Thursday, February 25, 2010

Idolizing America

A phenomenon behind American Idol is how much it makes me gawk and gape at America. There's people I like, cringe at, admire, envy. From sob stories to looks, style, and vocal chords that could kill, it's such a smattering of characters and talent, or lack thereof, broadcasted for hours on end in the weeks leading up to the top 24.

However, Hope Johnson and a few others with that unique kind of voice I could not only listen to every day but anticipate the next note with that musical sense of urgency, were booted off tonight. That sucks. But I recover quicker than them probably and continue to latch on to favorites to watch over the weeks.

But I still look on with respect for those that returned home to jobs or classes with their heads held high, back to the loved ones--kids, parents, spouses cheering them on whether it's good for them or not.

Image courtesy of LOVE LIVE

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The List of N Things - by Paul Graham

I bet you the current issue of Cosmopolitan has an article whose title begins with a number. "7 Things He Won't Tell You about Sex," or something like that. Some popular magazines feature articles of this type on the cover of every issue. That can't be happening by accident. Editors must know they attract readers.

Why do readers like the list of n things so much? Mainly because it's easier to read than a regular article. 
[1] Structurally, the list of n things is a degenerate case of essay. An essay can go anywhere the writer wants. In a list of n things the writer agrees to constrain himself to a collection of points of roughly equal importance, and he tells the reader explicitly what they are.

Some of the work of reading an article is understanding its structure—figuring out what in high school we'd have called its "outline." Not explicitly, of course, but someone who really understands an article probably has something in his brain afterward that corresponds to such an outline. In a list of n things, this work is done for you. Its structure is an exoskeleton.

As well as being explicit, the structure is guaranteed to be of the simplest possible type: a few main points with few to no subordinate ones, and no particular connection between them.

Because the main points are unconnected, the list of n things is random access. There's no thread of reasoning you have to follow. You could read the list in any order. And because the points are independent of one another, they work like watertight compartments in an unsinkable ship. If you get bored with, or can't understand, or don't agree with one point, you don't have to give up on the article. You can just abandon that one and skip to the next. A list of n things is parallel and therefore fault tolerant.

There are times when this format is what a writer wants. One, obviously, is when what you have to say actually is a list of n things. I once wrote an essay about the 
mistakes that kill startups, and a few people made fun of me for writing something whose title began with a number. But in that case I really was trying to make a complete catalog of a number of independent things. In fact, one of the questions I was trying to answer was how many there were.

There are other less legitimate reasons for using this format. For example, I use it when I get close to a deadline. If I have to give a talk and I haven't started it a few days beforehand, I'll sometimes play it safe and make the talk a list of n things.

The list of n things is easier for writers as well as readers. When you're writing a real essay, there's always a chance you'll hit a dead end. A real essay is a train of thought, and some trains of thought just peter out. That's an alarming possibility when you have to give a talk in a few days. What if you run out of ideas? The compartmentalized structure of the list of n things protects the writer from his own stupidity in much the same way it protects the reader. If you run out of ideas on one point, no problem: it won't kill the essay. You can take out the whole point if you need to, and the essay will still survive.

Writing a list of n things is so relaxing. You think of n/2 of them in the first 5 minutes. So bang, there's the structure, and you just have to fill it in. As you think of more points, you just add them to the end. Maybe you take out or rearrange or combine a few, but at every stage you have a valid (though initially low-res) list of n things. It's like the sort of programming where you write a version 1 very quickly and then gradually modify it, but at every point have working code—or the style of painting where you begin with a complete but very blurry sketch done in an hour, then spend a week cranking up the resolution.

Because the list of n things is easier for writers too, it's not always a damning sign when readers prefer it. It's not necessarily evidence readers are lazy; it could also mean they don't have much confidence in the writer. The list of n things is in that respect the cheeseburger of essay forms. If you're eating at a restaurant you suspect is bad, your best bet is to order the cheeseburger. Even a bad cook can make a decent cheeseburger. And there are pretty strict conventions about what a cheeseburger should look like. You can assume the cook isn't going to try something weird and artistic. The list of n things similarly limits the damage that can be done by a bad writer. You know it's going to be about whatever the title says, and the format prevents the writer from indulging in any flights of fancy.

Because the list of n things is the easiest essay form, it should be a good one for beginning writers. And in fact it is what most beginning writers are taught. The classic 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things for n = 3. But the students writing them don't realize they're using the same structure as the articles they read in 
Cosmopolitan. They're not allowed to include the numbers, and they're expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions ("Furthermore...") and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay. [2]

It seems a fine plan to start students off with the list of n things. It's the easiest form. But if we're going to do that, why not do it openly? Let them write lists of n things like the pros, with numbers and no transitions or "conclusion."

