Very useful words: Cavil

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I’m starting a new occasional feature where I highlight words I’ve recently spotted in the wild that are useful to know. Today’s word is cavil.

Cavil (caviling, caviler), a verb, means “to complain about things that are not important” or “to raise trivial and frivolous objections.”

Synonyms: carp, quibble, fuss, niggle, nitpick.

Cavil is a very useful word because it so precisely conveys a behavior that we see all the time, especially as a means to derail discussion or sidetrack an argument. Here’s a recent example: “While the president is spewing and caviling and spurting all over Twitter about unimportant things like the terrible, unfair Nordstrom, people like Jeff Sessions, Tom Price (2:11 am confirmation), and others are taking over the reins of government.”

In the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Dean Stockwell played a character named John Cavil, who was the main antagonist of the series. Cavil’s quest for vengeance is motivated by his rage at being an android saddled with the weaknesses of humans: “I’m a machine, and I can know much more, I could experience so much more, but I’m trapped in this absurd body.”

 

Information overload and the loss of meaning…

One drawback I see in our ability to communicate faster than ever before is that we have become lazy about our language. A word or phrase will suddenly pop up everywhere, and we tend to pick it up and repeat it without really questioning what it means or how it’s being used. See, for example, the term deep state, which I had never heard before a couple of weeks ago but now seem to see all over the place. By using and reusing this term without really interrogating it, we lend credence to it. Without being aware of it, something that was just an idea or a concept becomes objective reality. (For more on this fascinating phenomenon and how it infects our thinking, see this article.)

There is a pervasive sense now that writing of all kinds should be done quickly and published as soon as possible to maximize virality. I’m guilty of this kind of thinking myself. I have a hard time now taking my time with my writing, putting my energy into longer pieces, and crafting them to communicate my thoughts as precisely as possible. The medium of blogs, Facebook posts, and tweets reward the hastily composed post and the quick trigger finger when it comes to clicking “Publish.” Even with this post right now, I am scribbling my initial thoughts and planning to publish what amounts to a rough draft.

This is what we’ve come to expect from blogs and other online writing, and I find that I consume it in the same way it was written: as quickly as possible, without pause to reflect on what the author is actually saying. Web writing is quick to produce, quick to consume, and if I may be crude about it, quite often amounts to a gigantic mound of shit.

My challenge to myself, and to you, is to question the language that constantly swirls around us. Instead of skimming a report or story, read it word by word and try to parse the writer’s exact meaning. (Often you will find that you can’t pin down that meaning because the writing is lazy or purposely obfuscating, and therefore untrustworthy.) Read the story in print instead of on the computer screen and see if that makes a difference. Write down words or phrases whose meanings you can’t quite pin down and look them up–is the writer using them in accordance with their accepted definitions?

Being bombarded by so much rapid-fire information has led to a kind of paralysis. It has become more difficult to determine what is fact and what is hyperbole and what is propaganda and what is advertisement. It’s like walking down a grocery-store aisle and freezing when presented with a thousand different options for hand lotion or breakfast cereal–which is the best choice? Or are they all essentially the same?

The best strategy for dealing with overwhelming amounts of information may be similar to that for dealing with too much stuff: consume less and focus on the quality of what we do take in.

Interestings… (Feb. 19, 2017)

This week, sharing some good reads from various places…

The Age of Rudeness, a wonderfully written essay by author Rachel Cusk

Ryan Adams shares the story of the first time he was rattled by a heckler

Diet culture is just another way of dealing with the fear of death (from The Atlantic)

One thousand new words added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A Wikipedia editor takes on the antifeminist Wikipedia trolls

A list of books selling more copies because of Donald Trump

Retreating into reading: The refuge of older books

Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.

I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.

Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:

  • Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
  • Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
  • Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
  • Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
  • Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave

Recommended Reading: When We Were Animals

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In a small town somewhere in America, when the children reach adolescence, they breach. On the nights of the full moon, they give in fully to instinct and run wild and naked in the streets. Everyone else stays indoors. There is sex, there is violence; anything can happen, and almost everything is allowed. Lumen Fowler, who narrates the story looking back on her teenagehood as a suburban housewife, is a good girl who does not believe she will breach like the others. Is she wrong?

Clearly, When We Were Animals by Joshua Gaylord is a literalization of coming of age, of the wild, out-of-control feeling that most of us experience in adolescence. It is also a meditation on whether we are right to suppress our instinctive animal natures as we do. The teenage Lumen is a compelling character, who reads and reasons and struggles with herself. However, the scenes featuring the adult Lumen were the ones I found truly chilling, and those elevated this book for me above yet another coming-of-age story.

Inspirations… (Jan. 27, 2017)

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The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men  from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.

The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient. 

For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.

And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.

I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:

  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Children of Men by P. D. James
  • Parable of the Sower  and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  • When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Recommended Reading: Hag-Seed

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Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood’s contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which are retellings of Shakespeare plays set in contemporary times. (Previously, I read The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterston, also in this series.) Atwood takes on one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, The Tempest, locating it in the world of small-time Canadian politics. Felix (Prospero), an avant-garde director at a local theatre festival, is betrayed and booted from his position by his partner Tony (Antonio). Felix exiles himself to a hovel in the middle of nowhere for twelve years, dreaming of revenge, but when he begins to see shades of his dead daughter Miranda (who grows older as time passes), he realizes he needs to get out of the house more. He takes a job teaching Shakespeare to medium-security prisoners, when the opportunity for revenge presents itself.

This was a mostly light-hearted retelling of The Tempest, and I like that Atwood managed to include a play within a play by staging The Tempest itself at the prison–how very Shakespearean of her. The prisoners themselves were affable and sympathetic, if somewhat indistinguishable, while the politicians were, of course, buffoons. Felix is a bit of a pathetic character, but Atwood deepens the story by adding the ghost of his daughter to the cast of characters. If you don’t know much about The Tempest before you begin, you will after you finish, as Atwood mixes in plenty of literary criticism. While somewhat gimmicky, and therefore feeling a trifle forced, this was overall an entertaining read.