Marshmallow U, Class of 2018

A conversation P and I had over breakfast marshmallows:

“I think camping must be a lot like university admissions.”

“How so?”

“If you have money, you can buy your way in.  Waterfront, private beach, year-round.  If you don’t have money, you have to fight your way in along with the rest of the unwashed masses.  Maybe you get your first choice; probably not.  Seems to be based on merit but mostly it’s just luck.”

“You know you can actually hire people to write your admissions essays now?  There’s probably good money in that.”

“You’d be good at it.”

“I know.  Barf.”

Yelling At Kids In Nature™

Last week we went on our annual camping trip with the kids.

While the location affords almost zero cell reception, I still carried my iPhone with me everywhere I went, owing to the fact that it has a decent camera and the fact that unless I’ve got reading to distract me, writing is inevitable.  So I wrote down a dozen or so observations about camping that I’ll spam you with over the next week, I’m sorry and you’re welcome.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I wrote them all on my phone:


Does Word Crimes cross the line?

dictionary_grammarOne of my favourite words in the Spanish language is aguafiestas.  Its direct translation is “water parties” but it’s used to describe someone who ruins a good time.  In English, the closest equivalent would be “party pooper.”

I mention that because I’m about to be an aguafiestas.

I’ll tell you up front: if you’re an actual person who actually lives under an actual rock, what I’m about to say will make little sense.  But then again, you’ve chosen to set up shop with spiders and bats and pervasive dampness, and you’re willingly reading the dreck I shovel out, so I think we’ve established that sense isn’t your strong suit.

HOWEVER.  If you have managed to somehow hotwire your literal man cave into a wifi-enabled zone, perhaps you are familiar with the phenomenon that is Weird Al Yankovic‘s latest video, Word Crimes.  It was released yesterday and has taken the internet — by which I mean my personal Facebook feed — by storm.

It has its fans.  It has its detractors.  And it also has me, a Fourth Degree Pedant and Charter Member of Aguafiestas Internacional.  And here’s what I’m finding so irksome — one little word in a sea of many, one rhyme that is perfect (in the rhyming sense) and horrible (in the words-we-use-to-describe-other-humans sense).  Here is the section I’m talking about:

Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic
‘Cause you write like a spastic

Really?  Spastic?  That’s the best you could do, Weird Al?

I have a lot of feeeeelings about the use of that word, but here’s the short version.  It’s akin to using — at least in North America — the word “retard.”  It’s an “othering” word, a pejorative, one used to mock and deride people with physical disabilities.  It wasn’t always so; its meaning derives from a word for “pulling” or “drawing in” which can be used to describe the muscular differences seen in some individuals.  In common usage, though, it’s … it’s not a good word to use.

Most commonly, it would be used to describe people living with cerebral palsy, a disorder that can have dramatic physiological effects but doesn’t necessarily have an impact on intellectual functioning (which is implied by the “write like a” line).

Don’t believe me on that last point?  Check out my friend Katie’s website.  Katie has cerebral palsy.  And she writes a blog.  And it really is fantastic.

I should probably leave it at that, but as a part-time editor, I feel duty-bound to offer up a few alternative word choices.  Here are some other words that Weird Al could have — should have — used:

That was sarcastic / ‘Cause your writing is bombastic
Bombastic is a great word.  It means inflated, pretentious.  Suits pretty much every blog post I’ve ever read.  Or written.

That was sarcastic / You think you’re so scholastic
The best part of using a word like scholastic is that you know you’re going to have listeners who only know it as a brand: “Scholastic? Like the book order people?”

That was sarcastic / No wonder you’re monastic
Okay, it’s a cheap shot to go after someone’s sex life.  But surely no cheaper a shot than perpetuating the myth that a body’s physical challenges also limit the mind’s ability to appreciate — and celebrate — language.

Anyway.  That feels like enough agua for one day.  Apparently my daughter’s cadre of Hello Kitty dolls are having some kind of birthday party, and I’ve been invited to attend the fiesta.  Bring on the cake.

Dear Walter: You’ll be great

Yesterday, Seve decided that he wanted to write a letter to his bear, Walter … so he did.  As I described it on Facebook:

“The letter included Walter’s name, Seve’s name, a drawing of each, a drawing of a house and a drawing of a cave. Oh, and a drawing of some hydro wires. Then he made a bracelet for Walter, and included a set of keys (not ones we actually use). Then we weighed it (52 g), so we had to put five stamps (stickers) on it.  Very productive afternoon.”

Inside the letter, he traced the letters I’d written.  On the envelope, he printed them all by himself.  I posted pictures of both, and his grandma (my mom) made a sweet and benign comment about how Seve is a “budding writer.”

letter_to_walter_1 letter_to_walter_2







So I read that comment and, being a writer, reflexively started to compose the expected reply, about how writing is a terrible career, pay is lousy and wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies, you know the drill.

Except that: it’s none of those things.

It’s not a job for someone who wants to clock in and 9:00 AM and be out the door by 5:01 PM.  (But: my commute to the kitchen table takes 20 seconds and costs me what, one calorie?)

It’s not ideal for someone who needs a stable and predictable income. (Though: it can be, if you hustle, and if you’re hot hustle-prone, no kind of freelance or contractual work will suit.)

And it’s not something I’d wish upon my enemies, because if I had any, I suppose I wouldn’t want them to have fun, something that spending one’s time working with words most definitely is.

I’m reminded of something that happened to me when I was pretty young.  I was sitting on the steps of a house on 6th Street East in Fort Frances, Ontario, which meant it had to have been, at latest, the summer before I turned seven.  I’d written some little story and a neighbouring parent commented that I should be a writer when I grow up.

And I said: “Okay, but I only want to write fiction books, because then I can just make things up and I don’t have to do as much research.”

And then s/he said: “Actually, fiction writers have to do a lot of research, too.”

And then I said, in my head: “Well, fuck that.”

Because I was six and not a fan of hard work, and here I am 35 years later and I can’t say that impulse to otiosity has changed all that much.  Or has it?  I just took 30 seconds right now to make sure I was using “otiosity” correctly.

Anyway.  I feel like that one innocent conversation shut things down for me for a long time.  I didn’t stop writing but it did cease to exist in my own Arena of Aspiration, and to this day, the descriptor “writer” — even though it leads off my own dusty Twitter bio and satisfies Revenue Canada that I’m not earning a living through less salutary means — skeeves me out a little.

So if you’re going to have a conversation with a six-year-old this summer, and I do hope that you do, just know that what you say matters and echoes on.  Even if you’re right and that small boy fixated on saving each sidewalk-stranded earthworm does go on to be a veterinarian, maybe spare him the comment about euthanistic inevitabilities.  He’ll figure it out on his own.

We all do.

If you think I’m talking about you here, yeah, you’re probably right.

If you think I’m talking about you here, yeah, you’re probably right.