There is one case where the list of n things is a dishonest format: when you use it to attract attention by falsely claiming the list is an exhaustive one. I.e. if you write an article that purports to be about 
the 7 secrets of success. That kind of title is the same sort of reflexive challenge as a whodunit. You have to at least look at the article to check whether they're the same 7 you'd list. Are you overlooking one of the secrets of success? Better check.

It's fine to put "The" before the number if you really believe you've made an exhaustive list. But evidence suggests most things with titles like this are linkbait.

The greatest weakness of the list of n things is that there's so little room for new thought. The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is 
dynamic: you don't know what you're going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it.

This can only happen in a very limited way in a list of n things. You make the title first, and that's what it's going to be about. You can't have more new ideas in the writing than will fit in the watertight compartments you set up initially. And your brain seems to know this: because you don't have room for new ideas, you don't have them.

Another advantage of admitting to beginning writers that the 5 paragraph essay is really a list of n things is that we can warn them about this. It only lets you experience the defining characteristic of essay writing on a small scale: in thoughts of a sentence or two. And it's particularly dangerous that the 5 paragraph essay buries the list of n things within something that looks like a more sophisticated type of essay. If you don't know you're using this form, you don't know you need to escape it.


[1] Articles of this type are also startlingly popular on Delicious, but I think that's because delicious/popular is driven by bookmarking, not because Delicious users are stupid. Delicious users are collectors, and a list of n things seems particularly collectible because it's a collection itself.

2] Most "word problems" in school math textbooks are similarly misleading. They look superficially like the application of math to real problems, but they're not. So if anything they reinforce the impression that math is merely a complicated but pointless collection of stuff to be memorized.

September 2009

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sworn & Signed

Well I came home to military life.

I walk through our back sliding glass door where our passive yellow lab and spotted devil cat sit waiting for food and pets.

"Babe, you won't believe what I found out today." He says this calmy but tinged with excitement.

"Oh geeze, what? Give it to me." I say this calmly too and surprise myself. Excited?

"I'm not coming home after OCS."


"They're sending me straight to Pensacola. That's where I work and wait for a flight school date, and if it ends up being too far off when it's assigned, they'll send me home in the interim."

We pow-wow for a bit. This changes things. In a good way? Sure. Why not. Accelerate your life, right?

Cary swore in today at March. He also signed. Take a gander. (And if you're not getting this news until now, deal with it, like I did.)


Sunday, February 21, 2010


Last week Cary called me at work to tell me he got accepted to OCS (officer candidate school). This is what we've been waiting for.

By waiting, I mean having mixed feelings about, worrying about, stressing about, wanting more than anything, hating more than anything, and then stir in some anxiety, obsession, limbo, up in the air-ness, money concerns, and taking it out on each other. Fun. But I'm realizing it's oh so worth it. That's life, right? It's tough, challenging, rewarding, offers success with risk, and full of up in the air-ness no matter what you choose to do. And it's our choice thankfully. And then it's purely someone else's will. Not our problem anymore. Period. Everything else can just be quiet.

As the Navy's marketing boasts, Accelerate Your Life. And as Cary informs me, this will accelerate our life.

The upsides are seeing your spouse follow a dream (more important than anything, excuse the mush), travelling, job security, benefits, patriotism. The downsides are a little less control over where you live (Who the heck can decide this anyway? Well, not us), losing him for deployments (I'll just go back to being single Aly for a bit, a better woman when he returns, more independent, more excited to see each other and able to relish everything that much more), and maybe putting our kids through a little hell (but being strong, make friends with ease, see the world; there's something to say about that). Period.

The branch is the Navy, the position, a pilot's spot. He'll go through 12 weeks of a so-called boot camp with 59 other officer candidates, starting March 7, flying out March 6 on the military's dime. On average, 10% of the class graduate without having to stay on retake an examination or physical test. It's not knife and fork school, but it's not SEAL training either. They 'go dark' the first week with no contact with the outside world. Then they begin to earn privileges like phone and Internet time, leaving the base, getting their clothes back--you know, the usual necessities. So be rooting for him in Newport, Rhode Island, pretty please with a cherry on top. He might be jogging marathons in freezing weather. Or he might have to stand up to Jack Nicholson. And making it to graduation (commissioning) hitch-free only increases his chances for jetdom.

