, the information on the label cannot represent the product as a conventional food. Nor can it call it the sole item of a meal or diet. By law, dietary supplements fall into a special category under the general umbrella of "foods" not drugs. And they must be labeled a dietary supplement.

The edit also got rid of some really distracting redundancies. But that's a different post.

On a personal note

I just finished two huge projects that have been going on for months. One started in May. The other in July. They couldn't have ended at a better time. My daughter and her husband are coming with their kids. That means I get to devote all my time this weekend to being the Grandpa.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Another Sunday fun day

Found the link for this at Gran's.

You Belong in the Baby Boomer Generation

You fit in best with people born between 1943 and 1960.

You are optimistic, rebellious, and even a little self centered.

You still believe that you will change the world.

You detest authority and rules. Deep down, you're a non conformist.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Back to business Monday

I promise. I'll get back to posting about words and the way they're used on Monday. But for now...

We won! We beat Michigan for the fifth year in a row! That's never been done before.

We don't go to the Rose Bowl, but it's not that we didn't do what we needed to this week. (Sorry, but all Buckeye fans use the first person when we talk about the team. See I'm talking about the use of words already.) And good for Penn State. The Buckeyes will get a good bowl invitation. Probably a BCS one. Not as good as the Rose Bowl. But Penn State deserves it. They beat the Buckeyes in a close game. So, good for Joe Pa. Hope you get USC, and I hope you beat them.

In the meantime, we just have to wait to see where Ohio State is going. So tonight, we celebrate our win over Michigan and our unprecedented fourth Big Ten title in a row (although it is shared). Go Bucks!

Friday, November 21, 2008

It's Michigan Saturday

Thank goodness I got my work done today. Tomorrow is THE GAME. It doesn't matter that Michigan's headed into Columbus 3-8. We're still going to beat them.

Go Bucks!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I just like the image

This quote came from an article in a medical journal reporting on a study done in Greece. It was clear throughout the article that the author (or perhaps the author's translator) was not a native speaker of English. I wanted to use the article as a source for a piece I was writing for a newsletter. But by the time I got to this sentence, I had already realized I couldn't use the article because the language problems made it an unreliable source:
The blood samples were collected from the antecubital vein between 8 to 10 a.m., in a sitting position after 12 hours of fasting and avoiding of alcohol.

But that's not why I'm sharing the sentence with you. I just like the image of the hungry yet sober lab tech assuming a sitting position to collect the blood sample. I guess it just depends on how much the tech wanted a drink. But I don't think I'd like that person getting near my vein with a needle.

Now the writer's lack of facility with the English language may excuse his use of a dangling modifier. But it certainly doesn't excuse the editor of a scientific journal letting it and even more serious language problems get into print.

P.S. If you miss a spotlighted post (over there in the sidebar) that everyone is talking about, you still have three days to find it. Just scroll down in the sidebar to where it says, "these sites are well worth a visit."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Please watch and then share

I found this video posted by Electric Barbarella at Hooker with a Heart of Guile. It's one way the language should be used. I wanted to share it. I hope you do too.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday is fun day (even though I had to work)

Just a little fun for Sunday. I found the link on Gran's site. She's showing the end of the Wizard of Oz by the way.

You Are a Cherry Muffin

You are very friendly and sweet. You love to socialize.

You have a bit of a fire in your heart, and you secretly love adventure.

You are well known for speaking your mind. You tell people exactly what you think.

However, you're so nice when you're honest, no one really cares!

Even though you're down to earth, you're not exactly the girl or guy next door.

You are actually quite worldly and sophisticated. You are well traveled and well read.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Just do it

I really like it when people do fun things with words.

I found the following on Gawdess's Viewfinder 365's blog this morning. She was writing about glasses.

when I was a kid
I wore them because I had to
now I wear them because I need them
And here's how Braja at Lost and Found in India headed her post I saw this morning:
If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
When I taught freshman English so many years ago, I used to start every term with a story about how I learned to dive.

I didn't learn to swim until I went to college, but then I never spent much time at pools after that. Then one year, when my oldest son was about 10, we suddenly found ourselves one summer with enough time and money to afford a family membership at the local pool.

