In the Wee, Small Hours

When I awake in the wee hours and find that I can’t get back to sleep, I don’t tweet like President-Elect Trump. Instead, I grab my phone off my nightstand and start to draft blog posts.

Now, writing in the middle of the night can yield some interesting results. Perhaps this is because my brain is still in that muddled middle ground between sleep and wakefulness. Reading the notes of my nocturnal ramblings the next day may, at times, leave me a bit puzzled. Now why did I wake up thinking about THAT? It is just as likely that I will end up hitting “Delete” than that my disconnected thoughts will ever make it into a post.

It is probably fortunate that I am easily distracted. I will remember that I need to make a packing list for an upcoming trip and I will start on that. I will take my turn in the ten or twelve Words With Friends games that I usually have going at any given time. I will check the headlines in The New York Times.

All of these pursuits are better than lying in the dark and thinking of my sister, who just moved more than a thousand miles away for a new job and was promptly fired. Or of my twentysomething niece, who has been suffering from anorexia in Boston and is now down to a skeletal 75 pounds. Or of my octogenarian father, whose hand has gone numb and who can no longer lift his other arm without awful pain.

Such thoughts make my own problems seem decidedly small. I remind myself that everything is relative. And I count my blessings. I look forward to tearing up the interstate this week so that we can spend Thanksgiving with as many family members as possible, and celebrate my father’s 83rd birthday to boot. Instead of worrying about what we don’t have, or what we might lose, I thank God for all that we do have.

And I recite what I find to be one of the most comforting Bible passages, the 91st Psalm, and I go back to sleep. After all, I have to get up for work in a few hours.

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Trump and Bump and the Political Potty (Mouth)

Yesterday, I wrote about media outlets that are too squeamish to make references to bodily functions, including even words like “pee” that have made their ways into everyday conversation.  Newspapers with “family” sensibilities and radio and television stations fearing censure and fines from the FCC are finding it more and more difficult to operate within strictures that defy the realities of the world about which they are reporting.

Once we get beyond the popularity of slang references to urination and defecation, we get into the territory of what were once known as “cuss words,” many of which refer to genitalia or sexual functions.  I should mention that these words referred to those subjects at one time, although today they have largely divested themselves of those meanings, being used primarily for emphasis or to indicate anger or surprise.

I vaguely recall reading that a major American newspaper vowed never to print one of those vulgar words in its pages until such time as the president of the United States used them publicly.  It wasn’t long until that very situation occurred and the paper had to eat humble pie.

The fact is that quite a few U.S. presidents have demonstrated their fondness for profanity.  Harry Truman, LBJ, Clinton, both Bushes and, yes, President Obama, are among them.  Some would argue that use of this type of language constitutes decidedly unpresidential conduct and is inappropriate for anyone supposedly serving as a role model for today’s youth.  Whether the leader of the free world is expected to fulfill that function in the 21st century remains a subject for debate.

I must admit that I was a bit taken aback by an article published over the holiday weekend by Phil Bump, a Washington Post political columnist whom I admire and respect.  The purpose of the piece was to point out that presidential candidate Donald Trump has a potty mouth, as clearly demonstrated by some of his very colorful tweets.  It’s true:  The man loves his expletives.  If nothing else, they certainly attract attention.  The problem, as I learned in writing class many years ago, is that the expletive tends to be all the reader sees.  The shock value of such words tends to completely supersede and blot out any point the writer may have been attempting to make.

I’m not surprised that Trump likes to cuss, but I was terribly disappointed with the subterfuge to which Bump had to resort in order to present Trump’s Bluest Hits of Twitter without violating the arcane and laughably out-of-date rules set forth by his newspaper.  The plan involved asking readers to solve a type of cryptogram in order to figure out the particular vulgarities used by Trump without the paper having to actually print those words.

“For kicks,” writes Bump in explaining his scheme, “we’ve changed the four swear words we looked at into names.  The word beginning with an F is “Frank.”  The one beginning with an S is “Sam.”  The three-letter word starting with A becomes “Alex,” and the longer, seven-letter variant thereof, “Alexander.”

Bump then coyly quotes some of Trump’s rants on Twitter, substituting the proposed words above for the profanity actually used.  WTF?

“Before we continue,” writes Bump, “we will demurely note that The Washington Post tends not to use a lot of cussing on its pages.”  No, really?  I mean, gosh darn, you could have fooled me.  He then goes on to state, seemingly by way of distancing himself from his own folly, that “We are not 10, but if any 10-year-olds read this, their innocent sensibilities will be spared (in case there is some 10-year-old who doesn’t know the f-word).”

