‘Needless to say’ … but I’ll say it, anyway

You can fill in your speech bubble with your own communication crutches.

People tell me I’m a good listener.

At least, that’s what I hear.

Been noticing many of us have pet phrases punctuating our speech, like a vocal signature. Some are assaults on the ears, such as those who pepper narratives with, “Do you know what I mean?”

I am convinced those overusing this phrase are convinced no one else could remotely rise to their level of understanding. To be fair, maybe they’re just super-hungry for feedback. Take pity on them and answer. “You must mean — you’re superior to me.”

Another one I get a lot: “Is that right?”  This countrified tic is not so much a request for proof or sources but a friendly affirmation, like its hipster cousin: “I know, right?” They both say: “I hear you.” As that soulful Seventies expression “Tell it like it is” meant “Your word is gospel.”

Or today’s shorthand: “Word.”

Communication is a two-way street, so a listener’s interjections are vital proof they’re listening. But when your responses are repetitive and knee-jerky, what else might they be saying about you?

I’ve analyzed my own speech and writing for communication crutches and their subtext.

My top tics:

“Needless to say …” I may be giving my listeners the benefit of the doubt here, assuming they already know something (a compliment to their intelligence); or admitting I’m hardly original (self-deprecation); or pussy-footing around what they desperately need to hear (diplomacy).

“At this point …” Leaves open the prerogative to change my mind; says I’m receptive to change.

“Actually” Acknowledges the listener’s skepticism .. or my need to confess. Or maybe it’s a sign I’m lying. Could that actually be?

“Seriously” Means: “The previous material was humor, and copyrighted.” Or reveals a fear that no one ever takes me seriously. Similar to actually, actually.

“One thing …” I love to count, bah-ha-ha!!!! Such a tease, though, as the second thing rarely comes, or gets derailed by the first, which is usually the best.

Other talking tics and what they might say about you*:

(*’Course, I’m no psychologist, but anyone can try this at home)

“Wouldn’t be surprised if … / It wouldn’t surprise me …” You’re jaded.

“Wow.” You’re speechless.

“That’s great …” You’re jealous.

“You’re kidding!” You’re not as incredulous as seeking elaboration or gossip.

“Let’s …” You’re either faux polite or delegating to me.

“Sorry …” If used outside the context of an actual apology — when you mean “Excuse me” or “Sorry I said sorry again, didn’t I?” — you tell the world that you regret your very existence. Smacks of low self-esteem. This used to be one of my tics, until my daughters started beating it out of me (thanks, girls).

“Yeah, yeah, right, right.” Save your breath, I’m way ahead of you. (Alternatively: You have a nagging partner at home.)


Not to make anyone self-conscious. My pseudo-definitions don’t apply to the occasional utterance. I’m talking heavy repetition. Say, if you had a parrot and it picks up on your speech because it’s drilled into its little bird brain, along with your cuss words (like that ad for The Washington Post where the fake parrot voice-over says: “Can’t take this. Not another day,” etc.)

When speech matters most, though — like during a job interview or something — paying attention to what you say could truly pay. Even when seeking the No. 1 job in America.

A ‘look’ at the presidential debates

When Barack Obama came on the scene, I fixated on his “Look …” crutch. He inserted it everywhere, in press briefings, on TV interviews — as if it bought him time to think. And he’s a pretty slow talker to begin with, I know, right?

Look, Ma. I’m on TV! (How do I look?)

“Look” is technically pedantic and means “pay attention,” but to my ears it can make a speaker sound defensive. Like a plea from someone who’s been bullied a lot — subtext is “Gimme a break” or “Whaddya mean?” Playground stuff. Or threatening, like Jimmy Cagney (hear the sneer): “Look, it’s like dis, ya see …”

Lately, during the year-long-plus campaigns, Obama’s “looks” have sounded dismissive, like a vocal shrug, an excuse.

Someone else must have noticed, too. Whoever debate-prepped the president effectively knocked out this word from his lexicon.

In the first debate Oct. 3, he used initial word “Look” only once.

1. OBAMA:  “Look, the genius of America is the free enterprise system and freedom ,,,”

Compared with FOUR TIMES for challenger Mitt Romney.

1. ROMNEY: “… with regards to that tax cut, look, I’m not looking to cut massive taxes …”

2. ROMNEY: “Look, I’ve got five boys. …”

3. ROMNEY: “Look, we have to have regulation on Wall Street. …”

4. ROMNEY: “Look, the right course for America’s government, …”

Remember “Look” magazine? Remember magazines?