I'd take the kids over two or three times a week in the morning for their swimming lessons and then we'd spend a couple hours just hanging at the pool. Mainly I'd sit in a deck chair at the edge of the pool reading a novel and watch the kids enjoy themselves in the water.

One day I heard my oldest son shouting at me "Hey, Dad! Look at me!" I looked up from the book but didn't see him anywhere. "Up here! I'm on the diving board!" I looked over at the diving board at the end of the pool but didn't see him. "No! Up here! The high dive!"

I looked up. There he was on the back of the high dive. "Watch!" he shouted and ran forward jumping when he got to the end, legs kicking, arms flailing, splash coming.

He bobbed up out of the water and swam to the edge where I was. "That was great," I said.

"Now you do it!"

"Maybe later. I'm kind of busy right now." (Hey, I was an English major in grad school. So it was actually work.)

"Oh c'mon, Dad. What's the matter? Chicken?" Of course, he said it in that quiet ten-year-old voice that turned every head in the pool in our direction.

Well you can't let your kid call you a chicken in public, so I closed the book and stood up. "Okay," I said. "Keep an eye on your brother while I go up there."

I walked to the end of the pool and started up the ladder of the high dive. About half way up, I remembered I've got this fear of heights. So I stopped, looked up, saw there was nothing to hold onto once I'd get there. Then I looked down, and there were both of my sons standing over by my chair beaming up at me and pointing. So, like an idiot, I went on up the ladder.

I walked out very slowly to the end of the board and looked down--a long, long way down. I don't need to do this, I thought. I don't need to prove anything to a couple of little kids. So I turned around and figured the best way down was the way I came up -- on the ladder.

I hadn't noticed before, but some kind of big truck driver who used to play linebacker in college had come up the ladder behind me. There he was at the top of the ladder, waiting his turn. I thought about saying, Excuse me, but I need to go back down. But before I could get the words out, he said, "Go ahead, buddy, jump."

So there I was, standing at the end of the high dive, looking down -- a long, long way down -- at the pool below, confirming for myself that, yes, I have a fear of heights. I was wondering what makes you stop before you hit your head on the bottom of the pool? And what if a big gust of wind caught me just as I jumped . . ."Jump, Dad!" both boys yelled in unison.

I looked over to where they were standing, and a crowd had started gathering there, some of them shielding their eyes with their hand, and I though I was hearing scattered cries of "Jump, jump." Then I heard somebody laugh.

I looked to the left, and there was the lifeguard sitting on his high chair chuckling at me. The lifeguard was laughing at me. What does that mean when the lifeguard is laughing at you? What's he going to say when you fall into the pool and drown. "Oh I'm sorry. I was laughing so hard I couldn't even get out of my chair." Pretty soon, though, he took pity on me. "Just hold your hands in the air, close your eyes and fall forward," he said.

What? Do I know this guy? Was he in a class I taught? Did I give him a bad grade on a paper? "What?!" I shouted at him.

"Just close your eyes, raise your hands, and fall forward. It won't hurt."

Now when someone tells you it won't hurt, you know they're not telling you the truth. But then I heard the truck driving linebacker behind me muttering. I couldn't tell exactly what he was saying, but it was something like, "Go ahead and jump, buddy, before I come out there and throw you off." I decided it was better to put my fate in the hands of the lifeguard.

So I closed my eyes, raised my hands over my head, and fell forward. For exactly .018 of a second, it felt exhilarating. But then I hit the water. The lifeguard had lied. It hurt. Oh yes.

But at the same time, I felt this wonderful sense of accomplishment. I swam over to the side, pulled myself out of the water and stood facing the beaming face of my son. "That was great, Dad. Do it again!"

Now here's the really stupid part. I thought, Yeah. Why not? Of course by the time I got to the base of the ladder, he'd run off to play with some new found friend. But that was okay. I wasn't doing it for him.

The second time hurt too, but not as much. And the third time hurt a little less. By the fourth falling forward, I kept my eyes open. It's a wonderful feeling to see the world turn upside down like that while you're in free fall. And it didn't hurt, either.

I must have fallen forward another 20 times before we left the pool. Then that evening, I went back over after dinner and fell forward some more. From then on, every chance I got, I would go off the high dive. Of course, I never became an Olympic diver, but I did get to go off the high platform once at the Ohio State varsity pools. (Quite a bit higher than the high dive at the neighborhood pool. We're talking cliff diving in Mexico.) That was a thrill.

