Archive for Mad Scribblings

First Words: A Children’s Style Guide

First-Words

From “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560

I was musing today about the peculiarly magical vocabulary of children, and then started recalling some special words from my childhood. I love these words because they represent a lost innocence of language—like a dead language we all experienced first hand but have hidden away for safe-keeping.

Such words are not easy to remember perhaps because most were trampled (in some cases painfully) by sensible adult words. Somewhere along the line, I learnt not to say “lightning bug” anymore because the correct name is “firefly”; same with “shooting star”, it’s “meteor”. But there are also silly words that no adult could have talked us out of, like “pee-pee”, “bumblebee”, “piggyback” and “choo-choo train”, which are special simply because they’re fun to say.

And then there are those golden spoonerisms, mistaken words that sunder the language with unimagined new sounds. Words like “bisghetti” (“spaghetti”), “bolleyvall” (“volleyball”), “varine” (mine for “ravine”), and my younger sister’s tour de force “Principal Lion” (for “Prince Edward Island”).

I tried to find some sort of style guide on children’s words but came up empty handed. A brief search of the Internet revealed itself tiresome and cynical offering none of the magic but only grey pedagogical resources on correcting children’s speech or exploitive photos of salacious spelling errors found in children’s art. “Well son, your innocence would have been lost altogether had we not posted it to the Internet.”

Do you have special words hidden away since childhood? If so, write me and let me know. I would like to gather them into a style guide of children’s words.

Please include the following:

  • The word and its meaning (or your younger self’s interpretation)
  • Your name and city of origin (if submitting on behalf of someone else, please include that person’s name and your relationship).
  • If possible, the known age of the person when this word came into being (an approximate is fine).

View a sample of First Words – A Children’s Style Guide taken from what’s been collected so far.

Convect Your Way to Success

Convect Your Way to Success Or What I Learned from Continental Drift

At the turn of the twentieth century, there were two theories bandied about to explain the curious matching of coastlines, most notably the near-perfect spooning of South America into Africa.

One theory put forward was that Earth must have been much smaller in the past and then expanded—like a balloon—forcing the coastlines apart.

The other theory was that the continents simply lost interest in each other and over millennia gradually drifted apart.

Hobby-horse-continents

Originally, the Expanding Earth theory held the dominant sway among those concerned with such phenomena while Continental Drift held little. But over the ensuing decades of research, the two theories reversed their polarity and now Continental Drift has gone mainstream relegating Expanding Earth to a back eddy of angry comic book artists ranting late night on myspace.

I drift. And why not?
It’s good enough for continents; why not me?

The problem with an Expanding Earth is that there’s no known (or plausible) source for that expansion. Where’s all the extra matter coming from and what’s moving it? Whereas Continental Drift has a clear energy source, Expanding Earth has none. You can’t move anything, least of all continents, without energy.

Continental Drift’s energy source emanates from the earth’s core where gravity (the Earth’s and the Sun’s) is heating up the mantle and causing convection to put pressure upon the surface. A common analogy for this process is soup boiling on a stovetop causing its surface scum to move (continents are scum—you heard it here first).

Yes, Continents Drift.
But Whither They Wander, They Care Not.

I knew a man who insisted that medieval maps, with all their childlike inaccuracies, were in their day actually truthful depictions of the world at that time. In his understanding, it was Continental Drift that had rendered the maps inaccurate.

I should have asked if the fanciful marginalia depicting griffins, sea monsters, and galleon-devouring leviathans were also factual, they presumably having mysteriously died off just as the Age of Reason dawned, “Thar be monsters! Oh wait. Never mind, they’re gone now.”

There is an ocean of truth that separates how we perceive things and how they actually go. Imagine, as in the scenario above, if we had gone from Gondwanaland to the present setup in under 500 years. What a bumper-car ballet that would have been—land masses scudding across the seas, their inhabitants waving helplessly from the hilltops as they sailed past. Morocco would say “Farewell”, to Nova Scotia while “Hasta la vista!” would come a final chide from South Africa as Argentina departed bound for pars incognito. “Hey, mind your steppe!”, Nepal and Tibet would sneer in condescending unison at the careless approach of the Indian…ahem…sub-continent.

Other than deep time and incalculable amounts of basalt, what’s the difference between continents and people? If India were—half way along its route into Asia’s underbelly—suddenly to stop mid ocean and say to itself, “Where was I going with this again anyway?” Continents simply drift, but it’s fair to say they never digress.

Continents Drift, but People Digress

As previously discredited, Expanding Earth postulates that there was a smaller Earth, then something (magical) happened, and the Earth became larger. Expanding Earth is pure fantasy yet it does serve to explain how dreamers dream.

