Archive for June, 2008

Road ‘Race’

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Cardiac Mile Marker

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MB and her sister, Walton, at the June 14 Komen Race for the Cure

On Saturday, I reached a personal record for running a 5 K. I ran those 3.1 miles in 34:53 … that’s 11.25 minutes per mile!

You’re probably thinking … alert Sir Roger Bannister! She’s under 12 minutes a mile!

If you’ve read the past few days’ posts, you’re familiar with my tale of the plodding athlete. I’ve never had speed, and not so much strength, either.

I do have endurance, and at least once a week I go out for seven or so miles. They’re run at a glacial pace … usually about 13-minutes per mile … with iPod tunes or just birds.

So coming in at nearly 11-minutes per mile was a big deal for this runner. Only two weeks ago, I ran the Komen Race for the Cure in Raleigh at 39:37 … a 12.75-minute mile. My sister dusted me at 11 minutes — and it was her first race!

It’s exciting to know I can improve, even at my age and with my “record.” It’s easy for us to doubt our ability to change, especially when we’ve grown to know what’s possible — and not. I am amazed at the human body’s ability resiliency and ability to meet new demands.

FICTION DAILY RETURNS FRIDAY JULY 4 WITH A STAR-SPANGLED FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Figuratively Speaking

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Latin Lovers

One of my favorite activities … more fun than spraying the dogs for fleas, even … is to read the dictionary and take note of the origins of words.

No matter what trips a word takes through Olde English or French, chances are good it all started with Latin.

Few words have a hold on us like the Latin ones.

It’s called a dead language, but you’d never know it. That’s a good thing. Latin gives everyone a forum, and refuses to take sides in any debate.

Latin persists, though no country has actively spoken it for hundreds of years. We can thank our great Roman countrymen for spreading it throughout the old world — the Mediterranean Coast into Europe, minus the Goths, Celts and Franks, of course.

Today, Latin is invaluable in medicine, philosophy and even marketing and the military (semper fidelis anyone?)

It’s also a writer’s best friend. It started in 9th grade when I learned “ibid,” which means, “the same place” and is the same reference as the footnote above it.

There was also “loc cit” which means “in the place cited” which repeats an earlier footnote reference.

Journalists and editors know the term “stet” quite well … it means “let it stand.” That’s what you write after scratching out a paragraph you hated, then realize you can’t say it any better after all.

One term that once baffled me is “c.q.” It appears before unusual spellings at the head of a story on the news wire — “Smyth is c.q.” It means “this spelling is correct” but you’d never find that abbreviation in the AP Stylebook. It was always a sort of inner secret you just had to figure out in context.

In today’s Internet Age, of course such mysteries are easily cleared up. Wikipedia provides this refection on the term:

Cadit quaestio.
Latin for “the question falls.” It’s a legal term indicating that a settlement to a dispute or issue has been reached, and is now resolved. In English, a related phrase is “the shoe has dropped,” or as I use it, “waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

In journalism, the abbreviation “CQ” is used to indicate that a fact, such as the spelling of a name, has been checked and found to be correct.

Latin makes medicine possible, too, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll look at why the life-giving doc speaks a dead language.

New Story

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Trying to sleep last night after watching two episodes of “Dexter” — … a new guilty pleasure … I came up with an idea for a new short story.

It would be set in middle school or junior high school and try to capture those unsteady times, not understanding the world around you, yet being fully part of it, responsible for making decisions, people watching what you do, a changing relationship with parents.

The idea came when I started thinking about how feelings come from such a deep place for young people say 9 to 15 and even up to age 25 … they are heady days, intense and uncertain.

So the story right now would be titled something like “Saved by Rod Stewart,” in honor of the beloved pop star as he was in the 1970s … and still is, today, though the appeal is different.

Still working on “Poison” with the help of a good friend and writing partner who is reading my newest draft.

TOMORROW: Figuratively Speaking

Physics Lessons

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

It’s not just tap dancing that invites me to fall on my face. I flounder in lots of sports.

These days I run, sometimes for long distances. Not fast at all, but I no longer have to worry about that.

There were plenty of times in elementary school and beyond when that seemed to be all that mattered … who’s faster, stronger, better. Such as those horrible fitness tests. Once they timed how long you could hang on a bar … I immediately dropped to the floor! What a hoot. As if you need more humiliation in junior high school! One of my classmates held onto that bar for a half hour.