Then I'd tell my students, "That's kind of what learning to write is like. You close your eyes and fall forward. Just do it. It may hurt a little at first. But you'll eventually come to actually liking that you can do it."

And that's what I like about the Blogosphere. All these people just falling forward. Just doing it.

And take a look at today's spotlight post (the link's over in the right sidebar) for a nice turn of phrase.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I'm tired and I'm hungry

It's been a hard day. There's a lot of bad writing floating around, and I'm tired. But check out the spotlight post. You could win something. I'll see you tomorrow...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

It's a wonderful language

My son sent me an email message this morning because he knows I like exemplary uses of the English language. He said: "This is a sign in a hotel elevator in Mongolia (Ulaan Baatar I believe) taken by a consultant we work with at the bank. Hope you are having a good day!" Yes. Yes I am. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

More odds and ends

The right word

Don't you just love it when the right word is right there. And it's so right you don't even realize you are using it.

Tenacious Tess over at The Thoughts and Sarcastic Observations of a Starbucks Addict described a recent oh-no-why-me experience she had at a Walgreen's pharmacy counter, and it reminded me of a time I went in to a Sears Auto Parts store to buy a new set of tires. I told the clerk what size I needed and asked what they had.

He said they had two different tires. One was $78 per tire and the other was $102 per tire.

I asked what the difference was.

He said the second one cost more.

I asked why.

He said because it's a better tire.

I asked what the difference was again.

He said it was $24 more per tire.

I asked what makes it a better tire.

He said because it costs more.

I asked why would I want to pay more.

He said because when you pay more you get a better tire. The $78 tire is not as good.

I asked what made it not as good.

He said because it only costs $78.

I asked if there was anyone else there that could help me.

He said he could help me. Everyone else was busy.

S was with me. I looked at her and said "Let's go somewhere where they want our business because..." then I looked back at him and said , "You're useless."

Outside I was actually feeling proud of myself for staying so calm. I've been known to fly off the handle at times like that. So I said something to S about how reserved I was. She just laughed at me.

What? I asked.

You told the guy he was useless.

Did I? I asked. I couldn't even remember saying it. Then. Oh yes. I did.

More redundancies again where the writer says something more than once and repeats it ...you get the idea.

Here's a sentence I found today while I was editing:

In large doses, some vitamins have documented side effects that tend to be more severe with a larger dosage.

I'm just wondering how large these doses are getting to be.

When there's nothing there

Some writers just don't think what they're saying. But let me interject here first. I do a lot of work for hire editing. That's right. I'm a word whore. (Not an original term. Someone else gets credit for that.) That means I edit the writing of a lot of writers I don't hire. But maybe the good thing is, if any one of these people pitched a story at my magazine, I know what I would say.

Anyway, I was editing a user description for an article on a web site today. (The name of the web site in the following quote is totally made up. Hey! I have to keep eating.) Here's what the writer sent:

Dr. Feel Realgood explains which vitamins are health essentials for women of every age, from the early adulthood to seniors, learn what vitamins your body needs to stay healthy.

I sent this to S because she does this kind of work too. All I said was I needed to vocalize a scream that somebody heard. (I work at home alone.) She wrote back that she thought she'd try to help and do an edit for me but, "I tried to edit it for you, and that helped me realize how stupidly repetitive and empty it is."

I'm not trying to be mean to the writer. But S's response actually calmed me down. I went back to the passage, and realizing there was nothing there, came up with this.

Dr. Feel Realgood explains which vitamins are essential for a woman’s health at every stage of life. Learn what vitamins your body needs to stay healthy at any age - from early adulthood through your senior years.

Now I can sleep tonight.

(Don't forget to check out the spotlight. It's over there in the right sidebar.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wow! That's a long sentence

What’s not to like about a long sentence? After all, it takes skill to build one, packing all that information in and holding it there with just one period like a dam that causes the valley to flood and creates the unnatural beauty of a man-made lake, finding voluminous connections between ideas that shimmer like sunlight bouncing from the lake, making them want to hold together as a single unit and defy anyone who wants to tear them apart, showing us the brilliance of the mind that created it.

