Tiptoeing through a minefield of idioms

Should you do your “due diligence” or your “do diligence” when you set out to buy something more expensive than a box of Oreo cookies?

Christina Desmarais has the answer to that question and 19 others in an instructive article every business writer should scan. She cites errors found on websites belonging to Oxford University, the BBC, the White House, the New York Times and other high-profile organizations. Her examples may peak — I mean pique — your interest and save you from a minor embarrassment.

She notes that many of the errors won’t be caught by a spell checker. To test that comment, I used her examples in a Word 2013 document. The grammar checker identified only seven errors; it missed “shoe-in” and  “sneak peak.” It’s enough to disrupt anyone’s piece peace of mind.

How Indspire caught and held my attention

I couldn’t resist opening the envelope that the promised a “special gift” for me. It was from an organization I hadn’t heard of — Indspire. Before describing the contents, I’ll take a moment to comment on the envelope.

Fundraising package from Indspire, 8

Fundraising package from Indspire, 8″x5.5″, 62 grams, Addressed Admail.

The obvious thing to note is that the envelope did its job. It convinced me to open the package to examine the contents. At 8″x5.5″ and 62 grams, the package stood out from the rest of the mail that day.  I noted the Addressed Admail indicia in the upper right corner and the sortation information in the window, but that didn’t put me off. The prominent text promising a gift and the colourful images suggesting postcards primed me to expect something special inside.

Indspire fundraising package: 4-page letter, buckslip, gift, reply form and postage-paid reply envelope

Fundraising package: 4-page letter, buckslip, gift, reply form and postage-paid reply envelope

The 4-page letter appeared to be the work of a professional copy-writer. It had many of the classic elements. In the upper right hand corner of the first page, a Johnson box featured a moving first-person testimony. The text of the letter was written in a casual, first-person style and began with the sender’s self-introduction. Quickly, it introduced us to Amy and described how education had changed her life for the better. From there, the text carried me through an engaging mix of facts, benefits, testimonies and requests. Interestingly, the page breaks on the first and second page occurred in the midst of a sentence, encouraging me to move to the next page to complete the thought. Finally, in the standard P.S., the writer explained the purpose of the colourful note cards.

The other elements of the package complemented the letter. The buckslip provided talking points about the challenges being addressed. The reply card and envelope provided attractive options for making a donation. The note cards are beautiful and definitely will be used.

Did this mailing do its job? Yes, indeed. I read every word, examined every piece and visited Inspire’s website to learn more. Would an email have had the same effect? Not even close.

Fundraising appeal from a Member of Parliament

What a delight to receive this fundraising appeal in the mail! I don’t often say that about fundraising letters, but this one is special. Even if my name was mangled, somewhat.

A very welcome letter from Ralph Goodale, a mentor early in my working life.

A very welcome letter from Ralph Goodale, a mentor early in my working life.

Many years ago, during his first term as a Member of Parliament, Ralph Goodale hired me to work in his Ottawa office. It was a turning point for me. I had been employed by the Southeast Community College, setting up adult education classes in forty of the  communities in Ralph’s constituency, Assiniboia. The hours were long and the travel was endless; the deadlines were pressing; the people in the communities always had suggestions for more new classes. Being young, I thought I know what it meant to work hard.

Working for Ralph showed me how much I still had to learn. For every mile I had driven to meet with committees before moving to Ottawa, he had driven ten. For every document I read, every letter I drafted, every phone call I made, he had done twice as much. If I had read a report, he had not only read the report but he had formulated his response and reached out to the stakeholders. Honest, devoted to his constituents, on top of the issues — Ralph was one of the MP’s who improved our public life.

Because of the deep impression he made on me during the two years I worked for him, I have held firm to my faith in our political system. When someone complains about pettiness or corruption on Parliament Hill, I counter with my favourite example of what an MP can and should be. And even now, as the leader has taken the party down a path I can’t follow, I intend to watch the late returns on election night, hoping that Ralph once again graces the House of Commons.

