Tuesday, July 16, 2013

For the Love of Words

Words, words, words. Sometimes we use too many when we speak (and write) and sometimes we use too few. Do you use words that most people are unfamiliar with or do you speak and write with clarity and concision? Are you laconic or verbose?

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that I love working with the English language. I have a passion for writing and I love playing word games like Scrabble and Boggle, and doing crosswords. I’ve even created my own word puzzle book called “Wordsynerd.” (see: Amazon.com)

Good writers know that one of the most important aspects of written communication is to get their message across in a clear and concise way. This means saying what they have to say with a few strong, meaningful words rather than running on with words that most people don’t understand and a message that is swallowed up in a quagmire of garble.

Consider this excerpt from a recent National Post article:

My experience, and the recent conduct of this organization, are redolent of the most frequently invoked failings of the working press: Its self-appointed leaders, in the CAJ [Canadian Association of Journalists] and otherwise, are morally bankrupt myth-makers, full of self-righteousness, endlessly attending workshops and conferences in which they ululate from the podium about rights, duties, and the perfectly informed society. This hypocrisy and claptrap dishonours the majority of working journalists who are, in fact, despite a frequent lack of thoroughness, relatively fair-minded men and women trying to do their jobs and report it as it is. Black, Conrad (2013, June 22). Journalism’s self-righteous myth-makers. National Post. Retrieved from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com 

Did you get past the first sentence? Do you know what “ululate” means? I have nothing against the occasional abstract word that is thrown into a speech or an article and if I’m captured by the author’s style and content, I will take the time to find out what it means. Building our vocabulary keeps our minds sharp, but if a writer tries to impress me with big words and a lofty writing style, the opposite will be achieved. For me, one of the biggest faux-pas in writing is to look down on the reader with pompous, irreverent language. Anyone can dress up a piece of writing with clever words that they find in the dictionary or thesaurus, but will the reader be engaged? No matter how interesting the subject matter is, if it is drowned in literary clutter, the less compelling the message will be. Thank you, Conrad Black, for the example of how NOT to write.

I once wrote an article for a trade publication and the marketing director of the company rewrote it in a style that was convoluted and obscure, populating it with words that I would never use. I showed his article to three professional people and none of them had a clue what he was trying to say. When I showed them my article, they said it was straightforward and clear, and that they learned something from it. The marketing director’s revised article was published and I was embarrassed to have my name associated with it.

Here is another excerpt from an article written by a well-known Canadian journalist:

In the past few years, ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – has become the go-to diagnosis for kids who can’t sit still in school. Today, almost every class includes some kid who’s on Ritalin, Adderall or another stimulant. These medications calm them down and improve their focus. But astonishingly, their long-term effects are largely unknown. We’ve been conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment on our children, with no idea whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Wente, Margaret (2013, June 18). Does Ritalin really help? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/does-ritalin-really-help/article12608922/

Clear, concise, and compelling - thank you, Margaret Wente. I don’t always agree with your point of view, but I read your articles because you engage me with your interesting topics and clear, concise language. One of the most important things I learned about writing through my various studies is that readers identify with people, not with abstractions.

So, when you are writing a letter, an essay, a memo, or even an email, I hope you’ll know which of the above examples to follow. And if you ever catch me using pompous or suffocating language, please let me know!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


He looks at me longingly. He craves a moment of my time and a snippet of affection. If he is in the room with me while I’m on the sofa, he’s quick to snuggle up close, often on my lap. No, I am not talking about my husband. I'm referring to our pet rabbit, Waffles. If you haven’t had much to do with rabbits other than “Peter Cottontail” or as the main ingredient in a fine French stew, then you will learn something new from this article.

We adopted Waffles from a friend about three years ago when he was six. He was a Christmas present for our then fifteen-year-old son who had been pleading for a bunny for years. I thought a pet rabbit would be like a hamster or a guinea pig, cute but minimally interactive. I presumed that the feeding and cage-cleaning would eventually fall onto me, the mother, as is often the case with family pets. Another household chore that I wasn’t thrilled to add to my already overloaded domestic plate.

But before long, Waffles had hopped into all of our hearts. He offered solace when we were down (we call this “Waffles therapy”) and companionship to everyone in the house, including our dog, Taffy. Incidentally, Waffle's name was Taffy when we got him, but we had to change it to avoid confusion. We considered using Taffy 1 and Taffy 2, but that idea won out to Waffles, our son’s choice.

