Observations and arguments.

Archive for March, 2005

My new favorite word


Included in a list of synonyms for “widget” in the oft-repurposed Moby Thesaurus, and for “thing” in Webster’s online dictionary, although no online dictionary I can find (including Webster’s) offers a word definition (or pronunciation guide).

Supplants my previous favorite word:


a synonym for “thing” which I know was made up.

No. Wait. I think it’s still hoojimer.


While we’re on the subject of language

I confess to be a frequent listener of NPR programming in general and Fresh Air with Terry Gross in particular. And while JD and I enjoy swapping impressions of John Powers, David Edelstein and Maureen Corrigan (three Fresh Air commentators with voices meant for print magazines) as much as the next overeducated liberal, I do experience an ambient rise in dander at the commentaries of “linguist” Geoffrey Nunberg.

I understand the surface appeal, and in fact the first handful of Nunberg’s pieces I heard did pique my interest. But I now believe it was the discipline of linguistics itself that engaged me—the questions it raises about meaning and culture embedded in a single word, or cluster of words, or interrogatory inflection. In America, especially, the intersection of polyglot cultures, mass media, and information technology has created the most rapidly evolving matrix of language known to humankind in its history.

But the title of Nunberg’s trade paperback compilation of his commentaries, The Way We Talk Now, turns out not to have been intended ironically.

In essay after essay (for radio or print), Nunberg identifies a word or turn of phrase that strikes his fancy (something he perhaps read in the NYT), dutifully performs a LexisNexis search to compile some empirical statistics, and adds a dash of cultural musings that don’t require him to have to turn on the radio or television, to leave his fancy study, to have reason to interact with or listen to anyone at all unlike himself. The vacuum from within which he writes embodies some of the worst tendencies of the proverbial Ivory Tower. Far from attempting to understand how We (i.e. Americans) Talk, Nunberg appears engaged in a study of how the professional writing class has changed the usage and meaning of certain words in its prose.

Not that those questions are useless—on the contrary, that kind of analysis is sure to spark conversations among those members of the professional writing class who enjoy the Fresh Air. My problem with Nunberg is that he omits the most interesting and dynamic zones of language in actual use, e.g.:

– hip hop
– blogs, message boards, newgroups, chat, text messaging
– business-speak
– dance and club culture
– vertical trade publications (ok, so harry shearer has that copyrighted)
– youth music/television programming
– entertainment news
– the health and death industries
– junior high
– talk radio
– evangelical christianity / jihadist islam
– the gilmore girls

With all these (and hundreds more) to choose from, Nunberg returns again and again to the words of GWB, or Dennis Hastert, or John Kerry. Powerful mostly white capitalist male oligarchs with Ivy League degrees.

Which, the incredible shrinking political lexicon is perhaps historically interesting not in how the meaning of “liberal” or “left” has changed, nor merely in the related takeover of political discourse by elements of the extreme right, but in the recent and radical schism between political language and any identifiable plane of reality.

Consider e.g. yesterday’s news:

“This is a complex case with serious issues but, in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is always wise to err on the side of life.” – GWB re: T. Schiavo.

This from a man (aka the Texas Butcher) unwilling to commute a single death penalty case during his tenure as governor, and insistent that we withdraw from the protocols in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that would give the International Court of Justice in the Hague jurisdiction to hear cases on foreign nationals sentenced to death in the U.S.

This was not an assertion of morality or principle, but rather what GWB does best: spouting gibberish from the pulpit to help ensure that the faithful continue to feel righteous and true.

GWB himself acknowledges he takes more meaning from body language than any words that someone speaks.

So why should we bother listening to his?

The most fascinating discussion of language I heard recently on Fresh Air was during Gross’s interview with the RZA (aka Bobby Digital aka Prince Rakeem), in which he worked to explicate his serial identities using language she and a public radio listening audience might understand. At times her questions came off as awkward, but it seems to me that part of what we learned from identity politics is that the intersection of interpersonal languages will always create a bit of a mess.

Commentaries on language in contemporary America should unsettle, confuse, anger, and offend us. They should leave us shaking our fists at the generation after us and giving the finger to the generation before. Even Safire knows that. He’s been shaking his fist (and generating hate mail) in the Sunday NYT for more than a quarter century, and he’s still making up new words (cf. March 20, 2005: “cloturekrieg.”).

But Nunberg. “Hmm…” is just not enough.

