Literary Devices

Literary Devices

About a year or so ago my sister-in-law back ‘home’ in Tennessee observed an endearing habit in my brother. From an adjoining room she could hear him plunking out something on a computer keyboard. Only he was not typing the way somebody, you know, normal, would: his technique was more like firing off a weapon with each keystroke, with a final cannon shot for each period: pow! pow! pow! BOOM! It made her giggle.

Yep, I said, it comes from dad. I don’t know how I know this: I don’t have an explicit memory of dad typing this way, but he must’ve at some point. He has hands you could describe as athletic, I think, long, muscular digits with rounded fingertips. My brother has the same hands, and so do I. And not long after my sister-in-law observed my brother’s explosive typing habit, I realized I possess precisely the same disposition when it comes to typing. Nature or nurture—who knows? It’s clear the proverbial apples did not fall far from the tree.

I’m hard on keyboards, but I figure that falls comfortably and justifiably within the domain of a writer. I’m already on my second one in a tenure just under three years at the digital marketing agency where I work, which is also where I confirmed the typing technique lineage I already suspected: on a quiet afternoon (you could hear a pin drop) I realized the loudest noise in our becubicled open space was the sound coming from my fingertips. Bam-bam-bam-bam-BAM-bam-bam-bam! Over time I also realized the most percussive keystrokes occurred when I was trying hard to make a point—in a piece of correspondence, in content I was writing for a client, even in mere frustration after making the same stupid typo three times in a row—CAPITAL G, dammit! Pow! Somehow banging the keyboard extra hard seems meaningful and necessary, or cathartic at least. Maybe it’s simply passive aggression, I don’t know.

The reader can discern no proof of emphatic typing at the other end of an email, nor can the e-commerce consumer parsing through a product description or blog post. Once upon a time, gentle reader, the typewritten page might indeed have revealed the vigor of a keystroke, with inky letters imprinted deeply on a fibrous page like some ancient rune in bas relief. You could flip the page over and feel the words through the other side; I remember this phenomenon from any number of prep school papers I churned out in my youth.

The Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee lies within the bowels of Neyland Stadium, in a long, curvilinear corridor that follows the exact contours of the stadium itself. It was still the men’s athletic dorm when my dad was a student there in the 1960s; the tiny dorm rooms were later pressed into service as anthropology professors’ offices, classrooms, and even laboratories. On any fall weekday afternoon during class one could hear the muted sounds of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band practicing on the field above

When I was clocking countless hours as an anthropology major there in the 1990s (and even a few a bit later as a graduate student in city planning), one could also hear the telltale percussive strikes of a manual typewriter issuing forth from a particular office filled to the brim with books, journals, files, and stacks upon stacks of papers: the beloved professor and mentor who sat behind the old desk in that office stubbornly refused to transition to the digital age when most of his colleagues had long abandoned the analog world (more recently he has relented)—I found this tenacity one of his most endearing habits among many when I was his student. That loud clackety-clack-clack reverberating through the department was reassuring: Dr. Faulkner is in the house.

I can’t say I miss the typewriter, however romantic it may seem as viewed through the lens of nostalgia, at least not in the way I sometimes miss the old-fashioned vinyl LPs that digital music plowed under decades ago. I could easily hop back on that bandwagon, as others have. But the typewriter’s limitations are simply too dramatic as held up against the word processor, and that gap widens all the time. I’d even wager our advancing digital devices may hasten our evolution as a species, outpacing any decent interval Darwin himself could have imagined (it’s a shaky assertion, I know).

Underscoring an important point—in the era of the typewriter and now—demands a classical command of the language, though, with judicious use of italics or bold-face type thrown in for good measure: doesn’t make a difference how hard you bang out your thoughts on the keyboard, as I am doing now. Either you know how to express them on ‘paper,’ or you don’t.

My devices at home are failing. My old Gateway laptop I procured just after I came to Vermont in 2012 is falling apart a piece at a time: it has given me almost five years of excellent service, and I paid nothing for it—old credit card thank-you points stepped in during a crisis, no complaints here. Back in the winter I bought a wireless mouse to make working from home a little easier (lots of tabs open at once, lots of clicking back and forth between them, but without the luxury of the two large desktop monitors I have at the office). And after I made that leap, my laptop mouse pad quietly died, almost as if it had withered from neglect before finally giving up. I felt a little bad about that.

