Shooting this vacation movie

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This photo, shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), shows Sutler's bomb-proof "Fruit and Oyster House" located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-April 1865).

This photo is not of the cabin I rented for vacation. Shot by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), it shows Sutler’s bomb-proof “Fruit and Oyster House,” located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864 to April 1865).

I got my credit card statement today, and the refund for my vacation cabin rental is on it, so now I can tell the story.

It was a movie-worthy vacation, blue skies, clear waters, scented pines—a movie that if I were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, I’d call Dos Amigos meets Chevy Chase on a bad vacation at the House of the Damned. Or maybe A Cabin in the Woods without the mad scientists.

Okay, so here’s what happened. The dos amigos arrive at the cottage late afternoon on Friday. We unload the car, open the cottage, pick our rooms, stash our stuff, and fill the fridge. By now it’s early evening and we turn on the stove to make a grilled cheese, and…the stove doesn’t work. And we’re cold, so we crank the heat, and…there’s no heat. We call the office and get an out-of-office message that they’ll be back Monday.

That has to be a lie, because it’s vacation season, so we make a ham sandwich and go to bed. The next morning, we drive down to the office and explain. They say they’ll send someone out.

He comes right away. He’s not a maintenance guy, he’s the lawn guy, but the maintenance guys are out of town at family graduations, and the lawn guy’s on standby. We think probably the circuits just got thrown, so he’ll fix that and we’ll be good.

And he does throw the circuit breakers, and he asks me to turn on the stove and see if the indicator light goes on, so I do and it does, and on a note of premature self-congratulations, he departs.

Night falls. We’re cold. The temps are dropping to 40 or so for the second night in a row, and we want some heat and a warm meal. So we turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, but in fact the stove does not heat up. And the furnace doesn’t kick in, either. So we make a ham sandwich and decide to go to bed. Except now we can’t brush our teeth, because we also don’t have any water. And the electric lights, when we turn them on, pulse. It’s like living in an emergency freezer.

The next morning we drive down to the office and explain what happened, and the maintenance guys come right out. They determine that the place needs an electrician, so they call him and we depart for a restaurant-cooked breakfast.

We come back early afternoon and he says everything is fixed. So I say, let’s do a check. I turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, and then the heat comes up. I turn on the furnace, and it kicks in. I turn the tap on the faucet, and water comes on. I hit the light switch, and the light comes out in a steady stream. All good!

The electrician and the maintenance guys take off. The dos amigos settle down in the rapidly warming living room to read. Just when I thought that the first-heat-of-the-season smell was a little too strong, the smoke detector starts to shriek. I pull the plug and drive down to the office. The maintenance guys come back and clank around on the furnace for a couple more hours. Then they dust off their hands and say it it’s fixed.

And it was. And it was good: stove, furnace, water, lights, all functioning properly. Except I never did get hot water upstairs. But the shower was downstairs, so tragedy was averted.

And today I got the refund. And a story.

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

Something freakish this way comes

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pillsThis happened to me on Twitter the other day. I was sitting up late at night, my allergies were going nuts, I was drowning in mucous, I was sneezing, I was coughing, my eyes were burning, my throat and ears were itchy, and I wrote a 140 character-with-spaces rant about it on Twitter, naming the over-the-counter medications I’d tried but that hadn’t worked. One of those medications I use all the time and usually have a lot of success with. The other medication I tried once and hurled it out the window.

So the next morning I log on to Twitter, and the company that makes the medication I like sent me a tweet, asking me to get in touch with their customer service department. I feel like the over-the-counter medicators are coming after me. Eek! I didn’t mean those bad things!

Don’t go hungry

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frustrationDid you ever wonder why dieters could seem so snarly? New research says that hard-to-notice blood sugar imbalances can be partly to blame for irritability and irrational frustration—including domestic quarrels.

Here’s the theory: Self-control takes energy to maintain, and that energy comes from burning glucose. If this energy supply is low, regulating emotions and unwelcome impulses becomes more difficult.

A team of scientists decided to test the relationship between blood sugar levels and domestic quarreling. They handed out voodoo dolls and glucometers to 107 couples, who had been married for an average of 12 years. Every evening for three weeks, according to their marital frustration, each partner pricked a doll that symbolized their spouse and measured their blood sugar level.

The results, posted online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists, showed that the lower a study participant’s blood sugar, the more pins they stuck in the doll.

Does the link between irritability and hunger seem intuitive to you? It does to me, too. But now you know it’s a scientific fact—there’s a reason you might reach for a cookie after a fight with your significant other besides that you need the comfort. You probably also need the glucose.

Happy munching!

 

 

One million words and counting

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Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.

 

 

Banned books are good for you!

