The Thing about Going to the Local Zoo

The thing about going to the local zoo is that, after you’ve been there a few times and gotten to know all the animals, you end up spending more time watching the other zoo-goers than the ostensible main attractions of the place.

Yesterday, I went to the Indianapolis zoo to get a look at the new orangutan habitat and because I needed the exercise. I’ve been to that zoo dozens of times — every year, my parents renew our zoo membership as a Christmas present. I spent maybe twenty minutes trying to glimpse a furry orangutan scalp or a black orangutan knuckle over and around the heads of the hundreds of children and their grandparents in the new orangutan building, and then I was finished with the new stuff.

So I walked around and saw what there was to see. It was familiar territory. The most adorable animal by far in the place — the red panda — was lounging in the fork of a familiar tree just being his adorable self, as usual. I moved along.

A tiger was circling his enclosure, as usual, and occasionally glancing up through the glass at what must have looked like some pretty appetizing young humans. I moved along again.

The bears were out and performing for their audience in their way. Really, they were watching all the people who were watching them back. It was a little eery, but nothing I hadn’t seen before. So I turned around, ready to move along, when I spotted something I had never seen before.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was about six feet tall, had long brown hair, and wore a wide leather belt through the loops of his pressed, dark blue jeans. It wore a puffy shirt, the kind that might be worn by someone dressed as a pirate for a Halloween party, but it was dark purple instead of the usual white. Also, in a display that was certainly meant to attract females, the shirt was open almost to its navel, exposing short, curly salt-and-peppers on a well-tanned chest.

It looked like a 1970s disco pirate on safari.

I know it’s wrong of me to judge a person by his appearance, and I’m doing my best not to judge. But I did notice him, which I think was what he was going for in the first place.

I see a person dressed like that — or in various other extreme get-ups — and I see someone wearing a costume, not just clothes. I see someone who came out of the shower in the morning wrapping a towel around his waist and thinking, ‘Who (or what) should I dress like today?’

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the best time of this guy’s life was when he was the backup keyboardist for The Moody Blues, and he has decided to live only in that era of his life forevermore. Maybe he really was an old-fashioned over-flaired pirate who was only at the zoo to pick out a new parrot to sit on his shoulder. Maybe his wife gets turned on by his chest hair.

I don’t know, and that’s the problem.

It’s not a problem for me as a person — people do plenty of “weird” things for reasons I don’t understand — but it’s a problem for me as a writer. I find extroverted characters the most difficult ones to write because I have a really difficult time understanding what motivates them. So creating a realistic extroverted character is a challenge.

I understand the motivation to be different, to be original. Even introverts have that motivation not to simply be pulled along by the whims of pop culture. But I have been unable to get into the head of the type of person who starts his day trying to figure out how to be noticed by perfect strangers. What kind of emotional rewards come from strangers stealing glances, stodgy old men making faces, and children outright staring?

To me, as an introvert, this type of extroversion sounds like a psychological problem.

But yes, I am aware that, to an extrovert, introversion might also seem like a psychological problem. (For some of us, it probably is, too.)

What all this really means, though, is that I need to make an effort to start writing more extroverted, flamboyant* characters. I need to create characters who like to be the center of attention. Characters who are more outgoing than I am. More shameless. Less reserved. I need to create these characters and have them act the way they act and then figure out why they act that way.

Any knowledge I glean will help me become not only a better writer but a better human being.

I first spotted my disco pirate as he was passing the enclosure of the bald eagle, perhaps the most distinguished and distinguishable of all the birds of prey. A bald eagle can’t change out of his unmistakable white head. He simply can’t help the way he looks.

Maybe Mr. Disco Pirate can’t help it either.

Maybe none of us can.

In the meantime, though, help me understand, from a writer’s perspective, what extroversion can look like in literature. What novels feature well-written, understandable extroverts?

* I am aware that extroversion and flamboyance are two different things. Please don’t castigate me in the comments for saying that they’re synonymous. I know they’re not. The most extreme personalities are the most difficult for me to understand, though; why start small?

