Book Review: One Day in the Life of Denis Ivanovich

I’ve long been interested in Russian literature, so when this title came up in the comments section of my favorite writing blog, I added it to my towering GoodReads “to read” shelf. A book club buddy gifted me a copy earlier this year and so I immediately sat down to read it.

The Penguin Classics cover of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, featuring a black and white photograph of someone in a prison.

Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; H. T. Willetts, translator

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.95

Language scaling: C1+

Summary: One day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet gulag.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in hyper-realism; anyone interested in Russian literature from the Soviet era

In-depth thoughts: Nothing happens, which will either bother you or it won’t. I’ve long been a fan of the “slice of life” kind of stories, where small struggles gain epic proportions (television shows like The Adventures of Pete and Pete or Seinfeld, movies like Clerks), and that’s largely what One Day… is. It’s just that the backdrop is a prison camp instead of American suburban life. If your tastes overlap with mine, then you’ll get a lot out of it. But if “a book about nothing, set in a gulag” sounds tedious to you, then it probably won’t be a lot of fun to read. (Not that it was “fun,” exactly.)

Because of the specific setting, and because so much of it centers around very small details and very small, easily overlooked items, reading the English translation might be difficult for lower level readers. (Unless you want to look up a whole bunch of new words about army barracks and stonemasony and so on). But for those already familiar with the original, or with a higher level of English, this translation is of interest.

The Value of Daily Classroom Journals

I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:

  • Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
  • Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
  • Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen

They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!

A silver pen in a blank, open journal.

The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.

While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher.  This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.

This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!

Friday 5: Returns

A few people skateboarding down Twin Peaks Blvd. in San Francisco on a sunny day.

What was the last item you returned or exchanged at a store?

I’m generally pretty conservative in purchases and don’t need to return or exchange things that often. I guess the last thing was some moldy veggie burgers? You can’t exactly see that something’s moldy through the cardboard packaging.

When did you last leave the house and then turn right back around and go back inside?

I do this fairly often, because I don’t have my life together. The last time I wish I had done that but couldn’t was when I realized I had forgotten the right journal page en route to a student.

What’s the latest you’ve ever returned a library book?

I’m a really good library user; I’m never more than a few days overdue, and rarely then!

What location among places you’ve traveled would you most like to see again?

I absolutely loved my long weekend in Indonesia and would love to go back for a longer visit. I’m also looking forward to traveling to South Korea for a wedding in 2019 (knock on wood!) and revisiting all of my favorites there–and possibly making some new ones?

What’s an unlikely movie sequel you’d like to see?

One of my fellow teachers in Korea once joked about “why didn’t anyone make a sequel to Titanic” except I wasn’t entirely sure that he was joking. I’ve never seen Titanic, though, and I have no interest in it, so that wouldn’t be a sequel I’d like to see (unlikely as it may be). Otherwise, is anything really an “unlikely” movie sequel these days? Anything and everything is up for grabs in terms of becoming a franchise, or at least a trilogy.

Var blev du av Bernadette

This review is maybe a first for the blog: a Swedish translation of a book originally published in English. But: doctor, heal thyself; teacher, teach thyself. My advice to students is always first and foremost to read as much as possible. Why shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

The Swedish cover of "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" with a cartoon portrait of a white woman with brown hair, wearing a yellow scarf tied over her hair and oversized black sunglasses.
Image courtesy Wahström & Widstrand

Author: Maria Semple

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.91

Language scaling: ??? (best guess, based on the Swedish translation: B2+??)

Summary: Bee has just gotten top marks at her alternative school and as a reward, her family books a cruise to Antarctica over the Christmas holiday. Everything goes topsy-turvy when Bee’s mother, Bernadette, goes missing.

Content warning: Bernadette clearly has a host of psychological conditions and I’m not in a position to judge if the book handles that well or not. I’m also not a fan of Semple’s treatment of the Asian characters.

Recommended audience: Anyone who needs a dose of whimsy and humor

In-depth thoughts: Semple does interesting things with form and switches between Bee’s own first-person perspective and an assemblage of documents to build this story, which could have gone wrong but didn’t. I had no problems switching back and forth from documents to Bee’s narration to documents again. Bee, especially, was fun to read and the best kind of teenage protagonist: sometimes insightful, sometimes naive, never stupid. And I appreciate Semple staying away from working in any kind of shoehorned romance or love interest for Bee. It’s like adults who write for or about teenagers can only remember the boy- or girl-crazy part of teenagerdom angst, nothing else.

The transitions between sections feel sloppy sometimes, due to a jumbled-up timeline. The little blurb at the beginning of the story makes it sound like Bernadette has been missing for years, not mere weeks. I think Semple or her editor had an intuition that the timeline would be an issue here, and that’s why every extract is clearly dated. I have my own opinions about how I would have handled it as a writer or editor, but whatever, those aren’t that interesting!