After those three months of OCS, he'll return home and work part time as a physical therapist and for his recruiter at the March Air Reserve Base. At this point, the waiting will resume. The next step is to get a flight school date. Flight school is about a year and a half in Pensacola, Florida. Depending on how well he does there (in combination with his OCS performance)--and depending on what type of pilot's are needed and where, and what the lifestyle is like--he'll continue on to get specialty training for the aircraft presented and chosen. Fighter jets, helicopters, a specific type of each one of those, cargo, refueling. But as long as he's up in the air, he'll be happy.

Once the aircraft is figured out, he'll go for another six months or so to where that training is offered. Then it's unit time. Command time. Stationed at a base time. This is where the 'where' really matters because it'll be home base for the wife. Where I would write, run, and travel around with a little one perhaps. Japan would rock my world. I mean who doesn't want tea in the morning, sushi and sake at lunch, and karaoke at night? Who wouldn't feel peaceful and grateful and fine on their own with cherry blossoms floating around on your way to visit little villages with bridges everywhere. Getting lost in translation might be a tough one though? Japanese lessons? Increase my value as a marketer? There'a lot of places we can picture ourselves, and this blog would get a boost in intrigue.

So yeah, enough about Cary on a blog that's all about me, right? Well at least things related to me like my inspirations, recommendations, friends, and adventures. The key is this might be a good spot for you to stay up on Alydom, a bit of the military, and me to vent like an AC. (The Follow button is on the top of this page fyi.)

Oh, and as a disqualifier, the terms here may or may not be used correctly but to the best of my knowledge--so that you'll know what I'm talking about when I see you in person and start using military terminology because I'm forced to myself.

The husband swears in Tuesday at March.

Monday, February 15, 2010

St. Valentine's Day

It's just so fun. And a friend brought it to my attention that it would suck if your significant other's birthday fell on Valentine's Day because then you'd have to share the doting spotlight. If you're single, well, there's just no getting around it, it's just not as fun. But singles still deserve something special on this day, a meal with friends, a movie, a tennis match, an afternoon by the pool, something to make a day that celebrates love, lovely. Because everyone is or was loved by someone.

Our day began with a pathetic budgeter's gift exchange. Sweet nonetheless. We met the siblings on Balboa Island for an afternoon of coveting homes and too much candy. Then we met some friends at a steakhouse for dinner and too much wine. We topped it off with a round of Rock Band, champagne, and some winter Olympics. We have some friends that seriously know how to plan and host a good time. We're surrounded by people who can cook, clean, plan, and entertain way better than us. It's wonderful and sobering. They also save lives at work and ace exams in med school and tell stories way better than Cary and I. We suck. But we definitely know how to cast the doting spotlight on this day. Which we usually suck at. Doting that is.


Cary was so distracted by my beauty on the way to Balboa that we went the wrong way and had to take the ferry instead of the bridge over to the island. 25 minutes and $2 later, we made it to the other side. Not before almost running over pedestrians, bikers, children, dogs. Madness.

This is the house on a block in Balboa that everybody must hate.

This is how much my brother-in-law  (and his bud who's also her med school classmate) loves his wife. I need lessons from her.

This is the lion we encountered.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cody Delmar Makes Flickr Flick

Doesn't flick sound like something cool? Hey, that is so flick! Or does it sound like a bad word?

Well, bro-in-law the Code Dude is an aspiring artist with a camera and a computer.

Check out more of his images right here.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Exposition of Runners

The exhibition, or more commonly the expo, for runners of the Huntington Beach marathon (lovingly called the Surf City USA marathon in later years) came clear to me yesterday to be more of an exposition.

The purpose of a literary exposition is to provide some background and inform the reader about the plot, character, setting, and theme of the work at hand. The runners' expo situation proved dissect-able in the same way.

Setting: Marathoners, half-marathoners, and even some 5Kers and little ones doing the token kid jaunt, crowd through a series of tents packed with everything runners like. PT tool demos, the latest, lightest shoes, discount shorts, socks, and new innovations like a bib holder (for your race number, not the eating aid), Odwalla juice samples, free boxes of Minute rice. Yup, full-size boxes for free.

Character: Every runner present is driven, satisfied with themselves, and/or disgruntled to have to pick up somebody else's race packet before 5. The first-timers are euphoric and nervous, the veterans drawn and sometimes curt, the friends and family or those out of shape show signs of feeling a little out of place.