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After My First Game of Peeve Wars

I received my Grammar Girl’s Peeve Wars card game in the mail (along with some other grammary goodies) this weekend, and through an unexpected twist of fate, I actually got to play the game with my sons on Monday morning. Now I’m here to report.

If you’ve never heard of Peeve Wars, don’t worry — you’re in the majority. Peeve Wars is a labor of love from everyone’s favorite maven, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), which was funded through FundAnything.com. That’s how I got my hands on it. I imagine it will, at some point, be available to larger audiences, but right now it looks like only those who contributed funds are getting the decks.

That’s still a lot of decks going out, though: 568 contributors ponied up $28,025 toward the project, almost double Mignon’s original goal.

At any rate, the premise of the game is pretty straightforward: You amass an army of grammatical peeves — little monsters like Alot, Invasive Apostrophe’s, and Very Unique — and when you think your army is maddening enough, you try to annoy the other plays to death. You also have a few heroes available to grant patience when others try to annoy you, heroes like Autocorrect, the Librarian, Noah Webster, and even Grammar Girl herself.

I’ve played the game exactly once so far, but here are four things I learned from that premiere:

  1. No card game’s instructions can account for every possible situation a player might encounter. I had learned this from playing other card games; this one only reinforced that belief. Peeve Wars isn’t terribly complicated, though. We only stumbled over one situation that wasn’t explicitly covered in the instructions.
  2. Read the instructions. All the instructions. To say I learned this isn’t exactly true. I will never learn this.
  3. Knowing your grammar won’t help you win. Peeve Wars is won through elimination. I am a word connoisseur, a fairly seasoned editor, and a lifelong reader inching toward his fortieth birthday. My opponents were a fourteen-year-old trombone-playing Boy Scout and an eleven-year-old denim-eschewing ragamuffin who might be even more addicted to Doctor Who than I am. In spite of my apparent grammatical superiority, I was the first player eliminated.

    In short, language is only the theme for this game. You don’t need to be member of the grammarati to play Peeve Wars any more than you need to know about surgical procedures to play Operation.

  4. Sharing other characteristics with Grammar Girl might improve your chances of winning. In my game, the redhead won.

Overall, Peeve Wars is a fun, wholesome game. The imagery is adorable (thanks to artist Len Peralta), it’s easy to learn and play (thanks to Mignon Fogarty and Joseph Kisenwether), there isn’t a whit of violence to the game, and you can play a round in 20–25 minutes. It’s a great game for children, parents, and grandparents.

And if it can keep just one “could of” off the street, it’ll be worth every penny.

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It’s the only way I can know that I’m not just spinning my digital wheels.

Ten Things I Found in an Old Notebook

Here are ten things I found in an old notebook of mine. Once you read them, they are yours.

One.
The first paragraphs of an essay I was calling “On Judging Books,” which was meant to outline how I approach book reviews.

Two.
A very weird beginning of a short story told in first person from the
perspective of a some sort program accessed through voice recognition
software.

Three.
A recipe for “Lonely Asshole Pie.”

Four.
A short story about a junky who shoots up oil paint, slices open his fingers, and paints canvases with his own blood. (Most likely inspired by William Burroughs.)

Five.
A list of words that people probably mispronounce until they hear someone else say them, for example, lingerie, albeit, and colonel.

Six.
A fictional anecdote (that is, an overlong, bad joke) about being frightened of proctors after mentally connecting proctor with proctologist.

Seven.
A fan letter to Neil Gaiman that I never sent.

Eight.
This sentence, written high up on an otherwise blank page:

My god, she even has beautiful feet!

Nine.
This bad poem:

A Man’s here to take me away
I don’t know where he wants me to go,
But it’s gotta be better than this, so
I’ve no motivation to stay.

There’s more of it, but it only gets worse. I’ve been binge-watching Doctor Who this week; I wonder what was going on when I wrote this?

Ten.
And, finally, the beginning of the three-word Wednesday I mention here. It remains unfinished. Someone want to finish it for me?

