Sexy Beasts

My sister recently sent me a link to an article about an erotica writer who specializes in stories about Bigfoot. In my reply (after I said “Ew”), I suggested (pun partially intended) that this is the “the next big thing.” One of my husband’s coworkers participated in facilitating the current vogue for zombies by publishing a zombie romance story and we’ve seen plenty of oversexed vampires between Twilight and the new Dracula television show. So, what’s next then? (shudders)

I also pointed out to my sister in the same email reply that erotica is not my strong suit. After an entry in a contest earned me several comments amounting to “we can’t tell what happens next,” I reverted to using the Shelley Winters approach of signifying intimate encounters with “fade to fireworks” (as used in her autobiography Shelley Also Known as Shirley). In my own defense, my story did make my sister blush and she agreed that those who couldn’t fill in the few hazy blanks are too dumb to reproduce. Same goes for anyone who doesn’t know what happens when the fireworks start. Accordingly, I will leave the large mythical animals to more talented, imaginative, and stronger-stomached authors than I. Go for it. I yield.


Words in the Crosshairs

This evening on NPR, I heard a segment on Ralph Keyes’ contest to replace certain “foreignisms” in American English with homegrown words instead. There are only four words on the list suggested for retirement (schadenfreude, frission, simpatico, and mensch) but they present a true challenge in that there is not a simple candidate for exchange. The Chronicle of Higher Ed blog Lingua Franca commented that American English itself has a handful of colorful native terms with few direct counterparts and, anyway, that’s the way of languages, especially our notoriously “spongy” tongue. However one takes this task (i.e. seriously or not), it does suggest a useful practice might be to review one’s word choices for over-earnest use of faux (sorry) trim in the form of high-falutin’ sounding verbiage that don’t fool nobody.

Let Them Eat Grams

Recently, I read that there is a move afoot to refurbish the nutrition labels found on foods in the U.S. with the goal of making them more user-friendly. In particular, units we Americans hardly ever use (such as grams) would be replaced with “measures the consumer can visualize,” such as “teaspoons.” Another tweak would be assuring that packages meant to be eaten in one sitting display nutritional content for the whole package and call it “one serving,” instead of breaking the packages into several servings to provide the illusion that there are fewer calories in a package than is the case.

I brought this up at a family meal recently as a point of innocent conversation and found myself caught in the middle of a fracas. My spouse violently disagrees that overhauling nutrition labels is a good idea. In his mind, people in general are too lazy and should be expected to work a bit at getting their information. His perspective comes from academia, where he has witnessed what he calls “excessive dumbing down” of curricula and materials. My perspective is that of a former public health researcher and graduate of a “Plain Language” program in health communications. In my mind, public communications that impact health should be as accessible as possible to the intended audience so that they may make informed choices.

I am loath to admit that there is a point with which I can agree from the “Stop Dumbing It Down” camp, but I can see the logic in some narrow cases (yes, students should take the initiative and look things up once in a while, maybe on their ever-present phones). However, having seen government communiques that even I cannot understand with a Ph.D. and two masters degrees and a lot of reading and writing experience, I worry about who gets to decide when a piece of written communication is in the “right’ form. The nutrition label changes are based on audience research, which gives the recipient a voice in the process of exchanging information. I was taught in Plain Language class that organizing and phrasing information so that the reader can easily access it is not “dumbing it down” but making it useful. Willful ignorance of the readers’ needs serves only the writer.

If I were to be paranoid, I would think the obscure nature of the government writing I read was a deliberate attempt to meet the letter and not the spirit of the law while forestalling any real, actionable information delivery. For example, one piece addressed to parents of kids headed to court sported several lengthy words and bore no contact information at all (translation: don’t give me no questions). More likely, it was written by well meaning persons who are unaware that the average reading level is sixth grade and that it might be helpful to beta test your writing with a sample of intended recipients before release. The authors might, on the other hand, like to hire a former anthropology student of mine who, when I pointed out that her term paper title had nothing to do with the paper, smugly replied, “My writing professors told me a title shouldn’t give the story away.” There’s another person with a gift for ignoring the needs of the intended recipient.

The nutrition label dust-up may well go the way of past long-term marital spats with no useful outcome in sight (example: the long running “Is photography art?” dispute from the early years of our marriage, which sometimes turned loud). Or, if we are lucky, it will become the subject of parody, in the same league as “Sandwiches must be cut vertically” (which generally provokes laughter). Hopefully, we can eventually agree on this one sliver of a point: writers need to understand their own intentions and recognize that if these include imparting knowledge to an audience, they may have to compromise on the language used.

Totally, Carelessly, Truly, Madly, Deeply Considering Adverbs

After seeing a year-end summary that expressed concern about the “national depletion of indignation through the careless overuse of adverbs,” I conducted one of my unscientific reviews of internet opinion on the subject of adverb usage. Having read several articles and tomes about writing practice, I have certainly (uh,oh) heard the criticism of writing that relies too heavily (oops) on adverbs to describe action. According to one articleStephen King apparently (shoot!) once said  “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Completely, I assume. There is a current fashion for using the word “actually” way too often to be considered as well. I have even caught this little interloper creeping into my own technical writing at work without adding anything useful to the statements being made (other than upping the word count). Actually, the prevailing wisdom of the moment (I mean the few minutes I spent hurriedly [well, it’s true] “researching” this post) is less harsh than the “zero tolerance” advice one got in the past about adverb use and more along the lines of “all things in moderation.” Naturally. Just be careful out there with your loaded adverbs.

Riding with a Cause

I found this piece in my local paper last fall:

Here is the story of a couple whose marriage was torn asunder by tragedy and resurrected by their joint love of motorcycles and desire to honor the memory of their son.

“Julian and Betsy Harwood, of Manchester, will get on the bike again on Saturday and ride in memory of their son, Talon, who died after suffering an asthma attack seven years ago. The Harwoods hope more than 100 other riders will join them on the third annual Talon Harwood Memorial Ride, which is raising money for LifeFlight of Maine. This year, the ride will take on even more meaning.

“Because we’re getting married this year there may be quite a showing,” Julian Harwood said.

The couple divorced in 2009, three years after Talon’s death and just a few months shy of their 20th anniversary. The strain of dealing with their son’s death was a big part of the reason the couple decided to split up, Julian said.

Their marriage ended on paper, but the couple’s relationship never really did. The Harwoods, a former Hallowell police officer and a nurse, continued to spend time together, much of which was spent on Julian’s motorcycle.

“We rode the first 5,000 miles without saying a word to each other,” he said. “It was kind of our church. That’s how we got back together.”

He bought the bike, which a fellow police officer rode in the procession at Talon’s funeral, a couple years after his son’s death.

“I’d never ridden a motorcycle before,” Harwood said.
On Saturday, the two will say their vows at Pemaquid Point. They will promise each other they will keep riding together, no matter how scary or tragic the trip gets.

The two began to reconnect on their rides and they were introduced to communities, like the Defenders Motorcycle Club, who helped lift them out of the grief they continued to carry with them.

“The whole community helped us get back together,” Harwood said. “The pain will never go away. You just find a better way to deal with it.””