Paddock vs. Petty: If You Had to Pick One

I’ll declare at the outset that what I’m about to propose is a false dichotomy. This world is not divided into Tom Pettys and Stephen Paddocks. But I’m going to go ahead and assume that this is a false dichotomy worth exploring, holding our introspective discoveries in check with an anchor in the greyscale reality of infinite possibility between extremes.

Image courtesy of bedtclassicbands.com

October 2, 2017 will forever be marked by the saddest pair of bookends any day could ever hope to claim: Stephen Paddock shot approximately 600 people, killing 60 of them, including himself. One guy in a little over an hour. At the end of the day, Tom Petty died after being rushed to a hospital having been discovered in full cardiac arrest. He affected more lives than Paddock and did so in a diametrically opposite way.

From one perspective, these two men influenced people in ways almost every single one of us cannot relate to. Shooting into a crowd of concert goers from a self-constructed military outpost high above in a hotel room with no expressed motive . . . writing, recording, and performing songs that added beauty, understanding, enjoyment, and life to the experience of uncountable millions . . . almost no one in the world knows what it’s like to do that.

But the reactions I read on social media, heard on the news, and felt in my soul after hearing of these two inexpressibly sad events fell into two very different compartments.

After the shooting, the reactions were filled with anger, raw pain, shock, arguments, accusations, judgments, and hatred.

As the news of Tom Petty’s impending death leaked across the wire, the reactions were more poignantly phrased memories of his music, quotes of his lyrics, links to his songs and videos and photos.

Paddock incited our emotions to violence while Petty caused us to wax poetic.

And I was left wondering which approach I really want to take.

Look, I know there’s a place for debating/extolling the need for gun control. I know there’s a belief out there that guns without restrictions are necessary for defending ourselves against the government . . . especially this government. I know that discussions about mental illnesses and how we deal with them as a society are probably vital.

But.

Please don’t forget to add beauty into the world. I’m sure there are plenty of Facebook fights and controversial posts that have led to great improvements and personal/community revolutions that have changed society for the better, but it’s a lot easier to remember the songs, stories, plays, works of art, photos, films, and random expressions of kindness that were a bit more effective at sweeping away the clouds and reminding us that the sun shines on us all.

Beauty is a right. Beauty is a privilege. Beauty is a responsibility. Beauty is a necessity.

Beauty is a renewable resource. Let’s get to it.

Shmanguage

I don’t understand it. (You should know that sometimes when I say “I don’t understand,” I mean that I do understand, but I’m just not particularly happy about the conclusion.) All too frequently, I see people acting as the grammar police of the universe; they scour worlds real, social, and virtual for every misspelling, usage error, and made up word and publicize their findings to the fullest extent of their broadcast reach. Whether they (or you, I don’t know) do this as a service to the general intellectual health of the public or as punishment to those who dare trample on the sacred ground of the English language or as a self-pleasuring stroke to their own egos, I really do not know or care. (Okay, maybe I have a pretty good idea, and I obviously care enough to write about it, but to the latter point, you should know I did start writing this in 2011 . . . so I don’t care that much.)

What I do know is it’s annoying as hell. As someone who has made a living correcting errors and improving the condition of the collections of words that crossed my gaze (and who reads The Chicago Manual of Style for pleasure), I notice and dislike grammatical and spelling errors quite a lot. I am also guilty of making them. But I rarely call attention to the mistakes of anyone who is not me. I mean I. Quite frankly, it isn’t my place to do so. I dislike flaws in grammar far less than I despise arrogance and treating people like Less Thans over the way they spell or speak or write.

The point of usage, grammar, spelling, whatever is to communicate effectively. That’s it. Using the objective case in the subject of one’s (or is it ones?) sentences is no sin. It’s a simple mistake which has not once in the history of mankind caused the least bit of confusion in communication. So what, in the name of the Associated Press and their unholy abandonment of the Oxford Comma, is the point of correcting people’s grammar when you understand perfectly what they’re trying to say? Hmm. Let’s examine the possible answers.

To improve the way they communicate? A) That’s not your job (if it is, please, go right ahead). B) They can obviously communicate just fine. You understood not only what they were saying but also the so-called proper way to say it.

To make them better people? Yes, because the true measure of a woman or a man is adherence to a style guide.

To put an end to the evils of bad usage and poor spelling? I’m so glad you chose to replace those evils with bad manners and poor taste.

Please stop.

There are some instances when public (or even one-on-one) grammar/spelling correction is called for. If you’re a grammar teacher, for instance. Or an editor in the act of editing something, NOT just having a conversation with someone. If you are a parent, it is perfectly acceptable to correct your children’s grammar. It is your job to teach them. If you are working with someone who is about to enter a social or professional situation in which a blunder would cause embarrassment, please do feel free to gently and kindly alert said someone to the mistake. But come on. In most instances, this is not what any of you grammar correctionistas are doing, and you know it.

