This week I came down with Three-Day Killer Death Flu. I also had a high-pressure deadline at work, so my cats didn’t get as much attention as they’re used to. Fortunately, instead of complaining, they decided to help out around the house.
I woke up yesterday morning to find that the cats were cleaning their toys.
I took that picture on my phone and posted it to Facebook. As I was typing the caption, my cat Seffie came into the kitchen. By the time I’d finished typing (I’m a slow phone typist), she’d had taken the toy out of the bowl and was playing with it. Apparently it had been soaking long enough.
This morning, I woke up to this:
So I took out the toy and changed the water. I also give them fresh food every morning; when I turned around after throwing out the old food, this is what I saw:
The blue toy may not be obvious in that photo, but you can see it in this close-up.
I’ve been thinking about you a lot today, even though I don’t really know you — I have fond memories of 1979-1983 Boston, but I haven’t been back in years, or maybe decades. There are probably a lot of people like me, who lived with (or across the river from) previous versions of you and were transformed from clueless teenagers into slightly less clueless adults. I loved the time I spent with you, and I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking of you, and I hope you’re okay.
In an attempt to add some much-needed structure to this blog and to provide a valuable resource to the community, I’ve decided to devote this and all future posts to helping people become better writers.
We’ll start with a few classic tips I’ve seen elsewhere and incorporated into my own writing.
1. Stick to a schedule.
Setting a schedule and sticking to it has helped me avoid procrastination. I work on my blog from 3:00 pm to 4:00 pm on Saturdays, my epic steampunk dystopian romance literary suspense trilogy from 10:50 pm to 11:00 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my weekly shopping list from 7:52 pm to 7:54 pm on Wednesdays. I set a timer at the beginning of each session; when it rings, I finish the sentence or shopping list entry I’m working on, and then stop.
It’s important to come up with a schedule and set of procedures that work for you. You’re probably not going to get it right the first time. For example, when I started out, I’d stop writing the moment the timer went off. I found that leaving a thought unfinished sometimes led to confusion (like the time I needed toilet paper but bought a new toilet instead), so now I take the extra few seconds to finish the current thought.
2. Read like a writer.
I’ve seen this bit of advice a lot, and for a long time I had no idea what it meant. It finally “clicked” for me a couple weeks ago when I was reading Dave Barry’s Insane City. Instead of just laughing hysterically at the zany antics of the characters, I found myself looking past my initial impressions and focusing instead on the intense, burning envy I felt towards anyone capable of writing something that funny.
This has improved everything I’ve written since then. For example, here’s the shopping list I wrote the Wednesday before I read the Dave Barry book:
And here’s the one I wrote the following week:
Plane ticket to Florida
See the difference? Each list took two minutes to write, but the first was five words long, and the second was 17 words. Reading like a writer helped me get into the mind-set I needed to more than triple my productivity.
3. Show, Don’t Tell.
Here’s a sentence that uses an adjective to tell the reader something:
The clerk at the car rental agency in Miami was unhelpful.
The scene becomes more vivid if I instead show actions that support that description:
She handed me the keys and asked if I needed directions anywhere. I told her I needed to find the nearest 24-hour gun store. She said she didn’t think there was one. Fine, I said, I’ll improvise – just give me directions to Dave Barry’s house. She asked for the address, and I explained that I didn’t know it, which is why I needed directions. Then she just stared at me for a minute and said something about having to help the next person in line.
4. Avoid “weasel words” and the passive voice.
Consider this sentence:
In retrospect, the death threats may have been a bit of an overreaction.
Pretty wishy-washy, isn’t it? By saying the death threats may have been an overreaction, the author is implying that they may not. And if they were, who overreacted? And how much of an overreaction is “a bit”? The sentence is practically meaningless. If you take out all the extra words and use a more active structure, you get a sentence that conveys the author’s true feelings:
He had it coming.
Clear, concise, and to the point — I think you’ll agree this is a huge improvement.
These four simple tips did wonders for my writing, and I hope they’ll help yours as well. If you have a favorite tip of your own that you’d like to share, or if you have a tricky writing problem that you’d like some help with, please tell us about it in the comments.
