In Defense of Sentence Fragments

Last weekend, my father responded to my email to him by reminding me not to use sentence fragments. 🤭

How embarrassing!  It was almost as if I had used a swear word.  (Dad uses a lot of those himself, but would be shocked to see me let one fly from my keyboard.  Actually, I’d be shocked, too.)

My 85 year old father has a master’s degree in English, recites Victorian poetry from memory, and expects me to uphold some standards of decency when I put words to paper (or screen).  Fortunately for me, he does not read this blog.  Well, at least I think he doesn’t.  Umm, hi, Dad?

I write for a living (if you consider drafting policy documents and training programs to be writing, and I will surely excuse you if you do not), so there are no excuses.  I have coached my staff over and over again about the importance of avoiding sentence fragments.  Hey, man, I wanna see a subject and a verb, you dig?

Some say that sentence fragments are just plain laziness, but the real reason that they are so enticing is that they mimic the way we speak.  And suffice it to say that most of us don’t exactly speak the Queen’s English.  When we have a conversation, we interrupt, we speak over and under one another, and we use coded references that my fellow lawyers refer to as a “course of dealing.”  In other words, you and I understand what we mean based on our ongoing relationship (or at least based on earlier parts of the  conversation), whereas others not privy to our relationship (or our conversation) might think a particular word or phrase means something altogether different or might not have any idea of its meaning at all.

For example, I might drop the subject from a sentence because we already know what/whom we’re talking about.  This allows me to skip the formalities and go directly to the depth and color of adjectives, prepositional phrases and even (what the heck, let’s go all the way) interjections.

In this respect, formal English takes on a decided egalitarian cast.  Faithful use of subject and verb ensures that a stranger walking in on the middle of a conversation can understand what is going on despite the lack of a course of dealing or other contextual clues.

The other reason we like to use sentence fragments is because, well, they’re sexy.  They spice up the narrative.  You tell me which of the following snippets of dialogue is bound to be more appealing to the average reader:

He went yesterday?!  What do you mean?

or

Yesterday?!  What?!

While both of the above convey a degree of shock and incredulity, the former contains boring old subjects (he and you) and verbs (went and mean), while the latter contains neither.  The first consists of two fully formed sentences, while the latter is composed of two sentence fragments.  It isn’t necessary to provide the linguistic guideposts of subject and verb because context has already been provided earlier in the conversation.  Arguably, the second choice more accurately conveys the speaker’s emotions and makes for more interesting reading.

This phenomenon is not limited to dialogue and fiction.  In fact, among the most prevalent and influential uses of sentence fragments is modern advertising.  If you don’t believe me, just take a look at two of today’s most recognizable product tag lines:

Tastes great, less filling.

 

Lowest prices.  Always. 

The first example contains a verb (tastes), but nary a subject is to be found.  After all, it isn’t needed (because the reader or listener already knows what is being discussed).  If brevity is the soul of wit, why muck it up with surplus verbiage?  A sentence fragment will serve the purpose nicely.

The second example contains two sentence fragments, the first with a subject (prices) but no verb, the second with neither subject nor verb (just a lonely old adverb).  And yet, as a result of context, the reader understands the intended meaning perfectly.  Indeed, even a reader with few or no contextual clues can arguably discern the promise of regular discounts.  Do we really need to say “this establishment features the lowest prices available in the area?”

Thus, I submit to you, dear reader, that despite the protestations of the grammatical purists out there, sentence fragments do have their place in the English language.  Even in the emails of a lifelong word wrangler.

Sorry, Dad.

Flu Shot

My grandnephew is exactly one month old today.  He has resided in an incubator in the hospital since he was born.  Weight at birth:  About 1.7 pounds.  He has his own dedicated nurse attending to him, 24 hours a day.

Weylyn (I know… don’t ask) was two months premature and, to me at least, didn’t even look human.  The first time I saw him, the hospital had him swaddled to within an inch of his life.  I couldn’t even tell which end was the head and which the feet.

Today, he actually looks like a baby and won’t keep his arms tucked in because he likes to wave them around.  I hear he manages to dislodge the tubes they have connected to his little body.

I don’t even want to think about the hospital bills involved.  I’m guessing close to a million dollars at this point.