Plot: My fellow runners and I must accomplish this - look up bib number if not already known at one set of tables, pick up bib and safety pins at another set of tables, pick up T-shirt and goodie bag at yet another set of tables. (Note, all of these tables are categorized by numbers and names and sizes.) Repeat as many times as necessary for all the people you're picking up race stuff for. Then proceed to make your way to every stand that's giving something away, from stickers to ... Hey, are they offering whole boxes of Minute rice for free?

Theme: Runners are a different race. Especially before embarking on 26.2 miles in which the last 6.2 miles feel like you left all your muscles back at mile 13.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Tonight (Friday night if you look at this late, late time stamp) Cary and I went to LA to celebrate his older sis's 40th birthday.

LA is so ... LA. Movie billboards pop up everywhere. Outfits could range from Portland, Oregon, to West Hollywood to New York City. I wonder if I was telepathic if everyone would be thinking about auditions and sex and making Perez Hilton headlines. And only in LA would would we be having an after party in an apartment building where a former boy band member and his Maxim cover girl girlfriend reside. Only in LA.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tacoma Turns 100,000

Travel Journal Excerpts [Cary] – Newbold College, England

There's a guy named Cary here. Blonde. Cute. I think his full name is Carroll because I tried to look him up on the resident list in the boy’s dorm. Wears black skateboarding shoes. Thin.

It’s 1:42 a.m., and I can’t sleep. I think I'm still jet-lagged but it's been well over a month. I’m remembering the night I met Cary. I was so glad he was standing next to an acquaintance of mine from college in the states. I couldn’t see his face well because he was in shadow even with the huge bonfire going on behind Moor Close (a pre-war mansion serves as the girl’s dorm—so cool, I know; it’s like straight out of Jane Eyre.) His hand was warm when I shook it. Not too soft. Good.

It was our first date and he took me to an Indian restaurant a couple blocks from the school. He wore a flannel shirt. Hm. He walked on the street side of the sidewalk next to me. Nice. He talked about family and flying and asked me lots of questions about my life.

He met my family in London over winter break. He brought flowers for my mom, popping up from the underground tube with a bouquet of white lilies. Everyone got along, survived. But I keep trying to focus on traveling and new friends and independence…

I can’t believe I finally get to write about the one thing that has inspired writers and painters and musicians for hundreds of years—love. I’m in love for the first time. Where you want to say it and you know you mean it and you don’t feel like you’re too young anymore. Those three things are important. It’s this weird mix of infatuation and care. I don’t know if it will last, but for some reason, I don’t care. I feel full and excited. Like my heart's turned into a piece of fruit.

Valentine’s Day

I ratted out Cary to Edelweiss, the girl’s club. Partly because it was fun to do and partly because he’s the Brotherhood president and I have to use my advantages as Girlfriend somehow. Well, they got him good—a little too good probably—and I sat on the stairs of Moor Close and listened to him holler about my traitorous self while they duck taped and honeyed and dragged him outside.

He gave me a huge, hand-made Valentine’s Day card that said he loves everything about me, that he loves who he is when he’s with me, that he can’t believe he spends his spare time flirting with the girl of his dreams. Aw. He hoped one day he could be the guy I say those three words to. I did. It took me a minute to get it because I didn’t see the three small words he had already printed.

He teases me now that I said it aloud first.

My roommates say than can tell when he looks at me.

I’m meeting Cary for breakfast. It’s Wednesday. Reading day, a.k.a. traveling to Camden Town day. It’s also pancake day, or prayer breakfast minus the prayer in our case. (sorry, mom)

I never used to be a morning person.

He laughs at the jokes only my mom would laugh at and then repeat in a way that makes it less funny somehow.

We sing hymns standing next to each other in church. We can’t really sing more than carrying a tune. If I lean against him, I can feel his chest vibrate with the notes. Humm.

Spring Break

We rode in a car together for the first time. A Volkswagen Polo on the autobahn. Spring break was Germany. Munich, the black forest, and Dachau, the concentration camp. It won’t stop being surreal while we’re in Europe. We kissed standing on a tree stump in the black forest.

I just completed the last final exam of my year abroad. And two hours ago I spent the last hour before the exam making out. What’s wrong with me?! Will I snap out of this? Do I want to?

I want to tell everyone to keep in touch. Then again, I don't. Just Cary.