I don’t mean visionaries or people who live to see their dreams fulfilled. I mean, unrealistic people or any of us when we’re thinking unrealistically, because let’s face it, it’s in us all to waste a portion of our lives dreaming fruitless nonsense.

We think, in these times, “I’m small and then when something magical happens, I’ll be bigger.” But if we’re to affect real change in our lives, we have to follow the lead set by the continents under our feet. Such change requires constant pressure and patience—the universe is taking care of patience (in spades!)—so it’s our job to take care of pressure.

Continental Drift is sometimes a very personal matter, although in a general sense it can be summed up in the following six-step process:

Step 1:   Set your course in the direction you want to go and then start going there. Talk to people, build your resources, take action, do things, most of all…apply pressure.

Step 2:   Expect nothing (you’re not likely to see any results for a long time). Don’t miss this step—it’s very important.

Step 3:   And don’t digress. Keep applying pressure in the direction you want to go.

Step 4:   Eventually something’s going to give. It will happen like a jolt—like an earthquake. It may even seem like magic (it will certainly seem like magic to others who don’t see all the pressure you’ve been applying). You will have moved incrementally in the direction you want to go.

Step 5:   After the jolt, the pressure will be released for a time. Nothing will start happening again. Don’t worry.

Step 6:   Repeat steps 1 through 5.

That’s it! It’s not magic. Sometimes drifting moves mountains. Hell, it’s good enough for continents, so why not you?

“No man is an island,

entire of itself;

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less,

as well as if a promontory were.

as well as if a manor of thy friend’s

or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind;

and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

it tolls for thee.”

—John Donne, 1572–1631

The Moon and the Leaf Blower

Moon&LeafBlower

Apart from the noise and the self-evident futility of the common leaf blower, what most disturbs me about the whole practice of charging money to fling nature’s bounty into the neighbour’s yard is its name. It lacks a certain…poetry.

In English, we’ve employed clever tricks to give everyday joe-jobs a sense of honour and wonder. These include translation into dessert-sounding Romance languages and obfuscation with marketing bumf (aka, bull).

Take our penchant for French titles. Translating some plain old English thing into French instantly transports it from the mundane suburb where it resides to the court of Louis XIV. Thus, “Kitchen Help” is elevated to “Sous-chef”, “Hairdresser” is blown away by “Coiffeur”, and “Civil Servant” escapes all its grey servitude in the guise of “Attaché”.

We also like to upmarket ordinary jobs by inventing bullshit English job titles. This technique effectively euphamizes their true nature, transforming the lowly “Dishwasher” into a “Ceramic Technician” and the “Garbage Man” (in addition to solving the need for gender neutrality) into the commanding “Waste Aquisition Officer”. This practice circulates so widely it scarcely raises eyebrows anymore, as in the “Marketing Assistant” who now can claim status as “Social Media Guru”.

But “Leaf Blower”…hm. That one stands awkwardly in its field (both the job and the machine)—unadorned and entirely lacking any pretension of upward mobility.

What if we borrowed a little from French—would the title gain some of that gallic allure if we opted for “Coureur de Feuilles”? Has a certain je ne sais quoi, non?

Or taking a more technical tack, we could simply render “Leaf Blower” as “Astro-arborist”, as in “Dammit Jim, I’m just a doctor, not an Astro-arborist!”

Celebrate National Upspeak Day?

BC Ferries’s busy route plying the waters between Victoria and Vancouver sees lots of tourists, many of whom have no idea about (or care for) the local marine life they’re sailing over.

Perhaps that’s why the crown corporation has seen fit to add a biologist to its retinue of stewards, cashiers, and deckhands—to provide a little eco®–friendly PR about local marine life up top as their powerful propellers churned it up down below.

On a recent trip, the particular onboard biologist on duty delivered her short talk on marine ecology—entirely in up-speak…

She:

“Eelgrass is a flowering plant?”
We:

(Silence)
She:

“It’s found along the coast of BC in sub-tidal areas?
We:

(Silence with a few looking about for the exits)
She:

(Before anyone could decide whether to accept or refute her previous semi assertions),
“Marine animals depend on it for their survival?”

By this point, her up-speak had an urgency that was making everyone uncomfortable. Those who hadn’t already left were now fidgeting with their phones (perhaps hoping the answers could be found there—you never know, debarking might be preceded by an exam). I tried to listen and learn something, but finally got up for coffee and some other less arduous distraction.

Hey Bird! You’re Beautiful

HeyBrid

As many animals cannot recognise themselves in a mirror, it’s extremely helpful to them if you tell them how great they look. Don’t just walk by and say nothing.

