Food Rules

I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma years ago and loved it. I’ve been meaning to read the other books by Michael Pollan but I haven’t gotten around to it. This booked popped up recently while I was wandering through Open Books trying to burn a coupon. It’s a short book with 64 food rules postulated by Pollan that aim to make you a better eater and a better human.


Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I’m trying to improve my writing. Really, I am. It’s fun and I want to get better at it. Contrast this to my feelings about golf, something else that’s a lot of fun, which I don’t feel a compunction to improve. I just love to play; I don’t practice and I don’t get too discouraged on bad days or too high on good days. It’s golf. Whatever happens, happens.

Right now I’m thinking: “What’s the proper punctuation for that last sentence?” Should it be?:

Whatever happens; happens.

Or should it be?:

Whatever happens – happens.

Good lord. Are all those question marks in the right place? I’m stressed. I hate this.

I don’t have this same level of concern in golf. I replay shots in my head just because they’re fun to think about, not because I want to change them and certainly not because I want to guard against making the same mistake again. I don’t really feel like I’m battling a golf course, but I always feel like I’m battling words.

I’m self-conscious and insecure about the words here. I don’t publicize it because this is all just practice, man. It’s like when you first start playing golf and you aren’t comfortable playing golf with strangers; you don’t seek it out, but you have to do it. If someone joins up with you, so be it. So I’m doing it. Writing in kind of a public manner but not really telling anyone about it. People may occasionally stumble across this site and think I’m a dumbass. It’s stressful, but that’s okay. Hopefully I’ll get better.

I’m practicing for some time down the road when I really want to devote time to amateur journalism. A time when anyone who wants to have a voice can have a voice. We’re gonna get there. Heck, we’re almost there. I can’t imagine what this is going to be like in ten years, but I do know that I want to be ready with a basic set of writing and analytical skills so that I can churn out quality content in a timely manner.

So that’s that.

Enter Lynne Truss and her book about punctuation. It’s a whole book devoted to explaining the usage of commas, periods, apostrophes, etc … It’s bigger than that though. It’s also devoted to wry, English wit and the power of preserving something that seems part of a bygone era. It’s an impassioned piece of work. I like Truss.

Here’s what you get, from the colon and semicolon chapter:

But colons and semicolons – well, they are in a different league, my dear! They give such a lift! Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots … you stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes – that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity – well, they are the colons, and semicolons. … (pg 106)

Nerdy, funny, inventive for sure. It’s a short book, but gives Truss enough time to dig into the history of punctuation while remaining highly applicable to what you’re writing today. She has plenty of everyday examples augmented by lists of rules that clarify and illuminate. I’m not quite sure how I’ll use it. Whenever I finish a good reference book I always tell myself I’ll come back to it and review the rules, maybe type them into little lists in Evernote that I can refer to, but I never do.

It will probably have to wait until that magical time, when I’m retired and have some expendable hours, at about 90 maybe, at which point I’ll be able to partake in some amateur journalism of a serious nature.


Field Tested Books

If you recall, I like books about books; yes I do. Well what do you know? A local company has churned out a sweet book about books. Coudal Partners, a West Loop company that does design, publishing, and other things, has some pretty cool content on their site. You can go to their Museum of Online Museums, purchase some letter pins, or participate in a design contest. Neato.

But the best thing they have is clearly Field Tested Books. They canvass their friends and colleagues occasionally for book reviews; but they aren’t reviews as much as they are stories about the place and context in which the books were read. They post them all online, but they’ve put together a really attractive paperback version. I had to have it. Here is how Coudal and the crew couch this little project (from the back jacket):

The Field-Tested Books project is our version of the Heisenberg principle: reading a certain book in a certain place uniquely affects a person’s experience with both.

The writing you’ll find here is grounded in that idea.

You won’t find any book reviews here.

You’ll find reviews of experience.

It’s likely you’ll also find an unexpected recommendation or two for planning your next trip.

Pack carefully, Books are heavy.