The one thing I’m not entirely sure about is the Asian gags. There are two and half points here: the fact that Elgin’s secretary (who I read as Korean-American but I realize now could also be Chinese-American) is an overall kind of insufferable character (depending on your preferences) and the one-liner Bee has comparing her to Yoko Ono. As another blog points out, this grates both because Soo-Lin is pretty obviously not Japanese, and because the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles!” meme is incredibly tiresome. So even when Bee apologizes later for the remark and realizes how it must have come off, the “Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles” meme persists. On the other hand, Bee has just graduated middle school and so is around 14 years old. I’m sure I hated Yoko Ono when I was 14, too. Even though my favorite Beatle was/is George. So that’s half a point.

It’s Soo-Lin’s gossip-y insufferability that’s more cringe-inducing than the Yoko Ono gag, especially when the only other Asian characters that appear are a group of Japanese tourists on the Antarctica cruise Bee takes with Elgin. There is an inherent fish-out-of-water humor that comes with foreign tourists, a group of people who are plopped down outside of their normal context, but still. They don’t add anything to the plot; their presence is just a comic device intended to render the setting of the cruise as absurd as possible. That’s one point.

The other is that Soo-Lin’s partner in crime and even more insufferable gossip pal, Audrey (who is the semi-accidental antagonist of the whole book) gets to have a redemption arc while Soo-Lin remains just…there. Still kind of an awful-but-you-feel-bad-for-thinking-so character, no redemption, just literally handwaved away by one of the other main characters.

Despite this small misgiving, overall I had a really good time with Var blev du av Bernadette. It was a compelling read, and it was just the thing for me to kickstart my Swedish reading in 2018.

What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Friday 5: Just Desserts

What’s your favorite breath mint?

I don’t have one. I don’t use breath mints. I drink copious amounts of tea in the mornings, before I go anywhere or meet anyone, and hope that covers up anything objectionable.

What’s your favorite chewing gum?

I was partial to Wrigley’s when I was a kid. I tended to chew at least two sticks at once, and had a habit of just popping in another stick once the flavor ran out. Inspired by Violet Beauregarde from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not intended as a role model, I’m sure), one time I actually stuck one of those two- or three-stick wads behind my ear. It’s not as convenient as Roald Dahl makes it sound.

What do you like on an ice cream sundae?

Jimmies and crumbled cookies! I don’t really care for whipped cream, chocolate syrup, or cherries.


What do you put honey on?

I save honey for my tea when I have a cold.

Where do you go for a good muffin?

I’m rather fond of Espresso House’s Choco Fours, even though I am ambivalent at best about Espresso House.

Book Review: Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

I make the best effort I can to read at least one non-fiction book every month. I think there is always benefit and enjoyment to be had in learning about the world around you (or, in the case of history books, the world before you), and it also is an important part of maintaining my chops as an editor, something like unofficial continuing professional development.

The cover "Whistler's Mother: Portrait of an Extranordinary Life." The title is set within the famous "Whistler's Mother" painting, to the left of the sitting woman.
Image courtesy Yale University Press
 Author: Daniel E. Sutherland & Georgia Toutziari
My GoodReads rating: 3 stars
Average GoodReads rating: 3.33
Language scaling: C2+
Summary: The biography of Anna McNeill Whistler, mother of the modernist painter James McNeill Whistler and the woman in the portrait Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1., known colloquially as “Whistler’s Mother.”
Recommended audience: Those interested in art history, nineteenth century American history, or feminist history.
In-depth thoughts: Biographies are some of my favorite non-fiction to read, as they can help contextualize what historical events and epochs would have meant for the day-to-day lives of more or less ordinary people. Whistler’s Mother does just that. Even though the focus is ever on Anna McNeill Whistler, Sutherland and Toutziari seamlessly tie her life into larger events happening around her and show how she was immediately affected: outbreaks of influenza and cholera; the American Civil War; the railroad boom that led to the Panic of 1873; the reign of Tsar Nicholas.
Like other, more historical non-fiction I’ve received from NetGalley (The Radium Girls)*, there is an abundance of names and people to remember. Anna came from a large family and maintained a large social network (via copious letter-writing); as a result there is a large cast of secondary characters, as it were, to keep track of. This can be hard going in ebook or Kindle form, at least for me. On the other hand, it is as exhaustive and detailed a biography of an individual as you could possibly want. Unsurprising, then, that it’s from a university press (in this case, Yale). The result is hardly light reading and relies heavily on excerpts and quotes from Anna’s own correspondence. This is part of the reason I would grade the language as highly as I do: this is correspondence that is 150 years old, give or take a decade.
But for anyone with a committed interest in the subjects I mentioned earlier (art history, 19th century American history, or either of the two through a feminist lens), it may be a read that is worth the work.
*in exchange for this review

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Days 15 and 16: Albany, NY

Day 15

We’re up early to see L  out the door to work. A makes some eggs and toast for breakfast, and we have some of the Söder to go with it and wake up from the late night. After some art and doodles, the oldest wants to have a puppet show, and I keep both boys distracted for long enough with Monkey the Dentist and Giraffe the Doctor that A  has time to jump in the shower and have a few minutes to herself (until the youngest gets some serious separation anxiety and I drop him off to be in the bathroom with Mom).