Oh, and that reminds me: let people make up words. Every word in every language was made up by someone at some point. There is absolutely no reason to stop now. Language is living, and it should grow accordingly. Don’t ever stop making up words. Don’t ever discourage others from making up word. Look what happened to Latin.

Now, I understand I must sound hypocritical (or hypercritical) as I publicly correct your manners for publicly correcting someone’s grammar. And, yeah, I can see that. I suppose it’s not my place to tell you how to live any more than it’s your place to tell other people how to communicate. But I will say this: the people who say supposably instead of supposedly aren’t hurting anyone. They’re getting their points across. They aren’t hurting you, you’re just being overly critical, which is your fault not theirs. But what you’re doing? You’re making people feel stupid to make yourself feel smart (or one of the other reasons, I don’t really know). That’s a bigger offense in my book.

But I’ll make you a deal. I’ll never bring this up again. I don’t make it a habit to correct people for correcting other people’s grammar. Typically, the only time I say anything to the grammar Nazis is when they are wrong. People who incorrectly correct other people’s grammar are just too (or two) wrong to allow. For instance: “You’re not nauseous, you’re nauseated.” They’re synonyms, jackwad. If you count yourself more authoritative than Merriam-Webster, I find your arrogance nauseating. Use nauseous or nauseated or nauseating according to your preference. Don’t correct people for preferring another perfectly acceptable and common way to express the same idea. Or people who say things like, “Can you have an apple? I don’t know, can you? Say ‘may I’ next time.” Guess what? Can and may are interchangeable in that context. And someone can feel good, not just feel well. If you correct someone for using good in place of well in that case because an adverb is needed to modify the verb well, you should be slapped and slapped well. Well and good modify the subject in such a sentence, not the verb as feel is a linking verb. Either will suffice. See? Look what you made me do. Now I’m correcting people’s grammar, too. Kind of.

Anyway. Consider this a brief timeout from my general preference to silence such objections. I’ll stop correcting you. Now please, for the love of Webster, stop correcting everyone else.

This Post Will Literally Make Your Head Explode

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

You hear it all the time. Maybe you say it all the time. Using literally when you don’t mean literally. I try not to let people’s usage foibles bother me, except when they’re the product of pretense. If someone use incidentses when they mean instances, I hope (at worst) to laugh it off or (at best) not even laugh secretly inside my head. But when people get all persnickety about other peoples’ grammar or command of the English language, my sense of grace evaporates a bit.

But I confess, literally is one of those words that brings out the super in my superciliousness. People say things like, “That literally scared me half to death,” which makes me wonder how a half death can be measured. Or, “I sat and stared for, literally, ten seconds,” as opposed to the figurative ten seconds that gets tossed about in idioms all the time.

People keep using that word. I don’t think it means what they think it means. Try a dictionary, people.

Okay. Here’s what the dictionary (Merriam-Webster, the real one) says about literally:

Definition of LITERALLY

1: in a literal sense or manner : actually [took the remark literally] [was literally insane]

Okay. Duh. Literally means literally. Except when it doesn’t.

2: in effect : virtually [will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty or injustice — Norman Cousins]

Wait, what now? Literally means virtually? Or, not really literally, but practically literally. Inconceivable! Dictionary, could you give me more info on this one?

Usage Discussion of LITERALLY

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

Got it. So people sometimes use literally extraneously (see my second example above; ten seconds is ten seconds, and it’s rarely necessary to use exaggerated language to clarify that the time given is not an exaggeration) but it is perfectly appropriate and sound to use literally hyperbolically even with figurative intentions.

As much as I have wanted the second definition of literally to be erroneous, it’s not. Literally can be used accurately to connote virtually when one wishes to convey the point exaggeratedly. While I hate admitting I was formerly among them in this case (okay, no, I don’t mind so much), I love it when the grammar snobs are wrong.

So the next time someone harps on your usage of literally when you genuinely mean virtually, tell him or her to go seek out a dictionary and shut their fat yapper. Literally.

consolidate

Well, it’s all come full circle. I started out with one blog. Then another. Then a third. A fourth. A trivial one. A Cubs one. Just too many. And then this one.

I got spread too thin. Starting new blogs was a habit that produced a byproduct I didn’t count on: keeping them up. Totally the most boring thing ever.

So I dropped that habit and reversed the whole thing. Everything’s here now. Well, not everything. I still blog about the Cubs at Obstructed View. (Here’s my most recent post.) But almost everything. Here. Where it makes sense. Ooh, and I still have an absolute blast posting American Idol recaps with Beth. (Here’s this week’s. It’s really funny, of course.) Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. Making total sense. Well, more sense. I can’t promise anything truly sensible. Unless you’re very new here, you know that already. And . . . now you know that indubitably.

