5 From the Bookshelf: On Language, Writing and Lifelong Learning

Iceland

That's me, in Iceland. I swear this has a connection to the story.

Back in the dark ages when I was an undergrad student at Tulane, the English major was divided into two separate tracks: “Literature” and “Language, Writing and Rhetoric,” or LWR.

Those of us in the LWR track were fighting a losing battle against its gradual and eventual phasing out, which meant during registration each semester you could always spot a few LWR majors frantically pacing from table to table, looking for something – anything – to sign up for that would count towards our requirements.

There was some upside. I may have missed the opportunity to take Medieval English as a foreign language my senior year, but I ended up instead in a Medieval Literature seminar focused on early Icelandic sagas. A surprisingly entertaining class taught by a professor with a passion for all things Icelandic, it’s something I never would have considered taking if it hadn’t been essentially the last English class left with an open slot. And had I not taken it, I probably wouldn’t have been so motivated to take a trip to Iceland a few years ago.

But all those “history of the language” classes? I never did get them. That’s probably why I find myself picking up all kinds of language and writing books now – some easy-to-read and fun, others a little technical and dense (and I’m not even going to mention the various squads of The Atlantic’s Word Police Academy I’ve been inducted into).

More than just a hobby, though, these kinds of books can come in handy when you’re faced with a blank page or trying to decide if it should be “toward” or “towards,” so I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Whether you’re a recovering LWR major, want some context to make it easier to understand the quirky rules of English grammar and usage, or just have an unhealthy obsession with the language like I do, here’s my summer reading list for the classes I never took.

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June 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm Leave a comment

Adjusting Your Sails: What Elizabeth Edwards Taught Me

“I do know that when [my children are] older and telling their own children about their grandmother, they will be able to say that she stood in the storm…and when the wind did not blow her way – and it surely has not – she adjusted her sails.”

– Elizabeth Edwards

Simple. Bold.

Two words, two prompts from Mama Kat’s Writing Workshop this week, and I can’t settle on just one because I think they both apply to this quote from Elizabeth Edwards.

Like so many others, I felt great sadness at the news of her death this week, even though I didn’t know her personally. Although we all knew she had incurable breast cancer, there was something about her – her strength, her resolve and, yes, her resilience in the face of unthinkable circumstances – that made her seem almost invincible. If anyone could outrun invasive cancer, surely she could.

When I saw that quote, I realized it was a great representation of how she lived her life, and also a reason why she has been such an inspiration and role model for me and countless others.

It may seem an odd choice of a quote for me in some ways. I’ll most likely never be a mother. Those were the cards I was dealt. It really wasn’t even something that was a big concern to me until the choice was taken away.

It’s certainly not on the level of losing your 16-year-old son or being diagnosed with incurable cancer or being betrayed by your husband and then dragged through the ensuing media circus his actions created.

But those of us in my situation know that it, too, represents a break, an ending, a separation from what you thought would be and suddenly isn’t. It forces you to change direction whether you want to or not. Your life is no longer going to head in the way you’d always assumed it would, and that’s that.

There’s no turning back. There’s no changing it.

You can drown in it – and some days I do – or you can adjust your sails. It’s a simple idea but bold at the same time.

Simple, but not obvious. It’s one of those “easier said than done” concepts, and that’s why it’s bold, too. It takes guts to refuse to let it consume you. And that’s what Elizabeth Edwards embodied.

She could have wallowed in her tragedies. Certainly if anyone had a right to feel sorry for themselves, she did.

But that wasn’t her. She decided that, even though she wasn’t dealt the hand she expected or wanted, she would adjust her strategy and play to the fullest.

It’s a lesson I try to take in. Remember.

We all face storms. Some are literally life changing, some are momentary blips. But a simple, bold decision to adjust the sails and even ride the waves to a new destination can mean a life well lived, whether it unfolds the way you planned or not.

I’m working on it.

December 8, 2010 at 4:52 pm 2 comments

Top 3 Moments of Panic from Thanksgivings Past (Part 3)

Three days after Thanksgiving, and they’re still here.

I know they’re lurking behind that unassuming door. As soon as I open it, that stark light will switch on and I’ll see them, staring back at me, taunting me.

Thanksgiving leftovers.

Now, if you’ve been following this series, you know that I once made mashed potatoes for two people using a recipe that called for seven pounds of potatoes. We’ve also established that math is not my strong suit. So it’s not surprising that I manage to end up with a few leftovers. But still…

No matter how much I make or how many guests we have over, I still seem to end up with a LOT of leftovers.

Atomic leftovers.

Leftovers that seem to know how to reproduce on their own so that even though I force takeout containers on all the guests, and despite Gibson the dog’s best efforts at hunting down every last morsel he can find, the leftovers just grow and grow until, by Sunday, we clearly have twice the amount of potatoes we started with on Thursday.

Gibson the dog

The image quality is crappy, but the moment had to be preserved. I don't know where Gibson learned to behave like this.

I’ve decided that there needs to be a leftovers version of the Kubler-Ross model, the Five Stages of Grief. Let’s call it the Casser-Role Model.

