Thursday, April 28, 2016

To the Ballpoint

Zestful Blog Post #158

Once, years ago, when I was fumbling around for a pen at work, an office mate informed me, “The core of the earth is made of molten ballpoint pens. The ones everybody constantly loses. They migrate through the dirt and eventually arrive at the core of the earth, where they become molten.” Even though I’d minored in geology in college, I thought this theory had a lot of merit.

For most of my life, ballpoint pens have justly occupied the lower rungs of scriverdom (I just made up that word—no applause, just throw money) because they were so unpleasant to write with. Even though they were invented before the turn of the 20th century and mass-produced by midcentury, 1960s  ballpoints tended to be sticky and skippy, and you only used them because they were cheap. They even leaked in pressurized airplane cabins. That fact I learned from watching the Mad Men episode where Don and Salvatore fly to someplace and Sal’s pen leaks. (Given the context of that episode, the leaking pen is very funny.)

BIC pens found a temporary place in my heart after the 1968 winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, where Peggy Fleming won gold in women’s figure skating. Sitting next to my mom on the couch, watching our flickering Zenith black and white, I was entranced by Peggy’s grace and athleticism, riveted by the breathless announcers calling her moves: “And now… the double-axel… Yes, she does it…” It was only later that I saw the fabulous chartreuse color of her dress in a magazine. After the Olympics she did a TV commercial for BIC pens where she skates around a darkened arena just like at the Olympics, with a BIC strapped to her ankle, point down on the ice. Point down. On the ice. At the end she does a long hard spin, and man, the ice chips fly! Then she skates over to a pan of fire—a pan of fire!—just like the Olympic flame, unstraps the pen, and holds the point in the flame for seconds on end. Then, stunningly, she writes BIC on a pad of paper. Incroyable. So I was like, BIC for president. (Sadly, there seems to be no available video of that spot. If you find it, please send me the link.)

The costlier Papermate brand always wrote smoother, and anybody remember Lindy pens? Bullet-shaped cap, metal pocket clip with a cutout of a tiny seal balancing a ball on its nose. Those were cool pens, smooth-writing, plus they came in different colors. Gone, though.

[My current purse pen, a Parker Jotter with Schmidt Easy Flow cartridge.]

So once I got old enough to discover the joys of fountain pens, I became a fountain pen devotee, even a fine pencil connoisseur. But lately I’ve realized that ballpoint technology has moved forward. Of course we have the ball-tip gel pens, which were a significant leap.

Over the course of the past year I’ve been experimenting with various ballpoint pens and cartridges, and gosh, there are some good ones out there. Anybody familiar with the Schmidt Easy Flow cartridge from Germany? Really smooth and nice. Fits the Parker Jotter and others. The Parker Quink Flow cartridges are good too, way better than the standard Parker cartridges of even 15 years ago.

The best part of Parker Jotters, by the way, is the click mechanism. Hear the biting authority of it, feel the taut certainty of it. Yeah, baby. Did you know that every time you click it, the cartridge rotates 120 degrees, to ensure even wear? Brilliant.

I’ve heard good things about the Monteverde Superbroad refills and have a few in my Amazon cart. Various ink manufacturers have gotten into making Parker-compatible refills, to satisfy different customer tastes. And, given funding sites like Kickstarer and so on, metalsmiths are designing and selling small-batch nice pens of aluminum and other metals that will take those refills. I have a few, and I suppose I'll wax poetic about those someday.

Write on. I’d be very interested to hear any ballpoint-related thoughts you might wish to share. To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

NPR's Appalling Language

Zestful Blog Post #157

On Monday (April 18, 2016) I was listening to Diane Rehm’s show on NPR while driving around to some appointments. I’m not a die-hard NPR devotee, but I do tune in sometimes. The reason I’m not a die-hard devotee to NPR is the bewildering language used by some of the guests—not so much the hosts. Diane Rehm is blameless. Diane Rehm for president.

My beef is with the guests / interviewees who torture language trying to make themselves sound more intellectual. Often, I’m sad to say, they are writers. Writers who have written books published by intellectual presses about intellectual things like social theories.

Having cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor, my anti-bullshit axe is sharp and fierce. Maybe I’m just getting older and crabbier, or maybe the NPR problem is really getting worse. I think it’s getting worse. Things were so bad Monday morning that I had to pull over not once but twice, and make notes.

A group of guests were talking about Brexit. You know, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union. The word Brexit is fine. It’s a witty shorthand that one could text to friends when messaging about world affairs.

But when one guest said, “The atmospherics of the summit will be tense,” I was like, what did she just say? Atmospherics? Why would you say that when you mean atmosphere? Oh, of course: to sound brainier! People who use words with more syllables are perceived as being more intelligent than ordinary folk. You have to listen with some alertness to notice when the extra syllables are phony.

Here’s another one from the same conversation, different guest, who was asked about reciprocity between Britain and the EU if Britain Brexits. “Well, the automaticity of that will no longer be there.” What the f*ck? Automaticity? Have you ever heard that word before? But you know exactly what the guy meant: The reciprocity would go away. But when you’re in front of a microphone, whether on the radio or a dais, air time is important. Fill it with syllables, preferably ones that can more or less be grasped by people dumber than you. Automaticity originated as a science word to describe certain functions in cells, then became, according to the Free Dictionary: “Acting or operating in a manner essentially independent of external influence or control: an automatic light switch; a budget deficit that triggered automatic ...” Automaticity is actually a perfect NPR word: It's unnecessarily complicated and not really accurate, yet it’s easy to tell what the speaker means. 