Meanwhile, my young nephew and his wife have taken to living in a trailer parked in the hospital lot, convenient to pumping and delivering breast milk every three or four hours.  About once a week, they go home for a proper shower and a nap in a decent bed.  Family visits them every day or two, bringing food or taking them out to eat.

The doctors say that Weylyn can go home when he weighs four pounds.  It shouldn’t be long, as he topped three pounds this week.  We suppose he’ll be over at our house a lot, particularly after his mother goes back to work.  My wife and her sister (who lives with us) have volunteered for day care duties.

Well, the hospital says that anyone who comes into contact with Weylyn needs to have a flu shot.  Gulp!

I am one of those needle phobic wimps and haven’t had a flu shot for almost twenty years (and even then only because my doctor collared me at an office visit and wouldn’t let me leave without one).

My 85 year old father got his annual flu shot last week, but Mom, who had surgery a month ago, decided to pass.  Not long ago, waiting for a blood draw in the Kaiser lab, I heard an old man complaining about how last year he got a flu shot and came down with the flu anyway.  Is this whole thing a fool’s errand?

Yeah, I know.  Weylyn.

I don’t trust flu shots.  I received one when I was in my 20s that left me sick in bed for days.  I’m told it all depends on the particular strain they use in the vaccine in a given year, whether it’s live or killed, and I don’t know how many other factors.

Oh, and I hear that if you’re over 55 years old, which my wife and I both are, they inject you with a super strong dose so that you don’t die when a sneaky flu bug gets into your body and causes your immune system to give up the ghost.

I like to think things have improved since the 1980s, but about ten years ago, many of my coworkers took advantage of a flu vaccine clinic at my job and proceeded to get sick.  So maybe things haven’t changed so much.

Except that they have.  On Saturday, I grabbed my cane and hobbled down what felt like a mile of corridors to the flu clinic at Kaiser Hospital.  My wife, who doesn’t do flu shots either, got one as well.  “I’m only doing this for Weylyn,” she told me.  Um, that’s for sure!  The things you’ll do for a little preemie baby.  Sheesh!

I pulled my left arm out of my shirt, felt the alcohol swab, and prepared for the pain of a long needle making its insidious way into my muscle.

But it never happened.  It took about two seconds and the Kaiser lady said “all done.”  I barely felt anything.  Modern times!

So, does this mean that I’m not going to be stuck in bed puking for the next three days?

A Tale of Two Hospitals (Mom’s Surgery – Part III)

Three weeks have come and gone since my parents left our home and returned to the Central Valley following Mom’s surgery.  Just when it all started to feel like a bad dream, Mom let me know that she may need to have a second surgery.

And finally, after avoiding the subject, in a phone conversation with her this week, we started to come to grips with the unholy trinity:  Surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy.  This has turned into the dreaded nightmare from which you cannot wake up.

I’d rather not remember the details of Mom’s surgery.  My parents stayed with us a full week, Dad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the living room, Mom sleeping on the couch before and after her hospital stay, everyone in the house stressed out to the max.  I had to stay out of work to play babysitter and chauffeur.  Attending services with my parents on the first night of Rosh Hashannah and leaving early because Mom didn’t feel well.  Ferrying them back and forth to Kaiser in Sacramento for testing, admission, post-operative doctor visits.  Mom crying on the phone to Kaiser because she’s being transferred from one office to the next, no one seeming to know what time she should report for surgery.  Meeting the surgeons after they put an IV into Mom.  Not knowing what to say to them.  Not knowing how to reassure Mom.  Not knowing freaking anything anymore.  Feeling dumb as a sack of beans.  Horrible pain for Mom, endless waiting for the rest of us.  Carrying around my laptop and trying to get some work done during the waiting.  Hobbling around the hospital with my cane.