I was pretty good at kickball — and could generally get that red ball to the school-yard fence. And Red Rover … I figured out how to break the chain of held hands by running through at an angle. Otherwise, I avoided P.E. like lunchroom mashed potatoes.

Then in high school, I discovered running. It never really clicked, but I kept trying.

In 1993, a miracle happened. I quit smoking and began running. I ran three miles that first day … and the next … and the next. Soon I was running for an hour and a half several times a week.

I’m not fast — about a 13-minute mile — but running has saved my life.

Now I’m run about three miles every day or so, with a long run once or twice a week. During those magical times, my mind drifts into a calm place where I can dream about my novel … short stories … what the world means … what I value in life.

I return from these runs happier … more at peace … grateful.

It’s not a first-place finish, and I’m not even likely to win my age bracket.

But running is a gift and a joy that sometimes I think might just be able to save the world.

Untapped

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Despite genuine effort, I flail like a wooden top.

I’m talking about tap dancing.

Yes, dear Readers, I’ve always wanted to tap dance. So while I can diagram a sentence, spot a dependent clause or take down a hanging modifier at 50 paces, when it comes to dancing I am the proverbial fish out of water.

Last night had my first tap class in some years. My teacher was very nice and complimented me for catching on so fast. She was being too kind. At one point, after completing some kind of backward flap across the floor a few times, I grabbed the barre and sank to the floor. Hopeless!

Dancing is probably the least natural fit for a serious, focused writer-type who’s constantly worried about errors and whose goal in life is to reach some mythical place of pure and beautiful prose. Toss me in a room of people having fun and I don’t know how to act.

Sure, I can do the simple “flap” or “brush.” I can even carry out a “ball-change” and a “cramp roll.”

When it’s time to move quickly while coordinating the left and right feet, I disintegrate.

My teachers are cheerful, sunny folks, full of energy and optimism … limber, free of body and unbound by self-consciousness. So comfortable and at ease. They inspire me.

The class meets weekly and I’m going to stick with it, no matter how discouraged I become. No matter how badly I’m gasping for air!

A five … six … seven … eight … flap, shuf-ful, flap, flap, ball-change … stomp!

Hold on to your chair

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

Yesterday, a cool, free Sunday afternoon came and went while I sat in front of a short story I’m working on.

The afternoon was a good one; the story is coming together with a new framework and it is enjoyable work.

At some point, however, I looked out of my office window and asked, What am I doing?

Sometimes the act of writing overwhelms any project I’m working on. It requires us to sit perfectly immobile, dream up ideas and express them using our insufficient language.

A piece must live — must have its own inner life — to keep you sitting in the chair. That’s a good thing, though. It keeps us on our toes.

Figuratively Speaking

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Horsing around

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It’s Friday, and time for Figuratively Speaking.

Today, a look at how sometimes, language is sheer horseplay.

All week I ranted about the Internet, the environment, writing and reading.

You could say I’ve been on a high horse about things. When you get on a high horse, you become disdainful, conceited even, about your own perceived expertise.

It’s just horse sense, however, that when we’ve been on our high horse too long, we’ve been beating a dead horse … talked way too long about something that’s already settled.

If, on the other hand, you learn that I am a world-renowned expert on the matter, you could say, That’s a horse of a different color. You should be allowed to ramble on a, well, bit with some indulgence before you are reined in.

What’s more, you can benefit from such expert information right from the horse’s mouth.

Besides, before judging someone who seems self-important, just hold your horses.

In general, as a rule for life, always think twice before you change horses in midstream. Stay the course with whatever plans you’ve made and don’t jump off before the finish line.

In the end, good language usage must come from a person’s own desire to speak with precision.

After all, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Light illustration by Greg Eans

Overstayed our welcome?

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

I am more concerned than ever about our planet … flooding in the Midwest, earthquakes in China, cyclone in Burma.

Here in eastern North Carolina, our landscape is becoming oddly desert-like.

The change began last year, when our front yard, usually springy with healthy centipede grass, failed to grow. My husband mowed it only once or twice. Bare spots appeared.

This year, the lawn simply never came back from its winter brown. Sure, we have some green clumps, but mostly the yard is barren, with chickweed and wire grass.

My daylilies bloomed two or three weeks early this year. The bluebirds’ nesting and egg-laying habits have been irregular.

Meanwhile, we had a week of 100-degree days earlier this month, while a wildfire still burns in the peat bogs of Hyde County.

The Chinese are building a dam (Three Gorges) and the water in the resulting lake could weigh so much that it would affect the earth’s very rotation angle.