More recently I realized the keyboard itself was on its last leg when the spring under the space bar broke on one end (the end that bears a visible thumb-shaped dip in the black plastic); the action on the other end remained intact, forcing me somehow into another quadrant of my brain when I typed. It was an awkward transition at best, but I made it work. A couple of other keys—important ones—threatened to fail, too: one simply cannot live without the commanding and affirming delete, backspace, and enter keys. And then last weekend the space bar finally gave up the ghost completely. I could lightly tap it and it still responded, sort of, but I worried it might decide to just keep on going when I touched it, reducing my writing to infinite empty space and no way to stop it. (In space, no one can hear you scream.) So I found a wireless keyboard to use for the time being, until I have time to browse for the perfect replacement laptop. This means my laptop is now effectively a desktop: I’m tethered to my desk if I want to write, just like I was in the analog age. (And anyway, my battery’s shot, too: I must stay plugged in all the time now.)

My shiny, new wireless keyboard is compact but fully loaded; I kicked the tires when I was looking, and the ad suggested it was made for people like me, slackers trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip. I paid almost nothing for it, which makes it sweeter still, of course. I think this proclivity to keep on going with the same old equipment fairly aligns me with my beloved anthropology professor.

Best of all, though, the keys are springy and loud, almost like an old typewriter keyboard—a very smart typewriter. BOOM! Anything for a good literary device.

This one’s for you, Dr. Faulkner.

Idling in Vermont

Idling in Patagonia

Some forty years after its publication Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is still considered a pivotal and authoritative piece of travel writing about this 400,000-square-mile South American region. Ferdinand Magellan called the tall aboriginals he encountered there Patagones after a mythic character, it is rumored, hence its name. Straddling two countries and claiming most of a vast mountain range, Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Atlantic to the east, and all but shakes Antarctica’s hand in its southernmost reaches; precisely where it begins in the north is arguable. My own ‘journey’ there began with a mammoth piece of content I’m writing for a client. But the very idea this delicious-sounding book existed prompted my off-the-clock quest for it.

That, together with a single glowing accomplishment: I managed to nudge my first-generation Kindle out of its long slumber, and after several hours’ worth of uploading no fewer than four system updates, finally pressed it into service once more. I like my old-style Kindle for its satisfying, clicky keyboard—the kind that talks back to you affirmingly—and for its Etch-A-Sketch-like screen that does not tire the eyes and overstimulate the brain at bedtime the way most devices these days do, so the experts say. I pat myself on the back any time I win a battle with technology: this one was measurable, rewarded by the instant, magical download of a new book.

In Patagonia is my favorite kind of writing, one thoughtful, descriptive essay after another, stitched together in a sensible way that takes the reader bumping right along for the ride across the arid steppe. Any gaps in Chatwin’s account he fills with ingenious turns of phrase and the quiet kind of humor that belongs to the English alone; stop paying attention for an instant and you’ll miss it. Chatwin is an exquisite storyteller and that is all, weaving illuminating bits of history throughout the 1970s landscape as he sketches it, staying true to his descriptive narrative style. It is a story we already know, of successful and failed European conquests, of aboriginal tribes whose temperaments vary from heroically savage to comically irreverent, of expats seeking freedom from persecution in the homeland. Europeans of questionable provenance insinuated themselves into this Patagonian landscape centuries ago as alleged princes and kings, so they claimed, bestowing fictional titles on the ‘Amerindian’ natives in exchange for land and wealth: you can convince any tribe of naked drunks to agree to a lopsided deal, went the thinking. Things never seem to work out precisely as one hopes they will; the natives have a way of skewering and roasting you on a spit when they come to and figure out what’s what.

I envy Chatwin’s excursion while my engine idles here in Vermont. Not that I have some unsated wanderlust: the idea of a Patagonia-style sojourn appeals, but I probably lack the constitution for it, to say nothing of the bank account. One thing is certain: my mood always hangs on the promise of what is coming, even if that is unclear. Lately ‘what is coming’ seems to be lollygagging along at an irksome pace, coming to a dead stop now and then to examine some inconsequential weed growing out of a sidewalk crack. (Even this spring’s arrival is maddeningly complicit in this plan, teasing us with minuscule bits of warm sunshine, but mainly handing us damp cold and grey days that linger like a tiresome dinner guest.) I need a trumpet fanfare, or at least some sign of progress where there is none, or so it seems.

Meanwhile, back in the tiny rental house at the end of a mountain road. Where the partial remains of two failed marriages collide with things that belong to someone else, the balance left to languish in storage. Where the kitchen counter doubles as a pantry. Where a single bathroom groans in protest every time a tap is opened. Where a timid dog retreats often to the security his cheerful yellow quilt-covered crate behind a sofa, a crate whose top doubles as an adjunct desk littered with receipts and file folders and Kleenex boxes and other objects—a broken antique sugar dish in a Ziploc bag (another casualty of too-tight quarters); a takeout menu from a local eatery; random USB cables; and a stack of newspapers eager to wrap and box precious possessions yet again. Nothing can be put in its place, for there is no place for the putting.