By the way, if you want to get a sense of what’s happening in Regina and many other places, follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphGoodale.

Hudson’s Bay strikes the right note

Hudson’s Bay sent a beautiful promotion last week. Restrained typography on a smooth, cream-coloured #10 envelope made it stand out from the other commercial mail. Two features caught my eye. The prominent “Hudson’s Bay” in the upper left corner quietly said “We’re embracing our history.” The custom indicia featuring the Hudson’s Bay blanket reinforced the message.

Unaddressed admail letter from Hudson's Bay

Addressed admail letter from Hudson’s Bay

The letter was sent as a machinable admail piece. Without the extra sortation information in the address block, the piece looked very much like standard lettermail. Inside the envelope, the letter’s formatting and substantial paper reinforced the overall, dignified appearance. Two tipped-on gift cards, in muted colours, completed the offering.

Why did I pay attention to this piece? Was it the apostrophe in the company’s name? A generation ago, iconic stores like Hudson’s Bay became The Bay and Eaton’s became Eaton for political reasons. Does the reapparance of the humble apostrophe say something about the state of our politics?

Maybe it’s the retro theme that stands out: quiet type, the old name, the old blanket. Nothing is much more retro in Canada than a company charted 200 years before the country was founded.

So you think surveillance is oppressive today?

In recent weeks, the public has learned a lot about the extent of surveillance in our post-9/11 world. The Guardian’s story about the NSA’s activities set off a frenzy of speculation and comment. Naturally, Orwell was invoked by many commentators and Huxley by a few. My own thoughts turned to the small town where I grew up, to the intense and personal surveillance that did so much to knit the community together.

I spent my childhood and teenage years in a Western Canadian hamlet that was home to about 45 people. The surrounding farming population had already begun to dwindle as farms grew larger and families smaller. It was an intimate setting, where joy and pain were shared and no one made the mistake of thinking they were invisible to their neighbors.

  • The region had been settled for 60 years, so the families in the area had at least two generations of memories about each other. They remembered the hopeful years of early settlement, the near-despair of the Hungry Thirties, the worry and deprivation during WWII, the arrival of electricity in the 50’s and 60’s. And they remembered the courtships, births and deaths, community dances, rowdy brawls, sports days, church events and political campaigns that provided the context for our lives. Everyone had a history, and everyone else knew a good part of it.
  • Phone service was a party line. It was prudent to assume that no conversations was private. Fortunately, you knew who was listening.
  • Farmers’ fields were always open to inspection by their neighbors. On a relaxing Sunday drive through the neighborhood, anyone could see who wasn’t keeping their weeds down, who’s furrows weren’t straight, who’s harvest hadn’t been taken in quickly enough.
  • Since most of the grain was sold through the Wheat Board, with controlled quotas and pricing, everyone could estimate their neighbor’s income with a high degree of precision.
  • Most farmyards were open to view from various angles. At least one person I knew used a strong set of binoculars to keep tabs on nearby farms from her kitchen window.
  • The weekly newspaper in the nearby small city ran a social column about each of the hamlets in the region. Wednesdays brought a fresh batch of reports of Sunday visits, anniversaries, and various milestones, published for all to see.

Was this communal life unstintingly painful? Not at all. For every inconvenience or intrusion, there was at least one offsetting gain. The deep knowledge of one’s history conferred an undeniable dignity on each person; however frayed the bond, we belonged in each others’ lives. The party line was a lifeline which informed the entire community instantly whenever fire, accident or bereavement struck. Farmers who were struggling because of ill health did not have to ask for help because the need was evident in the state of their fields. The financial pain of depressed prices or hail-damaged crops was shared by all. No one grieved, worried or celebrated alone.

The surveillance was real, intimate, and omnipresent. In that corner of the world, it was more penetrating than today’s anonymous monitoring of emails, phone calls and Facebook posts. On balance, it contributed to a more intense social life which is preferable to the anomie currently endured by so many in urban centers.