So, I’m hoping the consolidation will lead to more posts. Less confusion. More hope for a brighter tomorrow. That kind of thing. I also hope you enjoy it.

Hitting the Emotional Target

A writer’s arsenal consists of necessities, luxuries, and preferences. I contend that there are really only two necessities: a medium to record the words and a chair to anchor me in front of said medium. Having a defined topic and all the facts I need to write about it intelligently, those are luxuries. Everything else—home vs. Starbucks, alone vs. in a crowd, pen & paper vs. computer, online vs. unplugged, business casual vs. business pajamas—is a matter of preference, and the choice usually depends on the subject, tone, and purpose of the copy.  One of the big preference battles for me is silence vs. music.

I almost always choose music over silence when I write. (At the moment, it’s an iTunes genius mix based on “Forever My Friend,” by Ray LaMontagne.) Some of my friends absolutely cannot write with music in the background. It’s too distracting, they say, and I agree it can be. But music tends to put me in the proper emotional context to write with an immediacy and focus I just can’t produce on my own.  To me, hitting the emotional mark is one of the most crucial objectives for any writer.

Some instances don’t require a lot (or any) emotional consideration whatsoever, but those aren’t the forums I typically tackle. I write appeals, articles, stories, devotionals. The facts of the matter usually comprise the skeleton of the copy—without them, my words are just a flabby mess of sappy sentiment— but emotion is often the meat on the bones and always the heart and soul of what I write. You don’t need music to write like that, but I prefer it. And that’s not really the point. Continue reading “Hitting the Emotional Target”

Writer’s Block: Honesty in Action

Now that’s an honest picture.

I love this picture because it is as honest a portrayal of my family as I can imagine. Addison is about 75% posing for the camera and 25% laughing at Colin’s refusal to sit still. Heather is about 25/75 the other way. Colin has just lost his 1% interest in posing, and I, in true 100% don’t-take-my-picture fashion, am holding the camera.

The wonderful and the imperfect get along quite nicely within this frame. As a photographer (I’m not one, except by the most rudimentary definition) it can be pretty difficult to capture an honest image. As a writer, it can be paralyzing.

I have always felt that good writing demands adherence to two fundamental disciplines of human nature: 1) Keeping your eyes open to all truth; 2) Honestly telling the story of what you see. I call them disciplines of human nature because writers aren’t alone in the need to follow them both. Everyone should be compelled to observe and tell with honesty, but a writer must mind that responsibility especially severely because the lies we tell persist in posterity. We can either skew or straighten the sight of our readers.

Herein lies a potential downward spiral of circular reasoning. Being honestly aware is no small burden for the depraved. I might be able to live with my own ignorance, but perpetuating it in someone else through the power of the written word stops me in my tracks. When I begin to write, I begin to notice, to open my eyes to the painful realities I have conveniently ignored for as long as writer’s block has allowed. For the record, writer’s block is a most forgiving accomplice.

As long as I am unwilling to tell the truth about who I am and who we are as people, the more comfortable I am in illusions and half truths and dreaminess, the longer I will go without fully opening my eyes. And the longer I go without honestly surveying the situation, the worse it gets. The worse the situation, the greater the sense of loathing that accompanies the prospect of writing.

So the part of me that’s really good at rationalizing (which, incidentally, is the same percentage of me that hates to be photographed) tells me that not writing is at least a way of being honest. Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies, you know?

But silence may be the worst lie of all because it forces observers to fill in the blanks without any help from me, making a liar (or an unreliable guesser) out of their own imaginations. So I suppose writer’s block is just an excuse to procrastinate facing or telling the truth. The only cure for that is intensified vigilance in observation and repeated acknowledgment of the trouble made plain before my eyes.

To improve I must write. If I don’t write, I will regress. Even in inaction and silence, there is no idle state. Get writing.

Write Like a Popsicle

Popsicles were invented and named by accident.
Invert your popsicles while eating and you'll never spill a drop.

I used to get so jealous of sick kids. When my brothers, sisters, neighbors, or friends would fall ill (in the way that brought the risk of dehydration . . . you know what I mean), they would get to load up on Gatorade and Jell-O to get their necessary supply of carbs and clear liquids. I was never so fortunate as to get Gatorade, and Jell-O was reserved for special occasions and in small supply. But these puke-a-holics were getting both served up as often as they could throw it down. They were so lucky.

This past weekend I had the distinct displeasure of being introduced to a third delicious treatment for staving off dehydration that would have made my 7-year-old self insanely jealous of my good fortune: Popsicles. Allegedly, the glacial pace at which a Popsicle melts accommodates the sensibilities of a digestive system in distress. Having tested the theory, I can now vouch for it to some degree. I’ll just leave it at that.

