Why I Refer to Myself As a “Language Geek”

The Challenge

During a recent conversation, a friend of mine challenged me: Why do you refer to yourself as a language geek? A fair enough question, and one I’m happy to answer.

To do so, I’d like to work backwards, perhaps, from more specific to general qualifications.

Close Reading

Jane Gallop is the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she was my instructor. In her class, I learned a technique called “close reading,” which focuses on the words, syntax, grammar, and the idiosyncrasies of a particular text. Close reading requires microanalysis of word choice, punctuation, and vocabulary, in an effort to more thoroughly understand the work and sometimes its author. It’s about as obsessive about language as you can get.

Snapshot of example text
Snapshot of the text in my copy of “The Psychic Life of Power” by Judith Butler.

Studies in Literature and Cultural Theory.

An MA in English? Big deal. Actually, yes, with regard to SEO and content creation, it’s a very big deal. Graduate programs in the humanities demand the analysis and synthesis of complex information, in an effort to understand humans.

The themes, strategies, and styles that I’ve studied (not to mention the content) allow me a keen insight into what makes people tick. Want to motive a person to perform a desired action, even one as simple as clicking on a link? You’d better have a good understanding of how language, thoughts, and words affect people. After all, language is the building block of culture, society, and reality.

Studies in Marketing

Finally, I decided to return to school a few years ago to pursue a degree in business. Much of my program was centered upon marketing, in particular, how to a) create compelling stories to connect with potential customers and b) how to develop content that establishes your brand as an authority.

Fascination with SEO

During my marketing studies, I became mesmerized by SEO strategies, so I decided that this would be a focus of my learning. How are people using words to access information? What are the most popular terms? Where are the long tail opportunities? What can research tools and data reveal about search behavior? 

A Lifelong Obsession with Words

I read my first real novel at the age of 8, when I discovered The Hobbit, but my parents and grandparents had been reading to me since I was born. I became a voracious reader, taking in anything I could get my hands on. My love of literature became a love of communication and teaching, and there begins the trajectory of my professional career.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about words. About their meanings, their histories, and their value. Why this word and not another? How does this word relate to the words that precede or follow it? Doe this word have different meanings in different cultural contexts? Is there room for misinterpretation or ambiguity? All important to me.

So Those Are My Qualifications

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments below. Cheers!

Exploring Wisconsin – Deeply Rooted

A Camping Weekend

Last week, I had the opportunity to join some friends for a camping retreat in central Wisconsin. We met at a place I’d never heard of before: Deeply Rooted Community in Athens, WI.

About Deeply Rooted

Deeply Rooted is an intentional community in the woods of central Wisconsin. It’s completely off-grid, by which I mean there is no running water and the only electricity is provided through the use of solar panels. They do have a gas stove for cooking in the main lodge, but otherwise the place is completely rustic.

 

Things To Know Before You Go

For those interested in visiting Deeply Rooted, there are a few things you should know before making plans.

  1. DR community hosts several private events throughout the year, so check the website calendar to see when they are open to receiving visitors. You’ll need a reservation to visit.
  2. DR offers two types of accommodations. Visitors can bring a tent and camp on the land, or stay in the communal sleeping area on the second floor of the lodge. Think of a camp dormitory: you’ll be sleeping in your own bed in a large room full of other people in their own beds.
  3. You’ll need to be comfortable with using primitive facilities. DR offers no running water, but there are jugs of fresh water available for drinking and cleaning the kitchen area. If you want to take a shower, you’ll need to invest in a solar portable. This also means no plumbing. The DR community uses a composting outhouse.
  4. Prepare for it to be chilly, even in the summer. DR is far enough north that it gets quite cool at night. Those staying in the lodge will be kept warm by the large wood stove. Those outside will want to bundle up.
  5. The closest towns with amenities are Medford (20 minutes) and Wasau (30 minutes).

Discovering Why She Wants to Be a Doctor – A Student Story

Background

During my final semester in graduate school, I took a part-time position in the Writing Center at UWM. The WC gave undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a trained writing coach.

