What’s a memory you have of a nearby stream? At some point during my elementary school years, our church congregation (or maybe just us kids) realized that the church’s property didn’t extend to the edge of the parking lot, but all the way across a neighboring field. We took this as a license to immediately tear through the long grass and down to the tree line to see if we could find anything, and were pleasantly surprised to find a crick we didn’t know about. It was full of mint leaves and skunk cabbage and interesting rocks, and the whole thing felt distinctly magical. It left enough of an impression that I wrote about it for a school writing assignment later that school year.
We never went exploring there again, as far as I can remember. Something about it not being entirely church property. Or maybe parents told us that to keep us from running off and playing unattended.
The world is a lot bigger and has a lot more magic when you’re a child.
What’s a good film scene or song lyric involving a river? Hm. A two-fer first.
I have a great track by the indie band Brother called “River,” but it’s not on YouTube so that gem will just have to stay hidden for now.
What fond memory do you have of a lake? My family spent a week at a hunting cabin in Vermont for maybe a dozen summers, right on Tinmouth Pond (officially Lake Chapman). No TV, no Internet, just the woods and the water. We always spent a day or two at the nearby Emerald Lake state park as well. I LOVERMONT!
What’s the most fascinating sea creature? I was obsessed with dolphins for years, but as an adult I have to admit that they are . . . kind of assholes? The same goes for orcas (which apparently are technically dolphins, not whales?). So I don’t know what to think about sea animals anymore. How about octopuses? They’re cool.
What’s something that caused you to cry tears of laughter? The only times I end up crying with laughter are those times where I’m laughing at how much I/someone else is laughing, usually over something not that funny, which then makes it even funnier, and then I’m laughing at myself laughing at someone laughing at the unfunny joke, and it just keeps snowballing. Like, for example, one time it was a really cheesy Weekly World News cover image of a fish with . . . hands? a human face? Something like that.
Now I’m a week behind on Friday 5 posts, but that works out for me. The questions sometimes go up relatively late in the day (at least here in Stockholm), so it used to be a bit of a rush to get them out on time. Now I have a whole week to answer them!
First, some appropriate tunes:
What makes you unreasonably irritated?
I like to think that most of the things that irritate me are reasonable. 😉
What are you unreasonably particular about?
Punctuation! Spelling! Grammar! Language usage! But then, only if you pay me to be. Or if I think you’re someone who should know better. (A book I was otherwise enjoying from Kindle Press talked about a “heart-warming antidote.” I hope someone will fix that in an updated edition, because the author and the rest of the story deserve better!)
What’s something that’s unreasonably complicated?
Oh man, doing taxes. I don’t mind paying them, because I understand they’re a necessary part of a functioning society, but all of the surrounding paperwork is nightmarish, and I don’t think it needs to be. The US, compared to many other countries, has a nightmarish and needlessly complicated tax-paying process (as opposed to needless or oppressive taxes). In Sweden, for example, most people can just pay their taxes by SMS. It’s not quite that easy for me, as a freelancer, but it’s also not so bad. There are also multiple umbrella companies out there whose sole purpose is to make the whole tax process easier for freelancers; I just made life harder for myself for no good reason.
I think if we revamped the tax-filing and tax-paying system and made it easier and less of a hassle, more Americans wouldn’t be so incensed about paying taxes.
What are the best reasons for working in your field?
As far as teaching goes, it’s immensely satisfying to feel like you are immediately and concretely making someone’s life better. Your work isn’t useless or pointless. Unfortunately, this idealism is too often leveraged against teachers, effectively bullying them into working beyond their paygrade or the original scope of their work, because how dare they prioritize something like money above their students?
My feelings about copyediting are similar. You’re helping someone create the best product possible. You can see the results of your work immediately and you know that it matters (to the author, if no one else!). People at least seem to value copyeditors a little more than teachers—at least, their commitment to helping others isn’t used as a bargaining chip to deny copyeditors the pay or resources they deserve and need to do their job.
What are some good reasons for the most recent silly purchase you made?
I don’t typically make “silly” purchases. The closest thing to a silly purchase that I’ve made at all recently was some shredded cauliflower marketed as “cauliflower rice.” I know it’s a marketing tactic (“cauliflower rice” sounds more appealing than “shredded cauliflower”; people generally like rice more than they like cauliflower), but I just wanted some pre-shredded cauliflower. I knew it wasn’t going to taste like rice, and I wasn’t buying it because I thought it would, so I don’t know if that really counts.
First of all, I’m always amazed that Bob Dylan isn’t dead yet. I think this is because I’ve always been under the impression that he was well in his 20s or even 30s by the time he appeared on the music scene. The truth is that he was closer to 18, so I suppose it’s actually not surprising at all that he hasn’t shuffled off this mortal coil.
I’ve already talked about my favorite lyricists back in April, to celebrate National Poetry Month. You might notice that Bob Dylan isn’t on the list. To be perfectly honest, he’s never been one of my favorite musicians or lyricists. Funnily enough, the night before Dylan’s win was announced, he was a topic of conversation among myself and a few of my friends, specifically related to protest and political music. I brought up Edwin Starr’s “War” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” (but then promptly forgot the lyrics, oops!). One friend countered with:
“Okay, but like, Dylan. Ugh, I hate Dylan. I like The Band so much better.”