A thousand miles away from me a twenty-something also idles, waiting for his life to inch forward like Patagonia’s own Perito Moreno in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the curious glacier that advances about six feet every day, calving building-sized icebergs into the water around it. Be patient, I urge, reminding him he could be doing things now to nudge his life forward, however glacial its pace seems to this restless young being.

I could heed my own advice in the place where I am treading water now, yearning for permanence and community and walls I don’t mind painting.

My friend Rebecca’s goat Darcy finally had her twins a couple of days ago. Rebecca, whose life and writing and cheese and food and photography are filled with so much inspired beauty. Were I a true Vermonter, I’d want to live like my friend Rebecca and her family, I think. But I believe that is called coveting thy neighbor’s oxen, if memory serves, and it surely applies to their goats, too (never mind that Rebecca and her family live a solid two hours from here: in these parts they still count as neighbors, and anyway I used to live much closer). But I will never achieve the ‘true Vermonter’ milestone measured any way you want to; my life is my life. I still draw inspiration from Rebecca, and from Darcy-the-Goat, who took her sweet time about kidding her twins, “chewing her cud like a bored receptionist chewing her gum,” wrote Rebecca. I think Chatwin and Rebecca must be related. Or maybe Darcy and the Natives.

Things never seem to work out the way one hopes they will, but they finally work out the way they must.

Toying with Words: Pondering the Evolution of Language

I love language.

For years growing up I believed the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was in fact Murders-in-the-Room Org. I knew of it only because my mom loved to wax poetic about the 1930s horror film based on it. I imagined a bloody scene in a bedroom ruled by a wrinkly, club-wielding creature: in my immature mind’s eye he looked a little like an illustration from an early childhood tome of the bridge troll in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” While the movie sounded deliciously terrifying, my psyche was as yet tender and I was not keen to witness that kind of carnage on a screen.

Another memorable mix-up came from the father of my mom’s closest childhood friend, who loved to evoke a mystery character from his own past named “Fyeshadye.” Turns out we all knew Fyeshadye from a familiar childhood prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/Fyeshadye before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take

Fyeshadye’s creator and I were in good company, it would seem: the endearing Mr. Tumnus—inhabitant of Narnia, an invention of one C.S. Lewis—mistook the character Lucy’s provenance as Spare Oom, a delightful take on the “spare room” whence Lucy had stumbled from the wardrobe into Narnia.

In music this phenomenon is known as a mondegreen, a mishearing of a lyric that results in a comical misinterpretation of it. In 1988, “Bloom County” cartoonist Berkeley Breathed skewered presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and George H. W. Bush in a caricature showing each one’s take on the lyrics from “Louie Louie,” the Kingsmen’s 1963 party standard (you can imagine). Funnier still, though, was Bloom County character Bill D. Cat’s rendition of the lyrics, as follows (cue the familiar dah-dah-dah/dah-dah organ intro):

Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Louie Lou-i, ne ga go
Ee fi li curl way fra nee
Ee cat-ta shi fo kra-see
Ne sait a shi auuuu lome
Ee newa fwo ma-make I ome
(chorus)
Ree nie (garbled) ail zee
Me tink (garbled) ee (garbled)
(garbled) dwee Li’l Friskies
(garbled) ack
(garbled)
(guitar solo)

©1988 Berkeley Breathed Bloom County

Have any of these mondegreenian misinterpretations stuck in our language permanently through time? Writing about mondegreens in this New Yorker.com piece, Maria Konnikova submits they surely have (and don’t call me Shirley). It’s worth a gander if the evolution of the mother tongue interests you at all.

I started down the mondegreen road after listening to a clip of Terry Gross’s interview with Merriam Webster editor Kory Stamper. What caught my ear was Stamper’s account of eavesdropping on her teenage daughter chatting with friends in the back seat of the car, talking in truncated cyber language the way teenagers do these days. In one example Stamper referenced the “A-F” usage that has come into common parlance as a modern-day vulgarity. (For the uninitiated, it’s a stand-in for “as f**k,” for example, We were hungry as f**k—it lacks imagination to be sure, as most vulgarities do, but you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary American teen who does not use it, and I’ve come to prefer it over hearing the actual f-bomb.) Over time, Stamper observed, these kids further truncated “A-F” to simply, “affe” (pronounced like the second syllable of giraffe). Thus, We were hungry affe. Its fate as a future entry in Merriam Webster, perhaps, rests with Ms. Stamper.