That, my friends, is cool. I got a few ideas for books to read, but more importantly there are some keen insights into reading. For example, try this:

That’s not what happens when you see a movie that was shot in your neighborhood. Movies sprinkle a bit of glitter on every block. Books don’t. Movies glamorize; books – good books – reveal. That’s bitter medicine to spoon into a high school kid. No wonder young people don’t read. (page 49, by Randy Cohen)

But here’s a view by another writer that’s not necessarily in line with Cohen:

Books can color the world, and under the influence of Hugo, France took on almost mythical proportions and made even the winter in Brittany less bleak than epic-seeming, a noble struggle. Which, as low as I’d been, was a deliverance. (page 112, Lauren Groff)

Or how about this:

… Also (I’m fairly certain of this) that I’ve made some pretty shabby decisions as to how to use my time on earth.

That’s why we read, I think: to find better decisions. (page 87, by Steve Almond)

And this too:

I don’t expect to reach that Babe Ruthian mark, but nonetheless, I am always sure to have at least one book with me, stanching the possibilities of lapsing into the fugue state known in modern times as “going postal” as I encounter life’s little delays. I feel it necessary to point all of this out because, for the most part, reading tends to be an open portal away from the many mundane circumstances in which I find myself. (page 125, by Robert Birnbaum)

Okay, there’s more. Here’s a guy talking about how much he loves the Spenser mystery novels:

… But while I can’t recall the plots to any of the books I read that trip, I met a fictional friend I still meet up with every year or so. I don’t travel much, but as cliché as it sounds, when I want to ‘get away from it all,’ I still reach for a good book about someone who’s been murdered. (page 159, by Mark Bazer)

Oh yeah, what about a guy reading The Adventures of Huck Finn in the back seat of a car during an 18 hour trip from Pittsburgh to Bradenton?:

… I even remember the moment that I put it together that we were on a journey south, same as Huck and Jim. I’m a little embarrassed to write that now; it’s so obvious and irrelevant and sentimental, but at the time it was revelation. As the southern landscape rolled past in my peripheral vision, I felt an immersive thrill I could never get from television or movies. (page 166, Kevin Guilfoile)

Each experience is anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a page-and-a-half. I need to make a note to come back to it. It is rich with some books I want to read, as well as some interesting web links.


Woe is I

It’s time to revisit the craft – the craft of writing. Yes, I’m a craftsman. Actually, I’m not, I’m a hack. So I’m reading this book to make improvements. In fact, I’m adding Woe is I to the list of books to have around if you want to improve your writing.

Right now, if I look at this little space on my shelf that I keep reference materials, I have:

  • The Elements of Style (aka Strunk and White)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style
  • On Writing Well

I will add this to the shelf because it’s worthy. It’s short and has bulleted hints, tips, and explanations. It has a Strunk and White feel but is more focused on grammar, spelling, usage, and punctuation. They’re good complements, I’m glad I have both.

In fact, I may get Strunk and White in hardcover, just because.

I loved the chapter on clichés. In fact, I had a tag line for my business that encapsulated all aspects of Steffen Consulting that I wanted to convey, but the tag line was listed in the cliché chapter as overused. And you know what, O’Conner was right; it is overused and I’m not going to use it (btw, it was “leveling the playing field”).

The question is, how do I use these books in real time while writing? I do most of my writing when they’re outside of my reach, so even though I have questions, I usually just reword the sentence or jump through hoops to avoid the issue. This needs to change. Also, I haven’t gone through the The Chicago Manual of Style yet. Gail seems to think that one encompasses all of the books. Maybe I just haul that one around, but it’s massive.

I need time, time to concentrate. I need to rework things.


On Writing Well

I need to become a better writer. Part one was to start writing a lot; just writing a lot and paying attention to the craft from an intuitive standpoint. That part started in January 2006 with this blog and has burgeoned into books, golf, and food.

Part two was to learn more about the craft and build writing skills. That started about a year ago with my re-reading of Strunk and White. But after Strunk and White I got arrogant. I was content to just write and write and read and read in hopes that volume would lead to improvement. I think it did for awhile, but now I’ve stopped improving.

I’ve stagnated. I can’t think of new words for great. I struggle with tenses. My creativity seems to be shot. So I’m going to start mixing in some instructional books with my fiction and non-fiction. Plus, I’ve started listening to Grammar Girl. She kicks.

