Write to the Point!

A Neighborhood Studios Program at the Mark Twain House

Archive for the tag “United States”

Information Age Cheapens American Language

By June Tran

Writing apprentice

Twain Studios

     Americans are idiots. The land of America is home to the popular term “YOLO – you only live once” and the constant usage of hashtags and abbreviations.

     We Americans are at the pinnacle of bad grammar and spelling. As demonstrated by the daily tweets spewed out by our regular Twitter addicts, the American language has taken a turn for the worse.

Going back more than a century to the time of literary giants Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, we see a different type and view of the American language.

Twain, a celebrated American author, completely changed the way the rest of the world viewed the American language.

Joe Nunes talking

Joe Nunes

Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum, said what really elevated and characterized Twain’s and the American language was his use of “slangs and colloquialisms.”

Twain had the ability to put into words the way that people sounded, presenting the American language as something that is syntactically beautiful and admirable.

The act of crafting a piece of writing was not only practiced by Twain or by the esteemed classes – craftsmanship can be seen even in letters written by everyday civilians or even soldiers.

“People took time with their language and speech,” said Steve Courtney, publications editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum. Back then, he said, people would write 15 pages and take their time crafting it.

With the introduction of mass media technology during the 21st century, letters were replaced by a faster and more efficient medium of communication.

News surrounding a recent event can be received and understood by people in seconds.

Twitter, with its 140-character limit, emphasizes the need to be succinct and to the point.

Information utilized and passed by these sources, however, isn’t always informed and correct.

What is more striking than the degradation of the American language is the abuse of information by the media.

Twain praised the American press in a letter to British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold penned in the late 1880s, writing, “Its frank and cheerful irreverence is by all odds the most valuable quality it possesses.”

Christine Stuart

Christine Stuart

But there is a fine line between worthy and unworthy news.

As described by Donald Bliss in his book Mark Twain’s Tale of Today: Haley’s Comet Returns — Celebrated Author Critiques American Politics,  “like the newspaper of Twain’s time … there are lots of opinions and little fact-investigations. The more negative and sensational the opinion, the higher the ratings and advertising revenues.”

For serious journalists such as Christine Stuart, the editor of CTNewsJunkie, “being credible is more important than being timely.”

The language itself does not merely have to confine to a specific style or structure, but must exude the truth to its readers.

All writing, especially in journalism, will eventually shape the public opinion.

Writing something with a “purpose [is what] makes it all worthwhile,” said Joseph Nunes, a former editor at The Hartford Courant who is writing a book about the history of the newspaper.

Language would have no purpose as a method of communication if its receiver does not learn anything from it.

Learning is useless, Mark Twain wrote in his 1900 essay, “English as She Is Taught,” if the students’ memories “had been stocked but not their understanding.”

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Processed Food Means Fat Food

By June Tran

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     Obesity is a topic that is as common nowadays as the popular iPhone.

According to a report done by the National Center for Health Statistics, between 2009 and 2010, an estimated 36 percent of American adults and 17 percent of youths are obese.

The reason for treating this condition more as a physiological disorder than as an undisciplined behavior spanned from early studies in the 19th century until today’s scientific inquires.

While genetics and other factors play a role, nutrition experts say the easiest way to maintain a healthy weight is by eating a sensible diet.

“There are a lot of different factors and there’s a genetic component,” said Laura Koski, a registered dietitian.

Obesity and the diseases that accompany it became more prevalent over time as people learned to grow their own food and food became more available, especially after the Second World War, according to Prof. Garabed Eknoyan of Baylor College of Medicine. In an article published by the National Kidney Foundation, Eknoyan wrote that it was the abundance of foods and reduced physical activity that posed the greatest problem.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Koski. “We have more foods available. You can spend less. We spend less of our income on foods than we did, say, 20 years ago.”

Although we spend less for our foods, it isn’t always the good stuff that gets into our body.

The most important part of nutrition, emphasized Pauline Weissman, a board certified nutritional specialist, is to eat “appropriate foods.”

In other words, Weissman said, whole foods that are in their “natural state” and aren’t out of a box or package.

Weissman puts the blame on processed foods, and she’s not alone.

“They thought that soda was the bad guy, but it’s actually the processed foods,” said Koski, who explained that people are eating more things like cakes, cookies, pies and chips than in years past.

