The Thing About Spelling

Some people equate spelling with morality. Good spellers, good people. The sheeps and goats in the New Testament? Good and bad spellers. Spelling’s importance is a topic capable of producing more heat than Adrian Peterson’s parenting, Scottish independence, and Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Parents worry incessantly that their children are destined to always be poor spellers. What kind of lives will they live? Will people whisper about us? Heaven help children with dyslexia.

This week the New York Times ran this lead front and center on their website, “A geneticist wins a prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation award and uses the spotlight to all for much wider genetic screening for breast and ovarian cancer.” Technically that’s a typo, but the Spelling Police don’t distinguish. The Spelling Police LOVE reading things like that. It gives them a purpose for being. And makes them feel superior. “Know that I am among those that can spell.” They despise any variance from what they deem to be “writing conventions”. Like when people start sentences with “And”.

Before determining if spelling is a life or death matter, we have to distinguish between drafts and final copies. Most of what we write and read, like electronic messages, are drafts. In fact, where does the constantly updating front page of the New York Times fall on that continuum? Irregardless, many would read that lead and think less of The Grey Lady. I would too if it happened with any regularity, but it doesn’t. Doesn’t matter, short of perfection, the Spelling Police pounce. If only they’d save their righteous indignation for final drafts.

Like teachers’ letters to parents. Nothing gets the Spelling Police more fired up than teachers’ letters to parents. Full. Riot. Gear. Misspell a word, lose your life right to teach my child ever again.

I’m not advocating for laissez faire (damn, got that right on the first try) creative spelling. Instead of seeing every spelling error as an opportunity to assert their spelling prowess, maybe the Spelling Police could take a second or two to consider whether the error is part of a larger pattern or not. If not, maybe you could try the impossible. Letting that one error on the third grade paper go, or the one in the newspaper, or heaven help us, the one in the parent letter.

Sometimes, okay, a lot of the times, I amaze myself—fore hundred and six words and not a single mispelling.

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

The 5 Most Important Things You’ll Read All Week

1) Have you noticed? Increasingly, bloggers are inserting numbers into post titles to increase readership and improve search engine rankings. “5” has replaced “3” for most popular number. “17” is trendy too. I don’t know why numbers increase readership and improve search engine rankings. I find it disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. As if all anyone can process anymore is a list. My one-time use of it here is sarcasm. I should start a movement. . . force a number into your title and we’ll refuse to read what follows. Who is in?

2) Imagine a world in which everyone reads and discusses books with people different than them. My favorite story from last week.

3) The Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball when it comes to this.

4) Is this a trend. . . dad’s helping grown daughters who aren’t necessarily interested in their help? I’ve never offered unsolicited advice to my daughters. . . that’s an additional serving of sarcasm. One of my daughters’ friends laughed at her dad for sending her an article on “How to save and invest money”. Another “couldn’t believe” her dad mailed her bicycle to her at college, then assembled it during a visit. The “extremely large” bike box was difficult and embarrassing to pick up at the mail room. The two wheeler was used one or two times during the school year. This isn’t limited to dad’s and daughters. Parents often presume their young adult children want to save money, invest wisely, prepare healthy meals, bicycle, etc., etc. Maybe I should start a movement where parents let their young adult children know they’re interested in sharing different “lessons learned” if and when they’re interested. And then we’ll sit back and wait for our young adult children to ask us for help.

5) I’m filing this under “Sometimes I Amaze Myself”. I’ve done it again, I’ve come up with a brilliant idea. This one will enable me to extend my triathlon career for many more years. Based upon my swimming, cycling, and running training log, I have a very good feel for how fast I can swim 1500 or 1900 meters, how fast I can ride 40k or 56 miles, and how fast I can run 10k or 13.1 miles. That means all I have to do is guess how bad my transitions would likely be, and presto, I can spend a few minutes on-line on Mondays to see what place I would’ve finished had I actually shown up at that weekend’s races. This way I save tons of coin and race every weekend without swimming through seaweed or increasing my exposure to the sun. I “won” my age group at a few recent races.

 

What Great Communicators Do

Great communicators eschew vague generalities for specific details. It’s easier to find examples of muddled writing and speaking weighted down with vague generalities than the opposite.

Recently, for example, a New York congressman was asked why he is sponsoring a bill to arm Syrian rebels. “Because,” he said, “doing nothing is a worse option and the United States has to stand for something.” When we use “thing” and its variations, “things”, “something”, “everything”, “anything”, our readers and listeners are stuck playing a maddening and distracting guessing game, wondering exactly what we may have been thinking.

• The United States has to stand for the rights of people anywhere in the world to resist authoritarianism?

• The United States has to stand for commerce anywhere in the world, including arms sales?

• The United States has to stand for any and all approaches of ridding the Middle East of Assad?

Another case in point. A school district curriculum director attempts to explain the Common Core (four minutes long, start at 1:49), but succumbs to vague generalities. She uses the term “content” repeatedly, and “topic”, and “rigor”, and “depth”, but never refers to a specific classroom lesson; consequently, her presentation left me more confused than beforehand. I got excited and perked up at the 1:49 point when she said, “For example in math. . .”, but alas, she continued to torture me with vague references to “content”, “topics”, “content”, “rigor”, “content”, “depth”, “content”.

I would buy her a roundtrip ticket to Hawaii if she would just say, “For example, now when fourth grade teachers teach fractions. . .” or  “For example, now when sixth grade math teachers teach ratios. . .” It’s like craving fruits and vegetables and having to settle for a grilled cheese sandwich on Wonderbread.