In debate No. 2 on Oct. 16, the “looks” were neck and neck, 2-2 (not counting all the times Romney told Obama to look at his pension):

1. OBAMA: “Look, the cost of lowering rates for everybody across the board, 20 percent.”

2. OBAMA: “Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise.”

1. ROMNEY: “Look, I want to make sure we use our oil, our coal, our gas, our nuclear, our renewables.”

2. ROMNEY: “…Look, there’s no question but the people recognize …”

For all of you out there looking for a drinking-game prompt for these job-seekers’ third and final presidential debate tonight, “look” might not be what you’re looking for. Not if you want to get effectively drunk.

One thing, though: Mom was right.

Thinking before we speak could make the difference between our words ringing hollow and ringing true.

Fashioning AP style: You read it here first

AP Stylebook editor Darrell Christian outlines this year’s edition’s additions.

I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk: “The new phone books are here!” Except for me it’s the new Associated Press Stylebook, aka “the journalist’s bible” — note the lowercase “b” — soon to be hot off the presses (targeted for May 21). Today, I got a sneak peek.

The 2012 edition contains 270 updates and new entries, covering such gems as “underwater” in reference to drowning mortgage holders; “hydraulic fracturing,” the scientific form of the offensive “fracking”; “illegitimate” in reference to offspring, distantly related to the newly inserted “OB-GYN,” as well as STDs vs. VD; plus expanded guidelines for treatment (not in the medical sense) of age and race.

While attending a conference for copy editors this week in New Orleans, I considered the style-guru Q&A a highlight. Would we challenge them about the sexism inherent in not endorsing usage of the singular “they”? Would crash carts be needed after we dissected their decisions?

Hundreds of fellow style mavens and masters — some Ph.D.’s, perhaps, but no “Drs.” – yelped and tweeted when two of AP’s editing triumvirate – David Minthorn and Darrell Christian – announced it had caved to a hopeful appeal from The Baltimore Sun’s John McIntyre to anoint the modern usage of “hopefully.”

McIntyre reacts to the news. Hopefully, he’s happy.

Long a bugaboo of linguists who subscribe only to its relevance as an adverb, “hopefully” is now acceptable to mean “we hope” or “it is hoped.” As in: “Hopefully, this session will break in time for me to get some étouffée.”

Other news:

  • In keeping with the times, the social media compendium has grown from seven to 28 pages.
  •  The new robo-style-cop plug-in StyleGuard does not herald the hemorrhaging of copy editors’ jobs because we remain highly valued for our “human judgment” and those irreplaceable, inimitable fine-tuning-combing skills. Could we get that in writing?
  • An entire section is devoted to fashion, and David Minthorn finally gets what “A-line” means.
  •  Guidelines are included on Olympic sports and broadcast journalism.
  • Minthorn is the one answering your “Ask the Editor” queries.
  • “U.S.S.R.,” which used to be an entry, simply disappeared, unbeknownst to the top editors, “to make new room for new trees, I mean, ‘entries,’ ” Christian teases.
  •  These fellas are not appointed for life like Supreme Court justices, and there is always room for change and new blood at the some-might-say-stodgy AP.

And I’m just playin’ with all those hyphens. Christian, who told me point-blank he is not anywhere near retirement age but does enjoy his golf, said: “If you can avoid a hyphen, I’d advise it.” Not such a thorn in Minthorn’s side. “Common sense” is his guide on hyphenation, and he likely never would hyphenate class action lawsuit.

Too bad the AP female voice was not represented, as Sally Jacobsen could not attend.

Fisher Saller added her fresh, active voice to the discussion.

Instead, chipper Carol Fisher Saller of CMOS (pronounced “seamoss”) – the unwieldy Chicago Manual of Style – rounded out the panel.

I found the most commonality in her common sense summary: “No reason to cleave to a set style. You can tailor your project to your needs” because, in writing, “flexibility is the byword.”

Hopefully, that sticks.

Not your father’s Search Engine Optimization

The train has left the station.

Today’s ABCs of journalism require a Ph.D. in SEO: the science of applying tags or keywords onto digitally delivered stories so that readers get their Googly eyes on them.

I’ve been polishing my skills for a few years now, but still marvel at the algorithmic mysteries.

Here is an assortment of the bizarre search phrases people have used to stumble upon my blog the past few days.