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Huck FinnHere’s good news: A new study of Texas teens finds no connection between reading “edgy” books and mental health issues or delinquent behavior. By “edgy,” what the researchers meant was books that contain “violent, sexual, or occult” elements (would that include Peter Pan? The Wizard of Oz? Cinderella?)—books that typically are banned in school and public libraries across this great nation, including the great state of Texas.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s what the researchers also said: “Consuming edgy material … may provide teachable moments to discuss ethical issues between parents and children. Banning such material may be counterproductive in removing these teachable opportunities.”

The new research, conducted by Stetson University psychologist Christopher Ferguson,  and published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, suggests these “edgy” books may indeed have an impact on impressionable young minds.

A positive impact.

The study showed that South Texas teens who read “banned books” were more likely to be engaged in civic activities such as volunteer work. “[T]he influence of banned books on behavior are not worrisome, and may be positive overall,” Ferguson wrote.

Ferguson surveyed 282 students, aged 12–18, who live in a small, predominantly Hispanic Texas town. He gave them a list of 30 books that the American Library Association have identified as “commonly challenged…over the past decade because of content.” These books ranged from the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The youngsters read the books and responded to questions that were designed to reveal antisocial personality disorders about how they felt toward friends and family. The kids were also asked about whether and how frequently they engaged in three civic-minded activities: volunteer work, charitable giving, and elections/electoral processes. Their primary caregivers filled out a survey describing the student’s behavior and reported his or her most recent grade point average.

The results: “Reading banned books did not predict nonviolent or violent crime, or contribute to school GPA,” Ferguson reports, but was “positively associated with civic and volunteering behaviors.” Furthermore, “…reading challenging books may be eye-opening and move individuals to help others.”

Such works can prompt readers to ponder ethical dilemmas, or—better yet—to discuss them with parents or teachers. In this way, he writes, the books “may foster higher-level thinking about these issues and promote more civic mindedness, even if the material is dark.”

Furguson noted that a few kids showed a correlation in both the consumption of banned books and mental health symptoms. “It may be possible that youth with higher levels of mental health symptoms may select books that speak to them, offer them a chance for introspection, or a release from their symptoms,” he wrote. Although this correlation “may serve as a red flag for parents,” the study suggests that for the vast majority of kids, reading banned books isn’t harmful and may even contribute to emotional and moral growth.

I tried to find the list of 30 books that Ferguson used for this study, but could not—well, I’m sure the list is in the original study paper, but I couldn’t get past the abstract page in the database. The ALA publishes a new list of “commonly banned books” every year and bases its choices on a historical time line of challenges. This is the list I found, starting in 1982. It looks like it might be the one Ferguson used, or at least it’s close:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (nominated, National Book award)

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (winner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction)

In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak (winner, Caldecott Medal)

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (winner, Newbery Medal)

Forever, by Judy Blume

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

The Satanic Verses, By Salman Rushdie

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck (Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962)

Sex, by Madonna

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison (Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012)

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (winner, Pulitzer Prize. Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

All But Alice, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Daddy’s Roommate, Michael Willhoite

Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers (winner, Coretta Scott King Award)

Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey

Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

Harry Potter (Series), by JK Rowling

The Giver, by Lois Lowry (winner, Newbery Medal)

King and King, by Linda De Hann

It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (winner, Carnegie Medal)

Gossip Girl (Series), by Cecily von Ziegesar

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

TTYL, by Lauren Myracle

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (winner, National Book Award for Young Peoples Literature)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire

 

Seventy-seven cents

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The Women's Union Label League parades for women's equal pay in San Diego's Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

The Women’s Union Label League parades for women’s equal pay in San Diego’s Labor Day Parade, 1910. Women have been at the equal pay thing for a while.

I can’t believe we still have to talk about this crap, but evidently, we do. Seventy-seven percent. That’s how much money a woman earns compared to a man: seventy-seven cents of every dollar.

Today President Barack Obama signed an executive order that makes it easier for the employees of federal contractors to find out what their colleagues earn and to discuss wages. So Jane can stand on the line and ask Joe what he makes, and if he tells her, she can find the boss on her break and ask for a raise. That’s not revolutionary, but it’d be good.

But remember, only if she’s employed by a federal contractor. If she works at Home Depot or Dollar Tree or some other non-federal-government job, fugeddaboudit.

The presidential event honors National Equal Pay Day, and the event is a cheap political shot by Democrats to woo their constituents before an election. I’m all for it. Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s in nearly all occupations—even in jobs that are predominantly taken by female workers.equalpay-final-208x300

Women often suffer in competitive occupations because they take time off to have children. When working women have small children at home, employers say they take too much time off, they aren’t loyal to the company, they can’t perform at the highest level, and they don’t deserve a raise. When working men have small children at home, employers say that they have a family to take care of, so they deserve the extra money. That disparity needs to stop.

Women need to learn to ask for more money and negotiate for higher wages, but employers—and society at large—needs to shift its attitudes and reward results gained and not hours worked.

Today’s executive order does not give any female employee one red cent. It just makes it easier for her to find out what somebody else at her company earns. It’s a small step to raising that seventy-seven cents to a full buck. And that’s long overdue.