Waffles lives in a comfortable condo type cage, all on one level, but with a couple of rooms. He has a carpet that he can hop onto outside of his cage whenever he wishes. There is a hut on that carpet, which we call his bedroom. He doesn’t venture off the carpet because he is afraid of the slippery hardwood floor. In the morning he’ll spring onto the carpet to greet us with an anxious plea for affection. If we kneel on the floor beside him, he’ll put his little head on our knee and luxuriate in a head massage. And when I talk to him he flicks his right ear and twitches his whiskers. I’m sure he knows what I’m saying, but my younger son thinks I’m a little woo-woo to believe that.

Taffy is a lap dog and weighs just a few pounds more than Waffles. But surprisingly, Waffles is more inclined to sit on our laps than Taffy is. If he is out for a hop-around on the carpet in the family room while I’m watching TV, he’ll jump onto the couch and then onto my lap, and will stay there for as long as I pet him.

When springtime comes and the weather warms up, Waffles spends many hours in our fenced-in backyard. As is a rabbit’s nature, he’ll burrow under a shrub to conceal himself from predators. While there, he enjoys digging in the earth and flipping twigs. If I happen to be in the yard doing garden work, he’ll come out from his lair and pay me a visit. I think he knows that I won’t let any big bad creature get him!

Studies have shown that rabbits who have constant human interaction will live twice as long as those who don’t.  Likewise, milk cows will produce twice as much milk when they are given names and are spoken to with kindness by farm hands. And I’ve been told that even speaking to plants will help them become healthier and more fruitful, which apparently is no myth.

So, talk nicely to your pets, and the birds and the bees, and also the trees. But most importantly, be nice to your mother (so I tell my children)!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tales from an Amateur Gardener

The entance to my garden...I wish!
 Carla, Carla, how does your garden grow? “Not so well, if you really must know.”

I love gardening. I mean, I hate gardening. It can be creative and gratifying or frustrating and annoying. Sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Let me explain: As you know, gardening is a lot of work. There’s weeding, churning the soil, mixing in bags of nutrient rich earth, the garden planning, the purchasing, and the actual planting.

For me, the soil prep is the worst. You can really strain your back hacking at the concrete-like clay that we have in our neighbourhood. I know all about it because I recently spent a day chopping away at the garden beds in our backyard with an axe because I couldn’t make headway with a shovel. The good news is that I finished the job and then planted my annuals and some new perennials. I will check daily to see how my garden is doing and make sure to water regularly. This is the satisfying part. Now I can just maintain and enjoy.

Or not...

The problem is that I’ve been through this before, spending days getting the garden ready, only to be sabotaged by elements outside of my control. For instance, last year I planted three beautiful long-stemmed rose bushes. I did everything the instructions told me to do and they were beautiful...for a week or two. Then came the Japanese beetles, those nasty little hard-backed bugs that seem to defy all means of eradication. Health Canada reports that these little monsters are the hardest garden pest to deal with. Not only do they eat leaves and blooms, but grass roots as well. The best way to get rid of them – says my research – is to pick them off the plants one by one when they are drowsy and then drown them in a bucket of water. Not so much fun when there are thousands of them. If you don’t have time to do that you can buy a beetle trap which lures the beetles and then traps them in bags. Unfortunately, these contraptions sold out quickly last year and I missed the boat. I resorted to manually picking the beasties off the plants, but I couldn’t keep up with them. Seems that I was just offering more dining opportunities for their friends.

At least my annuals were flourishing. Guess how long that lasted? Before long, the beetles found my flower containers and from one day to the next my beautiful arrangements, that I’d so meticulously designed and planted, were chewed right down to the stems – every blossom obliterated. I wanted to cry, especially when they devoured the leaves of our beautiful white flowering shrub beside the deck. By now I wasn’t just sad, I was mad! Out came the Raid – my last resort. Normally, I’m environmentally conscious and don’t want to succumb to pesticides, but I had no choice. I couldn’t let these nasty vermin overtake my entire garden... or my psyche. The spray seemed to help, but the shrub itself didn’t take too kindly to the chemical invasion. I think it liked the beetles better.