The elevator is always crowded at this time of morning. I usually bypass it and take the stairs, but it is a Monday morning, and I’m groggy and irritable. So I waited with the pack in the hallway for that Pavlovian ding that would signify the actual start of the workday.
The crowd of people bottlenecked through the doors, jostling for a place against the elevator wall. It took three tries for the elevator doorsto slide shut because somoene wasn’t fully inside. But shut they did, and I was immediately reminded of why I don’t take the elevator.
The buxom woman next to me was a bot too fragrant; her morning perfume spritz hadn’t had the opportunity to wear down yet. Coffee breath and body odor broke through and blended with her aroma, creating a noisome stench that only seemed to grow as the elevator began its ascent.
And, of course, no one said a word about it.
Halfway between the third and fourth floors, the elevator shuddered. The lights went out. The elevator stopped.
Someone said, “Oh, shit,” and there was a collective sigh, which only tainted and strengthened the coffee breath stench.
Brief power outages were a monthly occurrence in this building, more so during summer, when the industrial-sized air conditioners sucked up power like water through a straw. The electricity nomrally returned in less than a minute, which is why we all remained so calm.
At first.
I don’t know how much time passed in the rising heat and choking stench of that black box, but at some point, the darkness was pierced by the glowing screen of someone’s iPhone. One by one, tiny LCD screens lighted the small space as people checked their e-mail, texted bosses and staff, and even played Angry Birds.

What now? You’re stuck in a dark, smelly elevator crammed with people and have no idea when you’ll be able to get off. Or if.

I have a vague recollection that I wanted to play out Lord of the Flies in a stuck elevator. But beyond that, I have no idea where this was going to go. It’s up to you. Consider this your creative writing prompt of the day.

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Weird Al’s Blurred “Word Crimes” Lines

I can’t not respond to Weird Al Yankovic’s new song “Word Crimes,” can I? So here goes.

First off, congratulations to Jarrett Heather for a beautiful and well-executed video. The song is a parody of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Mr. Heather did a great job of using only certain elements of the original video — like those incessant hashtags and the balloon letters — without trying to force the entire Weird Al video to match up. This is a great production for his portfolio.

But now, the song itself.

Weird Al on Language and Usage

Weird Al Yankovic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have known for a while the Weird Al is a peever. Regardless of how you feel about peevery in general, it does reveal one thing about the man: He loves his language.

Plenty of logophiles, linguists, and editors will push back at what look like “rules” of language that he highlights in his video. They’ll talk about different registers and different dialects and language as a sign of privilege and all that.

And they will be right, to a degree.

It will all come back to prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, which it always does, plus a healthy dose of “spelling isn’t grammar,” which is, of course, true.

But before you start working yourself into a tizzy overanalyzing the lyrics, keep these points in mind:

One. The phrase word crimes is intentional hyperbole. To people like Weird Al (and me), the errors in grammar, spelling, and usage that are highlighted in this song are crimes in the same way that ordering filet mignon well done, covering it with ketchup, and eating it with your hands is a crime.

Two. Throughout the song, all references are to written language. The imagery and lyrics both point back time and again to the written, not spoken, word — email, Twitter, composition books, emoji. Weird Al has deftly avoided the wholesale condemnation of spoken slang, so don’t even go there.

Three. For the most part, Weird Al did a decent job of avoiding the biggest controversies of English usage. It’s hard to argue against these bits:

  • There’s a big difference between its and it’s.
  • There’s no x in espresso.
  • Learn your homophones.
  • Don’t use quotation marks for emphasis.
  • Doing good is different from doing well (again, in written forms).
  • Only morons spell moron “moran.” (Which is a reference to this guy →.)

Four. He doesn’t, as the most annoying peevers do, take a side in the Oxford comma debate:

But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma

Five. Perhaps the best, most instructive line of the song is this: Use your spell checker.

