Yule Tree Family Tradition

I might put more about the whole tradition here, but right now I just need a link to the song…
Tree-Hunting Song
Tune = Polly in the Holly (trad.)
Words by Anna-Marie York and Simone Parrish, circa 2001
*Oh the Oak rests in the winter time to marshal his strength
But the Holly stays bright and green the whole winter’s length
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
*Oh the fir waits in the wood, its boughs bearded with snow
To come inside for the Yuletide the axe it must know
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
*The Stag leaps through the wood with his proud crown of hornAnd it is through his sacrifice the Sun is reborn
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

With an axe we go a-hunting the green-boughed fir tree
as our forebears have done through the long centuries.
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
The Oak burns in the hearth for to give us good cheer
From the Darkness comes the Light at this turn of the year
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
The Wheel keeps on turning, through dark and through light,and we sing to its honor, on this longest night.
Green branches in the winter promise life to be,
and the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.
Holly! Holly! Oh the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

*These are the verses we sing most often.

Knowledge Curation and Design: Gardens, not Stained-Glass Windows

“It’s a garden, not a stained-glass window” is a metaphor I came up with to talk about knowledge management, content management, ongoing curation and database management, and iterative design processes. I think I started using it about ten years ago. A few different people have recently told me how much this concept has helped them, so I’m putting it here on my blog for intellectual property/attribution reasons.[1]

Many ideas in U.S. corporate culture come from industry and manufacturing. Objects and processes in a factory, mine, or construction site have to be perfect in some ways—they have to fit in a specific slot and happen at a specific time, or other things will go badly wrong. This interchangeable parts/assembly line/standardized processes way of thinking has created efficiencies and opportunities for expansion beyond the wildest dreams of the artisanal producer.

But this industrial mindset also (in my opinion) warps our way of thinking about other kinds of work. In my professional milieu (focused mostly on knowledge management and web content strategy), many things can’t ever be perfect, or finished. I used to find this frustrating. I like finishing things: making something polished, and checking it off a list. I used to feel panicked letting something go when I knew it could be better.

We also live in a time when few things are made to last. A stained-glass window in a Gothic cathedral had to be as perfect as possible; it was made to last a thousand years, unchanging. I used to feel the same way about my work—that it would be a permanent reflection of me, or of a moment captured out of time.

Then the metaphor came to me: These are gardens, not stained-glass windows.

This metaphor encapsulates and summarizes a lot of other thinking—from “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; to artistic or aesthetic traditions that acknowledge transience and imperfection (Arachne’s hubris, wabi-sabi, the apocryphal-but-appealing imperfect stitch/Persian flaw/humility square); to Seth Godin’s “Ship!” concept.

Recognizing that you need to constantly change things doesn’t mean you failed in the first place. A garden is never “finished.” You plan, and you plant, and you tend. Dig up weeds, or leave them be. Carry water, or wait for rain. Become the mother of mantises. Some things grow better than you expected (make a bigger bed for them, next year). Sometimes things don’t go well; your soil has an invisible pathogen, and all the cantaloupe plants turn to rot. A tree next door dies, or your neighbor builds a new fence, and the light in your garden changes. You have an early hot spell, and all your lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Maybe the people you are feeding suddenly become allergic to eggplant, or decide they don’t want to see another turnip until next year.

So, a small practical example: You worked hard on that user manual. You took every function into account, organized it in a way that made sense to you, and crafted the instructions carefully. But your work is not done: Watch to see how (or whether!) people use the manual. What challenges can they still not solve themselves? What questions do they still ask? Check your readability; are your sentences too complicated? Do you use words they don’t know? Check your information architecture: Do people not understand your category names or chapter titles? Maybe they don’t want a 300-page reference book at all. Maybe they want a “Top Five Tips” sheet.

Another: You made a website. People used to come to the homepage and click through the navigation to find what they are looking for; more often now they come to a specific page from Google or Facebook. They look at one thing, and they leave. Do you try to force them through the homepage—make them come through the garden gate, walk past the things they don’t want, dig for the things they do? No. You change your page aliasing, check your metadata, submit a sitemap for crawling, make sure your site search works well. Or you push new posts straight to social media. This delivers your goods to the people who want them—sometimes before they are even inside the gate—wherever they are coming from.

Your audience changes, or they want something different. The environment changes. Information changes. You can—and must—adjust to those changes. That’s how we tend the garden of human knowledge. That is the process that creates culture. It’s what knowledge management, writ large, is for. It’s how we survive, thrive, and build a better world.

