Dirty Clean Words

A few days ago Michigan state congresswoman Lisa Brown dared to utter the word “vagina” on the house floor. In return, she was prohibited from speaking the following day (cf. Detroit Free Press). Later, in a superb attempt at back-pedaling, the House Majority Leader later said that the punishment wasn’t about her use of the word, but about “decorum.” The episode got me thinking about words that most people wouldn’t consider dirty or offensive but that nevertheless make some people’s skin crawl.

Some women I know were talking about desserts one night when one of them exclaimed that she cannot stand the word “moist” and suggested half-jokingly that it should be banned from cooking literature. Although a few others nodded in agreement, it seemed she was alone in the severity of her reaction to the word.

The first time a friend of mine used the word “prophylactic” to refer to a preventive measure in the general sense I burst out laughing. And then I felt like a nine-year-old boy — or like Michael Scott, the hapless manager in The Office (U.S. version) who never misses an opportunity to reply with “that’s what she said.” Clearly I wasn’t mature enough for that conversation.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “flaccid” refer to anything but the male member (except maybe in a description of a medical condition), even though the dictionary definitions don’t have a whiff of phallic innuendo: 1. Lacking firmness, resilience, or muscle tone 2. Lacking vigor or energy (American Heritage Dictionary). Can anyone say that word and keep a straight face?

What makes some words seem sexual to one person but not to another? And why are some words that have non-sexual origins almost always used in a sexual context? What makes a word charged in one situation and innocuous in another? I suppose there is plenty of research that attempts to answer these questions, but I’m feeling too flaccid to look it up.

Posted in miscellany | 11 Comments

Things we’re good at and things we like

Now that my kids are getting to an age at which their proclivities are becoming more defined, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes us good at things and what makes us like things. I’ve heard people claim that talent and passion go hand in hand, that we naturally like the things we’re good at. We achieve some level of mastery at a task and we feel good about that task and ourselves. That good feeling inspires us to work harder, which makes us better at the task. And the feedback loop continues.

But I’ve always been a little skeptical of this line of reasoning, if only because my own experience doesn’t quite bear it out. For example, while I consider myself a good writer and am usually satisfied with the writing that I eventually produce, the amount of frustration and self-doubt during the writing process far outweighs the small pleasure I feel upon its completion. In short, I really don’t like to write.

And yet, despite my own experience, I still find myself saying to my eight-year-old daughter, “But how can you not like math? You’re so good at it!” Why in the world would I do that? Oddly enough, I didn’t even know about her aptitude in math until the parent-teacher conference this past fall. Within the same conference, almost in the same breath, the teacher told us that our daughter’s test scores were fantastic and that she struggled with learning new math concepts. So, once she gets it, she locks it in, but until then, she is frustrated. She absolutely loves gymnastics, on the other hand, and she is a natural at it.

Maybe it has more to do with something “clicking.” Maybe that feedback loop between being good at something and liking it only occurs when we can achieve that mysterious flow during it.

Like me, my ten-year-old son doesn’t seem to like writing very much. He didn’t think he was good at it either until earlier this school year when his teacher, in a truly inspired moment, told him that of course he could write his report on a classmate instead of an animal as the assignment had stipulated. The result was a much more clever, nuanced piece of writing than I had ever seen from him before. Here it is, quoted verbatim*, with his permission:

So you think you know Evan Baker: A Trivial Guide

First, if you know anything about Evan you know he is a handful and you will need a lot of Ritz crackers and cheese whiz. If you read on you are going to find out some amazing things about this incredible Michigan mammal: habitat, diet, description and a few interesting facts.

First off Evan burrows down under the cement base of houses and with mole like reflexes he digs magnificent tunnels and guards his territory with unrivaled ferocity. During the summer he resides in an abandoned bar off the east coast of Wisconsin where he enjoys great foosball matches with his many loyal (imaginary) friends, Norman and Wilson.

Evan’s diet consists of many things, some of which are: Ritz Crackers, Cheese Whiz, honey baked ham, Liverwurst, Red Wine, Banana Cream Pie, Cherry Cheese Cake and brownies covered with powdered sugar. Evan enjoys countless more things that I do not care to mention at the moment. But I may mention in the near future.

Evan enjoys his odd but comfortable spiky green hairstyle. Frightening but all the less comforting neon purple skin tone draws the eyes of many a passerby! His eye color is very surprising glow-in-the-dark sunflower yellow. His ferocity is matched by no one and his viciousness is not taken too lightly. His weight unknown, but scientists have discovered that by the end of his lifetime Evan may grow to eight foot seven. He is very muscular and last time he checked he could knock out a full grown rhino in one clonk to the head.

Some interesting facts about Evan include that his scientific is Evanicious Bakerium prounounced (Ev-un-ish-us Bake-ore-e-um), his species died out and Evan is the last one of his incredible race and will do anything for a pound of 100% butter.

I hope you enjoyed this trivial essay on one of earth’s most amazing creatures.

