All posts by Lucy Ferriss

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The Case Against Flashback

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I’ve been thinking, this week, about daydreaming and fiction.  A recent article in The Atlantic estimates that people may daydream through nearly half their waking hours. That seems like a lot to me, but I readily admit to my mind “wandering” during weddings, funerals, classical-music concerts, long drives, and the line at the DMV. The relationship between dreaming — the REM sort as well as the daydream — is one that writers have evoked many times, from John Gardner’s notion of fictio…

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I Am Not Resilient

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Following close on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, as Hurricane Irma leaves devastation in her wake that now awaits Hurricane Jose, more than a few of us are talking about the relationship of climate change and extreme weather events.

Oops. My bad. I meant to write, “More than a few of us are talking about the relationship of resilience and extreme weather events.” There. All fixed.

Or is it? As Slate’s Henry Grabar noted in March, resilience has become the term of choice in a political atmosphe…

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Spelling, Agin

a863d50f236278b5_trump_poster_1024x1024Farhad Manjoo is of the mind that mockery of Donald Trump’s spelling mistakes exhibits elitism. It’s a vexed question that I’ve addressed once before in this forum. There’s no doubt that making fun of people for frequent spelling mistakes, not to mention numerous typos, can prove to be an unkind jab at a dyslexic person, or a crass implication that poor spelling equates to stupidity. It is also true that an exceptionally bright, well-read person can be a lousy speller, often because of one of …

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Totality

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The word totally has grown so overused that I was struck, last week, by the power of its near cousin, totality, describing the two or three minutes, along the arc of the much-heralded solar eclipse, when the sun was blanked out except for its flaming (and dangerous to look at) corona. At first I thought the media had invented the term. But no, it has been in the astronomy lexicon for 185 years to indicate “the moment or duration of total obscuration of the sun or moon during an eclipse.”

When t…

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‘Alt’ Alternatives

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What a world of difference lies between adopting your own moniker and having one thrust upon you. I had never heard the term alt-left before the president used it in his third iteration of comments on the horrific events in Charlottesville, Va. Figuring out what he meant wasn’t exactly rocket science: Just as the alt-right is not really some alternative to right-wing positions but rather an extreme, purist force on the right, so the alt-left would be considered an extreme and purist form of lef…

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Why a Ham Sandwich?

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When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, than…

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A Three-Hundred-Year-Old Dilemma

Hyphenation

Recently The Economist’s “Johnson” column (named not for its author, but for the dictionary pioneer Samuel Johnson, who lived three centuries ago) ruminated on the frustrations and obscure consistencies of hyphenation. Apparently the magazine’s style book carries on about hyphens for eight pages, which to my mind leaves plenty to be said.

As they rightly point out, the path of hyphenation runs generally toward its disappearance: good-bye becomes goodbye, to-day becomes today, e-mail has widely …

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Love Me, Don’t Grade Me

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When my sons were beginning elementary school, they liked to while away a rainy Saturday afternoon playing school. They wanted me to play the teacher, but apparently I didn’t do it right. “You have to be meaner,” they’d say. “You have to yell a lot.”

I always wondered if their teachers really were shrieking meanies who toned it down when a parent appeared, or if they’d gotten this notion of the harridan-as-schoolteacher elsewhere. I’ve had a similar response to the recent case of the “gra…

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Good on All of Us

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Often I pay attention to a shift in language only when I find it coming from my own mouth. That was the case the other day, when my husband and I were hiking in the Berkshire hills. He caught his toe in a tree root and started pitching down the hill, but managed to veer right and swing around a slender birch until he steadied himself. “That was clumsy of me,” he said.

“But you managed to right yourself like a ballet dancer,” I said. “Good—”

Right then I felt the new set of words, ready to come …

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Hunting Witches

1cb71bc07a4e05ec792f8b53f84a8065When my kids were small, we used to recite a little ditty about going on a bear hunt. The hunt involved a belief that there was a bear out there, “a big one,” only we couldn’t see it; we had to get past the obstacles and find it. (And, I suppose, capture or kill it, only we never found the bear; the rhyme was entirely about the obstacles in our way.)

Bears exist; witches don’t. That is, they don’t exist in the fairy-tale or medieval sense of a person (generally female) with magical powers. T…