 

Say something reassuring like…

“Hey bird, you’re beautiful!”,

or…

“Way to go Mr. Rat. I like the look. Very edgy, very edgy.”

 

This is tremendously helpful to their self esteem and you’ll probably feel good just saying it too.

rats3.0

Laughter. How did all that get started?

LaughingHands-sm

There’s much talk about the theory of how fire was harnessed,
And of the wheel, of who got killed first, and of Caan and Abel.
But what about laughter? How did all that get started?

Did something rise up out of the depths of endless time,
Having within it, already formed,
The seed of humour?
Like it was tickled into existence.

From what pool of primordial mirth did laughter emerge?
The eye was a blob that evolved to see, of course,
But when did it first twinkle with inner merriment?

Was the first laugh a howl or just a little chuckle, like a spark.
Did the first spark emit a giggle or a chortle?
Then, over millennia, did the little smirks and titters grow and spread.
Until they blazed into guffaws and cackles?

In the time of stones, what foolery ridded men of their ancient hours?
Long before the first civilization arose and fell,
What little tribe of wanderers collapsed
Into gales of laughter?
Before there was slave and master,
What hilarity first captured the people?
Until tears streamed down their rough-hewed cheeks
(now chiseled also with laugh lines).

Who first slapped a knee?
Who was the first joker?
The first clown?
The first wise guy?
Who first discovered the punchline?
Who first laughed at a fart or a funeral?
Who’s belly first ached from laughing?

And when were we first given over entirely to this great mirth?
Like we were tickled into existence.

Sigh.

Grammar NAZIs! Meet your Nuremberg Trial

Or…When good grammar just isn’t good enough…

Vancouver’s suburban Lougheed Highway wends its way through Burnaby with predictable consistency. At each Skytrain station paralleling the route follows a rhythmic punctuation of corporate conformity — a London Drugs, a Starbucks, a Buy-Low Foods, a capping glass condo tower. Then repeat to the horizon line. Monotony enough to put envy into the heart of any Cold War-era urban planner. So much for Capitalist diversity.

How gratifying to know then that there are a few cells of non conformity hiding within the corporate state. Take for example, the copy editor. While much of the literate world has long since parsed out the difference between “its” and “it’s”, how refreshing to come upon a non-conformist writer who dares to shake up the rules of grammar a bit. Otherwise, explain these gems.

With its jazzy use of “it’s”, I find this subtitle scintillating. It jumps out like a tangy note of peppercorn in an otherwise grey merlot. “It’s top business sectors” or more accurately “It is top business sectors” connotes authority in a way the correct form just can’t.

Don’t be fooled — the clever writer of this next one knows how to get eyeballs on paper.

Amphibious

Compared with the worn-out tricks of social media gurus and their endless listicles (“OMG – The 7 Things you need to know about nose hairs that will completely change your life forever!”), I’ll choose the well-placed malapropism every time!

There are corporate disruptors; then there are the outright anarchists. The latter I believe to be behind this next masterpiece of subject/pronoun mixology.

Subject/verb agreement magnum opus

Subject/verb agreement magnum opus

Putting aside the grey imagery of office furniture representing not a company and most certainly not people, it would be so simple to just change “company” to “companies” and put an end to this vertiginous dance between the pronoun (“them”) and its potential suitors (the two nouns in the sentence). But isn’t “company” a “them”, which has people in them? Yeah I s’pose, but it’s a collective noun so it should be singular…but wait, it’s people we’re talking about…them is people. Inside people? You see. That’s why I prefer the roller coaster whiplash Magna Search Group unleashed to the pedantic approach favoured by textbooks. It’s far more exciting.

And can you imagine yourself a fly on a wall at the Marketing think tank when they came up with such a slogan? Okay start again, “Only a company is good, if they have people in them.” No, “Inside of a company, they is people, good ‘uns.”, No wait, I’ve got it. “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read”, um…

This next one is just pure anarchy and needs no further comment.

It's raining cats and dogs, with a chance of lizzards this evening...

It’s raining cats and dogs, with a chance of lizzards this evening…

How It Ends: A Post-Apocalyptic Schubertiade

Scientists speculate sometimes that an asteroid impact would be what it would take to throw us all back into the Stone Age. But no one ever imagined that the end of Modernity could actually turn out to be something much less dire.

In the end, it was a coronal mass ejection that took down our power grids—we lost all satellite communications, international travel, automated traffic systems, and Smart phones.

Lacking what we’d known as modernity, we could do nothing but gather with our friends about the piano…singing by candlelight.

So, it was not a bang, nor a whimper. Instead of the Stone Age, we’d been thrown into the Biedermeier.