The Ends

While he hasn’t been saying lately that he thinks he stinks at writing, it doesn’t look like his previous dislike for it has transformed into outright affection either.

As my kids get older, I’m finding that in many cases the best thing I can do is stay out of the way. Too much praise, even merely paying too much attention, is a surefire way to kill someone else’s passion. It’s hard, though. I reflexively want to say, “Great job! That is wonderful!” It’s a tough job, this parenting business.

* Actually, I did change the friend’s name, to protect the innocent.

Posted in family | 6 Comments

Handedness and Decisiveness

Researchers have firmly established as a very true fact™ that left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people and that ambidextrous monkeys are more talented than both. But what about people and robots who are neither right- nor left-handed and cannot show off their ambidextrosity at the talent show? What do researchers have to say about those who are right-handed at some things and left-handed at others? And why would anyone care?

To answer the third question first: (3) everyone should care because sometimes-left-sometimes-right-handed people and smurfs have been marginalized for too long! To answer the first two questions: (1) we don’t know, and (2) nothing. Until now! For the past 40 years, I have been conducting a longitudinal, eco-friendly study of sometimes-left-sometimes-right-handed people (person), and I am finally ready to share my results with the rest of the known universe:

Handedness and Decisiveness: A Rigorous Scientific Study

approved!Subject: The study has one subject: me. While some have questioned this aspect of the research, the Board of Directors of the Society for Sometimes-left-sometimes-right-handed People and Vampire Clowns has decreed that, because the subject is also the researcher (and the Chairman of the Board), this subject constitutes a Representative Sample.

Materials: Pencil, toothbrush, ball, frisbee, hands, fork, ball (to kick), skateboard, hockey stick, pool stick, gun, razor.

Data: The following chart demonstrates the handedness of the subject while engaged in various activities:

Activity Left-handed Right-handed
Writing x
Brushing Teeth x
Throwing Ball x
Throwing Frisbee x
Eating with Hands x*
Eating with Utensils x
Kicking Ball x
Skateboarding x
Shooting Hockey x
Shooting Billiards x
Shooting Gun x
Shaving x

* especially while in Eastern countries, for sanitary reasons

Conclusion: The research clearly demonstrates that people and leprechauns who can’t make up their minds about which hand to use also have a hard time making up their minds about anything else. Or, it could clearly demonstrate something else entirely that the researcher may have missed.

Yours Truly,

Karl Swedberg
Subject, Researcher, Chairman of the Board
Posted in self-indulgence | 4 Comments

What did you say?

When I read the first couple examples of a recent blog entry on “Marital Deafness” by Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic, I laughed in absolute recognition of the scenes in my own life. Then I read this:

As I’m sure you’ve learned, it’s impossible to speak to a spouse if he or she is near running water, or using power equipment, or concentrating on something else, or eating something crunchy, or wondering if the squeak in the distance is the cat dying, or there is a child within a hundred yards. Amazingly, that covers 90% of every conversation you might attempt at home.

That’s when my delight turned into a combination of wonder and relief. It’s a little eerie, yet somehow comforting, to know that a total stranger is able to so accurately describe my life.

Read “Marital Deafness.” It’s hilarious because it’s true.

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment

Calling All iPhone Users

I finally got my very own iPhone this weekend, and I’m very excited about it.

A lot of my geek friends are talking about the Android-based phones now and some are even acting like the iPhones are a bit passé, but I don’t care. This thing is slick. It sure beats the pants off of my old Motorola. The extent of that crummy old thing’s “smart phone” capability was some “web browsing” feature that I’d have to pay a buck for every once in a while when my thumb would land a centimeter away from its intended target.

My wife thinks I’m an early adopter, but in this case at least, I’m much closer to the long tail than the bleeding edge. I’ve been trying to figure out which apps to get, but I must admit I’m a little lost. I need your help! Here is what I have so far:

Continue reading 

Posted in technology | 14 Comments

The World Is Too Much With Us

I’ve never been an outdoorsy kind of guy, but something about these first few lines from William Wordsworth’s poem resonates with me.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. …

The poem was written sometime around 1806, so Wordsworth had plenty to complain about, what with the Industrial Revolution and all. But, he spent most of his life in the Lake District of England, which was still positively bucolic when I visited the place nearly 200 years later.

When I read this poem last night, I had a “back in my day” reaction, but in reverse. Seriously, how much “getting and spending” could the guy have seen back then in lovely Grasmere? I’d like to drop Wordsworth into the middle of New York City now and see what he thinks. And yet, the poem makes me wonder about the fever pitch of today’s commerce and marketing and advertising and technology and communication. In another 200 years, will the breakneck pace of our lives look more like a gentle stroll through a quaint village?