Mom, pumped full of morphine and still in pain despite the drugs, begging the hospital staff to let her stay in post-op a little longer.  Request denied. Kaiser trying to send her home before she was ready, resulting in Mom crying and horribly abusing the nurses.  Mom being fitted with a catheter, but not before being shown a scary film about catheter care and the awful things that can happen if you mess up.  Mom yelling that the catheter felt like someone trying to forcibly have intercourse with her.  Going into the bathroom with Mom to assure her that she did not break the emptying valve.  First night back at our house, Mom waking me up by kicking my bedroom door at 2 in the morning, yelling that she was having an emergency and needed to go back to the hospital.  Carrying on about red streaks near her wound and how the literature given to her by the hospital said she should contact her doctor immediately if she experiences such symptoms.  Mom dropping her pants so I could see.  Um, a son isn’t supposed to do this, uh, right?  Me assuring her that it’s just normal bruising. Go back to bed, Mom.  Mom blurting out that my wife hates having her here and that she is going to divorce me.  No, Mom, she’s not going to divorce me.  Sigh.

A full week after their arrival, my parents finally headed home.  Thirty minutes after they left, my grandnephew was born at a different Kaiser hospital, two months premature.  He weighed just over a pound and a half and went straight to neonatal intensive care, where he remains.  My wife and her sister drive down there about four times a week to be supportive of my young nephew and his wife.  I go about once a week.  You know me:  Have cane, will hobble down hospital corridors.  Hit the sink and scrub up to my elbows so I can see the baby in his incubator.  Hobble back down the hall to sit with family.

I think there’s an ancient oriental curse:  May your life be filled with hospitals.

As for Mom, she is recovering nicely, feeling better with those heavy teratomas removed, but feeling too tired to do much.  It will take time, I’ve assured her.  At least it isn’t cancer.  A blood test before the surgery reassured us of this.

Then one of the surgeons called Mom last week.  Um, we looked at the contents of the teratomas under a microscope and squamous cancer cells were found.  We were shocked!  We’ve never seen this before.  We have to do a PET scan in November to see whether cancer has metastasized to other parts of your body.

I now call Mom three times per week.  She vents and I listen.  Listening is good, I tell myself.  All you can do is be there for her.  I can only hope that I am doing this right.  For after spending a life as a writer, a man of words, I find that they have disintegrated into a meaningless babble of syllables, vowels, consonants.  The words, my trusty tools, my stock in trade, have deserted me.  And I don’t know what to say.

The Commuter Life: Bernie (No, Not That One)

As a native New Yorker, even after 25 years as a California resident, I remain fairly ignorant of the ins and outs of state politics here in earthquake land. With so much at stake, however, perhaps it is time for me to learn. After all, I work just four blocks from the capitol rotunda, where It all goes down. There is no longer any excuse for me to bury my head in the sand.

Back in my college days in New York, I vaguely recall hearing about popular singer Linda Ronstadt being the girlfriend of a young California governor named Jerry Brown. Then I heard that a former California governor and star of Hollywood kitsch movies was running for president. By the time my feet hit the Golden State, I felt we were lost for good when the administration of Gov. Gray-Out Davis gave way to the Terminator. Then Jerry returned to the governor’s mansion. Everything old is new again. Now we have a new governor, still a Democrat but not a fiscal conservative like his predecessor, whom my mother wryly refers to as “gruesome Newsom.”

Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure has become rather a big deal in California, a point that may not always resonate locally, but one that rises to the fore if you commute a long distance to work every day, as I do. The politics involved in widening roads, repairing potholes and making lane merges less dangerous is brought to mind by the somewhat odd practice of naming sections of highway and even particular interchanges after civic leaders of yesteryear.

For example, after years of availing myself of the short hop on Highway 4 (Crosstown Arterial) between Highway 99 and Interstate 5 in Stockton, I finally had to research who exactly is the guy behind the “Ort J. Lofthus Freeway” sign. Apparently, he was instrumental not only in getting that road constructed, but also in building the last piece of I-5 (also in Stockton) that completed that interstate between the Mexican border south of San Diego and the Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington. Also, he was the manager of a local radio station. An interesting bit of California history.

Now that I commute back and forth to Sacramento, curiosity got the better of me in regard to my daily drive past a sign on Highway 99 announcing the Bernie Richter Memorial Freeway. As my aunt taught me when I was ten years old, “memorial” is a polite way of saying “he’s dead, you know.” I soon learned that the same is true of the practice of preceding someone’s name with the modifier “late.” (I remember being disappointed, thinking that “late” should mean what it says, that the person is never on time. Then again, I was a big fan of Ramona Quimby, who believed that “attacked” should mean to stick tacks in someone. And I guess, in a way, it kind of does.)

