Monday, September 28, 2009

Listen to the Rabbi

Indira Gandhi said: "My grandfather once told me that there are two kinds of people: those who work and those who take the credit. He told me to be in the first group; there was less competition there."

Great quote, right? In fact, two great quotes: me quoting Indira, and Indira quoting her grandfather — which proves once again that there is nothing new under the sun — which, by the way, comes from the Tanakh (also known as the Written Torah or, by Christians, as The Old Testament). The full quote is from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 1:9 — "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."

I hear the rumblings — "Why is she getting all religious on us?" I'll tell you. Today, at Yom Kippur services, our retiring rabbi, Peter Knobel, began his D'var Torah with: "There are two kinds of people in the world: those who wake up and say 'Good morning, God' and those who wake up and say 'Good God.'" It got a giggle from the congregation, but my family practically fell on the floor laughing. "Mom, you've got to put that in your blog," several children said. "Shhh," I said, "Listen to the rabbi," all the while trying to figure out a way to steal incorporate it in a post.

It is estimated that Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, was written approximately 250 BCE, which means that even 2,000 years ago it was tough to come up with an original idea. This presents a huge hurdle for us as writers, who at best, can merely try to make everything old sound new again*. If we do it well, it's called originality; if we do it poorly, it's called plagiarism.

We all know that the first commandment of writing is "Thou Shalt Not Plagiarize". But writers are notorious copycats. Just peruse the lists of published works and count how many books about wizards have been released since the first Harry Potter debuted in 1997. Of course, accusations abound that Rowling stole her ideas from such diverse sources as Tolkein, Star Wars, an '80s B movie and a variety of unknowns. There are other writers, however, who haven't fared as well when their works have been held up to the derivative light (remember Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan?)

So does it matter from whence our ideas spring? When we reference biblical or well-known literary sources in our writing, this form of stealing is generously referred to as allusion, a highly prized aspect of literary fiction. 

When, then, do allusions, quotes or paraphrases veer from the acceptable path of literary touchstones into the red zone of plagiarism. I like this guide from Purdue University, entitled: "Is It Plagiarism Yet?" This student resource advises that "the key to avoiding plagiarism is to give credit where it is due" and then cites a thorough list of sources that must be credited or documented. (In yet another aside, I discovered that the phrase "give credit to whom credit is due" was probably coined by Samuel Adams in 1777; it's worth noting that the Purdue piece does not give him credit.)

Although the Purdue piece gives some excellent advice for writing nonfiction, it doesn't touch on all the idiosyncrasies of creative writing. Pop culture references often offer a great shortcut for creating an image or setting a tone, but writers run the risk of copyright infringement, particularly when using song lyrics

What's a writer to do? We are told in workshops to read, read and read some more; to analyze — even emulate — our favorite authors. As the humorist Josh Billings once said: "About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment."

In a sense, all artists must come to grips with the idea that creation is at heart re-creation. We take and we twist and we fold; we smelt and we hammer and we forge; we spindle and mutilate and commit acts of re-visioning until we have produced something that — if not entirely new — is entirely our own. 

It's true that I've let many other writers do the work of this post, while I am taking the credit. I can justify that with just one more quotation:

"If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; 
if you steal from many, it's research."
Wilson Mizner (1876 -1933)

I love a good quote. In some ways, all writers strive for immortality through their words, so maybe dropping an attributed quote here and there isn't such a bad thing. (Would you have thought about Wilson Mizner before you read this post?) Share your favorite quote by clicking here.  

*To give credit where credit is due, the following clip is of the song "Everything Old is New Again" from the film 1979 film All That Jazz; music and lyrics  by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Inoculating Against Family Ailments — CMB Post

This post originally appeared on the now defunct Chicago Moms Blog.

Vaccinations are a hot-button topic among moms these days, and I'm sure the controversy will boil up again as flu season approaches. I'm not interested in stirring this particular pot — each family (along with its physician) should make informed decisions about whether to vaccinate, which vaccinations to get, how many and when.

In our household, after careful consideration, we have decided to get both the seasonal flu shot and the H1N1 ("swine flu") vaccination. I won't go into the details about what brought us to this decision other than to say that my middle son missed 25 days (Twenty. Five. Days.) of school last year due to illness. He got every bug that crossed his path, and at this point I would send him to Lourdes or do nightly ritual dances around his bed if I thought it would help.

But it's not the flu I'm worried about this season, it's a whole slew of other illnesses that have compromised the health of our family. For example, some time ago my two youngest boys broke out in a terrible case of sudden-onset Bicker Fever. One minute they are feeling just fine, and the next minute they are bickering about the minutia of their lives. Everything and anything can precipitate a spike in Bicker Fever. Just the other day they bickered about whether they were bickering. I've tried every cure known to mom-kind, but this particular strain seems to be treatment-resistant.