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November 28, 2010 at 9:49 pm Leave a comment

Thanksgiving Panics – Bonus Post

Why didn’t someone tell me about this sooner? A Cook from Frozen” Whole Turkey?!

The Freezer to Oven Turkey

One of the greatest inventions of our time?

Yes, it’s turkey for the math- and refrigerator-space-challenged! (Thanks to Nadia G from the Bitchin’ Kitchen for this great find.)

I don’t know if you can get them in the US, but if not, it just may be worth the move to Canada.

On the other hand, I guess it just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without all the panic.

November 22, 2010 at 3:40 pm Leave a comment

Top 3 Moments of Panic from Thanksgivings Past (Part 2)

Are mashed potatoes really that difficult to make?

Chefs

I admit I’d never actually attempted to make them from scratch until a few Thanksgivings ago, but it seems like there’s a lot of advice and troubleshooting for successfully producing the perfect mashed potato.

But all the recipes are pretty straightforward: Boil ’em. Mash ’em with some stuff. The end.

How hard can that be?

Turns out, it’s not difficult, and I still don’t know why there’s so much literature on the subject. Especially when the one key piece of information that really matters is missing from all that literature.

Potato peel is the enemy.

As I said, I really had no trouble with the recipe (Mashed Sour Cream and Scallion Potatoes, by the way). OK, it is true that math tripped me up again. I should have realized that I didn’t need 8 servings of mashed potatoes for 2 people, and even if I hadn’t looked at the number of servings, the “7 pounds of potatoes” in the recipe’s ingredients should have at least been a red flag, but that’s another story.

No, this story is about the hidden danger that’s lurking in every mashed potato preparation: the propensity for peel-tastrophe.

I was feeling right on track with my Thanksgiving prep. The bird was in the oven and, fingers crossed, not stewing in a cornucopia of deadly bacteria. The game plan for the side dishes was on schedule, the desserts were made, and the potatoes, stripped of their jackets, were skinny-dipping away in a giant pot of boiling water.

Seemed like a good time to do a little cleaning up. So I shoved the mounds of potato peel down the sink drain and turned on the water. I flipped the switch to turn on the disposal. And then…

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November 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm 4 comments

Top 3 Moments of Panic from Thanksgivings Past (Part 1)

Will the turkey thaw out in time? Or will we have to postpone Thanksgiving until Saturday?

TimerThe thing about a frozen turkey is, you have to be able to find a spot in the freezer for it, which can be a challenge depending on how big of a bird you end up with. (For us, this is actually a blessing in disguise since it forces us to finally part with unrecognizable leftovers from last January.)

But the other thing about a frozen turkey is, you have to thaw it out, and here you tread a delicate line between a solid-as-a-rock, still-frozen state and horrible bacterial-induced death.

There also seems to be some math involved, which is always a bad sign, but if you follow the calculations precisely, by Thursday morning you should end up with what I ended up with two years ago: a still not-quite-thawed-out turkey.

My first solution was to panic. Once I had completed that task, my husband decided to run to the neighborhood grocery store and pick us up a fresh turkey.

Now, this may sound practical to you, or it may sound extravagant. But if you’ve ever been to the sad grocery store in my neighborhood, where you’re guaranteed to find lottery tickets and cheez foods but would be hard-pressed to find chicken breasts, the idea that he would successfully find a fresh, not-past-its-sell-by-date turkey, on Thanksgiving Day no less, was just plain ridiculous.

But somehow he did.

Within minutes, he was back home with a fresh turkey.

In the meantime, though, I’d come up with an even better solution: I called my mother.

She talked me down with some quick thawing tips and assurances that it wasn’t still as frozen as I might have believed and also that her quick thawing methods would likely not kill me considering they’d never done me in in all my years of eating Thanksgiving at home (with the exception, of course, of the year my parents opted for a Tofurky. Just the idea of the Tofurky almost killed me.).

Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, I sent my husband back to the store to return his new turkey. It was a good thing he didn’t have to go far, because he would need to be there for the next crisis that was about to strike…

Stay tuned for Part 2, “Potato Peel of Doom.”

In the meantime, I’m already panicking about being behind in this year’s preparations. For example, I’m past the deadline to make my leaf decorations and cornucopia.

November 16, 2010 at 12:55 pm 4 comments

The New Mr. Peanut: Now THIS is more like it

You may recall my childhood encounter with “Mister” Peanut, which I wrote about in the post Nutty Mr. Lady.

I’m glad to find out that Planters is putting a real man behind the shell in its new advertising campaign. The New York Times reports that Robert Downey, Jr. will be the voice of Mr. Peanut in new ads designed to revitalize the brand.

Mr. Peanut: Today You Are A Man

Planters’ ad agency rep says that RDJ’s “everyman suaveness” is one of the reasons they selected him to speak for Mr. Peanut, and really, who can argue with that?

But I admit, the bar for me is pretty low. I’ll be happy with pretty much any voice in the lower register. (And by the way, Planters, you might want to keep that in mind when you start sending the branded character out on the road for in-person promos!)

More:

November 8, 2010 at 2:08 pm Leave a comment

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