Ever since I heard about Tilda Swinton’s performance art piece “The Maybe”, which involves her sleeping in a glass box “on top of a mattress, with just her glasses and a carafe of water” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’ve been wondering: why does she need her glasses? She’s just going to sleep, and maybe drink some water. She’s not even going to pour the water into a glass. She doesn’t have a book or a wristwatch, so she won’t be reading or checking the time. It’s possible that she’ll need her glasses when she leaves the box, but if that’s the reason, why doesn’t she also have keys, money, credit cards, and/or a phone?
I’m currently putting together a proposal for a follow-on art installation that’s similar to “The Maybe” with a few key differences:
Instead of Tilda Swinton sleeping in the box, it will be me.
My cats will also be in the box. Unless they get bored, in which case they’ll need to be let out of the box, and then let in again when and if they want to return. It would probably be easiest just to install a cat door on the box. I’ll also need a couple cat wranglers to keep an eye on the cats and make sure they don’t leave the museum.
I can’t just lie down and fall asleep. I need to read for a while. I’ll need my Kindle in the box.
Seffie won’t let me go to sleep unless I play with her with the laser pointer first. So I’ll also need a laser pointer. I realize this isn’t ideal, but it’s unavoidable.
I usually run the dishwasher right before going to bed. I’ll need to hear dishwasher sounds each day until I fall asleep. If installing a dishwasher on the museum floor turns out to be impractical, I might be able to get by with recorded dishwasher sounds, as long as they’re realistic enough and MOMA sends someone to my house to wash my dishes.
Instead of a carafe of water (which I assume is an open container, although I can’t find any pictures of Ms. Swinton’s carafe), I’ll need a bottle that closes; I’m concerned that if I have an open carafe in a small space, I might roll over in my sleep and spill it. Also my cats would probably drink out of it. You’ll notice I’m not insisting on a glass. I’m willing to rough it for the sake of my art.
I’ll need my cell phone. I’m not planning on making any calls, but I can use it to check the time or tweet about any unusual dreams I might have. Also, I plan to use it as an alarm clock. I don’t want to oversleep and get locked into the museum overnight. And I hate to sound overly mercenary, but if I’m being paid to sleep for seven hours, I don’t see why I should spend any extra time sleeping for free.
Some of these requests will take a bit of work on MOMA’s part, but I’m sure they can accommodate me. At least I’m not demanding to have my glasses in the box with me. That would be unreasonable.
As part of my ongoing quest to make this blog as confusing as possible, I’ve changed servers again, moving it back to wordpress.com. If you see anything strange, please leave a comment or send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know. I’m especially interested in strange things about this blog — missing images, etc. — but really, feel free to tell me about anything strange you notice anywhere.
This is not a cat blog; however, I sometimes add gratuitous cat pictures to posts that have nothing to do with cats. This is one of those times.
Take everything you read here with a large grain of salt, unless you have high blood pressure, in which case you should take everything you read here with a large grain of salt substitute, unless you’re allergic to salt substitute.
This blog accepts no responsibility for any adverse reactions you may or may not have to any salt or salt substitute you consume while reading this blog.
Some of the posts here were written by my cats. You can generally tell by the writing style: the cats tend to use words like “mncmnzlmxhfb” or ” srassrfmn” more frequently than I do. If you have trouble understanding one of the cat-authored posts, you’re not alone. Google Translate is useless for this.
I have instituted a new comment policy. It’s available as a link in the menu above, but since this is a full-service blog, I’m including it in its entirety here…
Comments are strongly encouraged! I’d love to read your opinions and stories. Please just follow these simple guidelines:
I don’t moderate comments (other than spam), but I get a lot of spam, and I don’t always check my spam queue. If you try to add a comment and it didn’t appear immediately, please use the contact form to let me know I need to fish it out of the queue.
If I don’t know you and you leave a comment that’s just a generic compliment, I’ll probably assume it’s spam and delete it. This is especially true if you use words like “informative” to describe one of my posts.
Comments absolutely must be on topic! Not necessarily the topic of the post you’re commenting on, of course, but they need to be on some topic.
I sometimes post pictures of my cats on this blog. Comments referring to my cat pictures must contain at least one of the following words: adorable, cute, sweet, beautiful, charming, exquisite, or delightful.
Comments must be written in iambic pentameter.