Did I say stumbling? Trippin’.

  • les beatles lsd

  • when did weed become illegal

  • eunice esteves big brother isn’t watching you

  • a glass of juice not gas the jews

  • beer wench stag

  • spider mouse

  • jai rodriguez girlfriend

  • is a toungue a living thing

  • writing wall of terror

  • plump deviant

  • legend that is terry byrne

Those last two are about the same.

(I am not making this up. I live only to teach people how to spell “tongue.” Couldn’t quite replicate the hits; ‘course now that I’ve listed them, I should get a lot more readers.)

Not your average flock of birds

Cedar Waxwings

A "museum" of cedar waxwings (Photo credit: wburris)

Interesting how bird people are often also word people.

As I wait for the Cornell Lab to post the Day Two ballot in its “March Migration Madness” gulla, a fun review. What are the proper collective nouns for all of the species competing on the MMM bracket?

Answers provide not only insight to the bird’s behavior, but make great opening lines at parties — that is, if you prefer the more solitary life of the red-eyed vireo (although its atypical grouping is referred to as a “hangover” of red-eyed vireos, quite the festive line).

Starting with Day One’s winner …

  • Black-capped chickadee: “Banditry” or “dissimulation” of chickadees
  • Dark-eyed junco: “Crew,” “flutter,” “meinie,” “quarrel” or “ubiquity” of juncos (even its collective nouns are cuter, it shoulda won)
  • Northern cardinal: “College,” “conclave,” “deck,” “radiance” or, my fave, “Vatican” of cardinals
  • Downy woodpecker: “Descent,” “drumming” or “gatling” of woodpeckers
  • Bald eagle: “Aerie,” “convocation,” “jubilee,” “soar” or “tower” of eagles
  • Northern mockingbird: “Echo,” “exactness,” “plagiary” or “ridicule” of mockingbirds
  • Snowy owl: “Bazaar,” “glaring,” “parliament,” “stooping” or “wisdom” of owls
  • Yellow warbler: “Stream,” “sweetness” or “trepidation” of warblers
  • White-breasted nuthatch: “Jar” of nuthatches
  • Peregrine falcon: “Bazaar,” “eyrie,” “ringing,” stooping up” or “tower” of falcons
  • Cedar waxwing: “Ear-full” or “museum” of waxwings, hahahaha
  • Wood duck: “Brace,” “flush,” “paddling,” “raft” or “team” of ducks (applies to most ducks)
  • Tufted titmouse: “Banditry” or “dissimulation” of titmice (same as chickadee)
  • Whooping crane: “Construction,” “dance,” “sedge,” “siege” or “swoop” of cranes
  • Great blue heron: “Battery,” “hedge,” “pose,” “rookery” or “scattering” of herons
  • Pileated woodpecker: “Crown” of woodpeckers (hmmm … does that mean it should rule the roost and win it all?)

Maybe this will help you fill out your brackets. Play here.

Source: iBird Explorer Pro for iPad 2

‘Improper borrowing’? Call it what it is: Plagiarism

An illustrative example of plagiarism. Modifie...

Ol' Will could have used not only a copy editor but a fact-checker. How'd he ever amount to anything? Image via Wikipedia

Why are writers so protective of their ideas and the way they string words like beaded rocks of crack? Beats me, given the biblical observation:

      What has been will be again,
   what has been done will be done again;
   there is nothing new under the sun.

 (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

… an idea Shakespeare borrowed, without attribution, for his 59th sonnet, “Nothing New.” If it was true way back whenever, it must be glaringly true today. Yet those classic writers couldn’t foresee our modern, tangled Web.

When I ventured two months ago into e-writing, I worried a bit about people stealing my stuff: How does one copyright the Internet?

Not to worry. Thanks to powerful search engines, it’s easier than ever to discover people ripping you off. Take the latest story about Politico reporter Kendra Marr “improperly borrowing” material from The New York Times, the Associated Press and NJ.com. Yet another lazy, sloppy journalist making us all look bad. Excuse me, a “go-go” journalist, as The Washington Post’s media blogger Erik Wemple deftly defines the phenom.

Having worked among journalists all my adulthood, especially in the role of correcting others’ errors, I recognize the character trait of being unable to accept blame. Scoop-addicted Politico did a decent job owning up to it after the fact, in its verbose editor’s note, here. Still, why all the political correctness and warm-fuzzies over this ertswhile staffer, Politico? These are SEVEN examples of plagiarism. She doesn’t belong in the business, bah-bye. I’m thinking Politico‘s “journalistic standards” need to grow a pair.