Or maybe not. I do know I have found long sentences I truly admire. They’re everywhere in literature. Take, for example, this one from The Sun Also Rises:

I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of making money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was, and regretting I hadn’t seen him since that night in Montmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would the next time; and then I was out in the hot sun on the steps of the cathedral, and the forefingers and the thumb of my right hand were still damp, and I felt them dry in the sun.
That’s 196 words. And tell me you can’t follow that. I know. Hemingway cheated. He put a lot of short sentences together with commas. But that semicolon at the end — it’s genius. Or consider Frost’s poem “The Silken Tent.”

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.
It’s a sonnet, 14 lines, 104 words, and a single sentence — and a pure work of art. The words and thoughts hold together so well and convey so much imagery and meaning that when you teach the poem you often have to point out to students that it’s a single sentence.

One approach to teaching students about the subtlety of language, about subordination and coordination, about the use of modifiers, and about becoming fluid in its use is sentence combining. That’s the process of taking a series of short sentences and seeing what is the least number of sentences you can turn that series into.

But this post isn’t really about using long sentences. Creating long sentences that are effective and pleasing is an art. But too often writers use long sentences because they don’t take the time — again — to think of their readers. Look at the following sentence. It comes from a letter I got with my city utility bill explaining a change in the trash collection and recycling schedule.

The only exception to the system-wide adjustment is for customers residing in multi-unit buildings of three or more units per building without garages or carports who may elect to continue using the in-ground containers, but service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
That’s 43 words. Compare it to the Hemingway sentence, which is 196 words. Which one’s clearer? I would say it’s Hemingway’s because he never loses track of how his reader processes ideas. The writer of the letter, on the other hand, seems to just want to get the information out and leave it up to the reader to sort through it all. The problem is there is too much information there and no clues for the reader to follow to know how to separate the ideas or even what the important ones are. At least, that's the situation on first reading. And how many readers are going to actually stop and give that sentence a second reading? How might the letter writer have made it easier for the reader to find out what he or she can do about the garbage?

The writer could have started simply by separating the sentence at the comma. It’s a compound sentence, but the two ideas — the exception and the collection schedule (service) — are not closely enough related to have any reason to be joined like that. Not only is there too much information for the reader to hold, but the reader is challenged to figure out why those two complete thoughts are together as one.

The only exception to the system-wide adjustment is for customers residing in multi-unit buildings of three or more units per building without garages or carports who may elect to continue using the in-ground containers.* But service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
Next, the writer can look at the first sentence with the goal of finding discrete bits of information and setting them up as such. The goal is to let the reader focus on the message and not on finding the message.

The first bit of information is that there is an exception:

There is one exception to the changes that take effect in March.
The next bit of information is who the exception applies to:

It applies to customers who live in multi-unit buildings with at least three units and no garage or carport.
And finally, what the exception is:

These customers may, if they wish, continue using underground containers.

Then one last tweak to the first edit we did will give us this:

There is one exception to the changes that take effect in March. It applies to customers who live in multi-unit buildings with at least three units and no garage or carport. These customers may, if they wish, continue using underground containers. The change in service will, though, still apply. That is, service will be once-weekly instead of twice weekly.
Five sentences, and the passage is as clear — albeit not as artistically pleasing — as Hemingway’s one sentence. But since the reader doesn’t have to struggle to get the information, on some level, it’s just as satisfying.

* Note that after the first edit, “elect to continue using the in-ground containers” has the emphasis that suggests it’s the important part of the message.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Nightmare along the Olentangy

This is the story of a word -- nightmare.

I'm a Buckeye. I've been one since I was four years old. That was the year my dad took my grandfather to the OSU/Michigan game known as the Snow Bowl.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Buckeyes, the buckeye tree is a tree that grows primarily in Ohio. It's fruit -- the buckeye -- resembles a horse chestnut, only smaller, harder, and shinier. It has absolutely no commercial value, and is actually poisonous. In other words, buckeyes are a bunch of worthless nuts.

Buckeyes is also the nickname for The Ohio State University athletic teams and their fans. (Again, a bunch of useless nuts -- the fans, not the teams.) For the last few years, Ohio State football fans have been living a nightmare.

