Friday, September 24, 2010

My magic thesaurus

Last week I received a standard letter from Penguin New Zealand rejecting my manuscript. This despite the fact that I've worn a Penguin Classics tote bag during the entire three-month wait. Clearly Penguin didn’t appreciate my loyalty, not to mention the free advertising.

I sensed it was a ‘no’ even before opening the envelope, the only subtle clue being that the letter was accompanied by my manuscript in a self-addressed stamped envelope. I was unsure whether to feel disappointed or relieved after a quick inspection of the spiral-bound photocopied book revealed no one had actually read it. There was no dog-earing to signal a reader’s pauses. The pages were immaculate, without a single coffee stain. And let’s be reasonable here: who in the world can read 464 pages without a hot beverage?

I will, however, give them credit for at least having an original rejection letter. Instead of the usual “We wish you the best of luck with another publisher,” they wrote: “We wish you the best of luck elsewhere.”

But I already knew Penguin would reject my manuscript. I knew this not because I’m a nobody and Penguin is the largest trade book company in the world. Not because they publish bestsellers like Homer’s Odyssey and The Bible. No, I knew they would reject my book because my magic thesaurus had told me so.

Let me explain. I’ve owned the same thesaurus since seventh grade. My yellowed copy of the Roget’s New American College Thesaurus has survived near-fatal water damage and a form of degenerative disembowelment, resulting in unalphabetically arranged chunks of pages which go from “aristocracy” to “bushy” to then jump directly to “justice” to “paw”. Despite its condition, not only is it by far the best dictionary of synonyms and antonyms I’ve ever consulted, it is also capable of foretelling the future.

Its magical powers of divination revealed themselves to me one day years ago when I haphazardly grabbed it for the Random Word technique. You know, to brainstorm creative solutions to a sticky problem, you open a page in a book and blindly place your finger on a word. (I learned the hard way that this technique is not recommended for deciding what to cook for dinner.) But what I got that day was no random word but a peek into the very future. “There are no accidents,” as the wise turtle states in Kung Fu Panda.

I’ll give you an example of my Magic Thesaurus’s eerie clairvoyance. I once had a hopeless crush on a guy. I interpreted his morning silence at the photocopier as a sign that he probably didn’t reciprocate my feelings. I interpreted his engagement to a German woman in the same vein. Nonetheless, one night I had a powerfully romantic dream that this guy and I were deeply in love; as he held me by the hand, we walked past a festive room full of people. Crimson does not do justice to the color of my face when I bumped into him at the laminator the next day. But despite all my efforts to push him from my mind, the same dream repeated itself a few months later.

I needed some help. I seized my trusted thesaurus and shut my eyes, focussing hard on my dilemma. Then I snapped it open and stabbed my finger into the lower-right corner of a page.

The word under my finger was “fate”.

My heart began hammering. Could it be that, despite the odds, we were meant to be? However, within seconds it dawned on me that “fate” could signify that we were either meant to be or not meant to be.

“A lot of help you are today,” I scolded my Magic Thesaurus and repeated the process.

“Destiny,” said my Magic Thesaurus.

If my thesaurus really had a voice, it probably would have uttered this last word in thundering notes and there would have been some lightning cracking in the background. Because that guy and I are now married with a two-year-old.

So you’ll understand why I took my thesaurus so seriously when I consulted it before sending my manuscript to Random House New Zealand.

“Dismiss,” it said.

Oh, that was painfully clear. And accurate. Two months later Random House dismissed it with the fervent assurance that a professional reader had indeed read and assessed it. Obviously not a coffee drinker.

And so it was with increasing trepidation that I consulted my Magic Thesaurus before mailing my book to Penguin. I closed my eyes and did yogic breathing as I focussed on my question. Would Penguin New Zealand give me a break? Slowly, I peeled open the book and slid down the page before my finger came to its natural resting place.

“Orange,” said my Magic Thesaurus.

“Orange?” Well, it did make sense. After all, Penguin’s logo is that loveable black and white bird against an orange backdrop. But what about the fate of my book? Instead of irreverently asking my thesaurus the same question again, I deliberated for a few moments. Then I understood. My Magic Thesaurus had chosen “orange”, Penguin’s signature color, as if to say, “Penguin is what it is. You can’t change their tastes.”