I believe that this last sentence, particularly the parenthetical portion, is designed to point out Bump’s awareness of how utterly ridiculous are the rules by which news writers and columnists are bound.  Surely it is no surprise to anyone that a demagogue, a self-styled man of the people such as Trump, would speak using the same type of language that (most of) the rest of us do.

That the news media ignore the facts of the modern world, instead opting to sing “la la la la” while sticking their fingers in their ears, is a demonstration of how out of touch they are with reality.

As for you, Phil Bump, quit playing cryptogram games and insist on telling it like it is.  If the Post won’t print it, tell them to go Frank themselves.

 

How to Know When You’re a “Real” Writer

I never cease to be amazed by the well-intentioned misinformation about writers and writing that I read online.  Occasionally, I am amused, but far more often, I just want to scream. What frustrates me most is knowing that some readers are going to believe this crap.  I suppose the bottom line is that one cannot know what it’s like to be a writer until one has experienced it for one’s self.  And, like everything else in life, everyone experiences writing differently.

The following are among the common clichés about writing that tick me off royally:

A “real” writer writes because he or she cannot not write. Don’t be a writer unless you have to. If you can do anything else, do that instead.  This view makes writing seem like a disease, and a painful one at that — a fate worse than death that any sane individual will assiduously avoid.  Anyone who would actually choose to be a writer is seriously loco en la cabeza.  This view is dismissive of those of us who write for the sheer joy of it, not out of some obsessive-compulsive tendency that, if unchecked, may yield to drooling madness.  It makes us seem as if we are all on Xanax.  Geez!  Oh, and by the way, we writers generally do lots of other things in addition to writing.  Heroic things like raising children and running things (companies, soup kitchens, marathons, away).  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer writes as a full-time job. However, writing part-time can be a lovely hobby.  Grrrr!  Hobby, my ass.  A lot of us get up early in the morning to write before work and then burn the midnight oil to write again before we get a few hours of sleep.  Rinse and repeat.  We don’t do this out of compulsion, we do so because we derive pleasure of seeing our black words on a white page and because we believe it’s important work.  Oh, I see, it’s still a lovely hobby because we don’t get paid for it, right?  Which brings us to…

A “real” writer gets paid for his or her work and makes a living at it. So, literary merit is judged solely in terms of dollars, pounds and euros?  A writer is one who writes.  Period.  A 15 year old girl who scribbles poems in the margins of her algebra homework notebook is just as much a writer as Stephen King.  If you think I’m full of it, read this.  It is well known that some of the greatest artists in history toiled in obscurity for years, reaping negligible financial benefits from their work within their lifetimes.  Oh, and by the way, neither William Carlos Williams nor Lewis Carroll was a writer because the former was paid to be a doctor and the latter to be a mathematician.  I do understand that you must pigeonhole me into a classification based on what I do to earn a paycheck because your little pea brain will explode otherwise.  I feel sorry for you.

A “real” writer has been published and has his or her work on a shelf in Barnes & Noble or the public library. Ah, looks as if we’re back to the small minds club again.  Folks in this category are kissin’ cousins of those who believe that microbes don’t exist because they can’t be seen with the naked eye.  Fortunately, there’s a thing called the microscope these days.  Look through that lens and, along with the amoebae, you will see things like blogs, self-published books for sale on Amazon and the contents of my hard drive (which I really ought to back up again considering the extent of my recent drivel, er, output).

A “real” writer is a misunderstood, tortured soul who oozes his or her pain and misery onto the page. You have to love this one.  Yes, and we all wear berets and sit in cafés with our notebooks while we smoke unfiltered French cigarettes and sip from goblets of vin rouge.  I’m not saying I haven’t penned a line or two alongside a latte at Starbucks, but my habitual mode of writing is on my laptop perched precariously on a TV tray or scratched hurriedly onto a lined yellow pad during my lunch break at work.  Believe it or not, not all writers pursue the craft as a means of discount psychotherapy.  At times, of course, writing may serendipitously have such a side effect.  Generally, however, our work is a product of creativity, craftsmanship and lots of practice, not tortured verbal bleeding.  Which brings us to…

Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. While I appreciate the lovely rhyme, I believe my fellow writers would agree that the mathematics of this proposition varies wildly among individuals and may be gravely affected by the weather, the fight we had with our kid, the vet bill and what we had for breakfast.  Some days we feel like slaves in the word mines, while on other days, the words flow like water and le mot juste appears unbidden.  Those are the days that we thank God we are writers and know that it’s the most worthwhile endeavor on earth.