[1] Like everything else on this blog, I’m offering the metaphor under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license. This is my metaphor, my meme, my idea. You can use it, if you want, as long as you say it it is mine, and you’re not trying to make money from it. More details on my Fine Print page. [Go back up to reference point.]

Children’s Song: Green Grows the Mistletoe

[Edit: I’m updating this post on May 1, 2017, significantly enough that I’m going to re-post it with a new publication date.]

I wrote this in January 1999, as a nursery rhyme for my then-baby godson Aiden. Its tune and structure are borrowed from “Green Grow the Rushes-O,” which dates back to at least the mid-1800s. It’s traditionally sung as a call and response, but that’s totally optional. I sing it by myself all the time.

I posted the lyrics as a Facebook note in May 2013, and moved them to this blog in August 2016. At this re-writing, in April-May 2017, I am grieving Aiden’s untimely death. In considering whether I could sing this at his memorial gathering on April 29, 2017, I was worried about choking up. I started experimenting with Garage Band so I could sing along with myself to get the song back in working vocal memory. During a day of practice in the car, I realized I was often dropping in little bits of harmony, so I recorded those as a separate track. I’ll probably do another more-polished version with more harmony lines eventually, but this one’s OK, and at least it’s complete.

Green Grows the Mistletoe, Take 3 with improv harmony track, April 25, 2017 (see P.S. for Take 1…)

Lyrics:

I’ll sing you one, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your one, o?
One Great Wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you two, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your two, o?
Two, two, for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you three, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your three, o?
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you four, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your four, o?
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you five, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your five, o?
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you six, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your six, o?
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you seven, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your seven, o?
Seven returned from Caer Sidi*
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you eight, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your eight, o?
Eight for the kinds of poetry**
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you nine, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your nine, o?
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so

I’ll sing you ten, o
Green grows the mistletoe
What is your ten, o?
Ten, for Brigid and her maids
Nine for the woods on the Beltane fire
Eight for the kinds of poetry
Seven returned from Caer Sidi
Six is still a mystery
Five are the points on an apple-star,
Four for the sacred quarter-days
Three for the Morrigan
Two, two for day and night, spinning round and round, o
One great wheel a-turning, and ever more shall be so!

* “Except seven, none returned from Caer Sidi” is a line in Robin Williamson’s version of The Spoils of Annwn, a poem attributed to Taliesin.

**I don’t know where this came from, so it might be totally without documentable basis, but I have the lore in my head that bardic poetry has eight purposes: Arbitration, blessing, cursing, worship, prophecy, remembrance, praise, and mockery. (This one is blessing, worship, and remembrance.)

P.S. Here’s Take 1 because Franklin asked for it. It’s a partial take and ends with a funny mistake. (I would have re-recorded it anyway, because I wasn’t warmed up and was trying to sing very quietly/not disturb neighbors late at night, so I’m not pleased with how long it took me to find the tuning/breathing.)

Blogging about Commas

My site description says “knowledge management, good Web content, duck confit, odd bits of beauty, general nerdliness, and the Oxford comma.”

While I *use* the Oxford comma on this blog, I am not sure I have really blogged about it, per se. My brother-in-law Seth  called me on this the other day–and then a lot of people read this news story and told me it made them think of me. I’m quite proud.

I am a staunch, steadfast proponent and defender of the Oxford comma. None of the arguments against it make sense to me, when weighed against the arguments for it. I’m not going to try to convince you, though. You can do that for yourself. (Just Google “Oxford Comma” and be amazed at the nerdery and vitriol.)

Lynne Truss’ lovely Eats, Shoots & Leaves calls the comma a “grammatical sheepdog” that “tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising [sic] words into sensible groups and making them stay put.” Ms. Truss acknowledges the pro vs con argument and advises “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Funny examples:

Times when a comma (not always Oxford) made a difference in the outcome of a court case:

Data: Singular or Plural?

Over the years as a writer and editor (and interrupted linguist), I’ve mellowed quite a bit. From a young age through my late 20s, I was a strict prescriptivist/pedant: “These are the rules; I am going to follow them, and I am going to get an A!” Gradually I’ve shifted toward descriptivism: “All usage is in some stage of flux; I just want to write clearly for my audience, so I can convey ideas as accurately as possible.”

But there’s one usage about which I am adamant: “Data.” Is it singular, or plural? The answer I accept is “Ask your audience.”

Here’s my argument:

(1) Are you speaking or writing Latin? “Data” is plural.

