The Learning Curve with Language

Saint Mark by Lucas Van Leyden

Saint Mark by Lucas Van Leyden

In a relatively free society, can individuals collectively ban words? By the way, I will never call America a Democracy, but that is a different discussion for another post.  Recently, Time Magazine published its list of Which Words Should Be Banned in 2015. The following list provides a sample:

  • Basic
  • Bossy
  • Feminist
  • Influencer
  • Sorry Not Sorry

As an aspiring wordsmith, the idea of banning words seems dangerous. There are a few words in the  English language that are unacceptable and society shows very little tolerance. There are examples of hate speech which do little to foster discourse or advance our collective intellect . Society considers such words are insulting.  Speaking of which,  I recommend reading  The Washington Post’s feature on The N-Word , for an in-depth examination of this important issue.

In returning to Time’s list, I am wondering how Feminist made this list.  The only practical explanation is that some women   are reluctant to embrace feminism. In time, I think  some words become archaic. For example,  I cannot recall anyone use the aliment to mean food or nourishment.

I am wondering  about certain words or phrases  that need clarification or become abused. For example, what exactly is a Thought Leader?  According to Wikipedia,  a Thought Leader is an individual  recognized as an authority in a specialized field.  Actually, this word sounds more like a cult leader. There are already so many words that more appropriate (intellectual, expert and subject matter expert come to mind). Yet, the angst I have for this phrase will not stop it from entering the American lexicon.

Speaking of our language, there is another cringe inducing word that comes to mind. As a society, we have abused the word interesting for several years. I can hardly stand this.  For instance, Gina’s PowerPoint presentation is interesting.   Are her slides  awful or irrelevant? I just do not know. However, I may assume that Gina’s efforts did little to wow her audience. This is an example of indirect diplomatic language in which I loath.

Words at there best can evoke emotions or stimulate thought.  There is a learning curve in using language appropriately. Thank God I am not alone in my struggle.

Confessions of a Metro Commuter

Psychologist on Subway

Subway by Robert Neubecker


During my morning commute I often think: “Once I step through these doors, there is no turning back.”

Some theologians dispute the existence of purgatory. However, I am no longer skeptical. As a born-again heathen, even I have to set aside my doubts, breathe deeply and say a little prayer just as my train takes off.

Every time I board a train in the Metrorail system, I know there is a chance that I may not reach the office on time.

How long has it been? I am a proud, 12-year, hard-nosed Metro commuter. I can hardly believe I have made it so long. When I first used the system, I was struck dumb and filled with awe by its efficiency. In each subsequent year, I have witnessed a major subway system decline and deteriorate.

During my first Metro delay, I panicked. I did not understand what was happening. I remember the frustration and anger of the other commuters. Their rage resembled the sound of a thousand tortured souls crying out. When there is a disruption now, the emotions wash over me like white noise. Like me, most regular passengers strategically use indifference as a shield to survive.

We live in the age of the Internet. Smartphones and tablets are important tools for getting information. And yet I have to strain my ears to understand messages from Metro operators. Unfortunately, their monotonous verbiage reminds me of Charlie Brown’s teacher in the “Peanuts” TV shows. Still, by some miracle, I have become proficient in Metro-speak and can interpret for tourists and other commuters alike.

As an actively interested consumer of public transportation, I keep up with the latest and greatest events affecting the system. So I know that Metro’s general manager, Richard Sarles, is leaving after almost five years. Sarles is the latest to pass through a revolving leadership door. However, he guided the transit agency to a safer culture after a deadly accident in 2009. His successor will take responsibility for a system that is reliably inconsistent.

In 2016, Metro will close parts of the Red Line for 14 consecutive weekends. Even though the District has the second-busiest subway system in the country (behind New York), there is no reliable source of funding to sustain its repair work or expansion. Metro’s pay-as-you-go approach means it must plead with Virginia, Maryland and federal officials for funding.

The system needs a permanent funding source. In a review of Metro’s management, the Federal Transit Administration uncovered questionable financial practices. The report did not accuse Metro of wrongdoing but identified weaknesses in its approach to money management.

Regardless, WMATA will continue to squeeze passengers’ wallets by raising fares. In New York City, riders pay a flat-rate fare to enter the subway system and go anywhere they wish, no matter how far or long the trip. Metro commuters pay up to $6.90 one-way ($5.90 with a Smart Trip card) for an extremely long trip. As for the quality of the trip, the rush hour often involves riders packed like sardines – assuming the doors close and trains don’t have to offload over packed passengers to prevent a system shutdown.