Processed foods such as refined, simple carbohydrates are easier to break down and be absorbed into the blood stream, according to Weissman. So consumption of processed foods accounts for a spike and ultimate crash in blood sugar, she said, leading to a craving for more sweets.

But complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, are much harder to be processed and allow a slower increase in blood sugar and less of a desire for more, according to Weissman.

A study this year showed that when men ate a meal containing a lot of processed food, especially containing corn syrup, it resulted in increased hunger and stimulation to the part of the brain that triggers cravings, according to a published report in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

While most of the obesity research points towards nutrition, there have been advances that show the biological reasons behind fat regulation and storage within human body.

According to the International Journal of Obesity, the most significant progress concerning obesity is in the study of two kinds of fat cells in the body, brown and white. Brown fat, which is associated with low body weight, is  good. The research showed an artificial way to grow new brown fat cells from precursor white fat cells that haven’t yet developed.

But the nutritionists aren’t counting on this discovery to help people, at least right away.

“There’s no simple answer,” said Koski.

Weissman said obesity is a “lifestyle disease.”

Taking into account that obesity is a medical and societal problem, changing our perspective on obese people doesn’t contribute toward solving it.

While there may be more acceptance of overweight or bigger people in our society, as Koski pointed out it may be “also because we have gotten heavier.”

As Eknoyan wrote, the stigma of being obese began to emerge during the later part of the 19th century. Before that, Western literature and art correlated a heavy-set person with the characteristics of affluence, power and beauty.

Breakthroughs in science may give us an insight into the workings of the human body, though the pathway of nutrition provides an easier and longer-lasting result.

Education about foods and nutrition is important in retraining our bodies to eat in a more healthy and effective way.

America Offered Opportunities, But First Lessons Were Tough

Bad boy players, Cecilia, Ambriel, June, Meaghan

June Tran is one of several Twain Studios Writing Apprentices who performed a skit based on a piece that their peer, Meaghan Szilagyi wrote about “bad boys.” The skit was part of the Twain Studios Showcase, a celebratory night to recognize their work. In this photo are, from left, Cecilia Gigliotti, Ambriel Johnson, Tran and Szilagyi. Rae Martin also performed in the skit but is not shown in the photo.

By Meaghan Szilagyi

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

At the tender age of eight, June Tran moved with her family from her native home in Vietnam to Connecticut.

Looking for better opportunities in America, her parents moved the family into the Colonial-style South Windsor home of her aunt. They lived there until Tran was 11.

“She’s a cranky old lady,” Tran said.

At first, it wasn’t easy living in America.

During elementary school, Tran said she always felt “incompetent.”

She didn’t grow up speaking English, so she was in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, which made her feel stupid. Her third grade teacher even let June copy answers from the student next to her during spelling tests. The student didn’t seem to like it, Tran said.

Despite the fact that June lived in South Windsor, she went to Two Ricers Magnet Middle School in East Hartford.

She had a hard time adjusting to American culture.

In Vietnam, people are very “blunt,” Tran said. So when Tran, in her first year in the United States, met her chubby new friend Sara, she said what came to mind and called her friend fat.

Tran was not expecting the lecture that followed from her teacher about how her words could hurt. She had to write an apology letter.

After this incident, Tran tried hard not to get in trouble for offending someone.

Unfortunately, other kids did not feel the same way.

Tran’s first name was originally “Doung.” Because of this, she was constantly tormented. Since it was similar to the spelling of her name, one boy even suggested they call her “dung.”

“I didn’t know kids would be that mean to me,” said Tran.

She started going by the name June ever since, because it sounded like “Doung” anyway. Last year, June began the process of legally changing her name.

Tran is grateful that her parents moved to the United States because it gave her more opportunities as a female.

In Vietnam, women aren’t allowed in their family cemeteries and also aren’t allowed to take possession of their family shrine, Tran said. June said she would like to move back to Vietnam in the future, but doesn’t regret having a life here.

As a woman, there would be fewer chances for her to get a respectable education in Vietnam, she said.

June had her first real exposure to science in high school. Growing up around her father, a physics professor, science had always been a part of her life. When she started taking biology, she was sure it would be a part of her career.

Next, she took chemistry and decided maybe she would do something with biochemistry and pharmaceuticals.