(2) Are you speaking or writing English? Ask yourself: How does my audience expect me to treat “data”?

(a) “Data” is neither singular nor plural in essence, but a mass/uncountable noun (like “furniture” or “traffic”–or “audience.”) Nevertheless,

(b) If you are writing or speaking to an audience of scientists (especially social scientists, but not computer scientists), you should use plural verbs and markers with “data”–otherwise, they will consider you unsophisticated, and possibly think less of your expertise. (I don’t think that’s a fair leap to make, but it’s a fact of life.) 

(c) If you are writing or speaking to a general audience and/or computer scientists, use “data” with singular verbs and markers. Otherwise, your audience is quite likely to think you are being pretentious. (If you *want* them to think you are pretentious, have at it. Just be aware of the effect this choice can have.)

(d) If you don’t know enough about your audience to make an informed choice, rewrite the sentence to avoid having to use “data” with a marker of grammatical number.

The argument that “data” is the plural of “datum” holds no weight with me, because:

(i) I can’t remember the last time I heard “datum” (rather than “data point”) in common parlance; and, more importantly,

(ii) English is not Latin. Once English has accepted a word from another language, the grammatical rules of the root language no longer control that word. “Opera” in Latin is the plural of “opus,” but in English “opera” is most frequently used as a singular noun. Most people use “agenda” in English as a singular noun as well–“Do we have an agenda?” “Hold on, I’ll send it to you.” 

Come at me.

Web Writing for Beginners: Simone’s Top 10 Tips

Approx. 5-minute read | I’ve received a lot of requests for these tips, most recently on the email list for the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative. This is not a formal work product yet, so it doesn’t have my project or organization branding on it — it’s what I think, based on more than 15 years of writing on the Web. EDIT, 10/6/2016: It is a formal work product now! Read a slightly more serious version for the knowledge management context on The Exchange (K4Health’s Medium publication), or download a 2-page abridged-for-print version from K4Health.org. 

Consider Your Audience

1. Think about your readers.
 Before you begin writing, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. People read on the Web to find solutions to problems, get information, be entertained, or be moved or supported emotionally. What are you trying to convey? Is it useful, interesting, motivating, or energizing? Make reading worth their time.

2. Be careful with jargon. Jargon and abbreviations can be useful shortcuts with the right audience. With the wrong audience, they are actively alienating. Jargon and abbreviations can also be hard to translate, if translation is a concern. Use plain language and spell out your abbreviations.

Jargon tangent: I recently did an informal survey asking friends how they felt about “thought leadership”—an expression I hear quite a bit in my professional sphere. 78 people responded. 10% felt neutral or grudgingly positive. The other 90% felt negative: They found it pretentious, confusing, or Orwellian.

People react to the phrase "Thought Leadership" with words like "Unease", "Orwellian", "Not down with it."
People react to the phrase “Thought Leadership” with words like “Unease”, “Orwellian”, “Not down with it.”

Write Well

“Writing well” is a huge undertaking —far beyond the scope of this tip sheet. The tips below are the pieces of “writing well” that are particularly applicable to writing for the Web. They can be especially helpful for people who are used to writing in a more academic or specifically-professional style (e.g., reports to a particular funder, papers for a known group of experts).

3. Find your own voice, and use it.  Within whatever style guide you might be held to, express your own ideas or build an argument from your own perspective, but in words your readers will understand. Imagine reading your piece out loud: Does it sound like you? If you read it aloud, would people listen? Readers recognize authenticity when they see it.

4. Condense your sentences.
 Check your writing with a readability tool (like this one). Keep your average sentence length down (15–20 words is a reasonable range, depending on your target audience). Vary your sentences — break up long sentences with short ones. (Write music.) Even people who have the patience to read a 40-word sentence on paper may give up after 20 words on the Web.

5. Watch the details. This includes proper grammar and punctuation. Check your spelling. Small mistakes will distract some readers from your ideas. (Imagine grit in a salad. Is the salad still good?) Also, double-check sources and quotations. It’s tempting to illustrate your point with a supporting aphorism from a famous person, or a quote from a colleague—but make sure they really said it. A misattributed or inaccurate quotation can be a big embarrassment.

Web Writing Specifics

6. Don’t paste from Word. Word is full of background formatting code that does not play well with most websites. If you wrote your piece in Word, copy and paste it into a plain-text editor (like Notepad or TextEdit) before putting it into a website content management system (CMS). Yes, you’ll have to re-do all your links—but that’s much less work than cleaning out incompatible code. If you must write in Word, and you’ll be sending your work to a content manager for publishing, it’s polite to include the URLs of any embedded links, so the content manager can reconstruct the links when s/he strips out the formatting.