I have been at the wheel of that carpooling car, also eavesdropping with interest. Nor has my fascination with this linguistic evolution ended in my post-parenting years: my own Millennial kid still introduces me to all kinds of stylized and acrobatic language at the other end of the thousand miles that separate us. Much of it eludes me until I ask, although I try to parse through it first to see if I can figure it out. One of my favorites is the phenomenon of pressing a noun into service as an intransitive verb. On a recent Sunday morning I explained I could not video chat with him because I was headed out the door to yoga. He messaged back, “Who TF yogas at 9:30 on Sunday morning?” This example includes still another iteration of the “A-F” vulgarity (using “the” in place  of “as”), along with the noun “yoga” now morphing into an action word.

A more common evolution is the smooshing together of words, a phenomenon I struggle with professionally all the time. A case in point: am I a copy editor, or a copyeditor? Depends whom you ask. My copywriting colleagues ask me these kinds of questions all the time, and more often than not I have to survey the opinions out there in the ether before I settle on an answer. Call it verbal co-dependence if you will—one yearns for rules and directions, but often none exists. One thing is certain: our language is a living, breathing thing. And what logophile among us would not love a peek at the condition of the King’s English a hundred years hence?

I leave you with the actual lyrics to “Louie Louie” as written by R. Berry in 1955, along with the Kingsmen’s 1963 recording. And I defy you to recognize these words when you hear them:

Louie Louie, me gotta go
Louie Louie, me gotta go
Fine little girl she waits for me
Me catch the ship for cross the sea
Me sail the ship all alone
Me never thinks me make it home
(chorus)
Three nights and days me sail the sea
Me think of girl constantly
On the ship I dream she there
I smell the rose in her hair
(chorus, guitar solo)
Me see Jamaica moon above
It won’t be long, me see my love
I take her in my arms and then
Me tell her I never leave again

Simple Living versus Excess (or How Not to be Insufferable)

iceonbattenkill
Ice Formations on the Battenkill

It’s dang cold in Vermont. Last week’s record-breaking warm temperatures were but a tease: we woke up to 2° this morning. Still, I managed to run with Scout on Friday after work in frigid air with a bitter wind in my face (his ears were all aflap). On a positive note, I captured the moment he discovered a pair of geese at close range on my iPhone. But this weather has left me grumpy once more: Vermont winter, you win. I quit. I’m finished pushing through pain in awful weather. I’ll just sit here and drum my fingers ’til you’re done—you let me know, please.

scoutdiscoversgeese

Meanwhile, gentle reader, humor me for a moment with a few separate but related thoughts.

Recently a bloggy friend published this beautiful post about excess that is so spot-on in so many ways, but she especially nailed the whiny, wealthy twenty-somethings HGTV manages to dredge up for their reality shows: I’ve thunk those very same thoughts on many occasions.

I hesitate to diss HGTV for several reasons, among them it’s headquartered in my erstwhile home city of Knoxville, and also I have some dear friends who’ve created fine programming for that network through the decades. In more recent years I’ve found the program lineup wanting, but that’s just my opinion: you could turn on the telly in HGTV’s early years and if you hated what was on, there was probably something better coming on next. Maybe the wide array of enriching offerings I remember are still there but broadcast at odd hours when I can’t watch, I don’t know. I updated the tired old exterior of our small vacation cottage in North Carolina borrowing ideas from one episode of Curb Appeal and another show whose name escapes me about historic architecture. If Walls Could Talk was a favorite. And remember the show with that nutty white-haired guy who traveled the country in search of the most bizarre homes? That was worth the hour you’d never get back.

Now HGTV leaves us with only binge-watching options: an entire evening of Flip or Flop. Or Fixer Upper (which Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I happen to like). Or Property Brothers. Or Love it or List it. Plus, they’re all reruns: HCB and I estimate we’ve seen some episodes of Fixer Upper as many as five times (this is what happens when we’re impossibly tired at the end of a work day and lack the wherewithal to even pick up the remote to change the channel). You have to wait until NINE p.m. for a new episode, and that’s bedtime for two people who are up each day by five.

Anyway the point is, how much granite and stainless steel does one really need (or want) in a kitchen? And who are these entitled young people with budgets often in excess of $1 million? And why do they lack an imagination? HCB chided me on that last bit and said, c’mon: I didn’t have any imagination at that age, either. Cut ’em some slack.

After my friend published her post I enjoyed reading all the responses to it on social media, where people recounted stories of their childhood homes, where siblings shared rooms, and entire families shared a single bathroom. (My international readers are rolling their eyes.) I confess we have a single bathroom in our little Vermont rental and it’s not enough with a teenagery occupant, even if she’s a part-time resident. But I do agree with the overall point: a vanity with a single sink is not gonna kill anybody.