But yes

There are some genuine, personal, arguable peeves in there:

  • The use of literally to mean figuratively (For the record, I agree with Weird Al about this one, but I also recognize that it’s a lost cause.)
  • Couldn’t care less vs. could care less
  • Who vs. whom (Again, I agree with Weird Al. But until such time as we all agree to just stop using whom altogether, it ought to be used properly. What he says about it in the song, though, isn’t very helpful.)
  • Using leetspeak and emoji.
  • Irony (No one ever wins an argument about what irony is or isn’t. Is that ironic?)

Whether you agree with his assessments or not, remember that Weird Al Yankovic isn’t an English teacher, a linguist, or an editor. He’s an artist and entertainer who loves his language. That’s something to be encouraged.

And I’ll say it again

My only gripe about the song is the acceptance of personal attacks on people who make these errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Grammatical is not the same as Right, and ungrammatical is not the same as Wrong. People use language in different ways in different situations, and it will always be that way. I’m sure it would take no time at all to find a Weird Al lyric that breaks the very word crimes that he sings about in this song.

But again, it’s parody. It’s hyperbole. It’s fun. Word Crimes isn’t a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, so just enjoy it for what it is.

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It’s the only way I can know that I’m not just spinning my digital wheels.

Word of the Day: Thaumaturgy

The Word of the Day today is Thaumaturgy. I discovered this word today while reading Alice Munro’s Runaway (great book, by the way):

At college she had mentioned how her father had explained to her what thaumaturgy meant, when she ran across the word at the age of twelve or thirteen.

According to Merriam-Webster, thaumaturgy means “the performance of miracles.”

This is how H.G. Wells used the word in his short story The Man Who Could Work Miracles:

There were astonishing changes. The small hours found Mr. Maydig and Mr. Fotheringay careering across the chilly market square under the still moon, in a sort of ecstasy of thaumaturgy, Mr. Maydig all flap and gesture, Mr. Fotheringay short and bristling, and no longer abashed at his greatness.

And if I were forced to use the word in a sentence, I might conjure up something like:

On a bustling Friday afternoon, the wandering monk walked into the town square, and to everyone’s astonishment, miraculously transformed the water in the big fountain into Shasta Orange Soda, an unequivocal demonstration of thaumaturgy.

Word of the Day: Augean

The Word of the Day this summer is Augean. According to Merriam-Websters, Augean means “extremely formidable or difficult and occasionally distasteful”, as in an Augean task.

The reason Augean means what it does should become clear once we learn about the fifth labor of Hercules.

If you’re not familiar with the story of the twelve labors of Hercules, I’ll outline it briefly for you now. Hera (wife of Zeus) wished to make life difficult for poor old Hercules, so she caused him to go insane. While he was out of his mind, he killed his wife and children. When he came to his senses, he asked Apollo what he she do to atone for the murders he committed. Apollo said that he should serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years. Eurystheus proposed twelve labors that Hercules must perform to absolve himself of his sins.

Well, I won’t bore you with all the twelve labors. The fifth labor, however, is in what we’re particularly interested. Eurystheus ordered Hercules to clean the stables of King Augeas (hence Augean). King Augeas was very wealthy and owned a great many herds of cows, goats, horses, and sheep. So cleaning out the stables would take a, excuse the pun, Herculean effort. Hercules proposed a bet to King Augeas. If Hercules could clean the stables in one day, then Augeas would give Hercules one tenth of his cattle herds.

Well, my money is on Hercules, of course! Hercules diverted two rivers, which then flowed into the stables and cleaned out all the dung, much to King Augeas surprise.

In the end, Augeas reneged on the bet and the matter had to be taken up in court.

And that is how the word Augean came into existence!

Quotes from The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer

So, I recently finished reading The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer. I rather enjoyed this book. It was well written, and the character of Dr. Fu-Manchu is intriguing. It isn’t any wonder he has infiltrated our popular culture.

The chapters of the book were originally serialized short stories that were first published in The Story-Teller (1912-1913) and then in Collier’s Weekly (1913). Rohmer turned those stories into the first Fu-Manchu novel. Many more were to follow. They became wildly popular, and Rohmer was able to make a nice living off the sales of his books.