The WC helped any student with any writing assignment. We coached freshmen with their first essays, assisted grad students with their theses and dissertations, and helped students with just about everything in-between. On occasion, students also came to us for guidance when it came to writing their resumes, cover letters, and other professional documents.

This is the story of one such student. A woman from the Middle East who was preparing to apply for medical school in the U.S.

Some Context

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should provide a little context for this story. Although I have studied and written on a range of topics related to culture and language, I am by no means an expert on Middle Eastern societies or cultures. What I relate here is based on our conversation as well as some of my own meager research. I will paint with some very broad strokes.

Because of my background in international nonprofits, I was quite comfortable when it came to navigating cultural differences and collaborating with people whose backgrounds were strikingly different from my own. So it was not a big deal when I received my schedule for the day and saw that I was to work with this particular student. Little did I know this meeting would become one of the most important moments in my life.

A Student with a Dream

This woman was brilliant. She was a graduate student who grew up in a Muslim country in the Middle East, and English was her third language. She was completing her MS in Biology, preparing to apply for medical school, and wanted help writing her application cover letter.

The instructions for the cover letter read something along the lines of “tell us why you want to be a doctor.” She had written a three-page response but felt that she was faltering in her delivery and wanted help. She knew that this might be the most important thing she would ever write in terms of her career.

I looked over her draft and noticed immediately that her narrative was focused on her family. Among the reasons she listed for wanting to be a doctor, she noted that it would make her father proud, that it would bring honor to her mother, and that her family had worked very hard for her to receive an education and to be able to study abroad. All good insights, but none of them really answered the question why do you want to be a doctor?

Culture & Language

When it comes to language, we here in the U.S. tend to value a direct approach. We prioritize clarity, efficiency, and individualism. In other words, we want it short and sweet and to the point. Even further, when it comes to professional writing, we want to see the mark of the author in what we are reading.

But this is not the case in other cultures. Elsewhere in the world, individualism is eclipsed by the family or social unit. A person defines him or herself not by what they want, feel, or think as a person, but by their relationships and family history. This is especially true for women, who in some cultures continue to be defined by their relationships to fathers, brothers, and husbands. (That’s a whole different conversation, and one I will sidestep for the time being.) Back to the story.

For this student, answering the question “why do you want to be a doctor?” was a challenge. She’d grown up in a Muslim country, where women’s roles in society were often limited and in which it was considered poor form to dwell on oneself as an individual. She simply was not used to talking about her self in this capacity.

Learning to Say What You Already Know

In the role of a writing coach, much of my time was spent challenging students not to write, but to think. I would often encourage my clients to approach questions from multiple angles, to brainstorm ideas, and to try and get outside of their comfort zone. All of these strategies were in play in this situation. To add an additional complication, we were up against a tight deadline.

We met over three 1 hour sessions, during which time I gave her the fundamentals (reduce the letter to one page, aim for clarity, and get right to the point.) Once we’d covered the basics, it was time to try and figure out why she wanted to be a doctor. The sad truth is that she knew, she just didn’t know how to say it.

My approach was to challenge her to come up with as many reasons as she could to why she wanted to be a doctor. As she volunteered each one, I critiqued it for clarity and originality. You need something that sets you apart, I told her. She struggled.

Breakthrough

During our final session, we finally got to where we were going. We’d already spent two hours in previous sessions discarding her reasons for wanting to be a doctor. Yes, it would make her family proud. Yes, it would allow her to take care of people who need it most. Yes, she could make a good living. But these reasons were not going to get her into medical school.

We were about out of time, and I’d been pushing her pretty hard. She was clearly frustrated, and I was afraid at one point that she might even cry. So I eased up, told her to take a break, and then we’d put together our best strategy for getting this letter written.

Out of nowhere, she looked me in the eye (I think she was angry at this point) and told me something like this

I want to be a doctor because Muslim women in the U.S. deserve a female physician who is sensitive to our cultural needs for modesty and privacy.

Boom.

Out of nowhere, this woman who sat across the desk from me in a headscarf had her breakthrough moment. She was finally able to articulate a career motive that originated with her and could set her apart as a candidate for medical school.

I told her that if she built her letter on this idea, she was likely on her way to becoming a doctor.

