Today’s word: epigone

epigone: Generally a follower or disciple, but usually used to indicate an inferior successor.

At first blush you might want it to follow the pronunciation pattern established by epitome or Antigone, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t even rhyme with gone. It rhymes instead with loan, so that the phrase “Ed disowns epigones” has a nice little rhyme to it.
The Republican party, from my liberal point of view, is beset (perhaps overrun) with the epigones of Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand, both of whom I can find reason to praise, but neither of whom I would vote for.

I ran across this little gem today in a book, originally published in 1973, by Richard Kostelanetz called The End of Intelligent Writing. I found the book on the “Pay What You Can” cart at IndyReads Books and just couldn’t pass up a title like that.

On page 11, in a discussion about so-called Southern (American) writers in the first half of the 20th century, you’ll find this pronouncement:

In the early fifties emerged even younger Southern epigones, all born between 1914 and 1930, who were eager to do various kinds of academic-historical sweeping . . . most of whom, unlike their cultural daddies, remained in Southern universities, some of whom devoted whole books to themes and subjects their precursors treated only in essays. They were the grandchildren, so to speak, in a literary family whose father figure, [ss] Ransom, was privately called “Pappy.”

Kostelanetz isn’t very laudatory toward the Southern writers or their literary offspring. Or really any “school” of writing that attaches itself to a minority. Or to New York.

And I’m only to page 70.

I might write more about this book later, if I ever stop gnashing my teeth long enough to finish it. Kostelanetz is pissing me off a little. He writes with the smugness that only comes with overconfidence, decorated with a large vocabulary (words like epigone, which appears again a couple dozen pages later) to veil his personal griefs and unsupported accusations behind professorial haughtiness.

Then again, I’m wound pretty tight these days, so I piss off easily.

If Richard Kostelanetz is still alive (I haven’t looked yet), I want to ask him if he still believes everything he wrote here.

And, on another note, while I was reading I found myself wondering whether David Foster Wallace had read this book. I think he would’ve liked it.

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Broccoli, Caesar, and Sex

The following autobiographical essay is completely true.

Well, okay, it’s mostly true.

Tru-ish.

Something like this almost happened to I guy I knew.

Broccoli, Caesar, and Sex

Many of us have clear memories of the first time we tried, say, sushi. Or Key lime pie. Or haggis. But these are the exceptions to the rule. Normally, one’s taste in food changes slowly, like the hands of a Swiss-made watch.

When we’re young, for example, the only acceptable condiment for a hot dog is ketchup. Then, sometime in our early teens, our palate starts to accept yellow mustard. Then onions. Then pickle relish. Until, by the our mid-twenties, hot dogs just aren’t enough anymore, and we find ourselves topping home-grilled bratwurst with spicy brown mustard and heaps of sauerkraut. Or jalapeños.

Or, that one time in Las Vegas, pastrami.

At least, that was my experience. The switch from plain old ketchupped hot dogs to steaming loaded German sausages happened slowly and imperceptibly. And that’s how I think it is with developing a taste for most foods, from Japanese potstickers to Polish pierogies.

But occasionally, one adds a food to one’s culinary repertoire suddenly and forcefully. Take, for example, the story of how Caesar salad and broccoli entered my gustatory field of vision:

I had successfully spent two decades hating both broccoli and salad — salad in general, much less some ancient Roman version — before I made the switch, and that switch came, as monumental shifts in a man’s personality often do, because of a woman.

Let’s call her Elsa.

When I first met Elsa, I was a 20-year-old college student passing the summer before my junior year in a ramshackle house on the edge of campus. She was a 23-year-old senior who looked like a TV star — which is similar to looking like a movie star, but without all the glamour and ego. She was a friend of one of my housemates, and stopped by often to go bar hopping, complain about summer classes, or smoke weed. Sometimes all three.

We fell into a romantic relationship the way a 10-year-old boy who’s afraid of the water falls into a swimming pool after being pushed by his older, meaner brother. She was smart, confident and beautiful; I was introverted, lonely, and aimless. I was smitten and enthralled, and she was gentle and understanding. I was willing putty in her hands. It was the perfect recipe for a wonderful, if short-lived, relationship.