And let’s face it, I haven’t exactly written The Bible. Even if it’s just about the same length.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How to think in Italian

Photo by Gino Di Mare
I lead a double life.

On Monday and Friday mornings I’m a confident English teacher. I drill my students on the use of the present perfect. I use a red pen. I annunciate. My evenings too are spent in the English language, once my husband comes home and I ask him about his day. But the rest of my week is dedicated almost entirely to speaking in my adopted language, Italian, so that my son can grow up bilingual. (My husband’s second language, German, was vetoed for fear he would grow up to wear socks with sandals.)

Sometimes I slip up and out comes the naked truth of my double life. For example, the other night as my husband and I were putting our toddler to bed with his favorite cuddly animal (a snake), I blurted out, “He wants you to grab la coda (the tail).” However, I can assure you that these embarrassing instances of crossover are very rare indeed. Only in moments of severe sleep deprivation could my Italian world possibly collide with my English one. That’s because I can only think, and therefore speak, in one language at a time.

But thinking in a language – in this case, Italian – is not simply a matter of conjugating verbs correctly or choosing appropriate vocabulary: you must transport yourself into a world where your very thoughts themselves, at a conceptual level, are Italian.

So how does one think in Italian? Here are some tips:

Think long. Have you ever wondered why Italians talk so fast? Well, they don’t really. It’s just that Italian words are generally longer. They have more syllables, which means that if you ever want to get to the end your sentence before getting cut off – a commonplace occurrence in overpopulated countries – you’re going to have to speed it up. A cold (one syllable in English) is raffreddore (4 syllables). Wrapped up: imbacuccato (5). Curled up: raggomitolato (6). Hastily: precipitosamente (7). This overabundance of syllables is the reason why Hollywood actors dubbed into Italian all sound like Speedy Gonzalez. Think how quickly Dorothy (Do-ro-thy, 3 syllables) has to speak to get the Scarecrow (Spaventapasseri, 6) to give her directions along the yellow-brick road (strada di mattoni gialli, 8).

Think philosophically. Do not assume that longer words equal harder work. On the contrary, as your mouth works its way through all those syllables, your brain receives the precious gift of time. Time to think about what word is going to come next, to figure out how you’re going to finish your brilliant thought. This unique quality gives Italian speakers the ability to sound erudite and philosophical in the most mundane situations. For instance, the handsome stranger next to you in the long line at the post office might lean over and whisper:

Scusi, non trova anche Lei che sono precisamente questi impegni della vita moderna che ci portano inevitabilmente ad una maggiore riflessione interiore?” (“Excuse me, miss, but don’t you find that it is precisely these commitments of modern life that lead us inevitably to look inwards?”)

And when you wake up beside him the next morning, he might say:

Il mare rispecchiato negli tuoi occhi supera di gran lunga la sua bellezza nello stato naturale.” (“The sea reflected in your eyes is far more beautiful than it appears in its natural state.”)

I’m hoping my son will one day learn how to do this.

Think specifically. Unfortunately, some of the time you’ve gained for philosophizing will need to be spent selecting the most accurate terms. The Italian language is gloriously – almost Germanically – specific. A door is not just a door. There’s porta (say, a bedroom door), portone (the front door), portiera (a car door), sportello (say, the oven door) or ingresso (the door you pay at). This should come as no surprise coming from a country where cheese is not just cheese: try melting anything but mozzarella on your pizza or – heaven forbid – sprinkling cheddar on your spaghetti, and you could be arrested for subversion.

Think in different sizes. Thinking in Italian inevitably means thinking in small, medium and large. Is your pimple an inoffensive brufoletto, a straightforward brufolo or a cosmetic-resistant brufolone which leaves you no choice but to lance it and cover it up with a bandaid? Is the car you want to describe a child’s toy macchinina, an average macchina, or an ostentatious macchinone that advertises the driver’s anxiety about his manhood? Let’s be honest: size does matter. And Italian absolves you of any remaining political correctness by requiring you to pass judgement on the matter. To at least be honest. To call a spade a spade (or, as the Italians say, to call bread bread and wine wine: dire pane al pane, vino al vino). And to supersize where necessary.