I also have a fun time reading to the oldest, because I love reading anything, even if it’s kiddie picture books for the five thousandth time. I chat with A  over the boy’s head when he’s deeply involved with a book himself, though we never get back to the topic of friendship and time. Once in a while he wants some quiet, or he wants attention, and he yells at us: “Stop talking!” After numerous incidents, A lectures him a little about having patience and waiting, and that’s the last “Stop talking!” for the rest of my stay.

We also read through a book about dragons, and at the end it mentions Komodo dragons. One of my students has family in Sri Lanka and has visited on and off, and told me once about seeing a Komodo dragon on temple grounds, where it was allowed to just hang out and be a Komodo dragon because you aren’t allowed to kill anything near the temple. I bring up the story with A,  and she mentions that oh yeah, when she worked at the zoo she got to get up close and personal with a Komodo dragon, close enough to touch it.

Cue the meltdown from the oldest.

“NO MOMMY DON’T TOUCH THE DRAGON”

All the days I’m there, he doesn’t go down for a nap in the middle of the day, so as the afternoon drags on he gets a little overwhelmed and fussy (which makes dinners a little rough going, but we bribe him through with alternating reading pages and having bites of food).

While the youngest (still an infant) is down for a nap, I go out for a run in the park across the road.

 

I jump in the shower to wash off the sweat and grime when I get back and air out my workout clothes on the porch. A offers to wash them with the family clothes, but I figure they’ll be fine with some fresh air. A smart move, as it turns out: a stray crayon ended up in the wash and while nothing was ruined, it made the process a little more stressful than usual. It stressed A enough already; if a guest’s clothes had been involved, it would have freaked her out even more.

 

But the big event, in between books and arts and crafts and puppet shows, is the oldest’s favorite TV show: “the moon show.” “The Moon Show” is just his name for it, of course; can you guess why he calls it that? A hint:

“Do you know what Miss Koba’s favorite TV show is?”

“No, what?”

“The Moon Show!”

I don’t understand what about MST3K can possibly appeal to three-year-olds but there you have it. We don’t make it through the entire episode before L gets home and it’s time to start getting ready for dinner, but enough that I’m satisfied. After dinner and baths and bedtime books, the three of us sit down to a classic MST3K episode (a fond Hamilton favorite: Eeegah!), which ends up being background noise while and I (with input from A) break down how the new season compares with the series and give voice to our assorted little nitpicks (I think Jonah comes across as really nervous in the host segments; A misses how cheap the props used to look). We don’t make it through the entirety of Eegah!, either, and this time everyone heads to bed much earlier.

Day 16

L has taken a half day off work the next day so he can be home and hang out with us a bit, and also talk to the guy from the solar panel company who’s coming to evaluate the best place to put more solar panels. That means he’s also home in time for lunch, which is pierogi, one of my absolute favorites. I’m touched that A remembers—especially when she has absolutely no way of knowing that I haven’t had any in ages. What Sweden calls “pirogi” are really pirozhki and now if I want any I have to make them from scratch myself instead of getting an acceptably tasty ready-made version. I read a bit more from Her Smoke Rises Up Forever during the afternoon, while L plays with the oldest. We also putz around outside on the slightly crooked swing set.

Dinner is a bit of a hassle, again thanks to lack of an afternoon nap, but “eat, then read” bribes (tonight’s book is The Missing Piece Meets the Big O) get the job done. Everyone is a little rushed because we’re expecting my high school friend Fox, along with her boyfriend,  for company and board games, so it makes the oldest’s fussiness a little extra trying. But everyone gets shuttled off for a bath and bedtime stories successfully. Instead of helping with bedtime stories like I did the last couple nights, I set to work sweeping up veggie burger bits and washing dishes.

Fortunately, Fox and her boyfriend are running a little late themselves, so we have plenty of time for snacks and board games and adult company. This even though L and I have an early morning tomorrow: a four-hour drive to Maine the day off the wedding. We won’t have a lot of margin for error!

US Regional Accents and the Philadelphia Accent

New Year’s Day, for me, is all about the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

It’s not necessarily something I always watched growing up—my family never went to see the parade in person or made the TV broadcast a viewing priority—but it was always there, as a background thing that was on the TV, with the costumes and the parasols and Two Street and “Oh! Them Golden Slippers!“. Like everyone with extended family in or near Philadelphia, I have some great uncle or distant cousin who was a Mummer. Now that I’m an adult and away from the Philadelphia metro during the holidays, I usually catch at least a few of the Wench brigades and String bands on streaming or on YouTube after the fact. I’ve used video clips as a jumping-off point to talk about New Year’s traditions.