Posted in language | 3 Comments

Goodbye, Edgar

It all happened much more quickly than Sara and I had expected. We put our 1993 Volvo 240 Wagon on Craigs List last week, and within two hours it was sold. In addition to the guy who bought the car, three others called to ask if they could check it out. It got me wondering about the psychology of selling. What is the right amount of time or effort for the sale of something like a car? If it sells too quickly, you think you’ve priced it too low. If it sells too slowly, you’ve priced it too high. But what is too quick and what is too slow? I don’t know, but I bet some economist does.

What I do know is that I also seriously underestimated the effect the sale would have on our kids. When Edgar—that’s the car’s name, of course—pulled out of the driveway for the last time, the kids cried. They cried hard. They cried for 15 minutes until we managed to stop them with the bribe of watching a video during dinner.

Edgar the Volvo

Sara has been sad about Edgar’s departure, too, with good reason. It was a very cool car—the last of the boxy Volvo station wagons, with a third seat that faced the back. Sara drove that car a lot and didn’t seem to mind much that one door handle broke off so that nobody could open it from the outside and another door couldn’t be opened from the inside and the CD player didn’t work when the weather was cold and the driver’s side speaker was sitting, unattached, in the front passenger’s seat and the cruise control was busted and the air conditioner didn’t work and the engine was weak and the car shook at high speeds. It was still, believe it or not, a fun car to drive.

I wish I had been more aware of the rest of the family’s attachment to the car. We needed to get rid of it, regardless, but I regret not realizing that I needed to prepare the kids for it. Next time we sell a car, I’ll approach it as if we’re putting a dog to sleep. Maybe that way I’ll act with enough sensitivity.

Posted in family | 7 Comments

XyliChew Mints

A big box of mints arrived at my doorstep last week. But they weren’t just ordinary mints. No, they were XyliChew Mints with 100% Xylitol! I’ve been a big fan of XyliChew and its dusty purple cousin Ricochet for a couple years now, but their great taste is only one small reason for my affection.

The thing I like most about XyliChew is its marketing. First of all, the name is brilliant because the mints aren’t chewy at all (nor are they xyley). Next, they claim that the mints are “100% Xylotol” in the upper left corner on the front of the package, while on the back in fine print the ingredients are listed as “Xylitol, Gum Arabic, Magnesium Stearate, Natural Flavor, Carnauba Wax, Beeswax.” Maybe they’re just giving 110 percent.

My favorite example of marketing sleight of hand has to be the “DOUBLE BONUS: ORIGINAL FORMULA. MORE MINTS.” Fine. I can see how getting more mints would be a bonus. But how in the world can anyone claim that not changing something is a bonus? It’s like saying, “Hey, everyone, we’re going to pay you the same this year as we did last year. Bonus!”

Did I mention they’re made in Finland? Triple Bonus!

XyliChew Mints

Posted in miscellany | 1 Comment

Paper Airplanes

Last Sunday at one in the afternoon, a local Grand Rapids guy named Rob Bliss and a handful of friends started to dump paper airplanes off of downtown buildings. By the time they finished, one hundred thousand planes had descended on the nearly 20,000 people crowding the streets below. While the planes were raining down, loudspeakers blared a refrain from “Olsen Olsen,” a song by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Some of the people in the crowd hummed along; others played the tune on instruments that they had brought for the event.

The plane launch was part of Grand Rapids ArtPrize, an “open art contest” offering nearly half a million dollars in prizes to the most popular entrants as determined by public vote. Sara, the kids, and I have been loving ArtPrize, discussing what we like and don’t like, what effect certain pieces have on us, and even how we should, or wish to, define art. The contest has provoked a lot of discussion among friends and neighbors, too. Some people seem almost offended by it, as if it demeans art in some way, while others are reveling in the “anything goes” nature of the competition.

There is a lot more I could say about both the paper-airplane stunt and ArtPrize in general, but I haven’t fully formulated my thoughts about them, so I’m going to hold off for now. Instead, I’ll leave you with a few pictures of downtown Grand Rapids last Sunday. Click on the thumbnails to get larger versions (without leaving the page).

Posted in friends and neighbors, photography | 3 Comments


I started writing this thing a month ago with some lame generalization about how kids behave radically differently from one minute to the next while they all pretty much look their age. But I couldn’t sustain the thought, and I’m not even sure I believe it, so I’m just going to relate a little anecdote about Ben and Sara that occurred earlier this summer.

apple corer

Ben eats an apple every night before bed. He never misses a night. Never. And who ends up cutting the apple for him? Sara. So one night, Sara told him that she was going to buy an apple corer and teach him how to use it.

Sara: Ben, I’m going to buy an apple corer so you can cut these things yourself. Do you know what that is?

Ben: What?

Sara: You know, an apple corer?

Ben: Yeah, I know an apple corer. I mean, I’m not best friends with it, but I’m “familiar” with it. [he actually did the air quotes.]

Sara: Oh, Ben. You’re such a wiseguy!

Ben: [still riffing] I also know the muffin man. Do you know the muffin man?

That’s often how conversations devolve in our household–with one person getting sillier and sillier until the other one gives up. Of course, I’m never the silly one.

Posted in family | 4 Comments
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