Style guide

So some people have questioned (in a wheedling, elder sibling kind of way) my seeming unwillingness to use certain www-slang while uncritically adopting others. What follows, is the first edition Spexious (previously: Mookless and Frail) style guide to language:

likely to appear

words and phrases i use in oral speech (e.g. “timesuck”)
excessive dashes and parentheses
sentence fragments
sentences that begin with a single word followed by a comma
words i have made up
words i think i may have made up but have in fact seen before
acronyms i have made up
decapitalization and depunctuation
“which” as an interjection
unflagged sarcasm
declarative voice to myself in the second person
parentheticals employing (with varying degrees of precision) the abbreviations e.g., i.e., and c.f.
aliases representing individuals not already famous or LJ users
multiple asterisks

unlikely to appear

parenthetical descriptions of my emotional state
established chat and www acronyms (e.g. OMG, LOL, RTFM, TMTOWTDI)
established blog and message board colloquialisms (e.g. “i tells ya”)
references to myself in the third person

Mostly because I don’t feel like I could credibly pull it off. My writing style feels deeply encrusted by my early years on the manual smith corona. Perhaps though I’ll try on a few of the acronyms as I go. More likely (see above) I’ll make up my own.

may appear when i’m not paying attention

“and but so”
verbal attacks on the president

The dashes, parentheses, asterisks, and commas are of course influenced heavily by the woeful fragmentation of language foisted on us by DF Wallace, D Eggers, M D’Angelo, et. al. Which, don’t hate me because I’m derivative.

Hate me because I’m privileged and arrogant and because I’ve never been much good at returning calls.

Self-diagnosis via the WWW

Not much of a fan of self-diagnosis of illnesses using the internet. I am not prone to fantasizing about worst-case scenarios nor, frankly, do I have the patience. (Even when I’m feeling healthy.)

JD can sometimes search the web compulsively (though not maniacally) for health articles, especially now that we have The Boy and his daily infusion of germs (cf. daycare). The seemingly endless string of colds and ear infections he endured this winter (it seems as though his nose was running from November straight through February) can be followed by poring back through our Safari history over the same period.

However a tip from a coworker did steer JD to the following possible explanation of the mysterious ailment she and I have been hit with this past week:

Epidemic benign dry pleurisy

Which form of pleurisy is much milder than those described at the first several sites JD visited (forms associated, e.g., with lupus). This explanation includes the sharp, stabbing pains in the rib cage (although it does not explain the additional wheezing that is currently keeping me awake) and offers soiled diapers (which we handle frequently) as a common transmission zone.

Less confidence-building is the choice by the website‘s owners (Aetna and Harvard Medical School) to spell “InteliHealth” with a single “l”.

I suppose that now if I go into my doctor and ask whether I’ve got epidemic benign dry pleurisy she will have me removed from her patient rolls.

But then again if that’s what I’ve got there’s not a damn thing she can do to help me. Not even if it devolves into viral meningitis.

At least, that’s what the internet appears to tell me.

Getting Dinner Done

Piling upon a friend’s kind suggestions to help make meal planning easier in a comment to a previous post, I’d like to offer what was once for us (and can be again) a nearly leakproof meal planning system for which everyone should pay me* money it is so brilliant.

So JD and I were bemoaning the time- and energy-suck of the post-work decision re: what’s for dinner, given the available ingredients previously purchased at the farmer’s and/or super market. Which emotional toll only increased as JD’s pregnancy evolved.

Wouldn’t it be great, JD supposed, if someone could just tell you what to make for dinner?

A simple enough solution presented itself: actually planning each meal in advance, so that when one came home, the evening’s meal had already been decided upon, and all the ingredients were on hand.

As it turned out, this gambit merely moved the despair earlier in the timeline—to the moment of shopping. Standing in the store with a fresh bunch of e.g. asparagus one is now faced with the decision: roasted as accompaniment for chicken? pan fried asian-style? omelette? or–wait, there was a new asparagus recipe in Cook’s Illustrated that I wanted to try but I don’t remember what it was so I don’t know what ingredients to get.

Moving the point of decision backwards still to the preparation of the shopping list was the next logical step. Three hours of poring through cookbooks later JD realized we did not have the time to repeat this process each week. There had to be a better way.

(JD had done most–that is to say: all–of the legwork to reach this point where the Good Idea occurred. My role was merely to affirm that it was, in fact, a Good Idea.)

Which brings us at last to:

a stress-decreasing meal planning system
for busy people of sufficient means
to be able to choose the food they eat

1. Create a rotating list of food genres
2. For each day in which you intend to make dinner in the coming week, plan a meal within the next genre on the list. New day, new genre.
3. Shop and cook accordingly.