Dr. Fu-Manchu employs his deep, arcane knowledge of chemistry, plants, insects, and animals, and even hypnotism to assassinate key figures in the British government that are trying to undermine the growing power of China. In the book, he has found temporary residence in London, and two British men, Nayland Smith of the Scotland Yard, and his friend Dr. Petrie, are fast on his heels.

Sax Rohmer

At any rate, enjoy my favorite quotes from the book!

THE THAMES

No one spoke for a moment, and in the silence I could hear the whispering of the Thames outside–of the Thames which had so many strange secrets to tell, and now was burdened with another.

LOVE

“Love in the East,” he had said, “is like the conjurer’s mango-tree; it is born, grows and flowers at the touch of a hand.”

ANTICIPATION

There are few states, I suppose, which exact so severe a toll from one’s nervous system as the anticipation of calamity.

MYSTERY

There was a world, I learned, upon the confines of which I stood, a world whose very existence hitherto had been unsuspected. Not the least of the mysteries which peeped from the darkness was the mystery of the heart of Karamanèh. I sought to forget her. I sought to remember her. Indeed, in the latter task I found one more congenial, yet, in the direction and extent of the ideas which it engendered, one that led me to a precipice.

FAMILY PRACTICE

And I was a medical man, who sought to build up a family practice!—who, in short, a very little time ago, had thought himself past the hot follies of youth and entered upon that staid phase of life wherein the daily problems of the medical profession hold absolute sway and such seductive follies as dark eyes and red lips find no place—are excluded!

SUPERSTITION

“Dr. Fu-Manchu,” replied the former, “was the ultimate expression of Chinese cunning; a phenomenon such as occurs but once in many generations. He was a superman of incredible genius, who, had he willed, could have revolutionized science. There is a superstition in some parts of China according to which, under certain peculiar conditions (one of which is proximity to a deserted burial-ground) an evil spirit of incredible age may enter into the body of a new-born infant. All my efforts thus far have not availed me to trace the genealogy of the man call Dr. Fu-Manchu. Even Karamanèh cannot help me in this. But I have sometimes thought that he was a member of a certain very old Kiangsu family—and that the peculiar conditions I have mentioned prevailed at his birth!”

VALUES

That she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality—her history—furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured.

LOVE

Imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green: invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect . . .
Dr. Fu-Manchu! Fu-Manchu as Smith had described him to me on that night which now seemed so remotely distant—the night upon which I had learned of the existence of the wonderful and evil being born of that secret quickening which stirred in the womb of the yellow races.

Janus, January, and Mystery Science Theater 3000

You may be wondering how Janus, January and Mystery Science Theater 3000 are connected. And what or who is Janus, anyway? Join me, please, on this fascinating journey.

JANUS

In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of doorways, passageways, journeys, and new beginnings. He had two faces, one that looked into the past, and one that looked into the future. In terms of a doorway, he watched over either side of the door. The month of January is derived from the god Janus, as January marks the beginning of the new year.

BRYANT HOLIDAY
Bryant Holiday

Bryant Haliday was an American actor of no particular consequence and has largely been lost to history. His brief sojourn as a film actor was confined to horror movies, of which he had an abiding interest, produced by Richard Gordon. Two of these films were Devil Doll and The Projected Man–films that would also have been lost to history, because they were absolutely awful, had they not been mercilessly lambasted by the crew of the Satellite of Love: namely, Michael J. Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

JANUS FILMS
Janus Films

However, Bryant Haliday did co-found Janus Films, a film distribution company which was largely responsible for introducing the work of such great directors as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa to the West.

DEVIL DOLL
Devil Doll

Bryant Haliday “starred” in the movie Devil Doll as The Great Vorelli, an evil ventriloquist and hypnotist. The movie also “starred” William Sylvester, who played a minor role as Heywood Floyd in 2001: A Space Odyssey

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000
Devil Doll Riffed by MST3K

In the 8th season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Michael Nelson and the bots decided to riff Devil Doll, and now the circle of life is complete!