I had high hopes for On Writing Well. The subtitle is The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, which is right up my alley because that’s mostly what I write. It was an enlightening book, but I also struggled with it. The author is a nonfiction writer himself and believes strongly that nonfiction can be literature. The first third of the book contains instruction on form, grammar, and structure. The second third gives specific instruction on the various forms of nonfiction; like sports writing, writing your memoir, and writing for business. The last third is about high level, emotional, and motivational aspects of writing.

I learned a lot, but parts of it were a slow read. The first third (general instruction) and last third (voice and motivation) were very helpful, but the middle third (form-specific instruction) was a drag. I couldn’t stay interested in the instructional pieces for all of the different kinds of nonfiction writing. Zinsser gave a ton of examples but my eyes glazed over when I read them. I think I’ll reread this in a year. Maybe my frame of mind isn’t right at this time.

The most valuable learning moments in this book were the ones about “cleaning up your writing.” You see, I think I do have a cluttered up writing style. Wait, that’s a great example, why didn’t I say “I have a cluttered writing style”? Zinsser hates it when people start sentences with “you see.” He says it’s condescending to the reader. And he begs for us to use simple, plain English without extraneous words that have no value for the reader. He advocates decluttering mercilessly by rereading and rewriting to get to the point of efficient, straightforward, and informative writing. I’m working on it.

The last section about motivation, intention, voice, and quest is worth the wait. Zinsser gives a moving portrait of how he became a writer, why he loves it, how he teaches it, and why you should invest in the act of writing. It was very motivating.

I feel inadequate after reading this book. Most of the examples of poor writing that Zinsser identifies were (and are) perpetrated unknowingly by me regularly. Now that I know what they are, I will try and cut them out, but I don’t have the patience for re-reading and reviewing. I slap stuff on my blogs casually because they are mostly for me and nobody else really reads them. Maybe if I gave more a damn, more people would read them. I’m going to cut back on the volume and spend more quality writing and reviewing time for the next few months.


Housekeeping vs. The Dirt

Ahh, a book about books. There are a lot of them out there and I’ve read a few. I never watch TV shows about TV…or movies about film…but I do read books about reading books. If you spend a few hours with Nick Hornby and this short read, you will leave with a new-found respect for reading.

Early on he says:

And boredom, let’s face it, is a problem that many of us have come to associate with books. It’s one of the reasons why we choose to do almost anything else rather than read; very few of us pick up a book after the children are in bed and the dinner has been made and the dirty dishes are cleared away. We’d rather turn on the television. Some evenings we’d rather go to all the trouble of getting in a car and driving to the cinema, or waiting for a bus that might take us somewhere near one.

A few paragraphs later he says:

I would never attempt to dissuade someone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV program.

Reading is not an easy endeavor to pick up and as a form of entertainment, it’s a lot more work than the other options. I want people to read more. I want book stores to continue to thrive and authors to have the ability to make a good living. I love the endeavor and if I were to evangelize about anything, it would be reading. If I can convert one human in 2007 to start reading ten books a year, then I have achieved raging success. I have my targets.

That’s the effect that this book had on me. It also caused me ruminate about how important reading is to me and how thankful I am that I got started at a young age, before all the distractions of TV, internet, and gaming. I owe it all to my grandfather. I can’t peg the exact day that I first sat in this strange bamboo-like double chair-couch thing in the corner of the porch in his lake house in Michigan and shared some Louis L’Amour with him, but the memory is as vivid as yesterday. The earliest recollection of reading a book from cover to cover and discussing it with my grandfather happened there, and the book, I think, was Kilkenny.

This book also exposed gaps in my reading experience that I started to recognize here. Hornby makes a self-deprecating crack about how his reading habits are confined to the English-speaking world, as if no other languages are worthy of his attention. I take it a few steps further by nearly exclusively focusing my reading efforts on books by English-speaking white males. Yes, ’twill be rectified, but it’s going to take time.