“We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience,” is the standard line designed to appease harried customers, heard all too often these days.Until the system changes, passengers will face an uncertain future filled with empty apologies, delays and service disruptions,not the kind of future worth fighting for or that Washingtonians deserve.

Originally published in The Washington Post. 






What is Worth Reading


Milton Visits Galileo via the Wellcome Library

Milton Visits Galileo

What is Worth Reading provides a snapshot regarding what is going on regarding culture.  While there is not substitution for reporting, sometimes the most substantive work may  go unnoticed.  Hopefully,  you will find this useful.


Shakespeare and the Modern World

How can Shakespeare’s work, written 400 years ago still speak to the contemporary problems society faces?  This is latest the topic in the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast .   Rebecca Sheir interviews Gail Kern Paster, former director of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Jeremy Lopez, University of Toronto professor, in an intriguing discussion regarding how scholars look for new meaning in Shakespeare’s plays.

Longform Podcast with Lewis Lapham

Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and formerly the editor of  Harper’s Magazine.  In the latest edition of Longform’s podcast, Lapham offers his take on range of subjects from his role as an editor to culture in general.

Noteworthy Pieces

The New Racism

Is the Republican Party turning back the clock on civil rights in Alabama? The New Republic’s Jason Zengerle explores this contentious issue in his piece entitled The New Racism. Zengerle explores the impact of the GOP’s political domination of Alabama politics and how its consequences left Black lawmakers and their constituents with very little political influence.

Spoken Latin: A Modern Remedy for The Nation’s Age-Old Reading Problems

Latin is slowly becoming the great equalizer in the fight against illiteracy. This is the premise  Francis Seller’s article Spoken Latin: A Modern Remedy for The Nation’s Age-Old Reading Problems.     The language associated with classical scholars and the elite may provide a remedy to our country’s reading problems.

The Emerging Controversy 

The New York Times featured an advertisement protesting Amazon’s business practices.  The advertisement features a letter by Novelist Douglass Preston and signed by 900 authors.  The letter accuses Amazon of pressuring Hachette, the nation’s fourth largest book published over the price of e-books.  Also, this protest is an effort to persuade Amazon to stop withholding books from sale when it is negotiating with publishers.

It is not right for Amazon to single out a group of authors, who are not involved in the dispute, for selective retaliation according to the letter. Moreover, by inconveniencing and misleading its own customers with unfair pricing and delayed delivery, Amazon is contradicting its own written promise to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.

Some of the most prominent authors which signed this letter include Stephen King, Elizabeth Gilbert, John Grisham, Anna Quindlen  and Ann Patchett. Readers can find the online copy of the letter here.

Confessions of a Fragmented Mind

Pharmacy School

There are some people who cannot walk, chew gum and text at the same time.   It takes skill be a pedestrian.

There are 839 days until the next presidential election. I cannot contain my enthusiasm for the perpetual campaigning.

Some cultural references I just do not understand. In time, this will change as I keep reading. However, there is one specific song that is driving me crazy.

For instance, during my childhood I did not sing You Should Never Shove Your Granny off the Bus. I picked up this little classic while reading Let The World Spin. Where did this song  come from?

I am the Rodney Dangerfield of smart phones and tablets.  I get no respect.  It comes a time in a man’s life when he has to realize his limitations.

Within the last few years, I spent time reading books as much as possible. This is after several years of benign neglect of my brain cells.   God placed a brilliant idea into my beautiful big sister’s brain. She purchased an Android tablet as a Christmas gift

Please do not get confused, I love the printed word. There is nothing like the texture of book or newspaper. However, I have to place limits how many books I can buy.  The tablet (like my sister) is a God send.

When I didn’t purchase books online, I checked novels and nonfiction at DC Public Library’s Overdrive.    As a reader, it made things so easy and convenient. Also, I found many of classics for free (and how can you compete with free?). It was fine and dandy until the charger broke.  The charger rolled out of my backpack,  hit the floor and  shattered into pieces.

After months of using universal chargers, (each having  a short life span)  I have decided to follow-up technical support.  By June 30, I mailed my Dreamax tablet to the wizards of Wally World (Wal-Mart).  As of this moment,  I am playing the waiting game.  According to the latest e-mail,  tech support will complete my order in the next 7 to 14 business day.  We will see.

