Monthly Archives: December 2011

Thank you in advance for leaving a comment

Is the baby bump merely a fashion accessory?Lake Superior State University’s List of Banished Words is out a bit early, so we can all slip into 2012 imagining a world where these overused words and phrases are scarcely spoken:

Amazing.

Baby bump.

Shared sacrifice.

Occupy.

Blowback.

Man cave.

The new normal.

Pet parent.

Win the future.

Trickeration.

Ginormous.

Thank you in advance.

Maybe because of the worlds I inhabit, I’ve never heard of trickeration (from football) and pet parent. And I hadn’t realized how omnipresent amazing has become — “Many nominators mentioned [amazing’s] over-use on television when they sent their entries,” according to the LSSU webpage, “mentioning ‘reality’ TV, Martha Stewart and Anderson Cooper. It seemed to bother people everywhere, as nominations were sent from around the U.S. and Canada and some from overseas, including Israel, England and Scotland.

“Every talk show uses this word at least two times every five minutes. Hair is not ‘amazing.’ Shoes are not ‘amazing,'” Martha Waszak wrote to LSSU.

“The word has been overused to describe things only slightly better than mundane,” wrote Alyce-Mae Alexander. “I blame Martha Stewart because to her, EVERYTHING is amazing! It has lost its ‘wow factor’ and has reached ‘epic’ proportions of use. It’s gone ‘viral,’ I say! ‘I’m just sayin’!’

The outrage has grown to the point where there is now a Facebook page called “Overuse of the word ‘Amazing.’ ”

I was part of an online discussion yesterday with a guy who felt the Banished Word List is the product of an elite professoriate trying to police the speech of regular people. My impression is that nominations to the list are made by regular people, and that far from being attempts to muzzle free speech and free thought, nominations and comments are made in a lighthearted spirit. We all use at least some of these cliches. The List of Banished Words helps us hear ourselves talk, and decide whether there will be blowback, or just a response; whether we want to make another Occupy Wall Street reference, or come up with a new way to be clever; and if something is really, truly, undeniably amazing.

I wrote about last year’s list here. And I offered my own list here in 2009.

And, as they say in Public Radio Land, you’re invited to join the conversation.  (I’ll take my response off the air.)

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Top 9 books of 2011

Top 9 Books of 2011Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.

So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.

Non Fiction

City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world.  The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:

“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.

Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader.  After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)

“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.

“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ ”

The First Tycoon,  by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks.  His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.

Secret Historian,  by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of  the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.

Fiction

History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996)  On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.

House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year.  An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of  ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.

That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…

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‘Cartoon dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.’

Comic Sans was created to give Microsoft Bob a cartoon voiceI seem to remember that one definition of a weed is a flower you don’t like and which grows uncontrollably. I realized the font called Comic Sans was a weed after seeing this video a few years ago in which designer Vincent Connare tells how he created the font to mimic the lettering in comic strips.

Looking over the brand new Microsoft Bob, Connare realized that “cartoon dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.” And Comic Sans was born as a remedy.

Suddenly I was noticing Comic Sans everywhere. In newsletters. On flyers. In emails and YouTube videos. People turn to it as they turn to any cliche. Using Comic Sans indiscriminately this way is tacky, like a bad hairpiece.

Comic Sans is as hated as anything ubiquitous could be — see here and here. The Onion has had its say on the Comic Sans hilarity factor. And this parody shows Hitler’s reaction to Comic Sans.

Now comes “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” which Lori Rice, who knows more fonts than anybody I know, has brought to my attention.  Written by Mike Lacher and published in McSweeney’s, the piece is a rant from a font on steroids. It aims to put some muscle behind Comic Sans’s runaway popularity.

But that’s just part of the joke. Comic Sans was created to be a touch of whimsy in the garden. The people who use it as their serious default font are just blowing dandelion seeds around.

One cliche upon another is tacky, tacky, tacky.

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