And I credit Betty White for the observation: “Why do people say, ‘Grow some balls!’? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna really get tough, grow a vagina. Those things take a pounding!”

Something else I wish I’d written

Flash fiction in fewer than 140 characters

Free twitter badge

Image via Wikipedia

To clarify … last weekend, I was alerted to a flash-lit-fiction slam to be held in Brighton, England, on Sept. 11, co-sponsored by ParagraphPlanet.com‘s Richard Hearn (DistractedDad on Twitter). Details at his PP site.

The challenge: Tweet a complete story in 133 characters (saving room for the required hashtag of #flf11, which steals seven, with the space, grrr).

At his urging, I submitted, but all five of mine suck (this is hard!), yet the deadline isn’t over. So when I call myself a flash-fiction virgin … well, not anymore, #TuesdayTales has spoiled me … but, see, I wasn’t counting these, which haven’t been judged yet, as the event unrolls Sunday, still time to play! Simply include the hashtag #flf11 in your tweets — open topics (which is why it doesn’t really count as flash fiction, in my mind, which en-tales [sic] prompting). 

Go ahead, Twitter peeps. Whet your appetite for lightning-round, minuscule manuscripting. You can beat this drivel:

Inspector No. 14, Otis, is having a bad day. Must reconnoiter. He slackens a smidge, loosens a screw. There. Another happy accident. #flf11

She could still change her mind. Priest, gawkers, the tux-clad brute await word. Tossing her posies too soon, a faint no-o escapes.#flf11

UPDATE: The following tweet made it to the final round!

The day’s dullsville for dogwalker Don ’til a drab-brown mound stirs. He lobs the sacrificial pug into the bear’s yawning doom. Yelp! #flf11

At 09:37, a commuter with top clearance spied a fireball, whiffed burnt flesh, verified reports, about-faced to the links. Tee time. #flf11

(That last one is inspired by a friend who did, actually, go golfing on 9/11 after glimpsing the Pentagon chaos. No names, you know who you are.)

A newfound flash-fiction addiction

By day, I make headlines. And by “by day,” I mean “by night.”

Recently I got bit by the flash-fiction bug — like writing a headline on deadline, only meatier. Most contests, though, had too-long lead times. Needed it quick and dirty.

Yesterday, I found my fix via #TuesdayTales on Twitter. (Its host is a fellow wordpress blogger, at glitterword.wordpress.com). The simple rules: Write 100 words. Incorporate “bellwether.” Take a cue from attached photo. GO! I had 20 minutes before my shift. Below is what burbled out.

What’s great about this exercise is you have no clue where it will take you until you’re done, like a sprinter against a stopwatch. This is better than Facebook SCRABBLE or iPhone’s Words With Friends, people. Prompts can be addictive. Just as I’m ever curious what kind of headline someone else might put on the same story I’m editing, this is an opportunity to see how other minds interpret the same stimuli.

And guess what? Somehow, I was judged a winner, but visit the site — many masterful entries. (I have tweaked it here slightly because, yeah, can’t help but edit.)

Entrants were given this prompt photo to accompany the piece.

Theirs was no balcony scene from Shakespeare.

Harold fired up the briquettes, pretending to host a summer soiree at the precise moment Ruby cleared her stop, bus doors squegeeing shut another grueling day at the diner, white wedgies sponging the sidewalk, leftovers leaking from foil inside her gripsack.

“You should join us, neighbor!” he bellowed, too eagerly.

She squinted upward. Crikes, who said that?

No bellwether of fashion in plaid plum smugglers, he swatted air in a grand wave, forgetting his grip on the lighter fluid. Sparks snaked into a fireball.

Later, at the shelter, ’twas a night to remember.

100 words

The judge — author, award-winning screenwriter and writing coach Ami Hendrickson — gave this flattering review. I’m only repeating it here for the benefit of my 80-year-old mother, because she subscribes to my blog and wouldn’t know where to find it otherwise (Hi, Mom!).