Listening to the street-level interviews with some of the Mummers, you can also hear plenty of examples of the Philadelphia variant of the Mid-Atlantic American English accent. If you’re curious, Sean Monahan has a pretty solid library of videos about the specific features of the accent, as well as some (tongue-in-cheek) examples.

I grew up just outside of the what would be considered the geographical constraints of this accent; both of my parents grew up within the suburbs of Philadelphia and then migrated just a smidge north. Naturally, to my ear, neither of them have a particularly pronounced accent (though my dad, who grew up closer to Philadelphia proper than my mom, has an accent that will come out when he talks to his brother) and I don’t, either. We say “water,” not “wooder,” “radiator” doesn’t rhyme with “gladiator,” and “crayon” and “crown” aren’t homophones. The regional dialect, for me, is more reflected in word choice than in accent.

One of the more telling pieces of vocabulary when it comes to American English regionalisms is what you call “a large sandwich consisting of a long roll split lengthwise and filled with layers of various ingredients such as meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and condiments.” I grew up calling these “hoagies” and was naturally very confused the first time I encountered a branch of the Subway chain, wondering if this meant an entire subway system had suddenly appeared in town. (This sounds facetious but I must have been just five or six years old when this happened, I should point out.) Maybe other of the various regional appellations for this kind of foodstuff will eventually die out, but thanks to Wawa, “hoagie” will probably live on. At least in Wawa country.

The other word that remains for me is “jimmies.” This is perhaps best illustrated by examples.

Seven cupcakes on a wooden table, with white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.
Image courtesy Rich Helmer

These cupcakes are decorated with sprinkles.

A white hand in a blue and white striped shirt holds a chocolate cupcake decorated with rainbow sprinkles against a pink brick wall.
Image courtesy Charles Etoroma

This cupcake is also decorated with sprinkles.

Image courtesy Uros Jovicic

But this cupcake is decorated with jimmies.

Some further reading on the Philadelphia accent can be found on The Dialect Blog and this more recent piece from the Washington Post. The thing about a Philadelphia accent is that, as Arika Okrent points out, is that there doesn’t seem to be a pop cultural touchstone for it. (“But Rocky Balboa!” Yes, Philadelphia loves Rocky, but Sly Stallone isn’t a solid representative of how the locals actually talk, though at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if his performance has single-handedly shaped the accent.) Give a close listen to Chris Matthews, Tina Fey, Jim Cramer, or James Rolfe.

Happy New Year, youse guys!

Friday 5: Better Cliches

What’s something you really never forget how to do?

I think riding a bicycle really is one of those things, though? Swimming, too (if you ever learned how to, anyway). I would have been tempted to put down “The Electric Slide,” because it seems that anytime it comes up, it’s a collective cultural memory and that even if you couldn’t so it by yourself, the group knows how to do it—but at my friend’s wedding back in August the DJ put on “The Electric Slide” and no one could remember, so another friend who does contra dance had to actually call the moves for us. I guess you can forget how to do The Electric Slide!

It’s been going on five years since I worked as a cave tour guide, but I suspect you could put a maroon polo shirt on me and send me down as an auxiliary back-up guide without any problems.

 

What really has charms to soothe the savage breast?

And I still think music is the best answer to this one.  Otherwise: dopamine? sedatives?

What really makes the world go ’round?

When I went to Google a good explanation for the original cliche for this one, I automatically looked it up as “love makes the world go ’round,” forgetting that “money makes the world go ’round” is equally fixed in the English language. I guess I’m a little bit of an altruistic idealist after all!

But of course, what really makes the world go ’round is gravity.

 

What really makes the heart grow fonder?

Absence, but punctuated with periods of proximity.

 

What’s really the sincerest form of flattery?

I think imitation has some very creepy vibes to it. It says more about the person doing the imitating feels about themselves than how they feel about the person they’re imitating, a lot of the time. And I mean: flattery is usually about trying to get something out of someone, right? You wouldn’t go into your boss’s office to ask for some extra time off wearing the same watch and suit, for example. (You might mirror their body language, for example, but that’s not quite imitation, is it?)

So if flattery is an attempt to get something, and is by its nature insincere, what’s the most sincere form of that? The most honest form of flattery is, I suppose, a bribe.

The most sincere way to compliment someone, or to indicate your admiration, affection, or respect for them, is another matter entirely. For me, it’s the little things that count—randomly texting me when they think of something funny or sending me a link they think I’d be interested in, remembering something I’ve mentioned before. Small things they by no means have to do when it comes to being a friend, but do anyway.