To my fellow bloggers: Each of you, every last one, is a writer.  To let anyone tell you otherwise is to diminish yourself unfairly.

Lessons of NaBloPoMo

My father likes to say that everyone is capable of being an author because we all have at least one story to tell:  Our own.

I think he’s right, and that over time, we develop a script to explain our lives.  It could go something like this:  “I grew up in a small town, I got married right out of high school, we had kids, I worked in the local factory.”  Or, in my case, “I grew up as a misfit, attended a lot of college, bounced around from job to job, married at the age of forty and ended up unemployed a lot of the time.”

The lens we tend to see ourselves through is composed not so much of our experiences as it is of the life script we have carefully developed.  It’s as if we constantly fear that someone will angrily demand “explain yourself!” and that we need to have a reasonable sounding script all wrapped up and ready to go.  The faithfulness of that script to historical truth can vary a great deal from one person to another.

Many bloggers have remarked that their posts all start to sound the same after a while, and that it can sometimes be difficult to even remember whether they have already told a particular story or not.  I can definitely relate.  I have come to realize that everything I write is filtered through the lens of my life script.

Participating in NaBloPoMo has helped me to understand how difficult it is to come up with something interesting to write about every day, something that doesn’t sound like a rehash of the same thing I already wrote yesterday and the day before that.  Some days, I feel like an old grandpa buttonholing anyone who will listen with “Did I ever tell you about the time that…” (conveniently forgetting that I just told the same story five minutes ago).  It’s as if I’ve become a parody of myself, stuck in a time warp à la Ground Hog Day.

Others may be smarter than I am, more witty than I am or more well-read than I am.  For them, writing daily may be a lot easier than it is for me.  And perhaps they even manage to break loose from their life story lenses and write from fresh perspectives that don’t look like day-old bread.

For me, however, writing every day is hard.  I’ve already written about my long daily commute to work.  Haven’t I already discussed my amazingly cute grandniece enough times?  Should I write about the challenges of being a vegan again?  I fear that anything I write about will bore me as much as it will bore you.

For now, I’ll just say that I’m glad that it’s Friday. that the weekend is upon us, and that I’ll be splitting the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend between my wife’s family and my own.  Hopefully, we’ll get to spend time with everyone, and celebrate my father’s 81st birthday as well.  After that, it will be December and we’ll begin our long, slow slide into Christmas.

But the best thing of all is that there is only one more week left in NaBloPoMo, after which I can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to being a weekend warrior.

I can hardly wait.

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Blog Hop

To the person who recently left a comment asking me to participate in a blog hop:

I am not really sure what a blog hop is.  I’ve been a fan of the Danny and the Juniors tune “At the Hop” for decades now, but I get the general impression that this has nothing to do with a high school dance.  My little grandniece likes to prance through the living room yelling “Hop, hop, hop!”  Just watching this from the couch exhausts me, but again, I have a feeling that this blog hop thing has nothing to do with physical fitness.

I am guessing that this blog hop is some sort of connect-the-dots event in which participants “hop” from one specified URL to the next.  I don’t know whether the hoppers visiting my blog are supposed to read my latest post or leave a comment or spray paint “Kilroy was here” on my About page.

You did ask whether I am “really” located in California (no, actually I’ve been pulling your leg all this time, I’m really in the Aleutian Islands), so I suppose this must be a critical factor.  Perhaps, with a nod to Oscar Wilde, I should have titled this post “The Importance of Being Californian.”  Are you attempting a tour of the fifty states?  If so, I should think that finding a California blog would not be that difficult.  Rhode Island or North Dakota, maybe, but not California.

Then again, you did mention that the last two bloggers whom you queried failed to respond.  This would tend to indicate that it is not as easy as one might think to secure a willing Californian participant.  Of course, many bloggers do not indicate their physical locations for safety or privacy reasons, so it could be difficult to ascertain whether your favorite blogger is actually from California or not.  I am guessing that the title of my blog was a dead giveaway.

I could not help but notice that you were reduced to pleading, hopefully not upon your knees.  “Save us,” you piteously mewed.  Such shameless begging makes me feel particularly bad to be the blogger who causes you to “strike out,” the third California blogger to give you the cold shoulder by failing to respond.