It started January 8, 2007. That's when Ohio State was supposed to steamroll the University of Florida to win its 8th overall national championship and its second in four years. Instead, the mighty Buckeyes got leveled 41 to 14. Embarrassing but a fluke, we told ourselves. Ohio State was over confident and had simply under estimated the Florida Gators. They had their guard down, failed to prepare properly, and let Florida get in a lucky punch.

Then came January 7, 2008. The Buckeyes are in the National Championship Game again. This time, they prepared. They were set to show the world that they deserved to be the champs:

LSU Routs Ohio State In Championship Game Buckeyes
Stumble Again As Tigers Win 38-24 For Second BCS Crown In Five Seasons

It was a better game, but still embarrassing. The whole nation was screaming in our ears--"Buckeyes over rated. Buckeyes are losers." We got no respect. It was almost too much to bear.

Then came August 30. Opening day. Ohio State with 20 returning starters, the most sought after freshman recruit in the country, and a highly favored Heisman Trophy candidate was a sure bet to make it to the National Championship game for the third year in a row. And because included among those starters was a cadre of seniors who could have turned pro but chose to return, this was the year that Ohio State was going to silence its critics. All it needed to do was get past USC in the third game of the season. And once again, in front of a prime time National audience, OSU was embarrassed.

Thirty-five to three.

But that wasn't what had made the nightmare so horrible. While OSU won the first two games by large margins, their play was sluggish and unimpressive against what was supposed to be significantly inferior teams. Had we been deluding ourselves all along? Are the Buckeyes over rated? Well it wasn't even a debate any more as far as the rest of the country was concerned.

And it didn't stop there. Sluggish, inexplicable play, consecutive games without an offensive touchdown. We knew what lay ahead was nothing but doom, but we couldn't wake up. And then it happened. we walked right into it. All of our hopes were pinned on one game. Penn State came to town. Ranked number 3 in the country. Undefeated. If we beat them, we get respect back. We don't go to the National Championship, but we win the Big 10. We go to the Rose Bowl and get another shot at USC and redemption. It's the 4th quarter, and we're winning -- 6 to 3. And then we fumble. . .

When you are having a nightmare, you are supposed to wake up. Your heart is supposed to be pounding in your chest, but you're awake, and you can calm yourself. You're not supposed to just keep dreaming the same horrible scene over and over. . .

That was October 25. Less than two weeks before the election, part of another bad dream that had started eight years before with a stolen election. A dream we couldn't wake ourselves out of.
A dream that just kept piling calamity on top of calamity. . .

But we did. We woke up. November 4, the real nightmare ended. And for me, and I hope other Buckeyes, it put things in perspective. This was real. This nightmare mattered. That other nightmare, the one about a football game, it's just a game.

Friday, November 7, 2008

I know that

I was editing an article and just got an interesting message from my computer. I needed to insert some text that's been saved as a separate file into the article I'm editing. So I clicked on insert, and then accidentally clicked on a file other than the one I was after. MS Word sent me this:
"Word cannot insert a file into itself."

Hmm. I wonder why not. Now I can't concentrate on my work.

(Perhaps I'll go have some fun playing with words at today's spotlighted post ==> over there in the sidebar)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dona Nobis Pacem

I wish I'd found this sooner. Dona Nobis Pacem. I used to sing this when I was in the fourth grade. Not just on Sundays, but through the week. Even though I left the church, it is still my mantra. Let's sign the whole world up to this.

In my post on Blog Action Day, I mentioned a series of articles in the online magazine On Call dealing with healthcare for the homeless. They just published the fourth article in the series. The article by Janet Cromer describes the Street Team in Boston that goes out and finds homeless individuals who aren't in shelters and arranges for them to get the needed healthcare. There is also a photo gallery with the article showing two members of the team working with various individuals. On this day of Dona Nobis Pacem, I think the article is worth a look.

That was weird

I believe I have solved the comment failure problem. Thanks, Gran, for pointing it out. I had changed the comment settings to embed the comment box on the same page with the post. I followed the instructions in blogger, but apparently it didn't work the way it was supposed to. I went back and set the default. So you should be able to leave comments again. Sorry about the mix up.

The Country Wins!

I'm no quitter, part 2

Now as to how I write. . . My dad used to say there were two kinds of people in the world--those who divide people in the world into two kinds and those who don't. Well, I used to like to say there are two kinds of writers--those who overwrite and those who underwrite (and I'm not talking about insurance). Those who overwrite just pour words and phrases into a text and then spend the rest of their time taking away words that don't belong there. Those who underwrite just barely get down enough words to suggest a text and then spend the rest of their time adding the necessary words to flesh it out.