Side one of my angrily scribbled note card.

Another guest, discussing his book about the dangers global aid workers face, used the term ‘sea change,’ which bugged me, because the clearer, simpler ‘change’ would have sufficed. Sea change is a somewhat archaic term referring to the shift in one’s perceptions, mostly having to do with sense of balance, when one embarks on a long sea voyage. The movement of the sea makes for lots of vestibular input, and one feels different, and possibly out of sorts, until one adapts. MFK Fisher, by the way, wrote beautifully (and economically) about the subject in The Gastronomical Me. People now use sea change to mean a vast change. When you say sea change, you simply sound more worldly, don’t you?

The same guest said, “The safety of aid workers evolves onto the local population.” He of course should have said devolved, but he was either unsure of that, or he sensed many listeners would think devolve is incorrect in that usage. But it’s correct. This example isn’t exactly parallel to the others, but valuable nevertheless, to illustrate the deep insecurities of many NPR guests.

Same guest: “Secondly, and probably most foundationally…” Foundationally? Beautiful. So much more dolled up than basically. More syllables, more letters. Same guest: “The latter question is of sentinel importance.” Lovely! The term is completely meaningless, yet you instantly know that he meant special importance, or more probably, signal importance. But sentinel! An extra syllable! Not only that, but just the sound of it is so serious! Sentinel. Yeah, man.

Do things like this bug the same crap out of you, or am I just a bitch? Click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever. If you'd like to receive this blog automatically as an email, look to the right, above my bio, and subscribe there. Thanks for looking in.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Coffee as LSD

Zestful Blog Post #156

I know not every writer enjoys coffee. Some unfortunate souls must abstain for religious reasons (which, like, easy solution, just switch religions, right?); some have health issues and others are actually allergic (which, total pity).

But for the rest of us the bean might as well BE a sacrament. I love to read about the history of coffee, and I love to come across random coffee facts, such as Union soldiers chewed the beans for energy in the Civil War. I think the Atlantic blockades kept it from the Confederacy. And some still wonder why they lost?

Caffeine’s a drug—a stimulant—and an overdose will kill a person. I mentioned LSD in the title of this post. LSD is a hallucinogen, of course, which lots of seekers have used to open their creativity chakras or whatever. When I was in college I badly wanted to try LSD but rumor had it that a lot of the current supply was contaminated with PCP (horse anesthetic, basically), so I never did it. (Everything else, yes.) The thing is, if you’re open to it, coffee, like LSD, can make you a better writer.

[The Snow Peak double-walled titanium mug keeps your beverage hot for a long time, which is good if your office is upstairs and the instant-hot and microwave are downstairs. The other one is my politically incorrect because of animal abuse mug, but I really like it anyway and the elephant is no longer in pain. I know I should somehow make it so there’s a link to these cups which if you click them I’ll get money, but screw it.]

Research suggests the experience is diluted if you put in sugar and milk. So make it black, and don’t waste it by drinking it first thing in the morning, simply to help wake up. Use weak tea or something for your first hit of caffeine. Hydrate by drinking water before and after breakfast. Save a good strong cup of black for when you’re ready to write. (Tim Ferris’s The Four-Hour Body turned me on to adding a shake of Vietnamese cinnamon for flavor and better blood sugar levels throughout the day.) The key is to write continuously as the coffee takes hold. Let images of misty mountainsides, glossy green leaves, and giant friendly pollinating bees course through your mind, and know you’re partaking of something mysterious and glorious. Feel the high, feel the mental incisiveness. Keep your writing going. Expect magic. Enjoy your trip.

What's your writing drug of choice? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Just Sit Right Back

Zestful Blog Post #155

Quick announcement: Sign up here to win one of three Kindle copies of Damn Straight at the Lesbian Review.

Today’s post is about writing with economy. Most of us who watched television in the 1960s are still afflicted with old brainworms in the form of theme songs from sitcoms. I can still, after enough gin, sing the complete themes from Gilligan’s Island, the Patty Duke Show, Green Acres, and the Beverly Hillbillies, as well as shards from Petticoat Junction and the Brady Bunch.

Not long ago I read about why the Gilligan’s Island song was written. Sherwood Schwartz, who conceived of the show about a motley group of castaways on a desert island, had trouble convincing TV executives to put it into production. Their main objection was that it would be tedious to recap, during every episode, why and how the people got stuck on the island.

So Schwartz went home and, with composer George Wyle, wrote a theme song that told the story perfectly: “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…” The song rolled through the opening credits, so a first-time viewer would be as savvy as a devotee. The execs’ problem was solved, and they green-lighted the project. The show became such an off-kilter hit, it affected pop culture in multiple ways, from phrases from the song (“a three-hour tour,” for instance, as shorthand for an unexpectedly interminable situation), to Gilligan’s white bucket hat and more.

My favorite phrase from the song: “The ship set ground on the shore of this uncharted desert isle…” It’s brilliant. You learn why nobody’s found them: the island’s not on any maps! Uncharted! One simple word, thrown in fast.

The other sitcom songs achieve the identical objective. My point: All writers can learn from these seemingly stupid songs! Look a few up online, read and listen to them carefully, and perceive all sorts of lessons on how to write with purpose and economy.

Have you ever found a writing lesson in an unexpected place? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.

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