I’m nostalgic for Newbold here at home. I miss my boyfriend being a three-minute walk away. But I'm glad he's still my boyfriend, Carroll McKinley Lawson the fourth down in California.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mimic Poem

Aly Pritchard
College Writing 121
Mimic Poem

(Based on the rhyme scheme of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy evening by Robert Frost)
Excuse the lack of French letters

Stopping by Sacre Coeur

When in Paris do as the Parisians
And stroll up the sidewalks as true Europeans:
Survey the Sun-bleached city of lights
And smell the grassy hillside 's Dandelions

Pure and free is the air it seems;
Above the bustle of the street and Rusty guillotines...
No hurry takes place on this hill divine
All is pleasure without purpose so Crystalline

The sky is Ablaze against the white church Byzantine
The fountain is gay beside a Red Belle so fine
All is well nibbling the plat du jour
This cobblestone path knows only love 's rhyme.

Life radiates culture, books, and tepid temperature
Things flow like Sweet Nectar and a perfect manicure
while strolling the sidewalks near Sacre Coeur
while strolling the sidewalks near Sacre Coeur

Life Goals per High School

Aly Pritchard
AP English
Virlys Moller
9-11-00 (strange)
  1. Pierce my navel. (check) {really? first on the list?}
  2. Speak French fluently. (does 101, 102, & 103 in undergrad count?)
  3. Pose for a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower. (check)
  4. Cut my own hair. (check; never again though)
  5. Cut it super short
  6. Run a marathon (check ... going on two)
  7. Live on my own (check)
  8. Live in the city (does downtown Portland or the outskirts of DC for a summer count?)
  9. Live by the sea
  10. Write a front-pager (check; college newspaper count?)
  11. Write a best-seller
  12. Write a screenplay
  13. See Prague (check)
  14. Own something couture
  15. Own an old Volkswagen Beetle
  16. Play Belle at Disneyland
  17. Report on TV (check; college station count?)
  18. Meet the one (check)
  19. Have a baby
  20. Own a house and a dog I actually like (check, check)
  21. Do it in an airplane bathroom. (that's private!) - and obviously I didn't turn this one in, right?
  22. Accept harsh criticism without crying in the shower (check)

I wrote this when I was in middle school. Ha.

I remember
when I loved to write cheerfully vivid stories on
bright blue notebook paper.
As a child I loved to swim and eat
cherry popsicles.
I lived through big brothers,
school bullies,
shattered confidence,
and stolen best friends.
At thirteen I'm small, and scared sometimes
with braces.
I’m still growing.
Sometimes a good cry feels good.
I don't sing or paint anymore.
I play sports and dream of writing again.
I cherish my friends, but don't fully trust.
I have these.
I hope for hope
and pray for faith.
And wish I wouldn't fall down so much.
The braces come off soon.
The door marks my inches.
I think I'll dig around for that notebook paper when I get home.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

constructive critis-zism

I write, They say
I can write, the others
state, develop, support
write what you know
the pinching ache between the blades
cut in half, cut in half, cut in half
contradictory edits
torn on responses
seek inspiration; plagiarize
word count
click, send; print

I can write, They say
I write, the others
Just write, I think, whomever you are

poetic license
short stories
book tours

pipe dreams / is that so bad?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Don't forget to tell your kids...

—enjoy cartoons and crackers
—don't take what's not yours
—be careful when you drive
—embarrassment is worse when you don't accept it with grace
—smothering is loving coming from you
—your first time doing anything is rough
—someone will know they're beautiful
—someone will love them as much as you do one day
—birthdays are for spoiling
—grades aren't everything, but a nice little extra something
—the sabbath is for whatever you want to do
—car rides, naps, and healthy food gets better with time
—you're normal
—you don't have to do everything
—average is a good thing sometimes
—take pictures
—take videos
—write stuff down
—you'll feel better playing when your work is done
—ask people out with confidence
—sincere sympathy is a great kindness
—decorate your room, your locker, and your wedding however you want
—you can tell me anything in confidence
—everything works out, but if you have to worry, have an outlet
—I will always love your father (or mother)
—sex, drugs, and alcohol don't belong in lists like that unless you're purely talking about things to be SMART about
—build good habits early
—independence and homesickness are not mutually exclusive
—don't pick, but if you must, follow up with Neosporin and a Band-Aid
—your scars are your history, memories on your most precious instrument
—no drama is good company
—loved ones gone are only gone for the blink of an eye
—God's forgiveness is like a rain-scrubbed sky; it feels so good and you don't know why, but it's worth a moment's contemplation
—the holidays are about gifts and helping those in need
—be on time
—try new food, new movies, new books, new music
—exactly what to expect when they graduate from college
—pets are for later in life
—drop the friends that don't make you feel good after hanging out with them
—big dreams are magical
—it's true; you'll know when you've found the one
—I'm happy
—it's okay for you to be annoyed by me
—it's not always about you
—I was wrong

Ramblings from Europe