7. Be conscious of length. 
This tip used to be “Keep it brief.” Experts used to recommend 300 to 700 words as a guideline for blog posts . Over the past ten years, with the rise of Twitter and mobile, very short-form writing became popular — but then there was a backlash in favor of more in-depth writing. It’s not uncommon now to see online posts of 3,000-5,000 words. If you think your piece needs to be longer, consider turning it into a series or a different type of publication. It’s a good idea to put an estimated read time at the top, and/or a summary of the key message of your post (some people call this the “TL;DR” — “too long, didn’t read”). Here’s a tool that calculates read time.

8. Make your piece scannable. Most people don’t actually read on the web. They skim through a page, looking for headings, keywords, and bullets that interest them. Would a reader still learn something from your piece if they read only the first few words, and skimmed through the highlights?

9. Make links meaningful.
 Links stand out — so make them mean something. A link to a video of a cute kid racing an otter is more meaningful and scannable than one that says to click here — even though they both go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9APqLA2YKs. (Don’t use bare URLs like that on a web page; they are not meaningful to humans, and they clutter things up.) Meaningful links are also an accessibility issue for people with disabilities. Many people with impaired vision use a “screen reader”—a device or app that literally reads website text aloud. In some modes, the screen reader only reads header and link text — it skips all the paragraph text until the user asks for a paragraph. Imagine the difference between hearing “a recent study about injectable contraceptives…today’s statement by the World Health Organization”, versus hearing “click here … here … click here.”

10. Write a good title. If someone were to try to find your piece with a search engine, what would they search for? Are those words in your title? Are they in your piece? Search engines tend to rate things more highly if the words in your title are also in your text. (Read my colleague Liz Futrell’s To Click or Not to Click: The Art of a Good Title.)

On Blessings for Babies

My tribe has some new children. We have been around for long enough as a tribe that we have seen a broad range of challenges and triumphs in parenting. We’ve got a greater awareness of the pressures and factors that we didn’t have to contend with ourselves, but that are major stressors on our children. Being asked to write a blessing for them this Imbolc, I started thinking about baby-blessings in general–what I wanted to accomplish or avoid in this new piece.

Most baby-blessings I have seen tend to be parental wishlists, or paeans to innocence and potential (boiling down to “be healthy and happy and successful, you precious little angel, and also reflect well on me”). I wanted to avoid putting any expectations on our children. I also wanted to avoid being the unwitting thirteenth fairy–afraid that by writing a list of wishes, I would leave something out, making room for a curse or a specific weakness. And I’m tired of rose-colored glasses, of trying to put the best face on everything.

Life is hard, and we’re not perfect, and it’s still all worth the striving.

Welcome to Preachain

Welcome, child now among us. We’ve waited for this day.
We’re your tribe. We are your family. We will love you, come what may.
We are glorious, and broken. We are fine, and we are frayed.
We are strong, and we are ailing. And we’ll love you, come what may.

We are druids, bards, and warriors, and cooks, and smiths, and fools.
We are drunkards and we’re gossips; we are kind, and we are cruel.
We’re hard workers, and we’re lazy. We are hopeful, and dismayed.
We are generous and selfish, and we’ll love you, come what may.

We are proud, and we are shame-faced; we’re holy, and profane.
We are horrible and lovely, and we’ll make mistakes again.
We are greedy and mean-spirited and wise and calm and brave.
You may be these things, or others, and we’ll love you, come what may.

 

Difficult times need an iron goddess

Cross-posted from my first (highly experimental) tumblr, https://www.tumblr.com/blog/wordywoady

Seems to me we’re at a fairly high angst-level, globally. The Weltschmerz is getting schmerzier, all over the Welt. This was keeping me up last night, so I started thinking about Guanyin. She is the bodhisattva of compassion, She who hears the cries of the world. Wikipedia says “Guanyin is also seen as the champion of the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble.” One of her epithets is “the Iron Goddess of Mercy.” She also has her own tea. (It’s an oolong. It’s lovely.)

Seeking her image was the root of my most-magical Internet moment to date. I was looking for images of Guanyin to help me work through the psychic overload of Grand Jury duty (two to four dozen snapshots of crime, from the eye-rollingly banal to the most hideous evil, weekly for three months). I found this one.

image

Kwan Yin, Green Gulch Farm, California | Sculptura (17) | Robert V. Moody

Because this image is on the Internet, I was able to find the photographer, and ask if he would make me a print. I sent him a postal money order, and he sent me two prints and a very gracious letter.

