July 6: Lake Wobegon Day

Today is the anniversary of the first broadcast of the radio show the Prairie Home Companion. The show was conceived by Garrison Keillor, who hosted the variety show modeled after the Grand Ole Opry since its premier in 1974. Keillor’s show was broadcast on over 580 public radio stations until its final broadcast on July 3, 2016.

In addition to music and commercials for imaginary products, each week’s show featured a monologue by Keillor about his mythical hometown Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Each monologue began the same: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” but the stories that Keillor told about the Lake Wobegon residents were always different. Keillor’s colorful descriptions, humor, and realistic insights into the human condition brought his characters to life and brought listeners back each week.

In addition to using the same opening, Keillor also used a stock concluding line each week for his monologue: “That’s the news for Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average.”

It’s the last part of Keillor’s concluding line, “all the children are above-average,” that has captured the imagination of sociologists who have adopted Keillor’s fictional town in what they call the Lake Wobegon Effect. The Lake Wobegon Effect is the tendency for groups of people to overestimate their achievements and competence in relation to other groups.

The term entered the lexicon in 1987 when Dr. John Cannel published a study that revealed that every state claimed that their students’ test scores were above the national average. This humorous and absurd finding became publicized as the Lake Wobegon Effect. The fictional town in Minnesota became a metaphor of a nationwide phenomenon.

Often we think of metaphor as the exclusive tool of poets. The fact is, however, every good communicator understands and uses metaphor to connect the known to the unknown. Scientists, business people, psychologists, sociologists, and doctors all turn to metaphor to communicate their ideas, theories, and discoveries.

This is done so frequently that there is an entire book of these metaphors called The Babinski Reflex. The author, Phillip Goldberg, calls them metaffects:

“. . . a recognized effect, law, or principle whose official meaning can be transferred to another context. The Babinski Reflex, for example, is a term describing an automatic response in the foot of an infant, thought to be a vestige of our primate ancestry. As such, it resonates metaphorically with certain forms of adult behavior that might be considered primitive or infantile . . . .” (1).

Today’s Challenge: Cause for the Effect
What is an example of an effect that happens frequently enough to be named? Research one of the effects below or create your own based on your experience and/or observation.  Write a definition of the effect as well as some background details on its cause and when, where, and why it occurs.

Cocktail Party Effect

Eureka Effect

Butterfly Effect

The False Consensus Effect

Hawthorne Effect

Boomerang Effect

Bandwagon Effect

Barnum Effect

Dunning–Kruger Effect

Pygmalion Effect

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.  –Garrison Keillor

1 – Goldberg, Phillip. The Babinski Reflex: and 70 Other Useful and Amusing Metaphors from Science, Psychology, Business, Sports … and Everyday Life. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

February 9: Weather Words Day

On this date in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress establishing the U.S. Weather Bureau.  Today the official term for the agency is the National Weather Service (NWS), a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

When originally established, the NWS was a part of the United States Army, specifically the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.  The advent of the telegraph in the mid-19th century was a major advancement in meteorology, allowing the rapid collection and analysis of weather data and observations (1).

Today the NWS is a civilian agency under the auspices of the Department of Commerce.  Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, it has 122 weather forecast offices and over 5,000 employees.  The NWS collects some 76 billion observations and issues approximately 1.5 million forecasts each year. (2).

In addition to talking about the literal weather outside, we also talk a lot about figurative weather, using a flood of weather metaphors and idioms to shoot the breeze.  The following are just a few examples of these figurative weather words:

Cloud nine

Cloud of suspicion

Fair-weather friend

Head in the clouds

Rain check

Shoot the breeze

Snow job

Steal someone’s thunder

Tempest in a teapot

Under the weather

Weather the storm

Today’s Challenge:  Brainstorm of Titles

What are some titles of books, stories, poems, plays, songs, or movies that have weather words in them?  Of all the weather-titled works, which is the single best?  Brainstorm a list of titles that contain at least one weather word, such as breeze, cloud, flood, fog, frozen, gale, hazy, heat, hurricane, ice, lightning, misty, rain, shower, snow, storm, sunny, thunder, or wind.  For example, the following is a list of titles that each contain the word “snow”:

Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow

Let It Snow

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

Snowbird

Snow Day

Snow Falling on Cedars

Stopping By Wood on a Snowy Evening

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Once you have a good list, select the one work that you think is the best.  Write a paragraph arguing why this weather-titled work stands out.  Beyond just its title, what makes this work of art outstanding?  (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. -John Ruskin

1-http://www.weather.gov/timeline

2-http://www.weather.gov/about

January 24:  Life Sentence Day

Today is the birthday of American writer Edith Wharton (1862-1937).  Although she lived in a time when women had limited opportunities for publishing their writing, she rose to become one of America’s greatest writers.  In 1921 she became the first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Wharton is remembered mainly for her novels, The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome, and The House of Mirth, but she wrote in a variety of genres and on a variety of topics, including architecture, interior design, and travel (1).