”I loved reading these entries. There were so many good pieces that I ended up focusing on writing-craft things to narrow the field. I made myself get nitpicky about things like spelling, grammar, and word redundancy just to help whittle down the contenders. Sadly, this affected some of my first-glance favorites. But it helped me make my decision.” ~MuseInks


“I love the sights, sounds, and set-up here. This piece combines both pathos and humor in a memorable way.  It quickly places the reader in the thick of the action. The piece moves. It’s bold, active, and rife with robust, lively words. It also packs a punch at the end that makes the reader revisit the beginning and see it in a different light.

“Furthermore, this piece contains my favorite use of the Secret Word. “You’re no bellwether of fashion” may well become a catch phrase of mine.

“Well done!” ~Museinks the judgemaster has spoken!


Mommy Byrne

Winner has received an edit & critique of the first chapter of their manuscript (up to 20 pages) and a critique of their synopsis.

Uh-oh, better get writing …

6 of the most inspirational books you’ve never heard of

Unlike my friend who just bought NINE MORE floor-to-ceiling IKEA bookcases in hopes that’ll do, I’ve been forced to downsize my book collection. But here are five obscure titles I refuse to part with:

(Warning: This is a literary lark, not some high-falutin’ critic’s snobby “essentials” list.)

1. A Void, translated into English by Gilbert Adair.  

I’ve never read it; it serves as shEEr inspiration. The marvel is that not a single letter “e” — the most common letter in the English language — was used in the making of this 1995 book, except that in the author’s name.

More amazingly, it is based on the original e-less 1969 French novel, La Disparition (“The Disappearance”), by Georges Perec. Again, he couldn’t buy an “e,” but for four in his name.

What’s more, according to Wikipedia, three other unpublished non-e-book English translations exist: A Vanishing by Ian Monk, Vanish’d! by John Lee and Omissions by Julian West. The 300-page novel, with alleged plot and all, has also been translated into German (by Eugen Helmlé as Anton Voyls Fortgang, 1986), Spanish (El secuestro, 1997 — instead of “e” it omits “a,” that language’s most common letter), Turkish (by Cemal Yardımcı as Kayboluş, 2006), Swedish (by Sture Pyk as Försvinna, 2000), Russian (by Valeriy Kislow as Исчезание [Ischezanie], 2005), Dutch (by Guido van de Wiel as ‘t Manco, 2009) and Romanian (Serban Foarta as Disparitia, 2010). Such a feat — no, that word isn’t allowable … nor is “accomplishment” … a “triumph,” then.

Whenever I suffer writer’s block, I gaze upon this book, and off I go; any linguistic assignment seems puny by comparison.

Photo by Terry Byrne, October 2009. Must be credited if shared.

2. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms.

Pennsylvania produces about 443 million pounds of mushrooms a year, its largest cash crop; it also produced me, but the coincidences don’t end there.

Admittedly, I fancy mushrooms, plain or fancy, and have great respect and reverence for fungi, having taken survival training in Michigan’s wintry wilderness and enjoyed a foray into the “magic” mushroom in the eclectic Eighties, my version of the psychedlic Sixties. I even went on a binge last year photographing ‘shrooms in the ‘hood (a favorite shot, above).

Including this book on this list goes beyond mushrooms, though — I own oodles of identification manuals, but, c’mon, this is the Bible of freakin’ mushrooms. I don’t know how many “begats” there are in King James’ version, but there are 420 types of mushrooms detailed in this guide, covering only the United States and Europe. Not in my wildest dreams could I identify that many fungi, but whenever I want to be reminded of the diversity of life, I contemplate the mushroom, lowlier even than the lily of the field.

A "weed" growing in my yard. (I don't know what it's called; even with a handy encyclopedia, it's hard to identify plants if you don't know their family name.) Photo by Terry Byrne.

Elevating the mystique is the inherent danger involved in distinguishing toxic vs. edible, mushrooms vs. toadstools. And wouldn’t the Garden of Eden have been, oh, such a cooler story if Eve had tempted Adam with a mushroom?

Speaking of the Garden of Eden, I’ll slip in another botanical gem, a massive one, which I keep on the arm of a couch where there is no end table. It serves as a coaster for my coffee or to level my laptop: The American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. Pawing through its pages, I landscape the dream garden I’ll never tend. This whimsical book was purchased for $20 for me by a teenager I had known 15 years — we were at the bookstore one day, and I was eyeing it like a kid at the puppy palace, and she selflessly and surprisingly satisfied my craving with her first credit card. Treasures both, gift and giver.

3. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

 Edited by Steven Jay Schneider.

(Yeah, a book about movies — warned you this lit list was lowbrow.)