A quick search online informed me that Bernie Richter was a high school teacher in Chico who was later elected to the state Assembly, where he was a staunch opponent of affirmative action. I read that the conservative Republican was known for his impassioned speeches, was seen by some as a racist and caused plenty of legislative controversy.

It seems that Bernie Richter could be considered the ideological opposite of the other Bernie, the independent from Vermont whose bid for the presidency I support.

Still, while flying down the pavement at 70 miles an hour early in the morning, it’s good for a commuter to know something about those whom our state government has chosen to so prominently honor.

The Commuter Life: Ready, Set, Go!

Tessie, my sister’s new toy, er, commuter car.

My sister recently texted me a photo of her newest acquisition, a shiny black Tesla. “This is Tessie. Pretty no?” she asked by way of introduction. “She’s sitting in the garage sipping electricity.”

The thing costs almost as much as I earn in an entire year. But then again, the garage in which Tessie imbibes electrons is part of my sister’s million dollar plus home on a mountain overlooking San Francisco Bay. Tessie is now her commuter car.

Someone needs to tell Sis that she is doing things backwards. Thousands of Bay Area employees cannot afford to live there and endure hellish daily commutes from the exurbs just to keep their jobs. Sis, who has always been a bit of a firebrand, has decided to buck the trend. While she has been unable to escape the fate of the supercommuter who spends hours behind the wheel, she at least gets to do it in reverse, and on a nontraditional work schedule, to boot. She commutes from her fancy home in the East Bay against traffic to two jobs in the Central Valley. She mitigates the distance by working both weekend days and by staying over with my parents two nights per week.

I feel sorry for my parents.

Mom and Dad are well in their eighties, but that doesn’t stop Sis from upending their routine on a weekly basis. My sister leaves her junk all over the place at my parents’ house, then disappears for a week. If my parents try to clean up, when Sis returns she throws a fit about not being able to find anything. Oh, and she brings my parents food and expects them to cook it for her.

Granted, I would not enjoy living the type of commuter lifestyle that my sister has fallen into. And so, the vagaries of fate being such as they are, the commuter lifestyle went out and found me instead. It’s about to bite me on the nose.

At the improbable age of 60, my wife and I have just purchased our first home. On the salary of a public servant, we cannot begin to afford the hyperinflated prices of houses near my workplace in Sacramento. We ended up buying a newly-constructed home in a bland subdivision in an exurb requiring a commute that nearly rivals my sister’s.

I’ll have a better idea of how this odyssey will play out when I embark on this new challenge next week. What I do know at this point is that I must leave our new home no later than 5 a.m. for the 45-minute drive downtown if I am to be assured of a parking space. Coming home, however, will be far worse. The outbound commuter traffic on Interstate 5 during the afternoon rush is reminiscent of the parking lot known as the Long Island Expressway. Not that I would even attempt it. I panic at the very thought of merging into freeway traffic from the downtown streets at rush hour. I am not prepared to take my life in my hands. So I figured out an alternate route through surface streets that is likely to take me at least an hour and a half. I know, I should count my blessings when thousands sit in their cars for four to six hours each day. It’s just that it will take me some time to get used to the commuter life.

My chief concerns are the cost of filling up my gas tank every day ($4/gallon out here), the fact that my already aging vehicle will surely give up the ghost on Highway 99 one fine morning, and that I already struggle to fight off sleep on a relatively short 30-minute commute. My plan is to pull into a fast food parking lot about halfway home and take a nap in my car before hitting the freeway. This, of course, will extend my commute to encompass even more of my day.

I am fortunate that my very generous wife has agreed to drive me in and home two days per week. On those days, I can put my seat back and saw logs while in transport. As for the other three days, I’ve made contingency plans for those inevitable times when there are simply no parking spaces to be found anywhere near my place of employment. I will simply drive another half hour to a suburban shopping center and will wait there for Uber to pick me up and transport me downtown. After work, I’ll have to pay for another Uber to take me back to my car. On the bright side, my drive home will be shorter on such days.

