01.16.09

Cold Chills

Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 9:54 am by Marion

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

It’s 18 degrees F outside. There are more birds in the yard than usual, and of many kinds … ruby-crowned kinglets, goldfinches, a red-bellied woodpecker on the feeder. This year the blocks of juncos are oddly absent, though I have seen them elsewhere in the neighborhood, and one slate-gray snowbird appeared on my feeder this morning.

So today’s Figuratively Speaking gets the low-down on cold.

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Where to begin! What other word gives us so many possibilities?

Cold comes to us from the Old English cald, which comes to us from German. It’s related to the Dutch koud and German kalt … the hard consonants we often see in these two languages.

Now it gets interesting: Cold is also related to the Latin gelu or frost.

This Latin word can be seen in the Italian gelato … the French geler, to freeze.

Here’s a twist fit for a cold Friday: the Latin gelu also gives us jelly … from the Latin gelata, frozen … from gelare, “freeze.”

Our variations are nearly infinite. Cold shoulder, cold-hearted, cold sweat, cold turkey … these terms all imply something difficult … or hard … just as a frozen face shows no emotion.

A fitting word for a mystical time of year, when as primitives we braced ourselves for the fearsome season and petitioned unknown spirits to keep us alive, careful not to appear afraid, though deeply so.

Image by DHD Multimedia Gallery

01.15.09

Facing ‘Facebook’

Posted in Computers & Technology at 10:03 am by Marion

TECH THURSDAY

How did … I … get drawn in … but here I am, a fresh-faced … er … Facebook recruit.

For someone working at home all day, without benefits of a bustling office, scintillating co-workers or watercooler conversation, it festoons my day with the creative chatter of peers … even though I’m an office of one.

And like any office, you can get sidelined. I will not admit how much time I spent early this morning confirming friends, sending karma, updating my status and writing on my friends’ walls.

For writers known for, well, procrastinating, it can be a lethal distraction.

If you’re not sucked in … I mean a member of … Facebook, you may be wondering, what is she talking about? What is the attraction?

Let me explain. Facebook is a Web community which gives members several pages for self-expression. Of the most gossipy, trivial … and frankly fascinating … kind. What are your favorite movies, books, TV shows. What are your interests. Where did you attend college, where do you work.

The opportunities for epic conversation threads are limitless via posts, photos, videos, links … the minutia of your day. Everyone has a “wall” … a page that’s a sort of graffiti space, like the old spray-painted cube we had in the pit at UNC. Your “friends” are the people you’ve agreed to allow to write on your wall, and all day long, you post messages and random thoughts, send karma, custom-made buttons and even Southern food. Comings and goings are monitored via everyone’s “status updates.”

If someone ignores you, just “poke” them. I have learned to “super poke,” mostly used on my poor husband.

I wonder how this introverted, reflective, melancholy writer became part of such a noisy, happenin’ place. Yet some guidelines are in order … it’s refreshing to listen more than to talk. And don’t drink or eat too much.

The biggest challenge for me is not inflicting pictures of our animals on too many people. Aren’t they just the cutest? Really, there aren’t that many pictures … you’ve got time, don’t you? Really … you’ll love these pictures … only 58 more of them ….

01.14.09

Winter Running

Posted in Events, Life in general, Running at 9:41 am by Marion

We’re waiting for the arctic wave to arrive today … how nice to have winter in town … how important to reduce our carbon emissions … bike to work … turn down the heat … recycle … so we can have more winters.

I went out for a three-mile run yesterday in what was a cold rain. Instead of making me feel worse, I felt energized. Today I wake up, euphoric still from that run, with plans for another one this morning.

It’s so easy to let it go … especially in winter and when I’m busy … to simply say, well, not today, I’ve worked so hard I deserve to just sit here and have a snack … surf the Web … flip through a magazine.

And sitting at this desk I get antsy. The more I sit, the more I crave snacks … if I can get myself to run three miles … just out the door, down the street and back … everything is better, brighter, happier. I managed to eat right yesterday, somehow … and the combination — exercise, eat right — is cheap, simple and life-changing. Yet nearly impossible to maintain!

We can never know the tangle of impulses and urges that make us human. Sometimes, despite them, we manage to rise above.

01.13.09

Tapping out Progress (2)

Posted in Tap dancing, Writers at 11:21 am by Marion

TAP DANCING UPDATE

It’s Tuesday, and time for a semi-weekly update after my Monday tap dancing class.