File this tome under “The Poor Man’s Bucket List.” All you need is a Netflix subscription and lots and lots of idle time — or about four months, if you did nothing else but slept eight hours a day. If the doctor gave me only four months to live, though, I doubt I’d spend it watching movies. And good luck finding some of the titles, such as 1930’s Zemlya (“Earth”), from the Soviet, yes, Soviet, silent-film era, by Aleksandr Dovzhenko. 

This volume holds special sentimental value because it sparked our young family’s “movie night” tradition, in which we took turns picking the weekend rental; as the kids aged, we graduated into edgier ratings. They still won’t forgive me for choosing 1981’s Body Heat (page 677) — check one off!

Most people won’t remember that Mickey Rourke was the arsonist in this movie co-starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. Here is his scene:

I’ll keep this book on hand as a cheap life insurance policy because, at last count, I’d seen only 384 of the must-see 1,001. 

4. Why You Life Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)

By Alan H. Cohen

Stop kvetching, this book nags, speaking straight at ME, just like Avenue Q’s It Sucks to Be Me. With humor and hope, it provides anecdotes for all of life’s ill-perceived ills.

An example … discussing why people waste their talents: “People live unfulfilling lives because 1) They do not believe in themselves enough to express their talents; 2) They feel guilty about accepting money for their talents; and 3) They do not take action steps to build their livelihood around their talents. All of these situations are tragic. Such people end up doing things they don’t really care about, they struggle materially, and wither emotionally because their life does not embrace their passion.”

Another route to “Follow your bliss” — yet easier to digest, or suck it up, with a straw. I keep the book in my bedside drawer, as if it were Gideons Bible, for my darkest nights of despair

5. The New Astrology by Suzanne White.

Why not confess my guilty-pleasure shelf of funky astrology books. As a Halloween baby, I’ve always been open to such junk-science topics as hauntings and Tarot card-reading (not global warming; I mean, I’m open to it, I’m just not including it in any “junk-science” category, thank you). 

Gifted to me around the time I was contemplating marriage, this book bizarrely weds Western sun signs with the Chinese “year of the _____” animals. (It did always bother me how an entire grade of school peers supposedly shared personality traits in China.) The fruit of this “mind-boggling” research: 144 brand-new astrological combinations! What grand horrorscope!!!

Despite the “fact” astrological signs have been astro-illogically thrown off their axis lately (try The Beginning of Time), I also have a collection of zany books breaking down each sun sign into four phases of the moon, then cross-referencing every “week” for compatibility with every other week, in relationships from romance, work, friendship and parent-child. The paper and binding alone were worth the $50 apiece price (oh, right; these were also gifts). Imagine the fun, upon meeting someone, to cross-index all possible relationships! Fun, if you enjoy good fiction.

Honestly, I’ve tried to unload these books; I stuff them in a box for transport, then, at the last minute, they mysteriously levitate back to the shelf. Spooky.

6. Markings by Dag Hammerskjöld.

Finally, we all have books on our shelves that are inscribed (is there an app for that?), whether by authors or friends. When I was in junior high, the smartest boy in school gave me this soul-searching book by the Swedish secretary-general of the United Nations killed in a plane crash during his tenure — and check out the $4.95 for a first-print hardcover!

It may have meant nothing but a schoolboy crush or him showing off, but the gesture resonated with my budding intellect. The book’s yellowed pages smell as old as the wisdom it contains, passages like:

“We carry our nemesis within us: yesterday’s self-admiration is the legitimate father of today’s feeling of guilt.”

I feel guilty never haven given anything comparable to John. The simple inscription, “To Terry, Love, John, Norcross,” makes me feel even guiltier, as if the surname was an afterthought by someone who doubted he’d be remembered. Yet I’ve often wondered what became of Mr. John Norcross.

John, if you’re out there: Here’s a super poke!

5 Things Newspapers Are Still Good For

The word is out that newspapers are dying. Is there time to appeal that sentence? As I see it, websites can never fulfill these vital newspaper roles:

1. Silly Putty® medium.

This doesn’t work on the iPad®. Besides, AppleCare won’t cover your gumming things up. What? Silly Putty isn’t popular with kids anymore? Those smart-alecks must see the bloody writing on the wall.