As new couples are wont to do, we enjoyed doing things for one another. I wrote her a poem, for example, and she bought us a bottle of cheap vodka. She stayed with me when I dropped acid, and I helped her fold her laundry.

One night, she decided she wanted to prepare us a romantic, home-cooked dinner. Something from scratch. She asked me what kind of foods I liked.

“I’m not picky,” I told her.

It was the truth, or what I thought was the truth. I wouldn’t recognize until much later, after I had eaten my way through larger regions of the world’s culinary landscape, how small my palate really was back then.

But at the time, I loved food and I loved her and so the thought of turning her down never even entered my mind. The possibility that she could be a horrible cook — that I might find a plate of unidentifiable lumps of meat smothered in gravy the color of wet newspaper — had crossed my mind, but the promise of a “dessert” that most surely waited for me sometime after we finished the ice cream gave me the resolve to eat whatever monstrosity she put in front of me.

Or so I hoped.

The evening of the dinner came, an overcast but dry Saturday. She had already begun preparing the meal when I knocked on her door. She refused my help in the kitchen but asked me to light the romantic candles and pop open the bottle of red wine that I didn’t know from vinegar. I asked her what wonderful meal she was preparing for us, and she said our romantic dinner would begin with a Caesar salad.

I had never tried Caesar salad before and knew only a few things about it. I knew it used a different kind of lettuce than the nutrition-free iceberg lettuce I was used to. I knew it used a special, creamy kind of dressing, which was worrisome to me. Whenever I ate salad, which was as seldom as possible, I preferred an oil-based dressing.

I had to find out what I was getting myself into. So while Elsa made her final preparations, I surreptitiously peeked at the ingredients on that evil green bottle of semen-colored dressing that threatened to defile my salad.

Its main ingredient, I discovered, was something called anchovy paste.

My stomach shrank three sizes.

I hated seafood back then, and anchovies were the worst. I had never actually eaten any before, but they had always been there as that “joke” ingredient adults threatened to ruin an otherwise perfect pepperoni pizza with.

And paste? I had heard tales of children — intellectually slow ones, mostly — eating paste, but I had never done it. And I certainly never expected it to be a part of adult cuisine.

Nonetheless, I resolved that I would power through this meal. The possible reward was too great to back out.

I took my place at the table. Elsa swooped in and placed two bowls of Caesar salad on the table. Then she sat down across from me, poured herself a glass of wine, and smiled.

At that moment, I recognized the salad for what it was — not a moderately healthy and delicious appetizer, but a test of my devotion to her. I was Orpheus, she was Eurydice. If I managed without looking back to keep down the weird, crunchy lettuce, the hard croutons that tried with every bite to shred my gums, and, most importantly, the fishy glue that held it all together, happiness waited for Elsa and me on the other side.

So, without complaint or hesitation, I pushed the first forkful of fresh Hell into my mouth and chewed.

What you and I know now is that Caesar salad is neither disgusting nor named for a famous Roman murder victim. The salad’s creator was the eponymous Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who, legend has it, faced an ingredient shortage at his restaurant and created the salad on the fly with what he had on hand. This was sometime in the mid-1920s, when restaurants never ran out of anchovies because, as today, nobody ever actually ate them.

I learned both those things over salad that night.

After the salad came the main course: Chicken breast, plainly prepared; homemade mashed potatoes with fresh thyme pulled from her herb garden; and steamed broccoli.

My trial, it seemed, was not over.

Chicken breast and mashed potatoes I could eat all day every day, but broccoli? Steamed broccoli?

Throughout my life, broccoli had been little more than “those little green trees” that I did not eat. I grew up not liking broccoli in a family that didn’t like broccoli. In twenty years of living, never had I knowingly ordered a restaurant meal that had broccoli in it, on it, or with it. Never had I faced a mound of those foul things on a dinner plate. Never had I been forced to sit at the kitchen table until every last crunchy branch of broccoli, warm or cold, was eaten — a tactic I have heard some parents use on their children.

I hated broccoli.

And this was steamed, which meant it was not fully cooked. What few vegetables I had grown up with had begun life in plastic bags we kept in the freezer, and by the time they reached my plate, they were tasteless green things the consistency of a damp sponge.