The thought is chilling … as it would mean the end of us. The weight of the water could alter the rotation by a half-degree … causing environmental calamities, weather upheavals and effects we don’t know about.

My husband once speculated that maybe human beings were a virus … and someone would come and spray us.

I love mankind and feel overjoyed and honored to be part of humanity … but without a question, we have become burdensome for the planet.

I’m not sure what to do about it … I avoid plastic foam take-out trays and cups; I no longer use disposable plastic water bottles; nor do I purchase aluminum foil or aluminum drink cans. Aluminum mining is one of the most harmful acts done to our planet.

I feed the birds, rescue turtles and help earthworms across the pavement. Is it enough? Can any of us make a difference? I believe only mandatory guidelines by world leaders will save us, but I wonder if we have the courage to demand them.

Is writing the problem?

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

So in yesterday’s post we looked at the new Atlantic Monthly article questioning the affect Net surfing has on our brain.

Today, another reason I don’t think it’s time to cry wolf just yet.

When I moved to eastern Europe in 1995, I took armfuls of my press clippings with me to help me find work at the Prague Post. I had a considerable pile of them — feature stories, news stories, a weekly arts magazine.

After I completed my first freelance assignment for the Post, I packed those old clips away and didn’t look at them again for years.

Over the two years I lived in Prague, my writing changed dramatically. My thought chains extended for miles and my stories had depth. I explored people and their undertakings, I dug into public events and decisions.

When I returned to the states and found work as a writing teacher, I went back to those clips hoping to use them in my classes.

When I re-read them, however, I was shocked.

I was a professional journalist, and yet my language use was horrible! I regularly began sentences with “but” and “and.” I guess I thought since the “big writers” did those things it was cool, or maybe it felt liberating to break the old rules.

My students were not amused. Nor was I. I felt ashamed of my writing.

I also noticed those newspaper clips from 1990-1995 used choppy sentences and short paragraphs. My stories read more like police reports than good journalism.

It was eye-opening. I declared I would no longer … or ever again … take liberties with the language I love.

Gone! The sentence fragments. Gone, too, the dependent clauses parading as sentences. Gone, too, the short, choppy paragraphs on a first-grade reading level.

Today, I still struggle with my own writing flaws … my phrases tend toward the wooden, I can’t shake my writing inhibitions; I lack musicality in my writing.

At the same time, I have grown to respect the complex sentence, the long paragraph and the well-developed idea.

So what does this have to do with the Internet or the Atlantic article (“Is Google Making us Stupid?”)?

Writers have a responsibility to write well, and to experiment and enjoy what we do. We can’t blame the Internet or television if we can’t write, or if we abandon beautiful, complicated ideas or profound topics.

It’s a two-way street. We have to read … and we have to write … in ways that allow us to remain free and fully human.

Who’s reading, anyway

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

I read a disturbing article in the Atlantic Monthly yesterday at the bookstore. The title was, Is Google Making us Stoopid? : What the Internet is doing to our Brains

The article read a little bit like a whiner’s rundown of problems with his own ability to focus these days … something we can all relate to … but the article is one of the first to take on the effects all these computers are having on our ability to think.

The author, Nicholas Carr, asserts that the ways we absorb information have rewired us. For instance, we tend now to bounce among sentences rather than reading long chains of them; we hunt for information that interests us and overlook the rest.

One person quoted says he has lost the ability to read “War and Peace.”

There may be some real truth in the article. When I lived in Prague for two years, I had no TV, no Internet and very little radio even.

My mind changed dramatically during those two years … I read everything with immense focus and absorption. Every paragraph had Dickensian consequence for me. I read complex nonfiction books, as well as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Pynchon.

Yet, I’ve also done those things in America. I have been reading books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, among the most complex books I’ve ever opened. I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and poetry.

Lately, however, I have noticed the Internet more than anything makes me anxious.

I’m learning to shut down the computer unless I’m actually working on something. I’ll often sit with paper and pen, notes or manuscripts, and work in peace.

Have we lost something in this country? Yes, no doubt. But we are a consumer-capitalist nation whose strength lies in the ability to sell things. As long as those are our values, we will bombard our citizens with ads and create desire.

What better media to do those things than television and the Internet. As they give us new worlds of information, they also take away a little of our inner peace.

NOW ON PUBLIC RADIO EAST: A trip to New York to see the original manuscript-scroll of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”

NOW AT REFLECTOR ONLINE: “Mythic Miles” – A reflection on the novel.

Plus a look at Kerouac’s eastern North Carolina home