If I were to choose one of those models to describe myself, I would probably be inclined to lean more toward the underwriting side. But the fact is, I'm more of an overwriting underwriter. I once asked S if she wanted to see some poems I'd just done the first draft for. She said sure, but she didn't know whether she would have anything to say about them because by the time I'd get them to where I really wanted them to be, they wouldn't look anything like they did then. I believe she said something to the effect that it would be hard to even recognize the two versions as being the same poem.

I have to admit she's right. I never throw away first drafts of a poem or first drafts of a story because I know I can find something there worth developing if I go back to it often enough.

A few years ago, I "finished" a poem that I started when I was 19. Now when I say started, I don't mean I was constantly working on it all those years in between. In fact there were multiple drafts that I thought -- given my mood at the time -- were either finished poems or proof that I couldn't write at all. But I never really had one that felt complete. The poem began as twenty lines of free verse. The finished poem is 140 lines of iambic pentameter with a very strict rhyme scheme.

So does it always take me that long to write something? No. I write a column for the magazine I edit. I do it in one sitting, which basically means one draft. I also do a series of newsletters for health care providers. Each issue has four short articles about a particular condition. The articles deal with treatments, pharmacotherapy, patient education, and so on. Now these are a little harder to write, and there's a lot of research and note taking that precedes the actual writing. But again, the articles are done pretty much in one draft.

Here's the thing, though. The process is the same as when I'm working on a piece for years. And just for the record, I am a big believer in revision--no matter how good a first draft is, there's something that can be done to it to make it better. The question is -- will it really make a difference in how the text does what it's supposed to do? And more often the real question is when does the piece have to be published? But as I was saying, the process is the same.

As I write, I keep going back over what I've written. Even though I may have known at the beginning what I was after, I'm constantly looking back to see what it is I'm really saying. When I can do that, as laborious as it actually is at times, I can create something with the meaning I'm searching for.

So I don't really underwrite, I write slowly. I suppose when I was younger I wrote a little more swiftly. I certainly remember all nighters in graduate school to do papers that I should have taken at least a month to do. But even then, I wrote the papers the same way--by constantly looking back and wrestling with what I was saying. And that's why I can't do the NaNoWriMo (see yesterday's post). Not that I wouldn't have looked back at what I was saying and been constantly revising it. But that's just the opposite of what the event called for. The emphasis wasn't on creating meaning. It was on generating words. And words without meaning are meaningless.

Not everybody writes the same way. Some people write fast. Some people write slow. Some people write while watching TV. Some people shut themselves in a closet. Some outline. Some wing it. There is no right way to write, except what works for you.

Now, if you want to see some very effective writing, be sure to check out today's spotlighted blog post.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I'm no quitter

I dropped out of NaNoWriMo after only three days into it. The truth is I don’t write that way.

For those who don’t know about NaNoWriMo — it’s a creative writing marathon, a word-a-thon, if you like. All around the world, thousands of writers are sprinting to each complete a 50,000 word novel by the end of November. That’s roughly 1700 words a day. And although I can and have spilled out a lot more than 1700 words in a single day, that’s not the way I write. And the first thing a writer needs to do is understand how he or she writes. And the second thing is understand why. Let’s start with second things first.

There are lots of reason I write. For instance — it’s an old saw (but that doesn’t make it any less true) — I write to find out what I think. Writing is a way of knowing. When I write, I discover ideas I didn’t think I had. I find new ways to think about things. I build layers of understanding as well as layers of misunderstanding. And I sometimes look for and sometimes stumble over connections that create sentences that take on meaning.

I also write because I want to be a part of a conversation. When I write I’m conversing with my readers. But I’m also doing more than that. I’m entering into a larger dialogue. Just take the blogosphere as an example. Sure there’s a lot of drivel. But there’s also a lot of genius. And in between those two extremes, there are people commenting on, questioning, exploring, critiquing, reconstructing the world they are a part of. Just like I’m doing. And I like hearing what those people have to say. I like considering what it means. And I like making a response, with the hope that others will be doing the same with what I put out there.