Now that I’ve had this unexpected breakthrough, I continue to make pretty amazing progress (read: I’m not physically coordinated in the dancing sense, rather stiff and wooden). Last night, after not having practiced all week, I figured I would have forgotten everything, but to my surprise, I was able to execute (rather clumsily, I might add) cross-over drawbacks … a snappy little step when done correctly … while only moderately teetering.

It was also a surprise to do double pullbacks across the studio floor … these are steps that seem to defy physics … slapping the floor with both feet while simultaneously jumping backward … somehow I’m still making a strong tap sound two out of three times … I even felt froggy enough to try a toe stand … which is just what it sounds like … a quick hop onto the toes of the feet and back to the floor.

Still more than a few times, though I was making sounds, I was falling forward, backward and sideways in a most un-Fred-Astaire-like way.

Of course I’ll never dance like Gregory Hines … but at least I’m dancin’ … sort of … there’s a lot more work to be done and I’m not sure I’ll ever manage to execute these rapid hop-shuffles.

Yet there’s a sense of quiet joy that comes from tapping your way across a studio floor that’s hard to describe … hard to attain … especially for a writer who spends most days looking inward … it’s an outward explosion of a similar kind … an avenue of expression that requires its own study and discipline.

01.12.09

Bloomsbury Group

Posted in Events, Writers at 9:32 am by Marion

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Study for the portrait of Leonard Woolfe by Vanessa Bell Image courtesy of the Victoria University Library Collection, Toronto.

Imagine that you didn’t worry about what society expected of you, that you were willing to put your faith in the invisible workings of the universe to take care of you, and decided to use your intelligence and creative energy in ways that made the world more beautiful, more comfortable and more meaningful.

That’s what a group of artists and writers did in London shortly after the turn of the century. Today we call them the Bloomsbury Group, but for them, they were just living with meaning. An exhibit of the Bloomsbury Artists is on view at the Nasher Museum of Art on the Duke University campus in Durham.

They weren’t setting out for fame, riches or a place in the art history books; rather, they were living as honestly as they could, experimenting with colors, fabrics and canvas; or with words.

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They include some familiar names: Notably, Virginia Woolfe, whose “A Room of One’s Own” suggested that for the first time, women, as well as men, were valuable contributors to art and letters, and that writing, for some, was as essential as breathing. But, women, who were in those days confined to the role of servant, deserved their own privacy, space — and dignity. What a concept!

Joining Mrs. Woolfe were her husband, Leonard, who helped run the printing press in their home, Hogarth, which published works including T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”

In addition, there was Mrs. Woolfe’s sister, Vanessa, a remarkable designer and artist whose paintings, fabrics and furniture designs show an ongoing explosion of creativity. She reminds me of another remarkable textile and visual artist, Sonia Delaunay, who was working in Paris about the same time.

Joining them were Duncan Grant, Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey, author of “Eminent Victorians,” and beloved by Dora Carrington, also an artist.

They left London after World War I to live on a farm, Charleston. They held open houses, and established “The Omega Workshop,” which was dedicated to artful everyday objects. (This was different from John Ruskin’s Arts and Crafts movement, which appreciated craftwork with a different sensibility.)

What touched me about these artists was the authentic pursuit of art without pretense or other motive than to create. So often we make “art” something unreachable … when it should be as natural as taking a breath, or walking across a room. It shouldn’t be removed from everyday living; rather, it should be the sheen on everyday actions.

The Bloomsbury Artists exhibit will be on view at the Nasher Museum through April 5. Highly worth visiting … if only to remind us of our higher humanity.

01.09.09

The Gift of Verbs

Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 9:26 am by Marion

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING FRIDAY

Maybe you’re like me and still have Christmas wrapping paper and packing boxes strewn in your living room, or maybe you’ve managed to get everything put away for the year. If so, good for you.

I haven’t put away my holiday language grievances either, so today, Figuratively Speaking hauls them out one last time before we move on.

I’ll start with the main offender this year: Gift.

Everyone loves to get them, and that’s the kind of gifts we should receive: NOUNS.

Some people, however, have developed a fondness for giving gifts of VERBS … as in, He gifted me a cheap rain poncho, which I regifted to my sister.

Of all the offenses in the above sentence, I think you can find them pretty easily. Not to mention the clear transgression of actually giving someone a cheap plastic poncho.

The gifting of “gift” brings to mind a troubling trend which I’ve railed about before, in one form of screed or another. That is forcing nouns to work double time as verbs … jobs they are not suited for.

Other examples of misuse, not limited to this type of “verbification” include

Prioritize. You may set a priority for the New Year, but please do not use this as a verb. Set goals and determine their relative importance. In other words, do something authentic in 2009.