“Well, I’ll give you that. Dylan writes great songs for other people to cover, but I can’t stand his voice.”
When the Swedish Academy announced Dylan’s win the very next day, I was almost tempted to email an article about it to said friend. (I didn’t.) I still felt a little like a kingmaker, though. My trash obviously makes people Nobel Prize winners. If you have a favorite author who you believe has been snubbed for a Nobel Prize, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to tip the scales in their favor for 2017. 😉
All jokes aside, though: even though I don’t particularly care for Bob Dylan, I’m not particularly upset over his win—not on the grounds of him not being a “proper” writer, anyway. There is something to be said about the moral obligation of literary prizes to award deserving but unknown writers, and Dylan’s celebrity, as well as his artistic chops, have been well-established by this point. This is the same awkwardness that underlies Neil Gaiman’s 2016 Hugo for best “Best Graphic Story”: Neil Gaiman has garnered enough acclaim by now to comfortably coast on it for the rest of his life. (That’s another post, though. Some extenuating circumstances make Gaiman’s win a bit different.)
Perhaps the sad truth simply is that more people deserve a Nobel Prize than can possibly win one.
Yesterday, Christians across the world celebrated Ascension, known here in Sweden as Kristi himmelsfärsdsdag: the date of Christ’s ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after Easter. Unlike in the United States, Ascension is observed as a national holiday. The religious nature of yesterday (well, not here; Swedes just love an excuse for a long weekend in spring!) got me thinking about all of the expressions we use in English courtesy of Christianity and the Bible, particularly related to the story of Easter.
You’ll find plenty of lists online of “Christian idioms” or “Biblical idioms,” but many of them are more like explanations of outdated language often encountered in the Bible rather than references or turns of phrase still used today. Here are a few, all related to the Easter story, that are still in contemporary use.
A cross to bear
The image of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha has remained in English as a metaphor for an unpleasant duty to fulfill, or a burden one has to carry. Most commonly misheard, in “kiss this guy” style, as “cross-eyed bear” in Alanis Morisette’s You Oughta Know.
And I’m here to remind you
of the mess you left when you went away.
It’s not fair to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.
You, you, you oughta know.
(“It’s not to fair to deny me of the cross I bear…” is a little awkward; it should be “It’s not fair to deny me the cross I bear…” but the extra “of” helps the rhythm so there it is.)
If we want to emphasize that the issue at hand is especially difficult, we might talk about a heavy or difficult cross to bear. Either way, it’s not a bear with eye problems.
When something is a cross to bear, the suggestion is that it’s a life-long issue, or at least for an extended period of time. Managing an addiction, dealing with trauma, getting over a past relationship (as is the case in You Oughta Know), or living with a chronic illness is someone’s cross to bear. A trip to the grocery store when it’s full of people is not a cross to bear. Nor are the heavy groceries you have to carry back home or to the car.
Speaking of crosses, we often use the verb crucify (to be hung from a cross in the Roman style) to describe being the object of public outrage and derision, or of persecution. Generally speaking, crucify is often used to describe the public’s desire to see a figure suffer.
Christ, you know it ain’t easy.
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
they’re going to crucify me.
“The Ballad of John and Yoko,” John Lennon
Why do we crucify ourselves
I crucify myself;
nothing I do is good enough for you.
and my heart is sick of being in chains.
“Crucify,” Tori Amos
A doubting Thomas
This is another expression from the story of Easter. Anyone who is skeptical or suspicious can be a doubting Thomas(even a woman!). Here is the story, from the gospel of John:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Thomas’s skepticism earned him the eternal nickname (in English) of “doubting Thomas.” More specifically, a doubting Thomas is someone who requires physical evidence of a belief or assertion rather than just taking it on faith. To call someone a doubting Thomas isn’t necessarily rude, but it’s usually intended in a mildly disparaging manner—like the doubting Thomas is someone who has overly stringent standards, or someone who should learn to trust other people.
“Don’t be such a doubting Thomas! I tried this recipe before and it’s delicious, I promise.”
Now if being a doubting Thomas isn’t an entirely awful thing, being a Judas definitely is. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Easter, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Christ for 30 silver coins. He’s also anyone who betrays you.
Just like Julius Caesar
was betrayed by Brutus.
Who’d think an accountant
would turn out to be my Judas?
“Betrayed,” from The Producers (Mel Brooks)
To wash your hands of something
This is an image that came to English via the story of Pontius Pilate condemning Christ and has later been reinforced through Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In the Easter story, Pontius Pilate offers the crowd a chance to spare Christ, but they refuse and insist he release Barabbas instead.
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.
They said, “Barabbas!”
Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”
Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
And over a thousand years later, Lady Macbeth attempts to wash her hands as a means of assuaging her guilt over the murder of Duncan.