There are a lot of other reasons I write, but I’ll just mention one more. When I write creatively, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, I get great satisfaction out of creating a work of art. And when it’s good, it usually comes at the end of a long struggle. While the struggle can be short, it can also go on for days, weeks, even years. And short or long, it’s always the same thing. There’s always that feeling that I can’t do it. But when it’s over, I don’t feel relief that it’s done. Instead, what I experience is always surprise — surprise that there it is. And I have no memory of the struggle other than the awareness that’s there’s been a passage of time. What is out there, whether it’s on the screen in front of me or on the page in front of me (or, in the case of music, in the notes I just played), has always been there. All I did was make it palpable.

I’ll save how I write for tomorrow.

Monday, November 3, 2008

More Odds and Ends

1) Here's something I didn't know. Atomic Clocks have been in use since 1949. In 1955, they were off by 1 second every 300 years. In 2001, their accuracy had improved to 1 second every 70 million years.

2) We went to the Atlanta Symphony on Saturday. It was our first time there since moving to Georgia. Before we went, I took a look at the symphony's Web site and found a page entitled "New to the Symphony." Here are a few passages from that page.

From a section headed "There is no dress code":
Still, evening gowns and tuxedos are pretty rare unless you've bought tickets for a fancy gala—and if you have, you'll know! If you do decide to dress up, though, go easy on the cologne, which can distract others near you and even prompt them to sneeze — and may distract you.

From a section headed "Plan to arrive 20 minutes before concert time":

Most concertgoers make a point of coming early to read the program notes to familiarize yourself with what you are about to hear. Rushing to your seat at the last minute doesn't really give you enough time to get settled, so you may not fully enjoy the first piece on the program. And there's another good reason to come early: Most concerts start on time. If you're late, you may end up listening from the lobby!

From the last paragraph:
In most classical concerts—unlike jazz or pop—the audience never applauds during the music. They wait until the end of each piece, then let loose with applause. But this can be a little tricky, because many pieces seem to end several times — they have several parts, or "movements." These are listed in your program.

I've added the italics and bold type. Whoever wrote the piece, I'm sure, wanted to be helpful. But whoever wrote the piece, didn't take the time to envision the audience. The tone is condescending, which makes the whole piece insulting to an adult concert goer. A writer taking time to think of who the audience actually is (it's not a group of fifth graders) can make all the difference in how a message comes across.

3) It's great to read writing by someone who actually enjoys it and enjoys being read. James Greer's article about time in the November Discover magazine is a delight to read. You can read it on line here. And when you come back, don't forget to visit today's Spotlight post. It too is delightful.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Saturday is fun day

You've got to go to Phils Phun and watch Brian and Katie's Wedding Dance.

Then when you come back check out the spotlight post. It's over there ---> (on the right). It's a new feature on The Word Mechanic.

Friday, October 31, 2008

This is just fun

It's also an example of great editing. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

You're going to like this.

Maybe they're Not The Rockefellers, but Rene's posts are absolutely rich. If you've never been to her blog, don't waste any more time. Use the link and head on over to her "big bowl of quirky with a side of sass." You're going to be glad you did. I guarantee it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

If you know the words . . .

The following sentence has a problem:

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

Years ago, I had a friend that used to play guitar and sing at coffee houses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. One night he got up on stage, sat on a stool at the microphone, and said, "I've been busy all week and didn't get a chance to prepare anything for tonight. So we're just going to have 10 minutes of silence." Then he just sat there with his guitar cradled in his arms. There were a few laughs scattered throughout the audience at first, and they began to accumulate the longer he sat there. Then he broke up the room when he said. "That's okay. If you know the words, sing along."

Over the last couple of years, I've been working sporadically on composing a blues opera based on the execution of John the Baptist. Now let me stop right here and say I'm no musician. I took piano lessons for a few years when I was a kid but quit because I wasn't any good. When my own kids were small we bought a piano so they could take piano lessons. (They're all good musicians. My oldest son and my daughter are fantastic pianists and can play just about any instrument you hand them, and my second son plays bass in a band.) So I played around on the piano and taught myself a few songs so that people didn't laugh any more when I sat down at the keyboard.