Extending charity, one ticket at a time

Knights of Clumbus charities raffle drum, Toronto, May 19, 2013

Charities raffle drum, Toronto, May 19, 2013

You may have seen us in shopping malls and other public locations, selling tickets for the Knights of Columbus charities raffle. You know the scene: one or two people at a table greeting you as you approach, offering a $2 ticket or 3 for $5, filling in your contact information, wishing you luck and thanking you for your purchase.

What you may not know is how much work goes into administering the raffle and how much good the proceeds accomplish. At the local level, our work begins in late October when the tickets arrive. From then until late April, we have crews of volunteers scheduled in 3-hour or 4-hour shifts, offering tickets to the public. Other volunteers account for the tickets and the money, reviewing each day’s sales and submitting the proceeds to our council’s financial secretary and treasurer. The final accounting is carried out in mid-May and the tickets are turned in at the Knights of Columbus annual convention the day before the draw takes place. This year, the draw was held on May 19; the list of winners is published on the Ontario Knights of Columbus website.

Member of the Knights of Columbus selling raffle tickets at a pancake breakfast

Ray, selling raffle tickets at a pancake breakfast

At the annual convention, representatives of some of the charities we sponsor speak to the delegates about the impact of our charitable giving. Margaret Wills of the Arthritis Society reported that with the money we provided last year, the Society launched a chronic pain management program for children; they also supplied children with ergonomically-designed backpacks filled with information and tools for those recently diagnosed with arthritis. Taylor Redmond, a young athlete from Guelph, spoke eloquently about what Special Olympics has meant to him. A competitor in basketball, track and swimming, Taylor believes he can do anything the rest of us can do but he knows that he needs help and patience. He thanked the Knights in Guelph for helping him along his entire athletic career. There weren’t many dry eyes in the room when he finished speaking.

Our volunteers are taking a break over the summer. We’ll be back in the fall, looking to raise much-needed money for charities that make a difference in our community. When you see one of us, drop by to say hello and, if you can, pick up a few tickets. Your smiles keeps the volunteers coming back and your dollars help in many ways across the province.

Turn on the Twitter firehose

If you want to see what a digital mob looks like, try following a Twitter hash tag as an emotional event occurs.

Tweetdeck - image of tweets

Tweetdeck – image of tweets two days after the events in this story

This week, I followed the hash tag #gosnell when word broke that the jury was about to return a verdict in a sensational trial after several days of deliberations. Kermit Gosnell, a doctor in Philadelphia who had operated an abortion clinic accurately described as a house of horrors, was accused of brutally killing babies who had been delivered alive. The jury found him guilty on multiple charges; a hasty plea deal resulted in consecutive life sentences.

The damburst of tweets began immediately after the announcement that the jury had reached a verdict. The tweets appeared and ran down the timeline so quickly I could barely make out the words. In the hour that passed before the verdict became known, the flow of tweets accelerated as comments incited others to comment, in a cascading effect. Given the nature of the accusations and the disgusting details that had been made public during the trial, it’s no surprise that many of the comments were harsh in the extreme, demanding retribution. As soon as one reporter announced a summary of the verdict—guilty on three first degree murder charges—the detail was echoed in thousands of tweets per minute.

I also followed the hash tag #bosma when it was announced that an arrest had been made in the case of the disappearance of Tim Bosma, a young Canadian man who had fallen among thieves. The flow, proportionally slower than the Gosnell flow, still ran at a fast pace for hours.

What was the experience like?

  • At the peak of the flow, my eye could make out only random words from a message as it slipped down the page; because of the density of messages, the random words built of coherent picture of the prevailing sentiment.
  • The topic could shift and reorient like a flock of swallows; as soon as a fact or rumour was reported, the follow-up tweets absorbed and built on it.
  • Twitter was ahead of the main news outlets by several minutes; presumably,  the process of verifying information and composing readable dispatches accounts for the difference in timing.
  • The tweets on these occasions were expressions of emotions, not eye-witness accounts of unfolding events, so they contributed very little to the understanding of the events.

