Category Archives: Essays

Language “Is Everything”: A Call For Creativity
by Julia Fine

Brain PenI remember the moment I discovered I was guilty of the colloquial verbal tic. Even before the “like’s” and “totally’s” that would define my generation spread their way into my speech, it hit me that I’d sometimes get stuck on certain words. My specific revelation was that I had just used the word “awful” for the tenth time in a twenty minute conversation. Embarrassed, I took note. I expanded my study of preteen dialogue to find that my descriptors came in phases.  Sometimes, I needed to start every sentence with the qualifier “I feel like,” other times it was “no offense, but.” Some months, everything was “awful,” others it all was just “grotesque.” (I was at that age, what can I say.)

The verbal tic remains persistent, even when stripped of its angst, and has stuck around to infect my adult conversation as well. I find myself repeating “that’s ridiculous” or tweeting “just a thought.” My boyfriend goes through catchphrases like “I will say this much” or “at the end of the day” the way P. Diddy (Puffy? Who is he nowadays?) goes through names. Is this slang? Are we channeling some cultural conversation? I’d argue that we aren’t. What keeps the verbal tic from becoming simply slang is how insidiously it creeps into our language. Slang is fun and appropriative, used deliberately to be part of the crowd. The verbal tic is unconscious, unsummoned, sneaking up from the dark recesses of the brain to be chastised moments after it escapes. It is a product of salience — the words are at the top of our minds, so we use them over and over and over.

In medical terms, a tic is an uncontrollable mental “itch” that a symptom-sufferer just has to scratch. I do not want to belittle the struggle faced by those with Tourette’s Syndrome or other neurological diagnoses by implying that cultural linguistics are by any means a similar problem.  (For an eyeopening look at young people with Tourette’s Syndrome, I highly recommend the documentary I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me.) I use the word tic because it comes the closest to describing the phenomenon I’m discussing, the curious way that words worm themselves into our brains and demand to be repeated, despite a proliferation of often more appropriate words we might uncover if we only took the time. Continue reading

Tagged ,

Not All Who Wander are Lost: Finding an Honest Guide in Ben Tanzer’s “Lost in Space”
by Jeff Toth

Lost in Space

“So you also look for signs to provide you some kind of roadmap for where things might possibly be going, because even a sign that is hard to read or navigate is better than none.” — Ben Tanzer, from the essay “The Boy with the Curious Hair”

Full disclosure: despite what may seem like a daunting title, Ben Tanzer’s Lost in Space: A Father’s Journey There and Back Again is neither hard to read nor difficult to navigate. It is, instead, an incredibly honest take on the joys and fears every parent experiences, sometimes long before their children are even a part of the picture. With a blend of humor, inventive structuring, and sometimes sobering truth, Tanzer explores the wide array of influences and instances that continue to shape his journey as a father and as a man. As signs go, Lost in Space is everything a person in need of a guide through the uncertainty of adulthood, manhood, parenthood, personhood, could hope for. At least that was the experience of this reader. I’ll explain.

I first encountered the author and his latest collection of essays in Seattle of all places. We set out separately from our respective homes in Chicago in late February to attend the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)—Mr. Tanzer, no doubt, kissing his wife and two sons goodbye before setting out to share his work with the literary masses, while I was taking the last trip I would ever take on my own before becoming a father myself. Then again, it wasn’t so much a “trip” for me as it was an exploratory mission. Continue reading

Tagged , , ,