Sometimes, all it takes for any of us is a little push. Just enough to get us out of our comfort zone so that we can deal with our obstacles on their terms.

Summertime

Winter in Milwaukee may be horrific, but summer here is absolutely perfect.

I miss the drawn out, gentle unfolding of springtime in the South, but I’m also a big fan of the energy and suddenness of the season here in Wisconsin. Nature knows she has to move quickly in order to take advantage of the short warm season, so things here happen fast. Get ready for MKE summertime madness. (Thanks, Lana Del Rey!)

My schedule is pretty flexible right now (looking for a job, hello!) but that gives me plenty of time to observe this firecracker of a season. Every single day brings a dramatic change in the amount of flowers and green that we see, the diversity of colors, and the number of people in shorts!

I am particularly tickled by how pale the folks of European ancestry appear as they try to dress for warmer weather (myself included).

“Wisconsin Winter White” should be a Crayola color. We look like cave salamanders out there.

So I’ve taken a few photos to try and capture the burst of color here in Milwaukee. So many good things to come.

 

 

 

Your Next Apartment Kitchen Miracle: The 5 QT Cast Iron Dutch Oven

The idea of a kitchen miracle probably doesn’t conjure images of a 5-quart cast iron dutch oven.

But it should.

I live in a small apartment in the city complete with a kitchen in which Barbie would feel cramped. I have a gas stove, 4-top range with an oven that works beautifully, but I don’t have much in the way of space to either prep, clean, or store a ton of pots and pans.

 

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Tall sides help prevent messes and make it easy to stir-fry.

 

I’ve always been a fan of cast iron cooking, but after a few weeks of digging around and trying to manage my limited space, I decided it was time to simply and embrace a paradigm shift.

From now on, I would primarily rely on one or two pans for cooking and adapt my recipes to these pans as best I could. I kept a small nonstick pan handy for making eggs and made my dutch oven the centerpiece of my cooking experience.

Here are a few reasons why you might want to incorporate a dutch oven into your routine, even if you do have plenty of space:

  1. Versatility. You can cook just about anything with a dutch oven. Stovetop or oven, it’s ready for anything.
  2. Simplicity. I’m a big fan of stir frying because it requires little in the way of prep, is relatively healthy, and I can switch up the veggies and meat as I need. I come home from work, throw my ingredients in a hot pan, and in a few minutes my dinner is ready.
  3. Makes clean-up a snap. The sides of the 5-qt dutch oven are tall, which helps me avoid making a mess. It reduces splatters from the oil and reduces the chance that my veggies will fly out of the pan.
  4. Look cool. After the dutch oven is cool, rinse it out, wipe it down, and leave it on the stove. People will know you’re a hard core cast-iron aficionado. They will love you for it.

I don’t get any credit for promoting them, but my favorite dutch ovens and other cookware all come from Lodge Cast Iron.

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At work on the stove

Michelle Wolf & Kanye West: Two names you probably didn’t expect to see in the same blog post title

It’s been quite a week at the intersection of politics and entertainment.

One the one hand, we heard from comedian Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where her sour and politically-charged commentary delighted some and offended many.

But we also heard from musician Kanye West, whose penchant for the outrageous led him to make controversial statements about both the POTUS and the history of slavery in the U.S.

The internet is currently rife with reactions to both performances.

I’m putting that word in italics because much of what I read on Facebook, Twitter, and other blogs leads me to believe that many people are overlooking the performativity of both situations. That might be the one thing that Wolf and West have in common: they are performers.

But to what end?

Wolf and West are both performers, but they are also entertainers and hence, businesspersons. Their earning power DEPENDS upon staying in the public eye, attracting attention for themselves, and finding a means by which they can stay relevant.

Both performers’ opportunistic tendencies should be apparent: they’re simply marketing themselves to cash in on their next gig.

Wolf’s comedy series The Break with Michelle Wolf premiers on May 26th. Guess how many people will be watching it now? West has already established himself as a prolific recording artist and songwriter, so a new product from him is inevitable. His challenge is remaining relevant and noticeable in an ever-evolving pop music landscape. And let’s be honest: the man seems to love any attention he can get, be it positive or negative.