My childhood, it seems, had left me with a skewed view of what vegetables really are. But I didn’t know that when I was faced with a healthy serving of Elsa’s crunchy little trees that, unfortunately, had slid far enough to one side of the plate to mix with the mashed potatoes.

I wondered if she would believe that I had stuffed myself with too much Caesar salad to eat any more. I looked around for a dog I could surreptitiously feed my broccoli to under the table, but he had been relegated to the backyard. I was trapped.

Elsa dug right into the flora on her plate. Every glance in my direction was fraught with expectation, always on the verge of disappointment or offense. That’s how it looked to me, anyway, as I enjoyed the dry chicken and buttery mashed potatoes as if they were the only foods in front of me.

What we talked about I don’t remember, but it was distinctly not about my untouched broccoli, looking ever more obvious as its neighbors disappeared by the forkful down my throat. She adamantly avoided mentioning my broccoli. Each non-mention of the broccoli was passive-aggressive paralipsis aimed at reminding me that I wasn’t eating my broccoli. She was relentless about not talking about my broccoli.

Eventually, just to stop her nagging, I speared one (just a little one) with a fork and lifted it to my lips.

It was uncomfortably crunchy, and it needed salt. Not a whole pillar of it, mind you, but a dash to make it more edible. She ceased her incessant deflecting, then, and asked me how it was.

“It’s good,” I lied.

It would take a few more broccoli side dishes over the course of months before I developed a true taste for it, but today it stands as one of my least-hated vegetables.

We men will do strange things both for women and because of them. Sometimes they’re positive experiences, like eating one’s vegetables, writing a sonnet, or learning Esperanto. But all too often they’re horrible decisions that don’t reveal their true ghastliness until years have passed and we can read the situation with more clarity and objectivity. By then it’s too late, of course.

Eating common vegetables certainly isn’t the most outlandish thing I’ve done in hopes of winning a woman’s attention. In fact, it’s probably one of the least embarrassing. Nothing close to my first time eating sushi.


Your turn: What improvement have you made in your life that might never have happened if you weren’t trying to impress someone else?
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Today’s word: sororal

I took a few moments to click through the chronological navigation over on the right side of the screen the other day and realized that, even before my precious laptop was stolen, I had really been slacking off on this blog. I’ll try to do better. (But, again, it would be much easier with a new laptop.)

So here’s a little tidbit for the weekend, and I’ll have a new story for you on Monday. Promise.

Today’s word: sororal


This tops the list of “Words That Make You Sound Like Scooby-Doo,” but it’s also rather useful. It might be used in the place of the word sisterly.

As fraternal is to fraternity, so sororal is to sorority. Though with a pronunciation like “sore-oral,” it’s front-loaded for making fellatio jokes that will get a guy slapped. Even Scooby-Doo. Consider that your “how not to use the word” lesson for the day.

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Update on the Stolen Laptop

The laptop is still stolen.

I’ve given up on ever seeing it — or the data it contains — ever again. In the meantime, I have a decrepit Windows XP desktop computer available for a number of minor tasks.

I don’t know whether the OS is missing important files or the computer is infected with viruses or if this is just how computers were in 2005. Along the line of viruses, if we’re going to use metaphorical sicknesses to describe a computer’s behavior, I think mine has the digital equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease. Ask it to do something, and it takes time to mull it over first — you can hear the hard drive working away — and even then it might not do what you told it to. There’s no guarantee that files you opened or websites you visited yesterday will readable today. Once, the computer decided to go into standby mode while I was typing.

Why, just now, working in MS Word and knowing that a system crash could happen at any moment, I pressed Ctrl+S and was treated to a dialog box letting me know that the “Places bar” was being initialized. I’ve worked in Word for almost as long as it has existed, and I have never heard of a Places bar.

After two minutes of waiting, the Save As dialog box finally opened. Two minutes after that, I had managed to navigate to a folder on my desktop. Three minutes after that, the file finally finished saving (though it’s still labeled as “Document 1” on the task bar).

That’s no exaggeration. It took me seven minutes to save a file.

It’s maddening. So I generally avoid it.