How can someone so tech savvy struggle so much with technology?  One of my closes friends teased me about this.   You have absolutely no luck with electronic devices.  If this one does not work out, you should give up on them completely and read paper  publications exclusively.

My friend has a valid point. Lately, I hustle for change to buy The Washington Post each morning.  The good news is I am going through the Sunday  Post and have missed that ritual very much.  The tablet represents an effort to adapt to the times. The waiting process is an opportunity to develop patience.


Four Steps for Soaring Beyond Routine Into the Extraordinary

Man Frantically Signing Papers at Desk

The weekend is over and it is time to return to the grind.

And yet, the mind longs for more than the usual routine. A peaceful acceptance can be gained through step-by-step inquiry into our current state of being.

My personal journey begins with the question: Where does this all come from?

As a culture, our ambition has its origins in our competitive drive and incessant work ethic. Such relentless obsessions with achievement get many of us nowhere, and slowly.

How surprising it is that the average car commuter spends an unbelievable 38 hours a week stuck in traffic?

How can many of us function without our To Dolists and smart phones?

Who are we without all our activities?

I come from a long-line of East-Texas backwoods workhorses. My parents set the example with their unwavering discipline and determination. More than anything else, I want to make my mark in the world. And no, I do not want a throne or the keys to the kingdom.

Yet, I want to keep striving for the extraordinary. I want life filled with accomplishments and to turn my dreams into reality. Unlike most Alpha-males, I do not always have to win. Nevertheless, I do not want my family’s sacrifice for my success to be in vain. It was not easy for my family to tolerate the underachieving son struggling throughout school.

Every day I am hustling and I am not alone. Over the past few years of my life, I wanted the fortitude to fight on forever. But pushing myself usually got in the way. Some of my biggest mistakes have stemmed from rushing to finish an assignment.

Sometimes, I am doing my best to manage the exhaustion from the work week.

In order for me to change, I realized that I have to nurture my development and take time to cultivate learning without regard to outcomes. My reasons for deciding to change go beyond ambition or professional advancement.

1. Self-Awareness

As cliché as this first step may sound, it starts with identifying intentions. While growing up, my family and friends constantly challenged me by asking are you paying attention? Unfortunately, I have been struggling with my way ward attention span for all of my life and am a work-in-progress. Fortunately, I have an extraordinarily patient family and wonderful friends. I am learning so much.

Self-knowledge is not feasible when we mindlessly surrender to routines, so examining motives seems worth the time. Meanwhile, it helps to set limits on activity.

We have to cut out both physical and mental clutter in order to focus and think calmly.

We cannot move forward until we understand the reasons behind our actions. More importantly, we cannot be true to ourselves until our actions fit our intentions.

2. Preparation

For the impatient person, the planning process appears less sexy than the desirable outcome. Our culture celebrates instant gratification. However, advance preparation, set in place with patience, sets the necessary baseline of forbearance, a tool with which one can face most situations gracefully.

The most successful coaches always create a game plan ahead of time in order to defeat their opponent. Also, no one expects a construction crew to begin work without the architect’s blue prints.

3. Focus

Focus means giving total concentration, attention and awareness to what happens in the present moment and just ahead. Stress, on the other hand, tends to scatter brain cells, sending our awareness all over the map.

As a society, I notice our increasing love for multitasking. Often, I think multitasking involves making several mistakes at the same time, and it feels like I’m living life with my eyes on a rearview mirror.

By shutting down my use of social media, taking time to breath deeply, walk in nature and meditate, even the most fragmented of minds can tune in to the true self and tune out every little bit of irrelevant brain chatter.

When I feel stuck or overwhelmed, I walk away from my desk. In the past, I trained myself to plough through everything. In other words, I sucked it up and suffered.

I realize now there is wisdom in regrouping and allowing my mind to relax for a few moments. I never thought a lunch-time walk could become a mental and emotional refuge.

Decompression from a stressful situation shows just as much dexterity as forging ahead.

4. Reassessment

Doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, simply constitutes insanity. Regardless of how carefully we proceed, we will make mistakes. When this happens, we need to take a few steps back, reflect, gain perspective and understand what happened, but only before quickly using that information to create new strategies for the future.

I’ve heard “We’ve always done it this way” used for the purpose of staying stuck, and I consider this a most dangerous phrase. Life does not always reward perfection, but it does repay resilience.