Comments must be signed with your full name, email address, home address, phone number, and the names and addresses of three character references. Or you can just make up a name and leave the rest of those fields blank.
Before you hit the “send” button to post your comment, please stop for a moment and ask yourself, where did I leave my keys?
Comments involving embarrassing stories are always welcome, unless those stories are about me.
If you’ve been getting Unlikely Explanations posts in email, you should have received a message from WordPress with a subject line like “Laura invited you to follow Unlikely Explanations”. If you want to continue getting these emails, please click on the “accept invitation” link in the mail (or click on one of the “follow” buttons on this page).
It turns out that the widely-reported news story about those three missing Ukrainian military dolphins (you know, the ones “trained to attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads“) was actually a hoax. I had my doubts about this story from the start — for one thing, why would enemy combat swimmers have special dolphin-friendly weapons attached to their heads? And wouldn’t a dolphin’s lack of hands make it difficult to fire a gun?
Unfortunately, the only part of the story that was a hoax was the part about the dolphins escaping — there actually is a Ukrainian program to arm dolphins and train them to attack. This is terrible. Have these people never seen a 1970s-era science fiction movie? Even if you ignore all the ethical considerations, teaching other species to kill us is not a good idea.
Speaking of other species trying to kill us, there’s been another armed-dog attack in Florida. I know, I know — this hardly seems newsworthy; dogs shoot people in Florida all the time. But these incidents seem to be escalating. In 2004, a puppy shot a man in Pensacola — but the man was shooting puppies at the time, so it was self-defense. Then in 2011, a 78-year-old Tampa hunter was shot by his dog in what appears to have been an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment attack (witnesses said that the dog was “overly excited”). This latest case, however, must have been premeditated. A dog in central Florida shot his owner with a gun that the man thought was unloaded. This can only mean one thing: the dog planned the attack in advance and loaded the gun when the man wasn’t looking.
One thing I really like about my cats is that they’ve never tried to kill me. This week, they participated in a science experiment — someone on YouTube noticed that his cat reacted to an optical illusion and wondered whether other people’s cats did as well. Here’s that original video:
If you click through to YouTube, there’s also a questionnaire to fill out if you try it with your own cat.
I made two videos in response: this one shows that Seffie probably doesn’t see the illusion, since she ignores it in favor of another picture:
This one proves conclusively that my cats are adorable:
I’ve decided to move this blog back to wordpress.com. That means that the blog will be down briefly this weekend, and if you’re getting blog posts by email, you may get an email invitation that you’ll need to click on in order to resubscribe (or you can just go to unlikelyexplanations.com after the move and subscribe there). Sorry for the inconvenience, but moving back will mean I can spend more time writing posts and less time managing the blog.
1. Before you turn on your oven, make sure there are no bullets inside. A woman in Tampa was injured this week when she neglected to take this simple precaution. She said she was preheating her friend’s oven in order to make waffles, unaware that her friend used his oven to store ammunition.
Personally, I find this story hard to believe. Who makes waffles in the oven? Modern waffle irons are electric appliances that provide their own heat; old-fashioned waffle irons use heat from the top of the stove. There’s no such thing as a baked waffle.
2. To be extra-safe, store your ammunition somewhere other than the oven. I’m going to go even further and recommend that you keep all your explosives out of the oven.
3. If you find a bunch of dead mice in a tree, you can eat up to 8 of them every 4-6 hours, but don’t eat more than 32 in a 24-hour period. Don’t eat any dead mice if you’re pregnant, have liver problems, or drink more than three alcoholic beverages per day. You can serve dead mice to your children, but only in smaller portions. Do not, under any circumstances, feed dead mice of unknown origin to your cat.
4. Remember to periodically check your water supply for decomposing human remains, especially if you’ve noticed that your water has “a funny taste”. Corpse water can sometimes be perfectly safe to drink; however, the presence of a dead body in your water tank may be an indication that you have a murderer running around.
5. If you do find a murderer on your property, don’t let him store anything in your oven.
A couple weeks ago, I asked for cat name ideas and got some really good suggestions. In the end, though, I decided to base my new kitten’s name on two of her most prominent personality traits:
She spends a lot of time in the dark nether regions of my bedroom closet but always seems happy to come out when called (or when she just wants to eat or play), and
She purrs a lot.