1. Creating your genres

Let’s begin with our initial genre list as an example (yours will vary based on taste and skill):

– meat –
– leftovers –
– mexican –
– eggs/breakfast –
– fish –
– foraging –
– soup/casserole –
– italian –
– sandwiches –
– asian –
– wild card –

In our language, leftovers meant a new dish based upon the meat cooked the night before. (Extra helpings were brought to work as lunch and/or frozen.) Foraging meant looking simply at what’s around. Often this meant yogurt, cereal, or Morningstar Farms corn dogs. Wild card was anything goes: a repeat of another genre, an otherwise absent genre, foraging or takeout.

It is important that the number of genres you create is not evenly divisible by the number of days per week you will make dinner. For most people that’s seven; for some with standing weekly commitments it could be five or six. (So long as “Meat” doesn’t always fall on a Tuesday, you’re good.) Extra wild card and foraging nights are good tools to help make the math come out right.

Do not fret about whether you have developed an exhaustive, properly ordered list right out of the gate. You will likely revisit the list after two or three rotations and make adjustments.

And, to make the rearranging process easier, you can keep your list as a small stack of index cards, with one genre per card (also not my idea).

2. Planning your meals

Prior to your shopping trip, sit down with your index cards and identify which genre will fall on which day of the coming week. Then brainstorm a meal for that night based within that genre.

The beauty of the system is its ability to adapt to the needs of a particular night and your ambition on any particular week.

So, for example, soup/casserole on a Tuesday might mean thawing a frozen soup from the market’s deli, but on a Sunday with an open afternoon soup/casserole might mean one of those crazy lasagnas you’ve always wanted to try out of the Moosewood Cookbook.

Similarly, meat on a Tuesday might mean a steak fried in a skillet with salt and pepper, but on a lazy weekend might mean a two-day cassoulet.

Some users of the system write meal ideas on the index cards for each genre, so that in future weeks when feeling uninspired they have a handy list of meal ideas at the ready.

3. Shopping and cooking accordingly

Now you can be one of those people who arrives at the market with an actual list of ingredients for a pre-planned menu for the week. And one of those people who remembers to get up ten minutes early to prep your slow-cooker meal before heading out the door, because each day you know what’s on for dinner.


Wait, why should I adopt this system?
Because the cards help narrow the choice of “What’s for dinner three days from now?” from a limitless** set of possibilities to a small set of possibilities, using at least two vectors: genre and day of week. Seasonally available ingredients can help create a third vector, making the decision even easier. As any management self-help book will tell you, the fewer options to choose from, the simpler (and therefore less stressful) the decision.

You will experience less decision-making stress at the market, because you will know what you are shopping for. That also means spending less money on impulse purchases, which means less food that you purchase will go to waste. You will also experience a decrease in stress on your commute home from work, because someone (you, in the past) has already decided what’s for dinner, and has already shopped for all the ingredients you need. You can focus simply on the action steps required to prepare it once you arrive.

Doesn’t this system kill the spontaneity of discovery at the farmer’s market?
Only if you let it. Bring your index cards or meal calendar with you to the farmer’s market, and make your meal decisions based on a confluence of produce and genre. Will you adapt that eggplant into a casserole or grill it with some fish? Also, if you don’t feel like making a Mexican dish out of spaghetti squash, skip Mexican and change the day to wild card.

So if the card says “Asian” and I don’t want to make Asian this week, can I skip it?
Um. Who’s in charge, the index card or you? If it happens a lot you could consider removing Asian from standard rotation and leaving the option of Asian for Wild Card nights.

Can I use repeating events in Outlook or iCal (etc.) to determine what genres fall on what days?
Knock yourself out. The index cards are hard to beat. Your digital-based calendar is quite useful for recording your meal decisions once you’ve made them, so that while you’re at work you can confirm that tonight you need to stop at the store on the way home to get lemons.

For Getting Things Done nerds there is also the option of keeping a tickler file box of recipes coded to your genres. This works similarly to the idea (mentioned above) of writing recipe ideas on each index card, but allows for future recipes you’ve never made before. Want to make that Marcella Hazan fricasseed chicken someday? Drop a copy of the recipe in your “Poultry” or “Italian” folder (or both) and you’ll be reminded next time you’re looking for inspiration.

*Even though, admittedly, it was not my idea to begin with.
**Fine, yes, mr. or ms. smarty pants, there are limits.

Best intentions: farmer’s market

The frequency with which I imagined I would take The Boy to the farmer’s market very nearly equals the frequency with which I instead spend my Saturday mornings lying sleepy-eyed and motionless on the floor as The Boy shakes a plush duck in my face.

Timesucks, additional

going on four days of home ownership
the flu
sleeping during the day (see “the flu,” above)
extreme makeover: home edition double episodes
deciding what to eat
acquiring and making what to eat
deciding (etc.) what to feed The Boy
and sometimes The Boy takes, just, way too long to eat