Sure, they’ve both made some wacky, erroneous, offensive, distasteful, and bizarre statements this past week. It’s what they do.

And more to the point: it’s good for business.

 

Day Trip – Kettle Moraine South

Just Southwest of Milwaukee

Not only was yesterday Earth Day, but it felt like the first real day of spring here in Southern Wisconsin. Abundant sunshine, temps above 50, and just about everyone was outside basking in the glory. Was I staying in or going to a movie on such a glorious day? Not on your life!

I convinced my partner in crime that today was the perfect day for some hiking or at least some quality outdoor time so we headed down to the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit.

The Kettle Moraine Southern unit is quite expansive: the various campgrounds and hiking trails are scattered over about a 10 mile area about 30 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. We’d been there before, but today we decided to visit a new area. We headed toward the Ottawa Lake Campround area, which is about the northern most area of the Southern Unit.

What to Know Before Going

Fees

The Wisconsin DNR requires all vehicles to purchase either a day pass ($8 – $15) or an annual pass ($28 for in-state plates, $38 for out-of-state plates). Annual passes are window decals that are good for any park in the WI system for the current calendar year. Some discounted passes are available for seniors. See complete details here.

Campsites

The Ottawa Lake Campground includes some gorgeous campsites, many of which are right beside the lake and include direct access to the water. There are sites for primitive camping as well as those equipped with RV hookups. Campsites on the easternmost side of the camping area are alarmingly close to HWY 67. Although a line of trees affords the sites some privacy, the noise from oncoming traffic can be a major distraction.

Facilities

You’ll have access to flush toilets and hot showers, a children’s playground, fishing pier, and plenty of evenly surfaced walking paths. Most of them are paved. Even on this early spring day, we saw people boating, fishing, and (surprisingly) swimming.

Highlights

What excited me the most about Ottawa Lake were the lakeside campsites and the amphitheater/beach area. This facility is comfortable and very family-friendly. For those who want to enjoy the comforts of hot showers, paved walking trails, and easy accessibility to fishing, then this is the place for you.

Those seeking more challenging hikes and other adventures can hop on one of the many adjacent trails or take a quick drive to another part of the  state forest system. The southern unit is close enough for excursions to both Madison and Milwaukee, and there are a number of small villages in the area.

NOTE: Pay attention to the speed limit signs in the surrounding areas. Speed limits change frequently, range from 15 – 55 mph, and there are a number of well-planned speed traps around the Southern unit.

Earth Day Resolutions

Most of us are probably familiar with the New Year’s tradition of deciding on a resolution for the coming months. A new diet. Joining a gym. Quitting an unhealthy habit. That sort of thing.

But what about resolutions for Earth Day?

Regardless of our political leanings, I’ll venture to say that most of us want to keep our planet and environments healthy. If not for ourselves, then hopefully for the generations who will come after us.

Even people who find climate change science unconvincing can be concerned with the immediate and long term effects of pollution, our collective reliance on single-use plastics, and the alarming rate of deforestation.

The problems can be overwhelming. News reports and scientific data often paint a picture that evokes a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I’m a big believer in the wisdom that small changes can have a big impact if they we are consistent in their implementation. So, what would happen if everyone made a new choice for the coming year? A resolution to alter our behavior in practical, manageable ways for the good of our environment and the health of our planet?

In order to put my money where my mouth is, here are my three resolutions for this Earth Day:

  1. Stop using plastic straws. Disposable plastic straws are a huge source of pollution, and there are countries and cities around the world which are already moving towards banning them. Here’s one of many news stories describing the problem.
  2. Stop using disposable shopping bags. I already have reusable grocery bags, but I am not consistent in using them. I have a terrible time remembering to bring them with me to the store. Or, more often, I make an unplanned stop for groceries and the reusable bags are at home. Paper is a better but imperfect alternative, but at least paper bags are biodegradable. Here’s a post about a few ways to remember your reusable bags, and here’s a link to information about why reusable bags are important.
  3. Eat a low-meat dietIt sometimes catches people by surprise to learn that meat consumption has a negative effect on the environment. I won’t delve into all the details here, but as a quick overview the meat industry requires massive use of pesticides and contributes to deforestation as farmers clear land for their livestock. A more thorough analysis can be found here.