Another disaster was my summer weeding project a couple of years ago. The weeds – dandelions, clover creeping Charlie and crabgrass – were taking over the entire front yard. This, after having done the recommended lawn maintentance such as adding compost, fertilizing and aerating. Since we are no longer allowed to use chemical weed killers in Toronto (and the organic ones just don’t work) I went after them with a spade and trowel. I spent a few hours every day sitting on the grass digging them out by hand, one weed at a time, which was a great way to connect with neighbours, by the way.

“How’s the weeding going, Carla.”

“Great! I think I’m making progress.”

“Are you beating those weeds, Carla?”

“Yup, I’m definitely winning the weed war.”

“Good for you!”

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Before I had a chance to fill in the empty spaces with earth and grass seed, a new crop of weeds suddenly appeared after a heavy rainfall. The lawn became worse than before I’d started the painstaking weed-digging task. I’m sorry to say (and I hope I won’t get in trouble for this) I had only one option left: chemicals. You can’t buy chemical weed killers in Toronto, but you can get them in the States and bring them across the border. There is no law that prohibits you from doing so. We use it carefully and sparingly, but it’s the only thing that seems to work.

In the last few years there has been a host of fatalities in my garden: a hydrangea tree, a hydrangea shrub (the all-season plant), a cedar, a fir tree, and Russian sage...to name a few. Perhaps my thumb is more blue than green. Not to be completely dour, I do have a few success stories. My father gave us a stunning peony plant as well as some cedars when we moved in and they are thriving.

My last gripe that I’ll share with you (although I have many more!) is my tulip trouble. Last fall I planted a huge bed of tulip bulbs that I meticulously surrounded with chicken droppings, which is the best squirrel deterrent, says the Toronto Botanical Gardens, where I bought all my spring plantings. Come the spring, I anxiously awaited the fruits of my labour to surface. Low and behold, not one tulip appeared. The squirrels had eaten each and every bulb. The only evidence of my efforts was a few straggly daffodils that the squirrels had rejected.

In sum, I’ve lost my spring plantings, my summer plantings, and my lush green lawn to insects, squirrels and insidious weeds. I’ve wasted hours of time and a lot of money endeavouring to make my garden pretty. What’s the point, I ask myself? Why should I even bother?

But every year is a new year. Guess what I spent most of my Victoria Day weekend doing? Yup - tilling, planting and weeding. I’d like to think that a new season brings new possibilities, a little bit of hope, and finally...a nice garden.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Curse of Stuff

this is not our house...just so you know!
Do you have too much stuff? Is your garage so packed with things that you can’t get your car in there? Are your closets overflowing with so many items that it’s hard to find what you are looking for? If the answer is yes, you are not alone. We have a collective problem in our society and we might as well admit it.  Because the more stuff we accumulate and the more space it takes up in our lives, the more overwhelmed we become, and the heavier the burden in our minds, our hearts and our souls. Perhaps it’s time take action. And for those of you (and I know a few) who have already mastered clutter- free, spending-controlled living, I laud you and applaud you. Maybe you can share some tips on how you do it.

Our family home is a decent size and I must confess that sometimes I feel like we are drowning in our stuff. When we downsized about five years ago from an even larger home, we had a great opportunity to purge, and purge we did! (the strollers, the car seats, the old IKEA furniture from earlier days). My intention was to keep our garage free and clear of junk and to use the laundry room and the furnace room to store seasonal items and occasional products like wrapping paper and Christmas decorations.

As our sons grew older and their interests evolved, the space quickly filled with band equipment, vinyl records, large speakers etc. Then there are the tools. My husband, the sometimes handyman, has collected enough tools to fill a barn.I’m exaggerating, but we do have an awful lot of tools and gardening equipment. My own downfall is clothing. I know I should get rid of old pieces when new ones come in, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Hence, an overstuffed closet that can make it challenging to find what I’m looking for.

I don’t consider the penchant for accumulating stuff as just a physical space problem, but a grave psychological problem as well. I am no psychologist, but it seems clear to me that we are gratifying some need by accumulating stuff and then holding on to it much longer than it’s needed. Maybe we have a deep-rooted fear of another serious economic depression like in the early 1930s, when jobs and stuff were hard to come by. Maybe we think we are protecting ourselves from starvation or something by clinging to material goods.

We tend to believe that much of our stuff has sentimental value even if it doesn’t have material worth. That chipped china in the box in the garage that our grandmothers used to serve Sunday dinner on, or the overstuffed chair that is splitting at the seams, where great-grandpa used to smoke cigars and read the paper. A professional organizer might suggest we set the table with the china, take a picture of it to help keep the memory alive and then chuck it. Same with the chair – do we really need to keep that bulky piece, taking up space and collecting dust, just for the memory?