Please don’t think me ungrateful.  I truly appreciate each and every one of my readers and I am deeply honored that you take time out of your busy week to peruse the drivel that I regularly dish out in this space.  I do my best to return the favor by reading as many of your blogs as I am able to fit into my equally busy week.  I try to help anyone who asks, particularly new bloggers who need a boost in comments or request advice on what techniques I have found to work and what has fallen flat.  I believe in giving folks a hand up and I believe in doing what I can to improve this blogosphere that we inhabit.

However, I do ask that you have pity on me.  We are right in the middle of NaBloPoMo, for heaven’s sake.  I am doing my best to keep my commitment to post daily during this annual event, even though I work a full-time job, spend two hours per day commuting and attempt to participate in a full life with the many members of our extended family who live nearby.  Although I was able to compose a few posts in advance, I prefer to write with an immediacy that is only available by describing what is on my mind at any given moment.  I do take time to write a few longer posts on the weekends, but during the week I have to catch as catch can, writing during my lunch breaks, on my phone in the car and even in the middle of the night when I suddenly wake up with an inspiration.  This is quite a change for one who is accustomed to posting once weekly, adding notes from day to day or sitting down of a Saturday and writing the entire post from beginning to end in a single session.

So please don’t think that I am a latter day Scrooge, a Grinch with a heart two sizes too small who serves up double decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwiches with arsenic sauce.  It’s just that your event has fallen victim to bad timing.  By all means, ask me again after NaBloPoMo.

At that time, it will be my pleasure to put on a smile, click on your link, and assist you with your blog hop.

Whatever that is.

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Speed Blogging

Several weeks ago, I informed my wife that I would not be participating in NaBloPoMo this year.  Last year, I was able to write daily for an entire month because I was unemployed and didn’t have a lot else to do.  You can only prepare so many job application essays before you drive yourself crazy, and NaBloPoMo seemed like a perfect opportunity to improve my writing skills.  I knew that, if nothing else, it would be a “butt in chair” exercise that would get me into the habit of pounding out something every 24 hours, even if I didn’t particularly feel like it and didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to share with my audience.

As expected, a number of my posts took inanity to a new level and no doubt inspired a good deal of eye rolling among my readers.  Fortunately for me, the month of November always presents some ready-made topics, such as the change in the weather, the family foibles surrounding Thanksgiving and the arrival of the holiday season.  I held forth on the challenges of being a vegan on Turkey Day, waxed nostalgic on the occasion of my father’s eightieth birthday and described the river of emotions that resulted from spending time with my one year old grandniece (and hence, Elmo and Abby Cadabby as well) on a nearly daily basis.  NaBloPoMo was also when I began writing about homelessness in earnest, following my first month of living in the church parsonage and seeing the needy arriving regularly at our door in search of succor and sustenance.

It was a great feeling to proudly paste the NaBloPoMo logo at the end of each post and an even greater feeling when December 1 rolled around and I realized that I had risen to the challenge and succeeded.  I felt amply rewarded when A Map of California was featured in the NaBloPoMo section of WordPress’ Recommended Blogs page for months on end.

This year, of course, is different.  After nearly twelve months of unemployment, I was finally hired by state government in mid-September.  I have been blessed with a job I truly enjoy, one of the best bosses I have ever had and a rather interesting daily commute.  As grateful as I am, it doesn’t leave me much free time for writing.  I’ve been doing my best to post once weekly, but even that can be a stretch sometimes.  So writing every day for a month is, as I related to my wife, out of the question.

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I regretted my decision.  One of my favorite things about NaBloPoMo is that it makes me feel a part of something big.  Look at all the other bloggers around the world who are pounding away at their keyboards at the same time that I am!  I want to be a member of that club.

I soon realized that there is only one possible way that, with a little luck, I might be able to pull this off.  The idea I came up with is “speed blogging.”  At work, I have an hour lunch break every day.  Now, an hour isn’t much time to think of a good topic, develop a decent thesis and flesh it out with appropriate arguments and witty examples (while eating a soy cream cheese and olive sandwich and a banana).  But I figure that if I keep my posts short and concentrate on my day-to-day experiences rather than on huge issues that require hours of research, I might be able to push myself through.

And so, faithful readers, please wish me good luck as we embark on this adventure together.

Okay, hour’s up.  I have to get back to work now.

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