This liberating exercise in diminutives and augmentatives also gives you permission to freely vocalize terms of endearment to your loved ones. Whereas there is little respect for English speakers who publicly indulge in linguistic displays of affection with terms such as “my little lovey,” “you big puppy” or even “my little onion”, pet names like amoruccio, cucciolone or cipollino are not only acceptable in Italian, they are almost as compulsory as engagement bands are in Southern Italy after a first date.

Ah, the brain works in mysterious ways. On that note, I’ll end here with a word to English-speaking family, friends and colleagues: when we’re talking to each other, rest assured that I am fully present in our conversation, linguistically and, to a lesser extent, mentally. However, because most of my days are spent conversing in Italian with my toddler (if a monologue can constitute a conversation), I must admit that whenever I think about you it will probably be in Italian.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Writing in pyjamas

Image by Rosie Kerr
I must admit to you that as I write these lines I’m rather underdressed. There’s no cause for alarm – I’m in my pyjamas. Just count yourself lucky that today I’m wearing rather sedate ones: black cotton top, grey cotton pants, camouflage socks. Because it could just as easily have been the red “Not tonight” nightgown, flannel pants printed with little black schnauzers and ugg slippers with pompoms.

I should probably tell you that I almost always write in my pyjamas. Don’t get me wrong: my hat goes off to writers who get up, have breakfast and dress for success, even if they’re going to be home alone all day at the computer. But I benefit greatly from staying in my nightwear. I wrote my 450-page memoir entirely in my pyjamas, though these were not easily visible under the grey acrylic bathrobe that I shrouded myself in for decency’s sake. I’m sure the next-door neighbors and all those poor innocent couriers were as grateful as I was for that robe, especially on the “Not tonight” days.

I wrote my book in my pyjamas just after I got married. Some might see this as the ultimate test of my husband’s love. But I see it a bit differently. There are actually some very sound reasons to write in your bedclothes.

First of all, there’s the undeniable comfort factor. The elastic waistline. The soft fabric. The warmth. I’m convinced the literary juices flow much better if you’re feeling snugly.

Secondly, you save precious time. By going directly from toast to writing, you skip the time-consuming process of deciding on the day’s wardrobe. If your closet is even half as full as mine is, the choices are boundless. The brown polka-dot dress or the green one? The leggings that go down to the ankle or the ones that stop at the calf? The sensible flats or the strappy sandals I couldn’t run in to save my toddler’s life but that still look so darn good? It’s exhausting. (And rather boring too. One of my tricks for getting myself to sleep at night is to lie in bed contemplating what I’m going to wear to work the next day. It works like a charm: I don’t even get to the pants before I’m out like a light.)

Finally, and much more importantly (as all final points are), pyjamas allow you to completely give yourself over to the creative process. Like a nun or a monk donning a somber, unflattering yet surprisingly comfy habit, you purify yourself of all petty thoughts, remove yourself from the mundane world and devote yourself entirely to writing. The commitment is so profound that when the belltower strikes noon, you realize you have neither put down your quill, nor taken a single bite from your stale loaf or even used the chamberpot.

Perhaps comparing my pyjamas to a nun’s habit is a bit extreme or, at the very least, rather shameful. It might be more accurate to liken them to a sort of uniform. Plenty of respectable professionals wear uniforms; why shouldn’t a writer? Depending on what particular type of PJs I’m sporting on a given day, I might feel like a pilot in perfect control of my craft, with my freshly-laundered matching top and pants. Or perhaps like a flight attendant repeating safety instructions for the umpteenth time to crowds who won’t look up from their TVs unless they hear the magic word “chicken-or-beef?” I may feel like a soldier about to go into battle, no longer convinced the war is worth fighting. Or like a chef spattered with bacon fat and cherries, perhaps wielding a butcher knife. Other times I’m like a hotel cleaning lady fanatically scrubbing the inside of the bathtub drain, where no one is ever going to look anyway.