Was life just simpler when we were kids? Or did we learn to do without because an “all-in” budget of $1 million was unheard of in the ’50s and ’60s? I grew up in a modest suburban home my mom kept scrubbed to a fare-thee-well, decorated tastefully with inherited furniture, some of our own, and a few meaningful pieces of artwork. My brother and I wanted for nothing, were never handed everything we wanted (but some things), and life was pretty good in general. There was time in the day to go to school, to go to ballet class after school, thence home for homework (with ample time to complete assignments), and to sit at the table and eat supper. Maybe even for some telly afterwards.

But later on my insufferable college freshman self had the audacity to experiment with newly acquired ‘tude once when I was home on a break. My mom had asked me to do without some thing I decided I needed in my dorm room, and I said, “No…I can’t handle it.” Meaning, I can’t live without this thing. She squared her shoulders and spat, “You WILL handle it.” And that was that, my former self restored.

My brother and I turned out okay, as they say.

By the time I stepped into parenting shoes, though, the landscape had changed dramatically, expectations for success felt supersized along with everything else, and the sheer volume of homework my young child brought home outweighed anything I ever recall being asked to do until my prep school years. And the damaging pop culture influences I tried to shoo away from our threshold still somehow found us the moment we backed out of our driveway: my ex and I had the Cell Phone Argument with him in the fifth grade, gave into it in the sixth. Many of his young colleagues had cell phones even sooner. Is this needful condition—for cell phones, or for double vanities in starter homes—the consequence of decades of American prosperity followed by complacency and unrealistic expectations? I don’t know.

I spent a fair amount of time last week at work researching and writing about travel to Cuba for one of our clients. I’ve never been there but desperately want to go, especially now. If ever there were a nation of people who’ve had to make do with limited resources, surely it is Cuba, the colorful island encapsulated in 1959, a place where art is part and parcel of the national identity, even vernacular art, and where ephemeral beauty matters. When I had the Subi’s oil changed last week I mentioned the cars in Cuba to my mechanic: you know the ones, the American classics Cubans have kept running of necessity for decades after the Revolution. Best mechanics in the world, Cubans, he quipped: those guys can take an outboard motor and drop it in a car and it’ll go.

I’m guessing multiple bathrooms is a condition unheard of in most Cuban homes. Just about every piece of travel writing I unearthed in my research last week revealed the same bit of wisdom about going there: do it now, before it’s too late. Too late for what? Too late for immersion in Cuba’s unique culture and simple, beautiful (if impoverished) lifestyle, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner, that’s what. Don’t get me wrong: the Cuban people deserve better circumstances than what they’ve suffered for decades, nay centuries. I hope they have stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and two-sink vanities for days if that’s what they want.

But maybe revisiting want is a worthwhile exercise, if only on occasion: maybe simplicity after all is a thing of beauty that saves us from being insufferable.

Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during migration attempts during the 1980s
Art installation outside 21C Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, paying homage to Cubans who died during the migration attempts of the 1980s

Oh, Just. Let. Me.

Patient Scout Surveys the World
Patient, Camouflaged Scout Surveys the World

Scout was mainly charming at work all last week, save his single throaty warning growl misdirected at the company CEO. He was walking towards us with a scary cardboard box, though, so you can imagine. Still, Scout was patient through long hours of copy writing and editing, and for that he was rewarded with a romp—the second in a single week—at the top of the world, better known as the Mile Around Woods. I used the panorama function on my iPhone to try to capture the view; it scarcely does justice to that breathtaking vista here in the southwestern corner of Vermont.

However patient is sweet Scout, I am the opposite. At the top of the world, I have a chance to reflect some about that particular character flaw, and to ponder other great questions of the universe, which I did on Friday.

In seventh grade I developed my own font; there are no surviving examples to show here, but imagine the stylized, glowing scroll inside Tolkien’s celebrated ring, change it to swirling English runes, and you’ll have a close approximation in your mind’s eye. I worked tirelessly on that font in my social studies class whilst the teacher droned on impassively about nothing at all. A kid who sat next to me tried to copy it. I hated he was doing it, but could not stop him. One day I finally spoke up, because he was getting it All Wrong: let me just show you, I implored him, because you are ruining it. Encouraged by this intervention, he asked me to write out the entire alphabet for him in my font.

At home I painstakingly created a master list of upper- and lowercase letters: if somebody was copying my work, they better get it damn close to how it was supposed to be, went my thinking. I was keenly interested in showing him how, even if I’d rather yank the silly pen out of his hand and just do it for him. Patience.

More patient as an adult, I discovered teaching came naturally to me when I opened my small ballet school in Knoxville. Sitting in pedagogy classes at American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, I also discovered my beloved mentor possessed the same sensibility about getting things right, whether he was talking about executing a movement, correcting a student, or using the correct terminology.

Terminology. That resonated with the wordsmith in me. Don’t agonize over it, he said, if you’ve been calling a movement this for years, when you should have been calling it that. But he emphasized at least knowing the correct language, often with the accompanying subtext of how a position or movement came to be called what it is to begin with.