My middle boy (the one who suffered so many maladies last school year), has lately been afflicted with a near-fatal bout of the "yeah-buts". No matter what I tell him to do, he is incapable of responding with anything other than "Yeah, but … "
  • "Yeah, but I took the dog out twice yesterday."
  • "Yeah, but he did it first."
  • "Yeah, but I have to finish this game before I can study my Torah portion."
It's tragic, really. If this illness continues to progress at the same rate it did over the summer, I have serious doubts whether he will live to see his bar mitzvah in November.

Now that my youngest son is in middle school, I find that all four children are suffering from chronic adolescent-itis. In case you are unfamiliar with the symptoms of this serious disease, they include impertinence, orneriness and self-absorption, frequently accompanied by uncontrolled whining, pouting and eye-rolling. Sadly, there is no known treatment, but most children seem outgrow the disease by the time they reach their early-to-mid twenties.

You can see we are suffering. I believe in Dr. Mom, so if any of you have developed and tested reliable vaccines for the above mentioned illnesses, please let me know before I break out in a horrible case of Mom-has-lost-her-mind-again Hives. I'm sure my insurance won't cover it, but I can't wait for healthcare reform — I'm willing to pay cash.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan Bearman isn't busy warding off illness with hand sanitizer and medicinal nagging, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Go Blue!

There are two kinds of people in the world: Michigan Fans and everybody else.

We are an obnoxious bunch, no doubt about it. Even after our humbling season last year (ugh, 3-9) we have not learned humility. Even though we're not crazy about our new coach, Rich Rod is looking a quite a bit shinier since our glorious win over those overweening Irishmen (affectionately known in our family as "they who must not be named").

I'm not quite sure why I love Michigan football the way I do. Sure, I was raised on maize and blue, watching my father and our Buckeye next-door neighbor exchange insults and carry out ridiculous bets. But my brother and my dad are sports fanatics. They would watch competitive tiddly winks if ESPN broadcast it. None of that carried over into my adult life — only football, specifically college football, more specifically Big 10 college football — but those other teams really only count insofar as how the outcomes of their games affect Michigan's ranking.

I could say my passion stems from my college days in Ann Arbor, during the height of the Bo years (the winningest coach in Michigan history), when I cheered on Rick Leach, Anthony Carter, Butch Woolfolk and my favorite kicker, Ali Haji-Sheikh. But, truth be told, as much as I loved going to the games, I often sold my tickets for much-needed cash. I could always count on announcer Bob Ufer to make me feel like I was at the game, though thankfully, I did not miss Anthony Carter's amazing catch against Indiana in '79 — I was there for that one.

Part of the allure, of course, is Michigan Stadium. There is no place quite like the Big House to watch a football game. More than 100,000 people file peacefully in and out every home-game weekend, where there's not a bad seat in the house, and you sweat together in September and freeze together in November. I remember the first time my dad and I took my daughter to see a game when she was about 8 year's old. We tried to explain beforehand that more people would be in the stadium that day than the entire population of our hometown of Evanston, IL. When she saw the crowd, her jaw dropped; when she watched the wave circle the stands, she clapped in delight; and when the 150-member Michigan marching band took the field, she danced and shimmied right along with them. Michigan football games are just plain fun.

Though I believe children should be encouraged to think for themselves, since the minute they were born, I've worked hard to indoctrinate my kids into the cult of Michigan. Their father has had nothing to do with it (what can I say, he went to Northern Illinois). We have pictures of every one of my babies in onsies, sweatshirts, baseball caps and Ts all emblazoned with big block Ms. If it's possible to have two favorite colors, ours are maize and blue. I actually wrote a letter of protest to the Crayola company when they tried to eliminate maize as one of the colors in the big 64 box of crayons.

The Victors was the first song I learned to play on the piano, and the first song I taught my kids to sing. On my daughter's third day at kindergarten, she came bursting through the door after school saying: "Mama, Mama, guess what I learned to spell today: G-O  B-L-U-E!" That's my girl.

So what is it about this team that makes us into such True Blue fans? How can go into the last game with a 3 and 8 record (as we did last year, in our worst season ever) and still show up for the Ohio State game hoping to win and knowing it will be a good year if we can only beat the Buckeye's during this final, best and always most important game? Why do we TiVo the games and cast the evil eye if someone threatens to be a spoiler before we can get home to watch the game ourselves.

It's a magnificent obsession, a heady curse that brings us Wolverines together on a dozen Saturdays each fall to experience once again the joy of victory and agony of defeat as only Michigan football can bring it. This year, we are trying to convince ourselves that this is still a transitional season, that it will take time for everyone to get used to the new coach and to build a new program. My brother claims he'll be happy with eight wins, a victory over one of our big rivals (Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State) and no more scandals. He's lying. Even though we beat the Irish, like the rest of us, he won't be happy unless we beat Ohio State to become the undefeated champions of the Big Ten. 

This year, we start the season 2-0. We feel good. We've got force in our QB with Tate Forcier. We've got another great kicker with a kick-ass name — Zoltan Mesko! We've even got our gloat back. Go Blue!