So that’s it. If I can manage to keep these habits for the next year, (and hopefully convert them into lifetime habits in the process) I will feel like I’ve made a small but significant dent in one of the biggest challenges facing our environment.

Other ideas? Feel free to comment and let me know what you’re planning to do for Earth Day 2018.

Product Review – Huel

 

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My desktop at work. Huel is my go-to for a quick breakfast.

Virtues

  • Balanced, plant-based nutrition.
  • Affordability. Huel can definitely make a positive impact on your food budget.
  • Versatility. Lots of ways to use the product and plenty of good recipes.
  • Great marketing. The company makes a compelling case for Huel’s role in reducing food waste, helping people stay healthy, and providing a convenient alternative to eating junk food.

Limitations

  • Digestive discomfort. I found this to be a minimal–but noticeable–characteristic. Not a deal breaker in my book.
  • Lack of variation. Requires some effort to avoid product fatigue.
  • Food without complexity. Not nearly as satisfying as real food. I love crunch and texture. Not easy to replicate with Huel.

What brought me to Huel

Some weeks ago I did a survey of my eating habits and realized that, nutritionally speaking, my diet was not a pretty picture. This came as something of a surprise to me because I’ve always loved fresh vegetables and fruits, I prefer a low-meat diet, and I generally avoid the most unhealthy fast food and snack items. My impression of my eating habits was something along the lines of I’m no saint when it comes to eat healthy, but I’m not a total sinner, either. 

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. My diet was a wreck!

It’s not that I don’t want to eat healthy, but between my schedule (I work two jobs) and the awkwardness of cooking for one, there were just too many opportunities and excuses for me to take the easy route and make some bad dietary choices. Sometimes the issue was money. Often it was convenience. Whatever! Time to try something new.

I began thinking about some of the meal replacement options that are out there. Many of them are branded for fitness buffs (which I am not) or people who are trying to lose weight (meh, I could do to lose a few pounds, but I’m comfortable with who I am.)

After doing a little research on a few brands, I decided to go with HUEL. Here’s what appealed to me about the product:

  1. The quality of the ingredients. Huel is plant-based, so it’s a vegan product and although I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, I know that incorporating more plant-based nutrition into my diet is good for me and the plant. Plus, no animals are harmed in the making of this product.
  2. Balanced nutrition. This was the main impetus behind my decision to try Huel. It’s not some crazy, lop-sided nutritional supplement that promises to help me shred my body or give me the energy of a psychotic baboon during the mating season.
  3. Protein & Fiber. Huel provides both without throwing my diet out of whack. The fiber component was especially important to me, because I often don’t get optimal levels of fiber. I want fiber without the excessive carbs, and Huel gets the ratio right.
  4. Budget. Depending on how you use Huel and how often, it can definitely provide a great ROI with regard to your food budget.
  5. Convenience. I keep a bag of Huel and the provided mixer at my work desk. For days when I don’t have time for real breakfast (ok that’s everyday) I can mix up a shake at my desk with no mess. 500 calorie breakfast, no problem.

My Experience

I’ve been eating (as opposed to just using) Huel for about 3 months. At first, I followed the recommendations and only ate Huel once a day for about 2 weeks. I used it almost always for breakfast. I definitely felt more energized and took great satisfaction in knowing that I was finally eating well.

The only downside of my initial experience was GI discomfort. Sorry to get too graphic or personal, but Huel did make me gassy and sometimes made me feel bloated. Both effects diminished on the weekends, when I didn’t consume the product.

After my initial experience, I started to modify my use so that I only used Huel three days a week. This was helpful, but the side effects remained. This is not a deal breaker in my book, and it may very well be the result of eating more fiber and better nutrition than my poor GI is used to handling.

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Incorporating Huel with other foods has worked best for me.

As of today, I use Huel a little differently. Instead of mixing up a shake each morning that is comprised of three scoops of Huel powder and water, I make a shake of a mixture of fruits and veggies, and add 1 to 2 scoops of Huel. This is both more flavorful and more agreeable to my digestive system.