I’m looking for the consolations in the Weltschmertz, and the jewel in the lotus. I have a beautiful artwork from a Canadian photographer (and mathematics professor), of a statue of a Chinese bodhisattva, taken at a Northern California retreat center. Not something a person would have been able to acquire until this day and age.

Decoded

box-on-table

I have a small mysterious wooden box.

It was a gift from a friend, and an empty house, and a departed soul. I have had it for just over a year. It is old, with tiny hinges and half a lid (broken edge, worn splinter-free) and the number “21” on two of its sides.

Inside are four compartments, each carefully filled with carefully-rolled dry leaves.

There is writing on the inside of the lid, pale pencil marks I could never read before, or only almost-read. Something about the light, or my eyes, or the box’s wishes changed tonight, and I can read it, and I know it much better now.

It was a typesetter’s box. box-open

Two compartments, before they held leaves, held dashes (which before tonight might have said “disks” or “darker” or “dishes”)—em dashes and en dashes, the E’s written in loops like backwards 3’s, which contrast sharply with the straight-line E’s above them (a different hand? a different mood?).

Dashes are charming to me, with their elegant herding abilities, and I use them carefully and often, and won’t write a double hyphen when I should write an em dash. (WordPress keeps helpfully replacing my double hyphens, or I would show you.)

The other two compartments held Italic capital X-tildes (X̃) and Y-tildes (Ỹ), which I have never had call to use but which apparently stand for an old statistical mean and a new one.

There are other numbers that are code to me. “10 on 10”, which might be “10 or 10” and on first reading said “IomiD”. “Ital cap” is clear now, when before it could have been “Stele crp” or “Stackage”.

The box was relieved when it was given to me. It relaxed into my hands, after others had looked at it and shaken their heads and left it on its shelf. But it kept its history to itself, letting me love it on its present merits. I love it even more now, knowing a bit more of its past, imagining it is the twenty-first in a series of boxes that used to sit companionably together on a fitted shelf, or in a cabinet, ready to work, to spell, to indicate pauses and spans, and old things and new ones.

cabinet-of-curiosities

It misses its companions, but it sits among other small mysterious beloved things, and I think it is happy.

Here are all the characters:

10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap X̃
10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap Ỹ
6 on 7 7¼ set | Em dashes
6 on 7 7¼ set | En dashes

Grit in the Dish

As a detail-oriented writer, webmaster, and knowledge worker, I notice errors. When I point them out, sometimes people are grateful. Other times, I get pushback along the lines of “Nobody cares about stuff like that except you,” or “I don’t see why you’re worried about that detail.”

Have you ever eaten steamed mussels with sand in them, or salad with grit on it? The food might be perfectly cooked, creatively seasoned, and beautifully plated. But as soon as there’s grit on your palate, you notice. If there’s one piece of grit, some people might overlook it. The more grit, the less edible the dish—no matter how good everything else is, that grit makes the dish less enjoyable, or even inedible. If you go to a restaurant twice, and there is grit in your food both times, would you go back a third time? I wouldn’t. I would think their prep work was sloppy, and that would make me worry about their hygiene practices and respect for product.

“Nobody cares except you” is a coward’s defense, and it dismisses the experience of at least part of your audience. Some people will notice the details. For example, I’m passionate about words, grammar, and usage. I notice when people use a word or phrase imprecisely or inappropriately. I notice if someone is using serial commas, or not using them, or using them inconsistently. I’m passionate, though not expert, about design; I have a strong aesthetic, and I notice when people haven’t learned the same design basics as I have—when they break a grid, or choose colors or fonts haphazardly, or don’t have real people use a product before release.

Caring about these things has earned me some ridicule, but it also has made me a valuable team member—I’ll notice the things that others on the team don’t, so when we put a product out in the world people will notice the content or usefulness of what we made, and (I hope) not be distracted by awkward design choices or grammatical errors. If we don’t pay attention to those kinds of details, some people will think less of us—and think less of our expertise.

Typos, grammatical errors, awkward usage, and inelegant or untested design are the grit in any work. Having a grit-detector on your team makes the work better, and builds your audience’s faith and trust in your expertise.

On the other hand, if the salad with grit in it is made of tough or spoiled greens, that’s a different kind of problem. Don’t bother removing the grit if the greens themselves aren’t good. Spend your energy on starting fresh.