Grow. Your hair grows (intransitive). This spring, we hope your beans grow (intransitive). If you are a farmer, you may grow corn (transitive). If you are a banker, you may see your accounts grow, though it’s not likely for this calendar year. You do not, ever, grow your accounts. Not even during a recession.

Impact. A noun. A noun indicating the action of one large mass colliding with another, often with sparks flying. A missile has an impact. Budget cuts do not. And you certainly don’t ask whether the boss’s permanent vacation will impact the bottom line. Try using the perfectly good verb affect.

So as we look ahead to this wonderful New Year, with so many fresh, hopeful months ahead, I wish everyone out there in Fiction Dailyland a happy 2009 full of correct language usage.

01.08.09

Radio Hour in Andromeda?

Posted in Computers & Technology, Events at 10:27 am by Marion

TECH THURSDAY

Today … where to start? We’ll cut to the big news.

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Image courtesy of NASA

First: At Macworld 2009, proceedings were shadowed by the absence of Steve Jobs, whose health has been affected by weight loss, possibly related to what he calls a hormone problem … he has also been recovering from pancreatic cancer … many of us wonder, What is Mac without Steve Jobs?

But, there is more to report — iTunes is issuing its catalogue now without the annoying digital rights management restrictions … that restriction meant that only computers with authorization could play music I purchased … you could only authorize seven computers … which meant the music I purchased could only be played by my husband … my sister … and me. Forget sharing new tunes under the previous system.

Now, songs and music videos will not have these protections (restrictions) … so at last I can pass along music to my nieces and nephew, presuming they care what I’m listening to, which is not likely, but it could happen!

Onto Microsoft: An announcement in Las Vegas today that a beta version of Windows 7 will be available Friday. Now, I finally went over to the “dark side” … and embraced Vista in August … the 64-bit version, at that.

Readers of this blog know that I got fully on board with Vista when I bought this computer. As recently as yesterday I experienced the dread “blue screen of death” (with sound effects, no less) … but it’s a kick that Microsoft would bail on Vista now that the rest of us have finally adopted it.

Now to the most interesting story I’ve read in a while: Scientists are reporting they have learned how to levitate small objects, though it’s not clear whether they have actually done it or not (I think not). They will likely use them to reduce friction in small systems, such as computers, and could even apply them to nanotechnology. (Not my favorite area of scientific research and development.)

Even more important today, I have read that astrophysicists have detected thunderous radio waves from a distant area of the universe … a blast six times stronger than they expected … while sound doesn’t travel through space, radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, just as visible light and gamma rays are … they are long, low frequency waves.

While I doubt it’s the Cygnus Howard Stern show, it will be interesting to see what this blast actually represents.

TOMORROW:
Why give, when you can “gift? Figuratively Speaking Friday‘s holiday language wrap-up!

01.07.09

Ripples from Butterfly Wings

Posted in Events, Life in general at 10:28 am by Marion

Today I’m going way out on a limb, but even writers are taking an interest in the economy these days.

Yesterday I spent more than one hour on the phone with a senior loan officer at Bank of America, which owns our mortgage … along with most other U.S. mortgages these days … BOA is one of the last soluble banks around, having managed somehow to navigate last year’s housing and stock-market crash. We have managed to take nearly 10 years off our 30-year mortgage. Of course it’s still a long time before we actually own our home.

So why is a writer like myself suddenly refinancing the house? While the housing market has taken a nose dive, loan interest rates have sunk to historic loans.

Today, I read this article in the New York Times and I start to see the big picture:

Bank of America Raises $2.8 Billion

HONG KONG — The Bank of America raised $2.83 billion from selling part of its holding in China Construction Bank and Hong Kong’s richest tycoon followed by selling a $500 million stake in rival Bank of China.

Shares in China’s big banks skidded on Wednesday after Bank of America’s early-morning sale, with investors expecting further sell-downs in the face of slowing earnings growth at mainland lenders and the lapse of lock-up provisions on stake holdings. (MORE)

Suddenly I see how my mortgage is related to a company in China … which is reeling from lowered demand for consumer goods … the threat of unemployment … and possible protests related to the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre.

One of the world’s most superhot economies, China affects the purse strings of the world. So if it’s market starts to go south, then the U.S. economy could suffer in response.

I wonder how refinancing my mortgage relates to the BOA stock selling … and how it will affect my Chinese brothers and sisters … and it’s humbling to see how fragile our world has become, despite all of our technology and prosperity.