This is why yoga has been so invaluable. I do not have the flexibility to muscle my way through each posture. There must be a balance between ease and effort in working through a sequence—an important lesson which I can apply in life.

Enjoying the journey and not just the destination makes life so much more rewarding.

This attitude requires patience, though, since overnight successes rarely occur. For most of us, this evolution of consciousness may take a lifetime of commitment, practice and improvement.

Bit by bit, each step towards cultivating awareness and acceptance allows us to appreciate more of our important, valuable lives, leading us out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary.

Originally published by Elephant Journal

The Power of Self Expression

Virginia Woolf

When in doubt, always remember ladies first. When writers feel their creativity blocked or stifled, the look for inspiration. In this instance, Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own provides a great example of the power of self-expression.

A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay produced by Woolf in 1929.  The title comes from Woolf’s belief that women need their own personal space and financial independence to work on their craft. The central argument she advances in this work is below.

 Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.

Room of One’s Own takes a creative approach in making the case for more freedom for female writers. For example, Woolf creates the character of Judith Shakespeare to illustrate the differences in opportunities for men and women. Judith wants to read, write and seek her fortunate like her brother William.

Unfortunately, her determined parents insist she marries well and cannot pursue her education. Eventually, Judith runs away to London. Regrettably, Judith’s life ends tragically when she commits suicide.  The story line involving Judith Shakespeare is an illustration of why historically there are too few female writers.

As compelling as this is, Woolf makes examines important aspect of how men and women approach writing. Arguably, the most fascinating element of Room of One’s Own focuses on the art of the shapely sentence.

From Woolf’s perspective, early female authors such as George Elliott and Charlotte Bronte lacked a literary tradition to draw upon. Some may argue that female writers can learn just as much from male novelist like Dickens.  According to the text,  The weight, pace, the stride of man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully.  

In this context, Jane Austen’s work is vital.  Austen creates her own naturally, shapely sentence that enables deeper expression.  The novel was a vehicle for creativity for female writers of this time period. Essentially, female writers need better tools to fit their mind..  Woolf is making the case for freedom.  The shapely sentence gives fullness of expression which is the essence of storytelling.

In Celebration of Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Desk by Ted and Anthony John Peters

William Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564.   He was born to John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.  The Bard’s contributions to literature are substantial.  The Complete Works of Shakespeare is second only to King James Bible regarding its influence upon culture.

Speaking of culture, some students initially cringe when teachers cover Shakespeare’s plays. Educators are often met with significant resistance when they mentioned Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet.  Far from being a sixteenth century instrument of torture, the Bard’s work elegantly captures the scope of human nature.

We owe a lot of our own language to Shakespeare.  According to experts, he invented over 2,000 words for use in his plays.  No scribe can approach with Shakespeare in crafting phrases.  The expression Et Tu Brute in Julius Caesar comes from Shakespeare’s intellect and not history. Shakespeare’s ability as a wordsmith teaches us the importance of language. The following passage is from The Tempest.

Be not afraid; the isle is full of noises sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices, that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming, the clouds me thought would open, and show riches ready to drop upon me;  when I walked I cried to dream again. 

This specific segment comes from Caliban and is very memorable.   In this play, he presented as a beast (half human and the other half animal) and is a slave to the main protagonist Prospero. Prospero enslaves the Caliban because he almost rapes his daughter Miranda. Ironically, Shakespeare uses this specific character as a vessel of beautiful poetry. In the text, we see the humanity within the monster.

Shakespeare’s insight into life resonates with people. An example of Shakespeare’s deep understanding of into our nature takes places in this  brief monologue from Brutus in the first scene  in  Julius Caesar.

Be not deceived: if I have veil’d my look, I turn the trouble of my countenance. Merely upon myself. Vexed I am Of late with passions of some difference, conceptions only proper to myself, which give some soil perhaps to my behaviors; but let not therefore my good friends be grieved– Among which number, Cassius, be you one–Nor construe any further my neglect, than that poor Brutus, with himself at war, forgets the shows of love to other men.

In this scene, we witness the struggle taking place within Brutus. We understand the emotions and mindset of a very important character. Is Brutus a hero of the Rome? Or does he deserve his fate in Dante’s Inferno? Regardless of your view, Shakespeare’s captures his complexity.

The Bard has no rival among storytellers and captures the essence of life. Shakespeare’s work covers love, loss, defeat, death, jealousy and victory.  Shakespeare’s work shows the power and importance of words.