Then while talking to a family friend, June realized that maxillofacial prosthetics was the right field for her. This family friend, a specialist who does dental reconstruction, told June that it was a “torturing career.”

Although you make people happy, he told Tran, the possibility of your patient dying is a horrifying thought, especially because you can get attached to them.

In Vietnamese, “Duong” is the name of a tree that, against all odds, can survive a monsoon. Its resilience is symbolic. Tran hopes to keep up the legacy of her name by staying strong through the toughest of situations.

Soccer is Just One of Ambriel Johnson’s High School Goals

Rae, Meaghan, Ambriel

Ambriel Johnson, right, connected with other Writing Apprentices at Twain Studios. Here she is taking a break with friends Rae Martin, left, and Meaghan Szilagyi, center.

By Grant Henry

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Fourteen-year-old Ambriel Johnson is a freshman at the Connecticut International Baccalaureate Academy, just starting her high school career.

She plans to pursue many of her hobbies at the school, like writing and clarinet playing, but she is especially looking forward to joining their soccer team.

Johnson has played soccer since she was six.

“Probably my dad got me into it,” she said. “My dad was my first coach. He coached me till I was about nine.”

Soccer clearly provides a good bond between father and daughter. They watch soccer games together, and he goes to as many of his daughter’s games as he can.

“He still plays, even though he’s like 40,” Johnson said with a smile.

At first she played only recreational games, but began playing varsity once she felt she was ready. She’s already won many trophies in tournaments with her traveling team.

Along with personal experience, she often watches soccer games on the television.

“I always watch the World Cup and the Women’s World Cup.”

Though Johnson has no particular team she roots for, her favorite athletes are Mia Hamm and Lionel Messi.

Johnson’s passion for soccer is clear when you talk to her. She “gets pumped” before every game by wearing an orange prewrap as a headband.

“It’s like my lucky thing,” said Johnson.

On an average week she will have two practices and two games. During tournaments, it’s five to six games. It is unclear how rigorous her high school’s soccer team is, but she plans to attend the tryouts.

If she feels her skill level has advanced far enough, she will join the team of her future college, but that time is far away.

As school gets underway, the athletics department will have a skilled young athlete to bring life to the soccer field.

Johnson’s love of the sport inspires those close to her to find a similar passion for a hobby of their own.

Gilbert Goes Global to Act Local

Gilbert Bwette addresses the Jakes

Gilbert Bwette of Kampala, Uganda, presents to the apprentices of the Twain Studios last week.

By Grant Henry and June Tran

Writing Apprentices

Twain studios

Americans have an abundance of education, information and resources, a Ugandan photojournalist said in a recent presentation at the Mark Twain House & Museum.

Gilbert Daniel Bwette, 24, offered insight on the contrast between American and Ugandan cultures, starting with schooling.

In Uganda, there is no free public education for children, Bwette said, adding that his grandfather paid for him to attend school.

Bwette was amazed at the opportunities Americans have, especially young people.

In Uganda, primary education is not regulated by the government, he said, and often the teachers and funds are not provided, leading to a discrepancy between the private and public sectors.

Bwette said it’s difficult for students to obtain resources and job opportunities. Only about 35 percent of those who graduate from high school or who have a college degree will get a job, he said.

After completing high school, Bwette spent two years struggling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

This was not the first hurdle Bwette faced in his educational career. He said that during high school there were times he failed or when it felt like “it’s not really worth it.”

Eventually, he met the celebrity hip hop artist Babaluku, and became “connected” to him. It was this connection which inspired him to finish school and aim for an artistic career.

Bwette chose to be a photojournalist as opposed to the three ideal careers in Uganda: a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

Gilbert Bwette addresses the Jakes.2 jpg

Gilbert Bwette presents before the apprentices of the Twain Studios

Although he said his mother “almost slapped” him when he told her his plans to pursue photography, he wasn’t scared of the limited income that his path would take him.

Bwette traveled to the United States as a youth presenter at a hip hop conference in Washington, D.C.

There are Ugandans who aren’t as lucky as Bwette, he said. An economic motivation sometimes isn’t a strong enough catalyst for these youths to push themselves in education.

According to Bwette, there is a rudimentary class division between those that are in power in the Ugandan government and average citizens who are simply trying to make ends meet.

In his work with the Ugandan youth, Bwette helps expose young people to a variety of careers that would afford them a better income while also contributing to their communities.

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