One of my favorite examples is the term passé versus the term retiré. Many ballet teachers mean this position when they say “passé:”

Retirés All
Retirés All; photo, Xavier Battle

Strictly speaking, it means “passed” or “passing” in French (the infinitive form is passer, meaning “to pass”). This denotes movement, in this case movement of the foot from the front of the knee to the back or from the back to the front. But when you’re simply talking about the position of the leg at the front, the back, or even the side of the knee, you really mean retiré, which means “withdrawn:” the foot is withdrawn from a position on the floor and is now placed at the knee of the standing leg. (If anybody in the ballet world is reading these words, they’re rolling their eyes about now.) It’s really just semantics, as they say.

Does it really matter? Practically speaking, no. Ballet teachers, dancers, and choreographers will go on saying passé when what they really meant to say was retiré, and the world will keep on pirouette-ing on its axis (and by the way, pirouetter means to spin, and tourner means to turn, in case you’re interested). But I liked telling the story to my young students , and nowadays I like telling it to anybody who will listen.

In my work as a copyeditor I sometimes feel pulled to wear my teacher’s hat again, but mainly can’t in the interest of time: the goal in a marketing agency is to roll out the strongest possible content in the voice a client wants and hand it to them as quickly as possible—there’s really no time to dawdle. Sometimes I make copyedits a writer never sees, other times I make a suggestion and leave it to the writer to fix the copy, but occasionally feel the need to explain why I’m making a particular change.

Lately we’ve had some lively discussions at work about modern writing conventions, about using language that’s not technically correct but “sounds” better in print than what is correct, because it flows more naturally, as it might if you were simply talking to somebody over coffee. I’m okay with this most of the time, especially if it makes a client happy, but also because absolute propriety in language is just plain silly in some contexts.

Other times language is downright sloppy; comma placement seems to rear its head on many of these occasions. I found this example yesterday when I was rummaging through the bathroom cabinet:

Band-Aid Blunder
Band-Aid Blunder

I’m a huge fan of the Oxford comma (more eye rolling) because in most cases it clarifies the meaning of a sentence and saves the reader needing to read it twice. But in the Band-Aid box example, there’s also a missing comma. As written, we’re to think applying a bandage will clean our dry skin: placing a comma after the word “clean” takes away any mandate to scrub and instead tells us where to stick it. (Not sure what’s going on with all that capitalization; it bothers me, too.)

There are other spots where a comma is called for, and so I have added them in red:

band-aid_box_blunder_2

Does it matter? Nah. Everybody on the planet knows how to use a Band-Aid. Am I both an obnoxious and an impatient editor? Most assuredly.

I leave you with this scene from one of my favorite kid movies, because impatient Woody and I are kindred spirits, and because it’s fun.

Bee in My Bonnet

Coffee Table Inspiration
Coffee Table Inspiration

It happens the first week in every January, and here it is again, right on schedule: I must have lettuce. Lots of it and all kinds, and other crunchy greens, and an embarrassment of colorful, raw vegetables. It’s not about cleansing or weight loss, but instead is the natural consequence of a month of indulgences now catching up with me: Enough already! screams my gut every January.

The other annual event happening right on schedule is the tireless search for inspiration. It’s all around me I’m sure, smacking me upside the head like a two-by-four, and still it eludes me at the moment. (By the way, I am weary of photographing the snowy landscape and it’s only January; I know.)

Just before my senior year in high school my mom and I duked it out over the 12th grade curriculum offerings. Take Home Ec, she urged: you’ll need it.

Exqueeze me, but what about AP American History, which meets in the same time slot? Don’t you want me to be, you know, smart and well prepared for the rigors of academia for the next four or more years?

Trust me, she said: Home. Ec.

In the end I took history but later wondered whether that was the right choice. For one thing, the teacher was a burned out ex-Army sergeant-turned-coach, now nearing retirement and completely indifferent about commuting anything to a roomful of pimply charges. (You might say he lacked inspiration.) Somebody in the history department at Memphis State University—now the University of Memphis—Xeroxed their class plans and exams and handed them over to the coach, who merely passed them on to us, so he admitted out loud and without shame: our parents’ tax dollars at work. I don’t remember a single important moment in that silly class, and by the end of the year felt ill-prepared to earn any credit at all towards my freshman year of college, at least not in history.

But for another thing, later on in my parenting life I found myself in the company of people with skills, people who could make things with their hands, who could actually sew, and take in waistlines and let out hems, and create all kinds of things from gorgeous textiles; I could do none of that. Instead I was the unfortunate mom who would never make the Best Halloween Costume Ever from scratch, or sew a shepherd outfit for the Christmas pageant, or design imaginative summer art projects for vacation Bible school, or even hem a pair of pants except in the most crude, amateurish way. (And by the way, please don’t look to me for help with your American history homework, child.)