 In the 1950s, the average American home was about 900 square feet and in 2011 the average size was over 2500 square feet. And families were larger back then. Despite the fact that we have more space now and less people to share it, we have more stuff than we know what to do with. Some people rent self-storage units so they don’t have to deal with the overflow. There is over 2 billion square feet of self-storage space rented out in the U.S., and a proportionate amount in Canada. Sometimes those storage units are abandoned and the items are auctioned off—are you familiar with the popular television show “Storage Wars?”

I was happy to see daytime talk-show host Katie Couric doing a show on “getting organized” not too long ago. And I was particularly pleased to see that she herself has a "stuff" problem. She brought the viewers into her home office and openly and honestly went through the messy and over-packed space with a professional organizer. She had a hard time letting go of things that she hadn’t seen for years or even remembered that she had. That short TV clip gave a very strong message about society’s need to cling to things that really don’t matter at the end of the day. Here is a clip from the show about 5 things you can do to prevent clutter: FIVE RULES TO PREVENT CLUTTER (scroll down to the bottom of the page)

Who is to blame for this societal weakness? Advertisers...commercial developers (more stores and more selection)...the Joneses? Or ourselves?  Well it’s springtime now, although it doesn’t feel like it in blustery Toronto, and I think my family should invest some time in finally dealing with the curse of our stuff. By summer we might feel a little lighter and a lot happier. And I might have more room in my closet for some new clothes...just kidding!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The "Creative Pause"

I don’t like wasting time and I don’t like being bored. I’m the one in line at the airport reading a book, or in the grocery store checking emails at the check-out. I have a hard time arriving early to events and waiting for the function or performance to begin. I’ll avoid arriving too early to a movie because I don’t want to sit in the theatre waiting in the dark. I buy tickets online in advance and arrive as close to the start time as I can.

I realize that I may sound “type A”, but really I’m not. I’m not a perfectionist or wildly competitive. Nor do I consider myself controlling. But what I am for sure is impatient. Is this a bad quality? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. During job interviews I’ve responded to the question, “What is your biggest flaw?” with, “I’m impatient.” I follow this by saying that I’m motivated to get the job done and find it difficult to wait for others to do their part. I’m efficient. I’m a “let’s get the job done” kind of person. No dilly-dallying.

My family is not like that, especially my teenage boys. They move at their own pace and it’s even challenging for them to get to school on time (despite living just around the corner). One of my sons had over thirty ‘lates’ during his first term. “But I’m only a minute or two late,” he says. He thinks it’s worth the sporadic detentions he receives. He says he hates wasting time sitting at his desk waiting for class to begin. This, I understand.

I bring reading material wherever I go. But this can also cause problems. One time, I was waiting for my number to come up at the passport office. They were at 42 when I arrived and my number was 96, so I pulled out my book and started to read. When I looked up to check the numbers several minutes later, they were only at 46. I’ll be here forever, I thought. My nose went back into my book. The next time I looked up (about forty-five minutes later), the number was at 105. I rushed to one of the kiosks and showed the attendant my 96. “Too bad you missed it,” she said. “Can you please squeeze me in next,” I pleaded? “Sorry,” she said. “You’ll have to get a new number and start over.” I was incensed. “You’re kidding me,” I said. “Sorry,” she said, grimacing. “I can’t help you.”

This past Christmas Eve I had a few errands to do during the day: buy a baguette for the next morning, flowers for the hostess that evening, a book for my husband. But everywhere I went, the lines at the cash were huge, sometimes trailing outside the door. When my turn came to be served at the bakery counter, there were no more baguettes. I left the store frustrated and agitated. The bookstore was no better; the line was about twenty minutes long. Same at the flower shop. The holiday bustle, which I usually enjoy, exasperated me. Walking down the street in search of another bakery, I came across a nail salon, the only establishment not crammed with people. So I went in and had a pedicure – oh, such peace, such joy, such a pleasant interlude! However, by the time I was done, I had to rush home, empty-handed and late, to get ready for the festivities. No time to shower, iron my dress, or tidy up. I was a madwoman, trying to get myself and the family ready and on the road.

And of course, we were late.

What I’ve learned from this reflection is not so much a lesson on time management and patience, but a lesson about boredom. I need to fill every moment with a constructive activity, something that makes me feel I’m using time, one of our most precious commodities, efficiently. “Only boring people get bored,” the saying goes.