I still use Huel from time to time as a full meal replacement on its own. I just don’t do so each day. I’m also fond of using it as my post-workout replenishment drink.

Verdict & Recommendations

I like Huel.

It’s a helpful part of my nutritional routine and I feel good about eating it. The company’s branding strategy is well designed and feels genuine. As long as they keep their promise to be part of a holistic solution to nutrition and food scarcity issues, I’ll be a believer.

What I want to see are more products in the Huel line. I know they’ve recently introduced Huel bars, but that’s not in the U.S. at this time. They need to keep it interesting and innovative.

For those of you considering Huel, here is my advice:

Figure out how the product works best for you, and use it in that capacity. Also, be prepared to create your own recipes in order to avoid fatigue with the product. I like to whip up a shake full of fresh greens, and then throw a scoop or two of Huel in for good measure. But from time to time I will still just mix up a shaker of Huel and use that as a substitute for a meal.

It’s good stuff, taken in the amount that’s right for you.

 

 

 

Wisconsin Adventure – Sweetwood

On a beautiful and warm day last summer, I attended an earth spirituality celebration in Madison. It was a small affair, held at one of the parks and attended by 150 or so people. There were plenty of activities and vendors and interesting folks to meet. After making some new contacts and browsing the offerings of a number of booksellers, jewelry makers, and artists, I casually picked up a brochure for a retreat area in the center of the state called Sweetwood Temenos.

The Sweetwood website describes the facility as a kind of nature preserve and dedicated space for people of various earth-centered spiritual practices. They host regular events that include camping, fellowship, good food, and the all-important opportunity to relax and unwind. I was sold.

According to their calendar, there was an upcoming weekend festival to celebrate the autumn equinox. The event coincided with a long weekend for me, so I decided to see about joining them for at least a day. The website requests that all first-time visitors contact the hosts prior to arrival, so I sent and email and set up a phone call with one of the folks in charge.

Our conversation was pleasant, and I was told that experience had taught them that it was best to connect with first-timers ahead of arrival to make sure the facility was a good fit. I’ve been to a number of pagan festivals and campgrounds, so I had an idea of what to expect. But that’s not always the case with folks who are exploring Neopaganism for the first time.

So we had a lovely conversation in which we talked about my experiences at other festivals and discussed some of the people that we knew in common. I had the sense that this was a healthy and welcoming community, and so we decided that I would drive up and spend Saturday with them. I would have loved to have camped but did not want to make an investment in camping equipment at the time.

What did I find?

First and foremost, the drive up was a pure delight. Since moving to the Midwest, one of my chief complaints has been how flat the land is here. I’m used to small mountains and big hills, something that Wisconsin lacks. But this far north, things were different. My path took me through miles of rural farmland, gently rolling hills, and near the quiet simplicity of what appeared to be some Amish communities.

Sweetwood

 

With the help of Google Maps, I was able to find Sweetwood without any problems. (Upon arrival, I was told that I had taken the longest of three possible routes, but I did not mind in the least.) I was greeted warmly and given some time to settle in before I received a personal tour.

Sweetwood consists of 40+ acres of pristine woodlands, secluded and well-kept. The local community and a group of volunteers maintain the area and tend to the forest, so undergrowth is minimal and I did not notice any poison ivy. (Poison ivy is always on my mind when I’m outdoors because I had a nasty tangle with it as a teenager and  I never want to be that miserable again.)

Campsites_1

Aside from a designated camping area, the site consists of

  • a permanent covered structure (no walls) that is serves as a dining area or gathering space during rain
  • an enormous permanent ritual circle
  • a shower house with HOT water, private stalls, and flush toilets (If you’ve ever been to a festival without these amenities, you will recognize the awesomeness inherent therein)
  • Designated spaces for campfires throughout the camping area
  • Several devotional shrines scattered throughout the woods

As you’ll see from my photos, Sweetwood is a beautiful place and it is definitely worth your time to visit if you have the opportunity.

Keep in mind that all first-time visitors must contact the community before attending any events. 

 

 

 

 

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