So the obvious choice was Purrsephone. But that’s too many syllables (and maybe a little too cutesy for everyday use), so I’m calling her Seffie.
In other news, Seffie is getting along really well with my other cat, Thunder.
Some other Seffie observations:
Sometimes I’ll throw a toy, and she’ll chase it, pick it up, and bring it back to me. To a casual observer, it might appear that she’s playing Fetch, but really she just likes picking up objects and carrying them to wherever she happens to be going.
She purrs all the time. I think her purr threshold is set really low (so that if you could somehow measure a cat’s happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, and most cats purr at a happiness level of 8 or higher, she probably purrs at anything over 6).
She’s difficult to photograph. This morning she and Thunder were being really cute, and I tried to get some video — but I was sitting in a sunny spot, and when I picked up my phone, Seffie raced off to chase the light reflected on the wall.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about what’s going on with my kitchen sink — it’s a long story. And it’s not over yet.
Update: I’ve discovered that the two cats have very different approaches towards dealing with houseflies. Thunder will wait for the fly to tire itself out; he basically follows these steps: stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk stalk creep creep pounce. Seffie’s approach is more direct: zoom zoom jump zoom jump zoom zoom zoom jump zoom jump zoom zoom jump zoom jump.
My house was built in 1926, but I’m pretty sure the plumbing is older than that — the former owners appear to have found some ancient water pipes made of hollowed-out mastodon tusks and built a house around them. Some parts have been upgraded since then, but others haven’t, and the older ones have an unfortunate tendency to develop leaks whenever you sneeze on them, or breathe on them, or glance in their general direction.
The kitchen faucet developed some problems recently, and since it’s only seven years old, I decided I could probably fix it myself. The nice thing about modern faucets is that, according to approximately twenty thousand Internet sites, the solution to every faucet-related problem is the same: replace the cartridge (the cartridge is the heart of the faucet, or possibly the liver; whatever it is, it seems to be the only part that matters). And it’s easy! You just turn off the water supply, remove any non-cartridge faucet parts that are in the way, pop out the old cartridge, slide in the new cartridge, and then put back all the other parts and turn on the water supply. There are tons of instructional videos available; I watched one guy do the exact repair I needed to in six and a half minutes, and it only took that long because he kept stopping to explain things. Of course, I’m not a skilled plumber, so I estimated that it might take me as long as fifteen minutes.
I went out and bought a shiny new cartridge and then cleverly ate dinner and washed the dishes before starting on the repair. (I mean, it was clever that I did these things before dismantling the faucet, not that I ate dinner in a particularly clever way or came up with some new ingenious method for washing dishes). Then I took a picture of the new cartridge and posted it to my blog because, hey, I have a blog. Then I ran out of ways to procrastinate.
When I went to turn off the water valves under the sink, I noticed the hot water valve (or maybe one of the water supply pipes attached to it) was leaking. These are all old, original, mastodon-tusk parts. I considered giving up and calling a plumber at that point, but I decided against it because a) I’d already bought the replacement cartridge, so I was committed, b) I’d already posted on my blog about it, so I was even more committed, and c) the leak would probably fix itself, by magic.
I managed to remove all the parts in the way of the cartridge without too much difficulty. Then it was time to remove the cartridge. All the instructional videos say this is a two-step process: loosen the cartridge using the cartridge removal tool included with the new cartridge (this was actually pretty easy) and then pull the old cartridge straight out (this was impossible). So I googled some more, found out that there is such a thing as a “cartridge puller,” and rushed off to Home Depot to buy one (I got there literally 5 minutes before they closed). The cartridge puller works kind of like a corkscrew, except at the end, instead of getting wine, you get a corroded piece of faucet guts. But the important thing is that it worked, and I was able to pop in the new cartridge and reassemble the faucet.
Note that I didn’t say that I reassembled the faucet correctly. That took about half a dozen tries. Then I turned the water back on to verify that the faucet worked; I think it did, except that the hot/cold sides were reversed. But remember that leak I mentioned earlier? Somehow, it failed to magically fix itself (and I think I may have made it worse by jostling things during the faucet repair). So right now the water is off in the kitchen sink, and a plumber is coming to the house tomorrow. If he asks how the sink got into this state, I think I’m going to say that vandals did it.