In both cases, Twitter’s main strength—immediacy—was negated by the sheer volume of tweets. So many people commented that no one could read the messages as they sped by; it would take a software solution to count and categorize the sentiments and expose the various threads of argument and commentary.

Given the nature of the events being commented upon, it shouldn’t be surprising that the nasty comments demanding retribution were the most prominent. Comparatively few spoke of mercy for the accused. The flow of tweets has been likened to a fire hose; in this case, it would have taken a fire hose to wash away to stain of anger and nastiness that spread with the succession of comments.

Appreciating the new translation of the Roman Missal

For eighteen months, the Catholic Church has used a new translation of the Roman Missal, a translation meant to be used not only in North America but Great Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Singapore, China and other countries whose idiomatic English differs greatly from our own. In the run-up to its adoption, parishes conducted workshops and distributed explanatory texts to prepare us for the dramatic change in the prayers we had become accustomed to.

At a workshop in our parish, opinion was clearly divided. Some argued that the return to an elevated language was a mistake, a turning back from the advances of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Others welcomed the changes in general but objected to particular words or phrases.

At the first Mass with the new translation, my doubts were erased. The words soared. Layers of meaning were exposed as clause built upon clause. And long-forgotten phrases, set aside so many years ago, came back with an unexpected freshness. I wondered why I was so taken with the revised language but had no clear answer until I acquired The Beauty of the Word by Anthony Esolen. His work examines the principles of translation, the oratorical strategy and many of the scriptural references.

Cover page of The Beauty of the Word, published by Magnificat

Cover page of The Beauty of the Word, published by Magnificat

I found the key  to understanding my fondness for this translation in Esolen’s explanation that the sentence structure was designed with the demands of oratory in mind. Oratory requires “repetition of key words, parallel structures in grammar and sense, balance of idea with idea and image with image, and – something that people unused to oral poetry do not suspect – a minimum of full stops that interrupt the flow of declamation and meaning.” He cites the examples of Homer – who composed with his mind, voice and ear but not his hand or eye – and Martin Luther King, whose long sentences exhibited the balance and repetition familiar from the writings of Jeremiah and Isaiah. In an arresting image, Esolen describes a series of four simple declarative sentences as “disconnected boxcars bumping into each other on a track.” The sense of the progression is most easily acquired when the sentences are connected, like boxcars pulled by the same engine.

Esolen’s explanation makes sense to me because it fits with my recent experience. In the past few years, I have memorized passages of 800 and 1400 words, to be recited – without visual aids of any sort – in Knights of Columbus ceremonies. With no background in drama, I was expecting the process to be an ordeal. Instead, memorizing and delivering the long passages has been a pleasant experience. The passages employ parallelism, imagery and repetition to great effect, making it easy for the speaker to memorize and the listener to follow.

In my view, the translation has been a great success. I recommend Esolen’s book to anyone who wishes to study the translation more closely.

Mothers Day tribute from the Knights

This weekend, after all Masses, our Council distributed flowers to the mothers in the congregation. It’s a symbolic gesture that reminds Knights not only to honour the mothers among us but also that our order was created as a fraternal benefits organization charged with the care of our deceased members’ widows and children.

Knights distribute flowers for Mothers at Holy Cross Parish

Members of Holy Cross Council distribute flowers for mothers at the entrance to the church.

Spring cleaning the capital

Holy Cross Council took part in the semi-annual Cleaning the Capital campaign again this spring. Saturday, May 4, was a perfect day for the event: a clear sky, no wind, dry ground and temperatures in the high teens in the morning. Twenty-one Knights and family members picked up litter along the Airport Parkway between Walkley Road and Hunt Club Road. As usual, the spring cleanup was more demanding than the fall session; Canadians seem to throw out more litter during the winter.

Holy Cross Council team prepares to pick up litter along the Airport Parkway

Holy Cross Council team prepares to pick up litter along the Airport Parkway

Members of the team relax over coffee and donuts.

Members of the team relax over coffee and donuts.