All in all, I anticipate that the commuter life will turn out to be an expensive time suck that I’ll never really get used to. And then there’s the whole fossil fuels/carbon footprint/destruction of the planet thing. Perhaps it’s time to follow my sister’s lead and buy a Tesla. Not that I can begin to afford one now that, in my old age, I have finally become a real adult with mortgage payments.

Clearly, there is only one solution to the problem of getting back and forth to work. Beam me up, Scotty!

Sanctuary

I’ve been reading lately that President Trump has been considering transporting Central American immigrants from our southern border to so-called sanctuary cities and dropping them off there.  “They should be very happy,” Trump allegedly said, referring to those of us who believe that we should welcome those who seek refuge in our country.

Here in California, we appear to be at ground zero for this proposal.  Not only do we have plenty of asylum-seekers showing up at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border crossing, but former Governor Jerry Brown declared California to be a “sanctuary state.”  Furthermore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, my own home in Sacramento County, and ten other counties have declared themselves to be sanctuaries.  I am quite pleased with this.

My understanding of a sanctuary state, county or city is one that refuses to summarily turn over undocumented immigrants to the feds for deportation.  This humane treatment of immigrants who are already here is vastly different than opening the door to those who have not yet entered the United States.  I believe that our president is an intelligent man who understands the difference between the two, yet chooses to pretend otherwise for the purpose of creating maximum drama while seeking to emphasize his prejudice toward Latin American immigration.

Still, I say bring it on, Mr. President.

Those who belittle the fact that we care about our fellow man say that sanctuary cities should not expect any assistance from the federal government as we help our newest neighbors to establish a new life in our communities.  Fine.  All we ask is that you grant asylum to our brethren from the south so that they can lawfully obtain employment in the United States.  We’ll take it from there.

Some have suggested that our fellow Californians Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom should take in several immigrants to their gated mansions.  Ignoring the implicit sarcasm in such remarks, I actually think it’s a fine idea.  Let our leaders lead by example.  But if our elected officials choose to pass up this opportunity to show their mettle, no worries.  The rest of us will step up and set the example for them.

It’s no secret that we have plenty of jobs in California that are going unfilled.  It is difficult not to notice the “help wanted” signs in nearly every retail establishment.  There are so many physically taxing jobs, dirty jobs, low-paid jobs that American citizens don’t want to do.  Those who have walked more than a thousand miles to reach our borders, those who have spent their life savings to be transported here, those who have risked their health and their lives to make it to the United States, these are the immigrants seeking entry whose valiant efforts should be rewarded by a welcome with open arms and an opportunity to fill our vacancies and to become productive, tax-paying Americans.  As for those immigrants who become unable to work due to age or disability, we have state income maintenance benefits available to provide them with the basics of shelter and food.

Turning away those born elsewhere who are desperate to join us is un-American. How can our president say “turn around, America is full?”  We are not full!  To many throughout the world, the Statue of Liberty is a welcoming symbol of the United States.  The famous Emma Lazarus poem at its base says it all:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

So once again I say, bring it on, Mr. President.  You claim to be a Christian, so surely you can understand our welcoming position.  You know, that stuff about loving your neighbor as yourself?

The Easter and Passover season has arrived, reminding us that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land, relying on the kindness and humanity of others.  Remember, faith without works is dead.  This is our chance to step up and show what we’re made of.  So let us swing open wide the doors of our churches, our synagogues, and our homes.

We’ve got you covered, Mr. President.  And you can count on us to do you proud.

 

 

The Mom and Dad Roller Coaster Thrill Ride

I generally speak with my octogenarian mother on the phone about once per week, and the call reminds me a bit of an amusement park thrill ride.  When we drive down to the Central Valley to visit, it’s not much better.  I never know when I am going to be turned upside down or have the bottom drop out, allowing gravity to take me into free fall.

Perhaps I am being too dramatic, but the fact remains that every call leaves me with new concerns that trouble my mind and inhabit my dreams.

You may wonder why I rarely speak with my father on the phone, and it’s because he is a Silent Sam.  By his own admission, he hates talking on the phone.  I think he’d be perfect for text conversations, but my parents refuse to do that.  So I tell him what’s going on at work, but it’s a decidedly one-sided conversation.  I can’t generally get him to talk about himself.  If I start out with what I consider an open-ended question, such as “How are you doing?,” my poetry-loving father is likely to provide me with his standard comeback, “bloody but unbowed.”  I try to give him an easy out, as I know that he is grateful to make his escape at the earliest possible opportunity.