I wondered out loud whether I should have taken my mom’s advice after all. Nah, somebody else said: you’d only bake cookies and sew a stupid pillow case in that class.

Okay, well I happen to know my way around in the kitchen because it interested me and I took it upon myself to learn when I was in my twenties. And I’ve never felt inspired to sew a pillow case, ever. So maybe AP history was the least terrible choice, anyway.

If I can’t always make things myself, I’m still privileged to know so many people who can, people who throw pottery and paint and sculpt and hook rugs from scratch and create imaginative television and outdoor art installations and design store windows and edit magazines and write poetry and take exquisite photographs and work in multimedia and make beautiful calligraphy and cheese and design buildings and interiors; people who act and sing and dance and choreograph and expertly play the guitar and the banjo and the mandolin and the clarinet and the drums and the piano and all manner of other instruments; and don’t forget people who transform the culinary arts into high art: they are all inspiring, a multitude of dots along a creative continuum. I can’t imagine life without the company of these people, even if some of them are far, far away; wonder who among them took Home Ec.

Writing does not always feel like creative work to me, nor did complete immersion in classical ballet always feel like art to me, but pushing through a slump always seems important. On bad writing days I imagine myself wadding and throwing papers across the room right and left were I not using a virtual platform, on better days I pretend I’m Evelyn Waugh, putting down the words and pushing them a bit, as he described his own work.

Today, though, there is no Waugh in me. There is a little dip, a hiccup, call it a lack of inspiration. The problem could be winter in Vermont, on which I blame nearly everything. Today I give you my average best (now, there’s an oxymoron), and hope this bee in my bonnet will soon find its way out, spilling vibrant colors from my fingertips and onto the canvas; I know the colors are there somewhere.

‘Til then there is laundry to fold and furniture to dust and a dog to walk and Basmati rice to boil, which will make the house smell divine at least; I can do all these things despite my Home Ec deficiency. And you never know—I might be inspired.

 

1.1.17: Time to Press Reset

New Year's Eve Morning 2016
Perfect Light, New Year’s Eve Morning 2016

Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.

A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.

Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.

I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.

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When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.

I also underestimated my own grit and determination.

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The Most Important Connections

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Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.

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I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.

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I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.

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Superhero

I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.

Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.

I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.

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I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.

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I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.

I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.

Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.

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Tower of Babel: A Lyrical Reflection

Tower of Babel, M.C. Escher, 1928; woodcut
Tower of Babel, woodcut; M.C. Escher, 1928

 

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.—Albus Dumbledore

She is ugly, irksome, annoying, galling, reprehensible…I could go on. She is instantly recognizable even from a distance, satisfying to mock, deride, and pelt with stones. She is worse still when she stands before you. And on that day you let the rock fall from your hand and tolerated her, you suffered a fool gladly.

I admit to it: I submitted to her and she sank to the lowest depths of my expectations. She answered me at the end of a horrific transaction, bit me in the ass while I was still licking the wounds on my face. I let it happen, I watched the transaction unfold like the train wreck it was. The passerby could not avert his gaze, saucer-eyed, clicking his tongue, relieved it was not he entangled in the wreckage. Occasionally he made an observation about the cause of the crash, but most often he was wrong.

I put myself in harm’s way because of a vulnerable creature who stood between us, listening to her with my mouth open but without a voice while she roared on like a massive diesel engine, nonsensically, diabolically, stating her case without merit. She did not care about the damage and suffering she left in her wake, only that her own needs were satisfied, licking the greasy bits from her chin, a loud belch issuing from her gullet. I recognized the stench, I have smelt it before.

Then before she took her leave she flexed her muscles in a menacing way, and looking over her shoulder warned me not to test her.

So I set about sweeping up the shards from the wreckage a pile at a time, knowing I’ll be stooped to this task until my back is breaking and my hands are calloused. I’ll bag up the detritus and kick the remaining bits and pieces to the curb, resolving to be ever watchful, to read the fine print. She will be long gone by then, already surveying the landscape for a new prospect.

Together with others (there are most assuredly others) I enabled her and in so doing gave her confidence and power. But she lives in a fantasy realm, surveying the outside world through a distorted lens: she has only to tempt the wrong fate before her imagined world crashes down around her, and in that instant the truth will come into crystalline focus: she will suffer losses and they will be monumental. She will lash out angrily, as she is wont to do, and heap blame for her lot in life everywhere except the one place it belongs.

Beware her: she will beseech your charity and goodwill, she’ll wink at you and call you a kindred spirit, touching her hand to her brow. But when you shine a light on her she will transform, revealing her true self, and then she will vilify you to satisfy her own delusions.