2. Ransom note material.

Sure, other media make great terror tools — the TV’s an evil portal in “Poltergeist” (1982), computers prove threatening in thrillers from “War Games” (1983) to “Copycat” (1995) — even a fax machine masks the villain taunting Tim Robbins in Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992).  But nothing says derangement and premeditation like cutting out letters over weeks’ time to send a clear message. (And what would the Zodiac Killer have done without the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Unabomber, without The Washington Post and The New York Times?)

This online ransom-note tool just doesn’t have the same feel:


Cover of The Economist, Aug 24, 2006

3. Pet care and training. (Dailies as pooping doilies)

This broad category goes beyond wrapping fish and lining bird cages. Anyone who has house-broken a puppy can tell you newspapers are indispensable in their disposability. Also, training a dog to fetch the newspaper is far more serviceable than the stick trick. What are you gonna do with a stick but immediately throw it away again?

Check out this pooch’s time-saving talent!

4. Cost-effective alarm system.

A neighbor’s driveway has not yet reached critical mass.

With crime invading suburban areas, most people these days are careful to curb newspaper delivery when on vacation. (Don’t forget to resume it upon your return home, people!!!) Naturally, papers piling up outside the dwelling may be the only sure sign you are trapped or dead inside and someone ought to call the police.

5. Handy pest control.

Fly-swatter, spider-squisher, ladybug flying carpet (you don’t kill a ladybug, you gently show her the door) … newspapers manage all this and more.

During a storied mouse infestation (not the USB-compatible kind) in our newsroom, glue traps were placed in strategic spots underfoot, bait-enhanced with sprinklings of crumbs from us eating at our desks. Problem was: When a mouse was caught in the Photo Department, it was STILL ALIVE. Page designer Michael B. Smith loves to tell the tale of how he finished it off with a paper stack.

Try doing THAT with a website.


The Economy of Words

On my first tweeting attempt, I overpecked.

Kingfisher Twitter goaded: “Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.”

Golly. Perhaps the toll of this “information superhighway” (remember that, oldsters?) is not, as I’d feared, death of the mother tongue. It demands short and sweet tweets.

Precision, excision and concision are the domain of any decent editor, but nowadays anyone with a domain gets a say. As newsprint fades, self-proclaimed wordsmiths infest the Web, hanging from the blogging rafters and online shingles (can you GET shingles from social networking?!).

With this entry, I dive into the infested pool.

Lots of tweeting going on. Is there room for one more?

Are there others out there policing for linguistic quality over quantity?

I recently ran across one British bobby, Richard Hearn, creator of the Paragraph Planet. He happens to be featuring my 75-word masterpiece today (cheap plug). Hearn’s mission, one of many, is to cultivate Good Writing™ online — not in 140 characters or less but in 75 words exactly, give or take a word, as the counter can misbehave.

The site draws about five submissions a day, subjecting Hearn to maybe 1,825 paragraphs a year on a range of subjects. What makes him groan? “Clichés, or when someone’s desperately inserting words or repeating themselves to make the word count, as if 75 words is War and Peace,” he tells me. Themes on vampires and “overly motivational pieces … lend themselves to cliché more than most,” he muses.

And to whittle all the submissions down? “I do try and batten down the hatches on my own taste — and something might be less literary but still resonate … or be a genuine response,” he explains. Hmm. “Batten down the hatches.” Cliché? Or resonance?

I, too, subscribe to novelty. I am 90% sure I harbor the novel-seeking gene — the dopamine D4 receptor also associated with substance abuse. I rule out the 10% because I am not currently abusing any substances. I also seek, inside, the novel that I shall write someday.

For now, though, I’ll focus on characters with cachet, Twitter’s directive to be brief while ever “clever” — and to what end? Broadcasting to the twitterverse and blogosphere, saying more with less. To attain followers? Or be one of the crowd? To flush out clichés only to be retweeted, hashtagged, “liked,” shared, coined, co-opted, archived, searched and, one day, perhaps, become the anonymous author of a cliché?

Briefly, before I lose your attention: Squelching clichés for a living I do.

I also recognize that such novel phrases as …

  • “Tires chew the gravel” from John Updike‘s Problems (the short-story collection from the author who first inspired me to write)
  • “Bones tap-dancing back down the velvet …” — a whirl of an invention by my pal and flash-fiction master Jacqui Barrineau on shooting craps

… are all examples of Good Writing™ because they hijack readers’ expectations, animizing inanimate objects. They strike a chord — no! — hit home — NO! — tickle the fancy — groan.

They remind us that, sometimes, to be great is to be understood.