Post-apocalyptic Schubertiade

“They all agreed that they could scarcely remember the time when ceaselessly checking their iPhones seemed so important.”

On the First Day: The Importance of Planning

God knew nothing

I’m taking an IT course at BCIT loftily entitled, “Business Analysis and Systems Design”. It’s about project management for large enterprise systems, and with data coming in that such projects have a terrible track record—about 75 per cent fail or go way over budget—there’s a need to refine the planning process and train people better.

Some have postulated that the universe is really just a vast software system, but that idea always infers that it’s a successful system. What if God knew nothing of project management? What if He just jumped in and started making the cosmos with no clear plan of where he was going?

Here’s one scenario:

God Goofs OffOn the first day, God rested. He figured He had a whole week to create the cosmos so “hey, like what’s the rush?”

On the second day, God got up, made a cup of coffee, and checked His email. He had over 7 million messages.

Most were spam.

On the third day, God logged into Facebook and updated His status—28,000 times.

Then He tweeted about it.

On the fourth day, God realized that He had better start to seriously do something about creating the cosmos, so after lunch He created the night and the day. But then He realized that it might be too dark at night (even with the moon, which he hadn’t created yet), and people would get lost or fall down in the dark and would probably curse His name, so He revised His decision about creating the day and the night deciding that it might be a bit rash without considering all the repercussions of this cosmos building stuff before jumping in.

He resolved to sleep on it and start fresh the next day.

On the fifth day, God got an idea. He decided that He’d create the waters and the firmament. “Oh my God”, said God, “That would be so cool”.

But then He thought, “What’s the point of water and firmament (does anybody even know what the heck “firmament” is anyway?) with nothing to swim in it or fly through it? Instead, He thought it would be super fantastic to create all the birds, bats, insects and other flying things as well as all the fishes that swim in the sea.

He stayed up really late creating all that cool stuff.

The sixth day wasn’t a good day for God. On the sixth day, God woke to find that, without the water and the firmament, all the birds of the air and fishes of the sea had died horrible deaths. It was pretty depressing (and it smelt bad too).

God wasted most of the sixth day cleaning up from the fifth.

On the seventh day, God woke up in a cold sweat well before His alarm clock rang. It was dark and cold and He realized He’d done nothing useful to create the cosmos. He told Himself that He’d certainly tried—”but life can be so unfair, you know”—and now He didn’t have a prayer of getting the cosmos ready in time. What He needed was a miracle.

And just as he was about to curse His fate for the third time, God noticed a handbill from Wal-Mart and it was offering a ready-made cosmos for sale. At these double discounted prices, God knew this would cover His Ass perfectly. Sure it was cheap and made mostly of plastic and particleboard (probably in some country with dubious labour practices and no environmental regulations), but with all the plug n’ play features, it would do just fine as a last-minute solution.

God thought, “Hell, why not?”

wal-mart-smileyOn the eighth day as God checked out of Wal-Mart, He then noticed that, where His original idea for the cosmos stressed cooperation, this pre-fab version was built on the Darwin model of competition­–survival of the fittest. “Oh well”, thought God, “It didn’t matter really.” He was out of time and short on good excuses.

“Besides”, God said to Himself as He left the parking lot,
“No one would even know the difference.”

Simplicity

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry

I spent the month of July this year in Paris. In summer, Paris is very exciting with the Fête de la Bastille parade, the Bal des Pompiers, the Tour de France, and many other festivals all happening simultaneously. The city crackles with excitement. Yet with two thousand years of history, what is a little missing in the summer sun are Paris’s subtler sides.

I have a deep love for the quietude and timelessness of Medieval thought. I’ve always admired the multi-panel manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc du Berry for its depiction of simple life…and that blue, blue sky that seems to bear witness to a timelessness now so rare. Part of the book depicts everyday life throughout the year (it’s a book of hours afterall). What I never knew was that in the October panel, the castle is a real one and that it still exists—in part. It is the original Louvre.

Over the centuries this old castle, with its many ardoise turrets, was gradually erased and replaced by successive regimes bent on modernizing it and putting their stamp on it. But in 1989 when excavations were made to build the Carrousel du Louvre (the pyramid), the original Louvre was rediscovered.

One bright and hot day, I followed the self-guided tour that takes you down to the foundations and origins of the Louvre. On the walking tour, you can now walk through the original moat and the substructure of the walls and donjon (keep). There’s nothing much else remaining, just simple stonework, yet my eyes set these stones high against that azure Medieval sky. And stared.

Upstairs, the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and a thousand other art treasures awaited, and yet I stood mesmerized by these unadorned stones. It’s not what you’re looking at so much as what it evokes.