My first wife got the piano when we divorced, and it wasn't until years later that S and I splurged and got a piano of our own. She had never played and wanted to, so we both signed up for lessons. And that's how I got into composing a blues opera. I had a fantastic teacher who believed in letting me set my own curriculum. He also made what I wrote but couldn't play sound fantastic when he played it.

There is a point to all of this. One of the hardest things for a non musician and novice composer to do is hear the natural interplay of music and words. So one of the mistakes I kept making was throwing away strong emphasis on weak syllables, or in scoring, I wouldn't hear the incomplete measure at the start of a score. That means I would write the music starting with the downbeat rather than holding the down beat for two preliminary beats. Or I'd have the wrong time signature. For instance I'd think I was writing in 4/4, but when my teacher would look at and play the piece, it would be obvious to him I was using 5/4, and so he'd help me figure out how to correctly count the beats and re score the music. My ear got better, but I still have problems with that. And even though I would play the melody line with the proper emphasis in my head, someone else who is a musician would look at the score and play it a different way.

So what's all this have to do with the sentence at the beginning? Here's another one with the same issue.

It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.

I studied rhetoric in graduate school with Ed Corbet, and he used to say one of the most common mistakes writers make is not reading their writing out loud. That's because, like music, language has natural rhythms. And when a writer disrupts the flow of those rhythms, that writer creates places where a reader is going to stumble. When I missed the upbeat at the start of a score, I created a place where a performer is going to stumble or at least miss the correct emphasis. And that's very much similar to what's happened in the two problem sentences, each of which was written by a different writer. If you read the first sentence out loud --

Very light pressure on the abdomen is advised, if the belly is massaged at all.

you should be able to hear the violated rhythm. Now move the phrase at the end to the beginning:

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen is advised.

The "is advised" is awkward and stilted, but at least the sentence flows more naturally. It doesn't cause a reader to stumble, and the writer gets a bonus after making the change. It's easier to see the need to think about changing "is advised" to, perhaps, something like

If the belly is massaged at all, very light pressure on the abdomen should be used. (or "is best" or is required)

Now try doing the same thing to the second problematic sentence.
It can take up to a year for a couple's normal sex life to return in full bloom, given the realities and stresses of early parenthood.
When you know the words, you can sing along; when you hear the beat, you can play the song.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another sign of the time

Maybe it's because I don't get my nails done. But there's something about this sign I saw outside a nail salon in one of our neighborhood strip malls (or as they're called now, outdoor malls) that seems to make it fall short of the desired advertising effect:

"The cleanest salon in town"

Is that really a problem?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I stole this

I stole this from Phil's Phun. It's priceless. Don't miss the final image. (If Phil wants me to give it back, I will.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

It's not uncommon in my profession to become frustrated with . . .

I just spent the day taking commas out of where they don't belong in people's sentences and putting them in where they do. I'd much rather be reading and writing poetry. That's my true passion. It's been over four years since my first book of poems was published, and I'm not very close to having a second collection ready to go. Of course, I make more money editing and writing non creative pieces for my clients. That's the first frustration.

Work, as we all know, expands to fill the available time. That's the second frustration. It shouldn't have taken me all day to push commas around. I should have had plenty of time to do something creative. Unfortunately, I always do my best creative work when I have the least time to do it.

And now for the third frustration--it's the way some writers I work with use the language. Consider this sentence I came across yesterday while I was editing an article about chemotherapy:

"It’s not uncommon to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head."

Why did the writer need so many layers in that sentence? The reader has to peel away two layers of negatives at the head of the sentence to get to the meaning. And the "not" in the beginning sets up a head on collision with the not at the end. Because the phrase at the end seems as if it could be parallel with the opening of the sentence (which it really isn't), the reader has a hard time knowing what's being negated at the end. The fact that what's being negated is an unspoken assumption -- that chemotherapy only causes the hair on top the head to fall out -- only compounds the confusion. Making the sentence work isn't that hard. All the writer needed to do was be direct:

It’s common to lose hair over your whole body, not just on your head.

But it isn't all frustration for me today. I just got an email from a colleague who does the same kind of work I do, only she does it in an office with other people around. In the email she said: "The fog here on the 24th floor is pretty impressive right now." That created all kinds of wonderful images. I knew she meant outside the windows of the 24th floor (it's been raining in Atlanta -- wonder of wonders). But I like what went through my mind when I took her sentence at face value.