Entitlement, I will be watching for you: never again look to me for goodwill, nor charity. Leave, and take your needy minions with you—Self-Righteousness and Greed—and feed your hunger elsewhere.

Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.

On Writing Well: Don’t *Be* a Writer

Lilliputian Lessons
Lilliputian Lessons

In grad school I knew a young ninny who believed taking courses in technical writing would plug the gaping holes in his undergraduate academic experience and give him all the tools he needed to enjoy success in his anticipated professional life. I don’t know where he is now and I can’t say for sure whether those technical writing courses lived up to his expectations, but sitting around in a student lobby one morning I gently opined to him that coursework in English literature might serve him better. Why? he wondered. I tried to distill down my answer as best I could, but mainly, I explained, you’ll write your tail off in those classes—this is why they’re called writing-intensive courses. What do you do in literature courses? You read and read. And then you write and write about what you read. You become a better writer the more you write. And there is a depth and breadth to those writing assignments you probably won’t get in technical writing courses—you’ll have to think critically and explain yourself on paper, in a way you hope engages your reader.

In the end my suggestion was lost on him, an outcome probably as much a consequence of my flawed attempt to explain as it was his thick skull. But to this guy’s way of thinking, and to scores of others like him, taking a technical writing course was the only tincture you needed to treat the Awful Writing plague. (These were also the folks who cleaved stubbornly to the juvenile notion that undertaking coursework in anything that could not be harnessed directly for professional life was time wasted.) I submit that if you lack an understanding of the written word, or if your command of it is limited, your technical writing will reflect these deficiencies as much the rest of your writing does.

It’s a truth that should have come home to you the day your freshman English literature professor handed back your half-baked paper on Gulliver’s Travels marked up in red. If you were worth your own salt, you recognized that as a gift, all the notes he wrote diligently on the back of every double-spaced page of your pedestrian work—the missives about your over-reliance on the verb to be, your wearisome overuse of passive voice, the absence of descriptive language, but also your wordiness, and countless other missteps—all of that amounting to an essay in its own right. It was your wake-up call, if you were not a nubbin head. And there’s the rub: if you never possessed the desire to write well in the first place, it was all for naught.

That professor taught me in my early life as an undergraduate. He was an untenured newbie with a fresh-from-Columbia doctorate, now paid to stand before sleepy liberal arts majors at the University of Tennessee to try to pique our collective literary interest. Poor man; I feel sure most of us cared not one jot about his Canterbury Tales lectures or much else on the course syllabus, but were there mainly to tick another prerequisite box. The morning he recited the Prologue to us in a gorgeous, lilting cadence, though, that morning we bore witness to high art in a brutalist cinderblock classroom—Geoffrey Chaucer paid us a visit that day. This professor’s penchant for elevating the written word, and his unfaltering willingness to rip my flawed prose and then calmly explain why, kept me coming back for more. I even suffered with him through Restoration drama, a course I feel certain he was handed to teach because nobody else wanted it.

I believe this because of the King Lear incident which unfolded in an adjacent classroom one morning. Through the voice of an esteemed Shakespearian scholar, Lear had the audacity to reverberate so explosively from the room next door, the young academic before us was forced to suspend his own lecture for a few moments. He stepped back from the lectern while Lear howled on. And when the king finally fell silent, he quietly lamented to those of us who were listening, I wish I were teaching that. I heard these words fall from his lips, a tiny and rare glimpse into this man’s true demeanor, and somehow admired him more for it.

One of my favorite writers was a distinguished English professor at my alma mater, a teacher of fiction writing; he was also a friend. His uncensored wit and telling of stories were as artful and engaging as his published work. Something he once told a woman at a book signing so beautifully encapsulated the truth about writing and has stayed with me all these years. She was working on her first novel, she explained, seeking any advice he could give her—she desperately wanted to be a writer. The room collectively rolled its eyes, and I braced myself for what was coming.

Without flinching he quipped, I can’t advise you if you want to be a writer, only if you want to write.

This wisdom transcends writing to include other disciplines: don’t be a doctor, practice medicine.  Don’t be a carpenter, build things. It certainly applies to writing “subdisciplines,” if you will: don’t be a technical writer, explain things. Don’t be a marketing copy writer, influence consumers with brilliant prose. Maybe. At the very least this statement expresses its sentiment with a more active voice, with less reliance on the verb to be, after all. It emphatically describes something more akin to a heartfelt yearning.

As for the would-be Lear lecturer, I hear he holds an impressive title at the University of Tennessee these days but continues to teach. Evidently it’s wicked difficult to get a coveted spot in one of his classes; must be the Chaucer.