01.06.09

A Tap in Time

Posted in Music, Tap dancing at 8:41 am by Marion

Today, a simple report from the dance studio.

After a three-week break, I returned to tap class last night. It’s a late class, starting at 7:45 p.m., which can feel like midnight. I’m thinking it will be a rough 45-minutes, that I will be clumsy and uncoordinated.

Somehow, during the past three weeks, something came together upstairs, quietly and without any effort from me. This new understanding was transmitted from my brain through to my legs and feet. And somehow, I was completing steps that were impossible a month ago!

I did “pull backs” across the studio … jumping moves done on both feet, backward, that should make a crisp tap. For me, performing the step turns into a struggle to avoid falling over, while sliding my feet sloppily backward.

Somehow last night the tap-slaps were there throughout the length of the 30-foot studio. (I ignored the full-length mirror which might have shown a slightly teetering woman leaping strangely across the room.)

Next we did a simple drawback step, which after months of flummoxation, has become almost second nature … so we worked on a drawback cross-step. Drawbacks also move backwards, and this variation takes one foot and crosses it over the other, while stepping backward. And brushing the toe … and tapping the heel.

We started at the barre … I fumbled … then, in a breakthrough, I did the step a few times. I moved away from the barre, and stumbled through it before getting it right a few times. Now I have something to work on for the week.

Last we turned to the “time step.” There are several time steps, which are often inserted into dance routines, like tiny compact dance firecrackers, which really turn up the complexity of a dance. These steps require you to shift weight from foot to food without taking steps … or, in some cases, you take steps without shifting your weight. It’s just as complicated as it sounds!!

Well, I seem to have one of the time steps now … my instructor repeated it rapidly several times for me, so I could hear the true rhythm of the step and now the task at hand (foot?) is to carry out the step while tapping the authentic rhythm.

Because in the end, no matter what you do with your feet, tap dancing is an art form dedicated to making delightfully entertaining, and even funny, sounds with those metal clappers. When it sounds right, you’re really tapping.

Like everything else, there’s got to me music in it.

01.05.09

Many Happy Returns

Posted in Events, Life in general at 8:50 am by Marion

The two Christmas seasons I spent in the Czech Republic are still powerfully with me, as we slowly return to normal life after the big holiday season.

At the language school where I worked, we ended classes about two weeks before Christmas Day. I had a late student on that final day and didn’t wrap up until 6:30 p.m.

Finishing up that lesson with Pan Kristof, I left the dark, empty building and walked out into the Prague evening.

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Leaving the building where I taught … down from the seventh floor … I passed the now empty offices of the Prague Post, on the second floor, where I did freelance writing and editing, and then to the ground floor, below which was the YMCA (pronounced “yim-ka”) pool, also closed.

The street was magically dark and devoid of the garish lights customary in the U.S. No, all was quiet, peaceful and calm … right out of a hymnal … a few vendors still manned their booths at the outdoor market, selling small porcelain creches and other icons. Along with large goldfish in icy plastic tubs (Czech Christmas tradition involves a goldfish which goes from the market to the family bathtub to the dinner table, where it is devoured, though many kind-hearted Czechs try to save them from their fate.)

The market was at Namesti Republiky, or Place of the Republic, a site commemorating the year 1918, when the Czechs had their republic, at last, though it was short lived. I worked in a building on Na Porici, which I heard meant “on the bank of a swamp” in Czech … it was in the old city, as was my apartment, down Sokolovska Street and beneath the viaduct, through the bus station short-cut.

Of course there was snow, silently falling in that mystical night as I made my way home to Pernerova Street, where I returned to find my cat, Norma Jean, watching it snow through the large bay windows.

The next days were isolated and meditative … I spent Christmas Day with my friend, Iva, who was a loyal friend and translator, without whom I would never have found a place to live … we had our Christmas dinner at the apartment she shared with Vincent, her Jamaican boyfried. Under my plate was a single fish scale — good luck!!

The city remained largely shut down until well into January … old Christmas, Jan. 6 (the Epiphany) was an important part of the observance and so I did not return to teaching for nearly a month. I used the time to write, to run in Letna and Stromovka (two large open parks) … which were snow covered … as was the entire city for months that year … and to read … a time when I discovered Dostoyevsky, and so many other writers.

I’ll never forget those freezing nights in the loft of that tiny flat reading, looking out of the windows (almost an entire wall) at the snow-covered hill beside my building, where if you craned your neck to the right and up, you could see Zizka, the enormous statue of this Czech warrior on his horse.

It’s a dreary, gray Monday today, and fitting for the soft landing back at our desks, after our national high holidays.

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