In any case, I do my best writing in my pyjamas. It shouldn’t be a coincidence then that it’s in my pyjamas that I also do my best mothering. Most often this happens on rainy days when I have no work, appointments or even a car. On those days where we’re cushioned indoors in our bedclothes, me in my Hello Kitty pyjamas and my little man in his pink crazy monkey suit, I have no ambition other than to devote myself to my son. I make blueberry pancakes. I read stories. I get down on the carpet and build train tracks. I get on all fours and play horsy for my little cowboy. I let him blow his recorder into my nose and spit half-chewed pretzels into my hand.

The only problem with writing in your pyjamas is the predictable conundrum that arises in the evening: should I wear the same pyjamas to bed or should I get changed first into a new pair? Usually I opt for the second choice and I think it’s clear why. Even the most dedicated cleaning lady won’t sleep in her uniform; shouldn’t I too be allowed to slip into something more comfortable at the end of the day?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Oh, how I love thee, apostrophe

Recently I received a work email from the staff cafeteria with the subject line: “Apologies for the coffee’s…”

You’re probably thinking that, once opened, the email would continue something like this: “Apologies for the coffee’s burnt flavor over the last few days. We’re working on it.” Or, if you’re as guilty of anthropomorphism as I am, then you might even be expecting something along the lines: “Apologies for the coffee’s rude comments this morning. They were totally uncalled for.”

But instead, upon opening the email, I read: “Apologies for the coffee’s over the last two weeks. We have now fixed the coffee machine.”

Coffee’s? What ever happened to the basic plural coffees, no apostrophe required? Was I the only one listening in sixth-grade English class?

Well, maybe not just me, but also the short Jewish boy who was a fellow editor of the school’s literary journal and who, perhaps due to his extraordinarily bushy eyebrows, was blind to all the sniggering at his expense. And like me, he probably went on to become an English teacher who bellows at his word processor every time it needlessly underlines in green any phrase where “which” appears without a comma, shamelessly demonstrating its ignorance of the enormous difference between a defining and non-defining relative clause!

But at least, one would assume, Microsoft Word knows when to correctly dispense an apostrophe. And shouldn’t that friendly little green squiggle be all the support we need to churn out documents that are models of punctuation etiquette? However, when I type in God love’s you or Pig’s can fly (real-life examples of signage errors I found at,grammar), I get no such reminder! Whats’ happening here?!

OK, so the widespread misuse of the apostrophe may not be a crime punishable by death, but it is no less infuriating. The veins in my temples are throbbing now just thinking about it! However, I can prove to you that I possess a certain degree of forgiveness on the matter by admitting that, despite the appalling punctuation and faulty coffee machine, I still buy coffee from the staff cafeteria. (All my attempts, however, to uncover which of the workers is the author of the incriminating email have proven fruitless; evidently, poor punctuation isn’t so apparent in speech.)

But perhaps I overlook their punctuation error not because they make quite a decent single-shot latte but because at least they attempted to use an apostrophe (though no doubt under a great deal of pressure given that they serve scones and sushi not just to anyone but to staff at the School of Languages.)  So many others don’t even try. Go to Kmart and you’ll see departments labelled “Childrens toys” or “Girls clothes”. It’s as if they’re trying to say, “We’ve already used enough letters here and we’re on a really tight budget with the economy and all. We just couldn’t afford an apostrophe.”

You might suggest that, if I want apostrophes, I shouldn’t go to Kmart but somewhere a bit more upper class, as the middle classes have had to give up such silly luxuries in these tough times.

But I don’t want to turn this into an ugly class issue, because I’m a believer in the power of good punctuation to transcend class, gender or race. In fact, when I’m able to stand back and be a bit more impartial on the matter, I can see that the demise of the apostrophe is all just a natural part of linguistic evolution, and who I am to interfere in this battle for survival of the fittest? I recognize that that the apostrophe may become the punctuation equivalent of a dinosaur. A small, flightless herbivore, but a dinosaur nonetheless. And, as far as I know, apart from the meat-eater in my house who growls, throws forks and rubs soil into the carpet, the dinosaurs are extinct.

Full extinction may take a few more years yet, but it is quite conceivable that it may happen in my lifetime and that – should I be so lucky to one day become a little old lady – my own grandson will arrange his toys neatly in a row and announce, “Look, Grandma, this one’s a triceratops, this one’s a brontosaurus and this one’s an apostrophe.”