Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Selfie: An informal noun becomes an emerging word embodying the zeitgeist of 2013

Truth be told / I'm really not that great
at taking "selfies" with my iPhone.

OMG. Word on the street is the Word of the Year is Selfie.

S-E-L-F-I-E. Spelled with an ie at the end not a y. It's an informal noun (the plural of selfie is selfies) that's defined as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."

By now, followers of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are very familiar with this hip and happening addition to our lexicon. One need only probe the cluttered newsfeed of their social media platform of choice to realize narcissism is alive and well. Undoubtedly, they'll unearth selfies posted by their friends nearly every day.

Show of hands, is there anyone out there who has a smartphone who hasn't tried snapping a selfie? Truth be told, I'm really not that great at taking selfies with my iPhone. I'm much more at ease photographing roses or sporting events.

"Selfies lit up social media and dirty ones derailed political careers," I learned last week while listening to news of the award on NPR's "Morning Edition". "The word's come a long way since popping up on an Australian message board a decade ago," quipped "Morning Edition" presenter Renee Montagne. "It beat out binge watch, meaning marathon TV watching, and twerk. You can look that one up."

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the cultural buzzword selfie perfectly captured the year 2013 -- even if it's only November and the announcement came before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other contenders included: bedroom tax, binge-watch, bitcoin, olinguito, schmeat, showrooming and twerk. By the way, last year's Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was omnishambles. 

"In a related story," joked TV comedian Conan O'Brien, "the funeral for the English language is Saturday."

Seriously though, The Guardian in London reported that frequency of usage of the ubiquitous noun selfie spiked by 17,000 percent over the past 12 months. In its Culture Desk blog following last week's announcement, The New Yorker labeled selfie as "an emerging word that embodies the zeitgeist of the year."

And for that reason, the Oxford Dictionaries has bestowed selfie with the honor of Word of the Year. LOL.

Selfie of Michael Dickens by Michael Dickens.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The little free library that's always open

Take a book, return a book ...  a simple guiding premise.

I had just bought the November Monocle, the bookish and dense global briefing on international affairs and culture, from my favorite magazine shop, Issues, where they were holding a copy for me. As I walked back to retrieve my car that was parked less than 50 yards away, I came upon a small, colorful structure that resembled a miniature one-room school house.

A closer look revealed something totally unexpected to me. What I saw was a Little Free Library in front of the residence at 38 Glen Avenue, just off Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

The noted Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and writer Cicero once opined: "To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul."

Although I'm not sure if this is what Cicero had in mind, after seeing this lovely and quaint rainbow-colored Little Free Library, built with repurposed wood and other materials, and filled with a few choice books and periodicals leaning against an interior wall, it left me wondering if this was the start of something new or a part of a larger movement.

So, I decided to find out more about Little Free Libraries.

Open morning, noon and night.
Did you know: Little Free Libraries are part of a U.S. and worldwide community movement offering free books housed in small containers -- some resembling wooden doll houses -- for members of the local community. According to a recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world in countries such as Italy, Japan, Brazil and Ukraine -- even Pakistan. They have a website, http://www.freelibrary.org, and, they even have a dedicated Facebook page with more than 36,000 likes.

Other names for these little free libraries include: community book exchanges, book trading posts, pop-up libraries, and Noox (Neighbourhood bOOk eXchange). Anything that encourages people to read more is a good thing. Fostering a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world adds up to a tremendous mission with a wonderful sense of purpose.

A friendly site in wintertime.
Even Hollywood has found a way to give a shout out to the movement's new-found popularity. Earlier this month, the new motion picture "The Book Thief", about a young girl's relationship with her foster parents, other residents of her neighborhood, and a Jewish fist-fighter who hides in her home during a period of heightened escalation in World War II, offered a special opportunity for Little Free Library stewards to spread the word about the importance of books by sharing photographs of their own little free libraries via Twitter and Instagram accompanied by the movie's hashtag #thebookthief.

The bottom line to this great community -- and worldwide concept -- is simple: Take a book, return a book ... as the sign says.

Oh, to have a hungry mind and to be able to nurture it!