When I’m on the phone with my mother and she has to attend to something else in the house mid-conversation, she will set down the receiver of their kitchen wall phone, summarily state “here, talk to your father” and yell for him.  Often as not, he doesn’t hear her.

At the age of 85, my father is going deaf.  It drives my mother crazy that he can’t hear her when she calls for him, whether it’s some little thing that she wants him to do or whether she has been locked out of the house in the pitch black night out there on the lonely rangeland.  Despite my mother’s dunning, Dad refuses to get fitted for a hearing aid.  I believe it’s his right to decide what he wants to do with his body, but my mother feels that it’s extremely unfair to her.  She feels as if she lives alone, she tells me.  She points out that they can’t even watch television together, as he has to sit in front of the TV in the office and blast the volume in order to hear it, while my mother watches the big screen TV in the family room at a more normal volume.  Not that they watch many of the same shows anyway.  I don’t think Mom would care too much for my father’s opera broadcasts and gory murder shows.  And I don’t think Dad would care too much for my mother’s westerns and travelogues.  That’s beside the point, my mother would say.

My parents, who have been married for more than 66 years, have for decades honed marital arguing to the level of a fine art.  Their long experience has made them true experts at this pastime.  When we were kids, their hoopin’ and hollerin’ scared the crap out of my sisters and myself.  I’m glad I don’t have to hear it anymore, but anytime we visit, there it is.

About two weeks ago, my wife and I stopped by my parents’ house for a one-night visit on our way down to southern California (one of my regular work-related trips).  While we weren’t there long, our visit was just long enough for us to serve as an audience.  Mom started yelling about how she is tired of feeling like she lives alone and that Dad is going to get a hearing aid or she is going to kick his butt out and see if he can find someone else.  I called her bluff by telling her that she’s full of baloney.  She can blow like a gale, but I am 100% certain that my mother would never try anything of the kind.  Her late deafened husband isn’t going anywhere.  And I’m sure Dad knows it.

Two weeks earlier, my parents were here visiting.  Imagine my surprise when Dad stepped out of the car with a large bandage on his head.  The story was that he had incurred his injury by performing a bit of amateur plumbing.  Apparently, my sister, who has been staying over with my folks a couple nights a week while she does work in the Central Valley, had managed to pull the shower faucet out of the wall.  Standing in the tub with his tools to repair it, my father soon finished the job, stepped out of the wrong side of the tub, and proceeded to gash his head on the protruding knickknack shelf.  Well, you know how a head wound bleeds, so it’s no surprise that the bathroom looked like a murder scene.  My stubborn father refused to go to the emergency room and was quite content to have Mom patch him up.

Then I heard about some of the phone calls my parents have been receiving.  I recently read in the newspaper how there are miscreants and malefactors out there who prey on senior citizens by pretending to be family members in need of money.  I read about one couple who was bilked out of a quarter of a million dollars via such a scam.  My parents, however, are a bit more savvy than that.  They are AARP members and have read all the warnings printed in that organization’s magazine.

I guess it had to happen:  It was Dad’s turn to get “the call.”  The young man on the other end of the line began by whining a plaintive “Grandpa??  I’ve been arrested!  I’m in jail!”

“Who is this?!” my father replied gruffly.

“Your grandson,” came back the still whiny reply.

“Which grandson?  I have three.”

“Your youngest grandson,” intoned whiny-butt.

“Kevin?? Is that you??” came back my father’s reply.

“Yes, Grandpa, it’s me, Kevin!”

“I don’t have a grandson named Kevin!” my father thundered, slamming down the phone.

Good for him, I thought.  Score:  Dad 1, Scammers 0!

Then it happened again.

“Hello!” Dad answered the ringing phone, annoyed that someone in Asia was probably trying to sell him goods and services that he didn’t need.

“Grandpa??  I’m in the hospital!” came the plaintive reply.

Dad slammed down the receiver, fuming.

He had no idea that it was my sister, who had just come out of surgery.

Hahaha! Serves her right for habitually calling her father “Grandpa!”