Where are your loyalties? Do you have a favorite team you cheer for, win or lose? Or do you think spectator sports are a waste of time? Do you have some other inexplicable passion or loyalty? Click here to show us your colors (Buckeyes need not apply). And if you want to see a real True Blue fan in action, do not miss Bob Ufer in the clip below, who had "never been so happy in all his cotton-pickin' 59  years," even after broadcasting 327 ball games. Now that's a fan!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Variations on a Theme Song

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have a theme song and those who don't. 

The year my friend Linda and I lived together in college, on most weeknights she would walk through my bedroom door at about 11:25 singing "Da da da daa da, Da da dada da da." In case you don't immediately recognize that transliteration, it's Johnny Carson's theme song from The Tonight Show, which started after the 11 o'clock news. Since then, I've always wanted my own theme song (and backup singers, but that's another discussion). 

I've been thinking a lot about theme songs lately, since I find myself unable to remember new information due to the huge portion of my brain that has dedicated itself to preserving every commercial jingle and theme song from my childhood and early adult years. Let's see if you suffer from the same affliction by playing a quick round of Match the Theme Song with the TV Show:
1. Suicide is Painless
2. Love is All Around
3. Making Our Dreams Come True
4. I'll Be There for You
5. Searchin' My Soul
6. Movin' on Up
7. Where Everybody Knows Your Name
8. Those Were the Days
9. The Final Frontier
10. Best Friend
A. Ally McBeal
B. Friends
C. Mad About You
D. The Courtship of Eddie's Father
E. Cheers
F. M*A*S*H
G. The Jeffersons
H. Laverne and Shirley
I. All in the Family
J. Mary Tyler Moore

Bonus question: hum the theme songs to both Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, and identify which is which. 

Answers: 1-F, 2-J, 3-H, 4-B, 5-A, 6-G, 7-E, 8-I, 9-C, 10-D. 

Give yourself two points for each match; add 5 more points for each one you can sing; bonus question: 15 points total. Score: less than 5 — you have led a sad, sheltered life (or are under 20 years old); 5-30 — you are reasonably well versed; 30-50 — you are a theme song aficionado; more than 50 — you have led a sad, sheltered life and need to get out more. 

As you can see, I literally have theme songs on the brain, so I've decided I should get one for myself. Imagine my excitement when I found the "What's Your Theme Song Quiz" on All I had to do was answer a few questions and, voilĂ , it would generate my ideal theme song. Here are my results:

Your Theme Song is Beautiful Day by U2

"Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away"

You see the beauty in life, especially in ordinary everyday moments.
And if you're feeling down, even that seems a little beautiful too.
Um, no. Thanks anyway. Nothing personal, Bono, but I'm more of a Van Morrison kind of girl. In fact, I've always secretly considered "Caravan" my de facto theme song. Upon further reflection, however, I realize that a theme song is different than a favorite song and more than just a jingle. By definition, it is a melody used to identify a performer, a play or movie. By implication, it is a powerful sensory indicator connecting a particular song to something tangible and specific. Finding the right one for me is going to take some serious effort.

I started by thinking of "name" songs (no, not The Name Game song — songs with my name in them). I don't answer to diminutives, so that automatically eliminates many promising possibilities, including Susie-Q, Runaround Sue, Boy Name Sue (um?), Wake Up, Little Suzie, and Satisfy Suzie. While some of these are great songs, they just won't do.

When we move onto "Susan" songs, we're much more limited: 
  • The Buckingham's Susan:  "Susan, looks like I'm loosin', I'm loosin' my mind, wastin' my time … Susan, do you have to be confusin' …"  Sure, it's a catchy tune, but the rhymes are weak and juvenile; plus, I've never been crazy about that weird instrumental/traffic noise interlude.
  • Al Jarreau's Susan's Song — Beautiful, angsty, but really all about Al, not Susan: "Susan, do you mind, sometimes I'm restless, rolling on the floor in pain and woe. After all the precious gifts you will gladly give to me, girl, I may blindly lock and bolt the door."
So, here am I, lamenting my lack of a theme song, when all of a sudden I get a Google Alert about "Two Kinds of People" and discover that my blog has it's very own theme song courtesy of Little Anthony and the Imperials. Little A et al never hit the charts with Two People in the World, and I'm not sure it's what I would have chosen, but how can you turn down a perfectly-good, ready-made theme song? I particularly like the a cappella version:

I guess I'll use Two People in the World as a leitmotif while the search for my personal theme song continues. Click here to tell us your theme song and why it works for you.  

On a final note (with a bit of shameless self-promotion), I've been writing around on the Web recently, with a couple of guest posts on Wee Windy City, and two new posts on the Chicago Moms Blog, including one on our lackluster summer and one on the group's Birthday Topic Day. Stop by if you have a chance. I've revamped this blog's sidebar to include 2KoP on the Web for easy linking.