To learn more about Little Free Libraries or to order a library, go to http://www.littlefreelibrary.org

Top photograph by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. 
Other photographs courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Under optimistic skies

Sharing the beauty of nature / A First Prize rose
from our backyard garden.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, lecturer, preacher and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, was an optimist about a lot of things in life, such as the goodness of human nature, the goodness of the universe as a whole, and about our ability to know the truth. 

Emerson's intellect embodied the finest spirit and highest ideals of his age. Often, I look to the clarity of his words when in need of a boost in my own spirits. We could all do well to follow his wisdom in these gloomy times.

“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.” 

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Poems and Translations

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reflections of a Happy Halloween

Chelsea Market, New York City, 2006 /
Still one of my favorite Halloween pum

As a kid, there are some things you look forward to each year like Halloween. 

Last Thursday, over the course of two hours, the kids -- white, black, Asian, Hispanic -- were out in great numbers in our Oakland neighborhood, a microcosm of the city at large, full of enthusiasm and dressed in wonderful and creative -- even traditional -- costumes. 

Dressing up as a ghost or witch is still quite popular as well as going trick-or-treating decked out as a super hero like Batman, Spiderman or Superman. Darth Vader and Harry Potter still garner a lot of attention, thanks to their movie-star appeal, and both remain among my favorites. As a kid, I remember dressing up as an astronaut one year back when kids wanted to grow up to be astronauts and fly to the moon. 

This year, we were surprised when a girl and a boy, both about 11 or 12-years-old, came to our door, together, dressed as a carton of milk and a jar of pickles. Maybe, they were influenced just a little bit by Trader Joe's, one of our local grocery stores? I don't remember if the boy's label said soy, low fat or skim, but any of them would have been appropriate by Bay Area standards. Of course, it's always cute to see little kids dress up as lovely and cuddly tigers and dinosaurs, too. Whether homemade or store bought, imaginative costumes are what make Halloween a special occasion.

Lots of parental chaperones were present on this pleasant, autumn Halloween evening -- some in costume -- and we saw a few toting their pet dogs (a few in costume -- think "hot dog") and baby strollers for the littlest ones, too. Some kids were timid and shy, especially the youngest ones -- being coached by their parents, who were standing at the bottom step of our porch, to say "trick or treat", then "thank you" -- while others were very eager and outgoing. A group of five middle school-aged girls shouted out "trick or treat!" in unison as they came giggling up our walkway for all to hear loud and clear.

Halloween has definitely turned into a family event -- a sporting event, maybe? -- and this year, handing out 200 mini chocolate bar candies, as we did, was not enough! Credit the weather, which was nice and dry, and the San Francisco Giants for not being in the World Series like they were in 2010 when Halloween coincided with Game 4 against the Texas Rangers -- and the result is our neighborhood was quite lively with trick or treaters, more so than in most years. We could have easily given out 50 more candies.

As it turned out, we had about two dozen See's peppermint candies in reserve that we used as a fall back after our chocolate candies ran out, and when those candies were all doled out and there were still a handful of eager kids shouting "trick or treat" at our front door, we dragged out our piggy bank and gave out handfuls of nickels and dimes, determined not to leave anyone disappointed. And, surprisingly, the kids who received pocket change were just as happy and content with their "treat" as those who earlier in the evening received a Kit Kat, Twix or Milky Way candy bar.

Once the crowds had thinned, we turned out the lights, shut the front door, and took a walk through our neighborhood so we could admire Halloween decorations and absorb the evening's festive atmosphere, which included a lively and vocal pirate-themed house down the block from us that drew lots of curious attention. 

Finally, almost back to our front door, we were invited in by our neighbors across the cul-de-sac for a glass of Napa Valley red wine, a dessert of tasty baklava from a local Mediterranean bakery and good conversation about Halloweens past when our neighbor's children (one, who's now a college-aged freshman, and the other is a freshman in high school) used to dress up in the most creative and colorful costumes and go out trick or treating.

Looking back on this festive evening, less than a week after it all unfolded, left me in a happy, reflective mood. Indeed, it was a happy Halloween -- one of the most enjoyable evenings of the year -- and I look forward to the next one.