In this book, Hornby reviews about 60 or 70 books in one or two paragraphs each. He’s an interesting guy and I love his take on things, although sometimes I get lost in the British humor. But he has spent a lot of time in the US and often makes keen insights into our culture. I think there’s one book of Hornby’s that I haven’t read yet and I’m going to knock that off this year. Here are some of his reads from this book that I plan on reading:

Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy D. Tyson
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky by Ken Dornstein
Citizen Vince by Jess Walter


Man’s Search for Meaning

Dr. Viktor E. Frankl is a world famous psychiatrist and is credited with developing the approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy. Many of his teachings and insights into logotherapy were developed and refined during his five-year stay in Nazi concentration camps. This book is split roughly in two. The first half is a rather detached narrative of his stay in the death camps. The second half builds on the observations of the first half and provides a description of logotherapy and directions on how to apply it for psychotherapy.

For a short description of logotherapy, see Frankl’s words below. I have tried to get the punctuation correct based on audio only, so forgive me if I have made any errors:

Logos is a Greek word which denotes meaning…Striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning, in contrast to the pleasure principal, or as we could also term it, the will to pleasure, on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered. As well is in contrast to the will to power, on which Adlerian psychology, using the term striving for superiority, is focused.

Frankl has a lot of backup for supporting his theories. For instance, he cites a Johns Hopkins study that asked 7,948 students at 48 colleges “what they considered very important to them now.” Well, 16% answered “making a lot of money” and 78% said “finding a purpose of meaning to my life.” It is not hard to convince me of the “beneficial impact of meaning orientation” but this book is filled with many, many more examples of how he and others have used logotherapy to make sense of our world and assist people in resolving any number of maladies like depression, grief, and despair.

Frankl describes and clarifies the search for meaning. I am paraphrasing a little, but he says:

The meaning of life changes, but never ceases to be…discover it in three different ways, (1) by creating a work or doing a deed, (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone, or (3) by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.

The second one really got my mind swirling. How many times have you read a particularly moving piece of literature, seen a movie that made you see something in a different light, or caught somebody transcending human nature and giving themselves over to an act of selflessness? Doesn’t that just clarify things in your mind about how the world actually works, how the world should work, and how you can fit into the world? Those moments of clarity need to be grasped, examined, and used to find your meaning in life. This made sense to me and I think I can apply it.

There is a lot more stuff. This does not feel like a self-help book and I don’t even know where I would put it in the bookstore – maybe in the medical or philosophy sections. I need to get it in print because there are quotes, examples, and sub theories that I would like to examine more closely, but it’s difficult to do that with an audio book. Great stuff and it has the potential to change your life.


The Elements of Style

This is a reference book and I read it from cover to cover, as if it were a novel. The average person may think I’m nuts. Unfortunately, they’re right. The worst of it is, this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve owned this book, but only the first time I’ve cracked it open. I’m embarrassed, but hopefully you won’t make fun of me, to my face at least.

Ah, Strunk and White, as it’s usually referred to. I bought it in college (one). It was given to my whole department in 1998 by the CFO of a company I was working for (two). Additionally, I think I purchased it one other time when I was in the mood to better myself (three). All of those were sold, tossed, or given away.

I identified the need to rehash some basic grammar and stylistic items about a month ago. My sister was looking through one of these blog posts and noticed that I used the word less when I should have used the word fewer. This blew me away because I had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to make me feel better, like any loving sister. She said that she noticed Wal-Mart had made the same error some time ago on a sign to their express lane. That did not console me. I went out shortly thereafter and bought the book again (four).

You may ask, why did you read a reference book from cover to cover? Well, now I’ve at least rehashed a litany of rules, principles, and approaches that good writers use. Hopefully, I’m better equipped to recognize when I’ve committed some error or stylistic gaffe. For example, now I know when I use the word aggravate, I should be sure I don’t mean irritate. Or if I use the word partially, I should be sure I don’t mean partly. Plus, there are some gems like this:

The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.

You can’t deny the beauty in that statement. I didn’t consider these things before today.

Hey, I’m a quant jock trying to make it in a blogosphere filled with lit majors and lawyers. I need some help, and Strunk and White is there for me.