Contrast those negative examples with these positive ones. Last week’s George Packer excerpt, which I used to highlight the way he engages readers through unpredictably short, medium, and long sentences, is equally noteworthy for it’s wonderful specificity. Here again is Packer’s nutritious opening sentence:

Amazon is a global superstore, like Walmart. It’s also a hardware manufacturer, like Apple, and a utility, like Con Edison, and a video distributor, like Netflix, and a book publisher, like Random House, and a production studio, like Paramount, and a literary magazine, like The Paris Review, and a grocery deliverer, like FreshDirect, and someday it might be a package service, like U.P.S.

Our congressman and curriculum director might have written, “Amazon is selling everything and getting really big.” Packer takes the time, no doubt through multiple revisions, to explain Amazon’s reach through specific references that even someone like me can easily grasp:

. . . like Walmart, like Apple, like Con Edison, like Netfilix, like Random House, like Paramount, like the Paris Review, like Fresh Direct, like U.P.S.

Your reward, George, is in heaven.

Granted, the writer always has the advantage over the speaker because she can “put every word on trial” over and over. But through repeated practice, we can “think forward”, developing a mental teleprompter of sorts, and learn to speak more clearly by illustrating abstract concepts and insights with specific details.

Consider, Kenny “The Jet” Smith on last week’s edition of the NBA’s brilliant “Inside the NBA”. I dig that show so much sometimes I tape it for the next morning’s indoor cycling session, never the game that precedes it though. It’s worth deconstructing for several reasons, but last week The Jet decided to help out the humble blog with this rumination on the San Antonio Spurs continued success:

It’s the ultimate view of trust. They just trust. That I’m gonna sprint back. If the play on defense is to send the guy baseline, I’m just gonna trust that someone is going to be there. If I run the lane, I trust that I’m gonna get it. If I set the pick. . . If I dribble up the court and I’m Tony Parker I trust that the guy is coming open. It’s the ultimate viewing of what trust in basketball is all about.

The concept of “trust” is about as abstract as they come, but he explained it with repeated, specific examples that made it easy to grasp.

Follow in George’s and The Jet’s footsteps. Your audiences will thank you.

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Thank You

Most bloggers, like most people, are motivated by social status and wealth. I get contacted all the time by bloggers who want to teach me how to monetize my blog in three easy steps.

I write because we are social beings and writing is one especially beautiful way to deepen relationships and create lasting community. Like the wannabe Stoic that I am, I try to write twice a week immune to the humble blog’s statistics. But I’m only partially successful. I like peeking at the changing number of visitors  and where all over the world readers live. Truth be told, even worse, my blogging enthusiasm ebbs and flows in part based on the vagaries of your reading preferences.

Thank you for visiting this calendar year. I wish it didn’t matter, but it does. Thanks to everyone that took time to comment through the year. And thanks to Don for being my editor extraordinaire. And most importantly, thanks to everyone who is able to tell me in person that they have read a recent post. That’s the most positive encouragement I receive. It’s one thing to look at a bar graph with “page views”, it’s a whole different thing to see individuals behind the numbers. I wish my motivation was completely intrinsic, but I imagine that will remain an elusive ideal. Your participation matters, so thank you.

My goal for 2014 is to stay the course, by which I mean share insights about families, schools, and communities that illuminate and inspire. I hope you achieve whatever is most important to you and yours in 2014.

I was going to recreate this vid, but I couldn’t find a tutu that would fit or a white horse. God bless the carnies.

Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

Minimize End-of-Life Regrets

Writing faculty at my university get to choose their own seminar themes. When I chose “The Art of Living” for my first year writing seminar a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Was I crazy to think that eighteen and nineteen year olds might find Epicurus, Seneca, and Stoicism almost as interesting as me?

I knew very few of their K-12 teachers had asked them to think about what they most want out of life. And psychologists say they have a sense of immortality. Why bother with how to live if you’re going to live forever?

One month in, I’m happy to report, they’re actively engaging with the reading material (primarily William Irvine’s The Guide to the Good Life and Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox) and one another. I love how comfortable they are disagreeing with our authors and one another. My greatest challenge is staying out of their way.

Some have experienced loss—one’s mother died a few years ago from breast cancer, another’s from a heart attack, and still another travelled to Winnipeg last week to attend her aunt’s funeral.

The first unit was on “philosophies of life”. More specifically, I asked the students to agree or disagree with Irvine’s thesis that to avoid major end-of-life regrets, everyone needs to have a grand goal of living and specific strategies to achieve the goal. Irvine argues most people have regrets at the end of their life because their primary pursuits—wealth, social status, and pleasure—are in the end, unfulfilling. His grand goal of living is to maximize tranquility and joy by reviving Stoicism for the modern era. Few people experience much tranquility, Irvine argues, because materialism, social status, and pleasure conspire against it.

The larger question we’ve grappled with is how intentional should we be in our day-to-day lives? What role, if any, should spontaneity and serendipity play? What’s the right balance?

The students fell evenly across the “intentionality/spontaneity” continuum, some quite certain that people need life goals, and associated philosophies with specific strategies for achieving them. Others pushed back saying, “Are you kidding? How can anyone expect people with our limited life experience to put forward grand goals for living let alone specific strategies for achieving them?” They thoughtfully argued that life would present unforeseen struggles and opportunities. For example, one said she never would’ve have fallen in love with French if she had been correctly placed in the middle or high school Spanish class for which she had actually registered.

When some of them argued for intentionality, I couldn’t help but think they’d have to recalibrate their specific goals and strategies (for example, to have a large loving family) if and when they commit to a life a partner with their somewhat different visions of the future.

What about your life? According to Irvine, your life is most likely an argument for spontaneity because our culture offers us an “endless stream of distractions” that keeps us from clearly identifying, and planning how to accomplish, what we most want out of life.

Be less distracted this week, and thanks, as always, for reading.