I’ve been doing a lot of longhand writing, which takes twice as long as typing and leads to hand pain twice as fast. Even when I’m home, I prefer the immediacy of writing to the interminable, inexplicable waiting of using the desktop. And if I want to write on the go, my options are severely limited.

So I’ve given up on getting my laptop back, but I haven’t given up on writing. In fact, I have three blog posts (two stories and an essay) very nearly ready to post, just as soon as I transcribe them from page to screen. If this computer will let me.

If I hadn’t been unexpectedly fired at the beginning of the summer, I might have already replaced the laptop, and you wouldn’t be reading this particular gripe right now. But as it is, I’ve already been putting off paying some of my regular bills to keep from overdrawing my checking account. Until I get a few paychecks from my new job into my account, my disposable income is nil.

The purpose of all these true, heart-breaking facts is to build up a sense of pity and desperation, but also of hope. And here’s why: I’ve launched a FundAnything campaign to try to crowdsource the purchase of a new laptop for yours truly. My goal is relatively small: $500, just what I need to cover a decent laptop, a copy of MS Office Student and Home, and the fees associated with FundAnything and PayPal.

I offer my writing and editing talents as rewards for donors, and you should feel free to offer up any ideas for other rewards you might pay me to perform. Check it out at http://fundanything.com/en/campaigns/help-the-words-flow-again and consider helping me out of this madness, won’t you?

For the record, yes, it does feel awkward asking for money for something so selfish, sandwiched in there among people trying to pay medical bills, save wounded animals, or fight patent trolls. But will I let a little awkwardness stop me? Like my Facebook banner image says, I put the “wkwa” in “awkward.”*

Consider this both an experiment in crowdfunding and an opportunity to restore my faith in humankind.

Just for fun, here’s the video I made for the campaign. Notice its low quality. This is the direct result of filming with a tablet that records only in mp4 format and then trying to piece the video together in some old software that won’t read mp4s without purchasing a new add-on.

*I totally stole “I put the wkwa in awkward” from someone, though I don’t remember who.

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There Were Trees

I remember there were trees,
And shadows
And the smell of wet grass
And tiny ripe berries
That my Mom said were poisonous,
So that I wouldn’t eat them.
And a rusted swing.

Back then
It was easy to catch up to myself,
Because I always was.

But now
I must try
To be who I am.

It’s easy to give thanks
When it does happen …
When my God cups me in his hand.

This Time

A child sat alone,
As he had done
A hundred times before.

But this time …
This time. His God tends to him
And tips His decanter
To his lips
And lines of wine
Dribble without cause.
Don’t deliberate,
Catch them all with your tongue, my child.

Each drop is precious gold,
Pearls from a mindful steward.

To a Thief

Among some of the worst things that can happen to a writer has to be the theft of a computer. I, unfortunately, was the victim of such a theft on Monday.

Later, I may write about the emotional impact of having my laptop stolen, how I had taken my hard drive space for granted, and how I feel like an utter moron for not having established a backup routine for my data. That may come later.

It occurred to me this morning, though, that the laptop lid bore a rather large sticker advertising this very blog, and that the thief might in fact decide to come visit in order to revel in some anonymous fame, paradoxical though the concept is.

So this morning, I address this blog post to the person who made off with my laptop from the library a little before 2:00 on Monday.

Keep the laptop. The hardware means nothing to me. A glorified typewriter is all it really is.

But the data on that computer is irreplaceable. I’m a writer, and the literally hundreds of thousands of words held in hundreds of files on that hard drive represent not only my past but my future. It holds, among other things, almost 40,000 words of one unfinished novel as well as sketches and outlines and preliminary scenes of four or five other possible novels. It holds short stories, essays, and blog posts both finished and unfinished. It holds my life’s work.

Those words are very important to me.

So please, person who took my laptop, if you have any decency in you, and if you haven’t wiped it clean yet, please pop out the computer’s hard drive and drop it into the book return slot at the library where you found the computer. You can get an inexpensive hard drive online or at Best Buy or somewhere and still have a decent laptop for super-cheap to use for whatever you want, and I will have the product of hundreds of hours of creative work returned to me.

Please, just the hard drive. The rest is yours.

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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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