The other day I heard about a study revealing that “boring and bored” are not bad words, that when our minds are inactive is when our creativity can flourish. The mind needs to settle down and be still in order to absorb ideas and allow for our imagination to work. This can happen while waiting your turn in a line, taking a shower, or even brushing your teeth. It’s called “the creative pause.” It seems I’m not alone in this “do anything to keep from being bored” mindset. Electronic gadgets are the best boredom fighters ever invented and they are ubiquitous: joggers listening to iPods, pedestrians talking on their cell phones, and until recently, drivers texting on the road.

Not long ago, I asked my doctor if there is a motion-sickness drug that would prevent me from feeling queasy while reading on the subway. She smiled and said, “How about putting your book down, closing your eyes, or watching the people instead?” That would be so boring, I thought at the time.

Perhaps she and those boredom studies are right. Maybe we all need to give ourselves permission to give our minds a break. If I’d had a little more patience and was less worried about being bored, I’d have completed my tasks on Christmas Eve, been less frazzled getting ready, and not been late for the festivities. And maybe I’d have given my head a creative break. But then, I wouldn’t have had nice toenails.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Scrabble Madness

I have a secret vice. It involves technology and many hours of semi-mindless diversion. I’m not much of a television watcher or a video gamer, though I have nothing against others who enjoy these forms of entertainment. Personally, I’d rather read or socialize than watch television or play games on screens.

Here’s my confession: I recently discovered online scrabble and I think I’m addicted. As a writer, I spend a lot of time writing books and articles or researching. I love words and the way they can be manipulated to make a point. I love the creative aspect of building a thesis or a story by stringing words together to make an impact. I love the pictures that can be created with words and the rhythm they can produce.

Playing scrabble doesn’t do any of these things. It’s more like putting together a puzzle of letters. I must also admit that through my penchant for the game, I have learned an array of new words, but haven’t even bothered looking them up. Words like KA, QI, QAT, ZA mean nothing to me other than the points they garner. The biggest thrill is to use all your letters in one go  (a bingo), which earns you fifty bonus points. 

You can “befriend” a player and find each other for future games. You can also chat with your anonymous opponents on a message board. We congratulate each other for a game well-played or for an awesome word. I learn many interesting things from these North American players. For instance, a woman told me that her son, who was in the army reserve, was called in to fight the dangerous fire raging in Southeast Oregon and she was playing scrabble to distract herself from her worries.

One gentleman from Arizona, who I became scrabble “friends” with, is almost thirty years older than me and a whiz at the game. He told me he’s been playing for about seventy years. I enjoy the competition and his clever, cheerful banter. He also told me that Canadian players are always polite.

Then there are the sore losers. Some players quit half-way through because they have no hope of catching up. The gracious ones continue playing right until the end even though they are getting creamed. One time, someone was pummeling me and about three quarters of the way in, my computer crashed. I'm sure my opponent thought I quit because I was losing. 

The problem with this game, as with many computer, video, television, and various other electronic diversions, is that once you start playing you can completely lose track of time. One evening I finally stopped at 2:30 a.m. after having been at it for several hours. How could I whittle away so much time? Not only was I losing precious sleep, but I would start the next day in a woozy fog. The worst thing was that this kept happening. Instead of reading before going to bed, I found myself playing scrabble until my head dropped onto the keyboard.

As a freelance writer, I can’t afford to waste a lot of time. During my waking hours I should be working on assignments or seeking them out. And when I’m not working, I should be doing something active rather than sitting in front of the computer playing games. But alas, after spending a few hours at my work station (which happens to be in my kitchen), instead of using my break to tackle the dishes or other domestic chores that have accumulated, I make myself a cup of coffee and launch into a game of scrabble.

I’m starting to understand how my kids can spend hours playing video games. For years, I’ve been at them to leave the screens and be more physically active. But understanding it doesn’t make it all right. I think it’s time to restrict my scrabble time and muster up some self discipline and become more physically active myself (does housework count?). If I can’t practice what I preach, I have no right to criticize anyone else for their electronic obsessions. It's time to at least limit my scrabble madness.

By writing about this, I thought I might convince myself to cut back on my online scrabble obsession. But now I just want to play more!  I’m afraid that my self-imposed scrabble moratorium will have to start tomorrow, or the day after...