Edith Newbold Jones Wharton.jpgWharton embraced life, and although much of her fiction explored its darker, more tragic sides, she was able to examine and capture life’s essence so well that her characters resonate with readers as real people.  In her 1903 novel Sanctuary, Wharton wrote a memorable sentence, capturing an insight about life and the role of experience:

. . . life is the only real counselor, . . . wisdom unfiltered through personal experience does not become a part of the moral tissues.

Later, writing in her journal on March 23, 1926, Wharton wrote an entry reflecting on life.  This time she juxtaposed two metaphors in attempt to capture the best definition:

Life is always a tightrope or a feather-bed.  Give me the tightrope.

Edith Wharton is obviously not the first to attempt to capture the essence of life in words.   Writers both past and present have attempted their definitions.  Wielding a virtual Swiss Army knife of rhetorical devices, these writers take the one thing that is common to each of us — life — and reframe it, describing it in uncommon terms that allow us to see it in new ways.

Read the examples below, and notice the different ways the writers define life, using images, juxtaposition, antithesis, metaphors, and personification.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast:  it is a predicament. -George Santayana

Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. -Soren Kierkegaard

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. Albert Einstein

Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on. -Samuel Butler

Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going. -Tennessee Williams

Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well. -Jack London

Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think. -Jean De La Bruyere

Life is hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. -Michael Crichton

Today’s Challenge:  You’ve Been Assigned a Life Sentence

How would you complete the following in one or more sentences:  Life is . . . ?  Take your own stab at defining life by beginning with “Life is . . . “  Try to define it in a way that goes beyond the obvious so that your reader can see it in a new way.  Brainstorm some ideas using analogies, metaphors, personification, or some other rhetorical technique.  Then go with the one idea that you like the best and that seems the most insightful and original. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-http://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

 

 

December 21:  Sports Metaphor Day

On this day in 2002 President George W. Bush was meeting with his closest advisors in the Oval Office to review the evidence for the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.  Determining whether or not Iraq had such weapons was crucial in the president’s decision on whether or not to commit U.S. forces to the invasion of Iraq.  At one point in the meeting, President Bush turned to CIA Director George Tenet, asking him how confident he was that Iraq had WMDs.  His reply was, “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”

In using a basketball metaphor, Tenet was expressing his belief that the presence of WMDs was a sure thing.  History tells us that Tenet might have been better served by selecting a different metaphor considering the fact that the eventual absence of WMDs became a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration after the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Metaphors from sports are such a common element of our language that we forget how often we use them.  As George Tenet demonstrated with slam dunk, a term begins as sports jargon and is then adopted as a metaphor that applies to a situation outside of sports.  The metaphor then becomes an idiom (also known as a dead metaphor) as it is used by more and more people. Below are some examples of the expressions that have become idiomatic – that is they have become so integrated into the language that we forget that they originated and are associated with a specific sport:

Kickoff – football

Keep your eye on the ball – baseball

Down for the count – boxing

An end run – football

Game, set, match – tennis

Face-off – hockey

Throw in the towel – boxing

Putting on a full-court press – basketball

The inside track – horse racing

Hot hand – basketball

Today’s Challenge:  The Game of Life Metaphors

What sport do you think serves as the best metaphor or analogy for life?  What elements of that sport compare best with real life, and what lessons does the sport teach that provide wisdom for success in real life? In addition to expressions from sports that are metaphors, we also often turn to sports as a metaphor for understanding our lives, as the following quotations reveal:

In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is:  hit the line hard. –Theodore Roosevelt

Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it. –Oprah Winfrey

Select the single sport that you think provides the best metaphor or analogy for life, and write a paragraph in which you extend the metaphor by explaining how the elements of the sport and the lessons it teaches parallel real life. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quote of the Day: Basketball is like war in that offensive weapons are developed first, and it always takes a while for the defense to catch up. –Red Auerbach

1-Grothe, Mardy.  I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2008:  274.