Out, damned spot! Out, I say! … What, will these hands ne’er be clean?
If you wash your hands of something, it means that you no longer wish to be associated with it in any way, and that you no longer wish to have responsibility for it.
This typically happens when you’re completely and totally frustrated with something, or possibly tinged with guilt over it. Since we opened with a lyric from Alanis Morisette, let’s bookend things and close with one, too: Hands Clean.
We’ll fast forward to a few years later
and no one knows except the both of us.
And I have honored your request for silence
And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.
In the US, April is designated as National Poetry Month (among many other things). And while I’m an English teacher, I admit that I actually don’t care much for poetry. Heresy! But put that poetry to music and suddenly it becomes something magical. I’ll let other writers and teachers tackle the poets; this poetry month I want to talk about songwriters and lyricists. Music is often touted as a great way to learn a language, and I believe that wholeheartedly, but I think the quality of the lyrics makes a huge difference in how effectively you can learn from a song.
There are too many that I could possibly list, but no matter what I would have to start with Tom Chapin, the poet and bard of my childhood. He’s always my first suggestion when parents want English children’s music. His songs use simple language and a wry sense of humor, and many of them promote positive lessons on topics like tolerance in “Family Tree”:
The folks in Madagascar
aren’t the same as in Alaska.
They got different foods, different moods
and different colored skin.
You may have a different name,
but underneath we’re much the same.
You’re probably my cousin and the whole world is our kin.
or environmental stewardship in “Someone’s Gonna Use It”:
When you stand at the sink did you ever think
about the water running down the drain?
That it used to be in the deep blue sea
and before that it was rain?
Then it turned to snow for an Eskimo
to use in a snowball fight.
Then it floated south ’til it reached your mouth
to help you brush your teeth tonight.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Someone needs that water
when you’re through.
‘Cause the water, land and air,
these are things we’ve got to share.
Someone’s gonna use it after you.
Twenty-odd years later and I still know entire albums by heart. They are catchy tunes.
It’s worth mentioning the late Harry Chapin, Tom’s older brother and a giant in the American singer-songwriter/folk scene. Tom’s music for families and children is great, but sometimes you want something a little more mature. Harry had a knack for weaving stories, often bittersweet or outright sad, into his music. “Cat’s Cradle” is basically the story of parenthood:
My child arrived just the other day.
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay;
he learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
he’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad.
You know I’m gonna be like you.”
I’ve long since retired; my son’s moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time.
You see, my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu.
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad.
It’s been sure nice talking to you.”
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
he’d grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.
And “Thirty Thousand Pounds of Bananas” tells the actual true story of an out-of-control tractor trailer full of bananas in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
He was a young driver,
just out on his second job.
And he was carrying the next day’s pasty fruits
for everyone in that coal-scarred city,
where children play without despair
in backyard slag-piles and folks manage to eat each day
about thirty thousand pounds of bananas.
If you’re not a fan of folk music, then allow me to shift gears into popular music for a second. The genre has a bad reputation for being shallow, but there are great writers in the genre. My long-time favorite is Ben Folds, who (like Harry Chapin) is a fantastic storyteller, though with an electric guitars-and-keyboard pop style instead of a solo acoustic guitar. He also has some great character studies:
Your Uncle Walter’s going on and on
’bout everything he’s seen and done.
The voice of 50 years experience,
he’s drunk, watching the television.
You know he’s been around the world.
Last night he flew to Baghdad
in his magical armchair.
Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back.
The spit’s flying everywhere.
Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark.
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall.
He has cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes;
things that remind him: “Life has been good.”
he’s worked at the paper.
A man’s here to take him downstairs.
“And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.
(“Fred Jones Part 2)
Be warned that Ben Folds doesn’t shy away from using strong language, so this isn’t one for your younger children (maybe). But for those of you who don’t mind salty language, “Army” and “Song For the Dumped” are two of my favorite of his story songs.
Finally, if you prefer something a little more offbeat, you can’t go wrong with They Might be Giants. While some of the lyrics border on absurd or nonsensical (like “Dead”), and others on standard pop music’s repetition of just phrases and rhymes for rhyme’s sake (“Cyclops Rock”), there are lots of more linear, story-like songs.
I never knew what everybody meant
by endless, hopeless, bleak despair,
until one day when I found out.
The first time I ever left my house
it saw me and followed me home,
and stayed with me for my whole life.
For years and years I wandered the earth,
condemned to a life of bleak despair.
Then, one day, I looked around
and found it had disappeared.
(“Hopeless Bleak Despair”)
How can I sing like a girl
and not be stigmatized
by the rest of the world?
Tell me, how can I sing like a girl
and not be objectified
as if I were a girl?
I want to raise my freak flag
higher and higher, and
I want to raise my freak flag
and never be alone.
Never be alone.
(“How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”)
They also have a couple albums of educational albums out: one for letters, one for numbers, and one for science.
I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. That’s plenty of new music to explore, isn’t it?
Who are your favorite songwriters? Is there anyone I should know about? Comment or Tweet at me!