As I was mildly enjoying my middle-of-the-night frozen treat, I realized that writing about delicate topics is a lot like feeding a sensitive stomach. It’s best to make your points in small doses. Let your audience sip the truth instead of forcing them to gulp it down like a frat boy at your kegger of wisdom. We all know the latter scenario ends with someone braving the jaws of the porcelain lion, and no one wants that. So on the commercial front, it behooves you to approach unsettled readers with soothing logic (but please, for the love of all that is holy, make it true).

On the literary or public discourse fronts, however, this advice is garbage. If you’re trying to send a message with no concern for how many customers you lose, by all means, make them vomit. I quote the inimitable Flannery O’Connor:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.

Continue reading “Write Like a Popsicle”

Things to Like about Twitter: #1 Words

Yes, there are links and myriad technological innovations. Yes, there are avatars and background wallpaper images. But the main course at the Twitter table is the written (or typed or texted or however it arrives on screen) word.

It’s kind of fun to track how the evolution of communication technology brought us to the age of Twitter. The Phoenician alphabet, the Chinese invention of paper, Gutenberg’s printing press all collaborated in the industry of putting words on paper for the masses to read in portable, reproducible fashion. Then people found ways to reproduce and record more than just words. With the photograph, the microphone, the telegraph, Morse code, the typewriter, the phonograph, the camera, the telephone, radio, motion pictures, television, tape recorders, and transistor radios, electronic media could capture and deliver codes, sounds, and images. We could communicate with color and volume and inflection. Words were just one weapon in an arsenal of long-distance, timeless messaging. Then computers, the Internet, email, cell phones, and the ability to shrink infinite data into infinitesimal compartments opened up an entirely new world of communication.
The cell phone became a mass media world of its own. In a box the size and weight of a deck of cards, we hold our photos, music, telephone, television, movies, Internet, email, cameras, video cameras, planners, news sources, calculators, athletic trainers, video games, GPS navigators, road maps, restaurant finders, sniper rifle cross-hairs, fashion statements, and who knows what else.
And with all that—given the world of entertainment, diversions, and applications with which our cell phones are equipped to delight us—the grandest sensation that is blowing everybody away consists essentially of sending and receiving strings of 140 letters, numbers, and symbols.
We could be stimulated, intoxicated, or carried adrift by the tumult of mindblowing displays of technological genius. But millions of people are captivated instead, once again, by the mere exchange of words.
Twitter is ticker tape on steroids, the telegraph for dummies. It’s a bunch of words flying around the world, getting caught in the Internets, and I absolutely love it for that.

Things to Like about Twitter: #7 The Return of Editing

If you’ve had any conversations in the last five years with anyone who has ever taught you anything about language, you’ve probably heard that person (those people) bemoan the demise of all things literary. The electronic era was supposed to have destroyed the concept of stringing words together by now, but Twitter, I believe, has brought about a resurgence or sorts.

People just don’t write anymore. Word processors made everybody lazy, and email made us careless. But texting? It spawned a generation whose typical communications look more like vanity plates than personal messages. The average text message (which is limited to 160 characters, here’s why) is devoid of substance and vowels. W00t. L8r. Ttfn.
It wasn’t the medium that took meaning from the messages, it was the context. Continuing in email’s carelessness, texting is casual. We’ve all collectively decided our friends aren’t worth writing for. But what if our texts suddenly weren’t so private? Then we’d have to make sure that somewhere beneath those 160 characters hid a clean pair of underwear and a decently constructed thought.
Enter Twitter.
Limited down to 140 characters to accommodate usernames, tweets are meant to be noticed, to attract, to communicate something personal albeit trivial. To fit in your thought, a link, an @reply, and a #hashtag, you can’t just spit out whatever words come to mind. To tweet, one must edit.
Sure, most people simply use shorthand to squeeze their lengthy missives under the 140-character wire. But others actually start eliminating that, nixing the passive voice, and axing frivolous adjectives and adverbs.
The bottom line: every tweep or twitterer must edit. How they do it and how well they do it are totally up to them. But Twitter is teaching texters the value of every letter and inspiring them to text with meaning and purpose.
Let your 6th grade English teacher know there’s still hope for the future.

The Show Must Go On

Someone asked me what I thought of the writers’ strike in Hollywood. And the truth was, I hadn’t thought much about it. That surprised me, because I do think of myself as a writer. I tiptoe around that word as much as I can, because I hold the craft of writing in the highest esteem.

I understand that the writing industry is a multi-tiered fraternity that includes first-graders and Shakespeare, Howard Stern and Clive Staples Lewis, junk mail copywriters and Pulitzer Prize winners. When people hear the word writer, they often assume a certain requisite quality in the work of the craftsman bearing the name. Let me be clear about writing: to be called a writer, you don’t need to write well; you need only possess the bravery (or the brazen indifference to the effect your words will have upon your audience) to write at all. With tiny scraps of the former, and an unfortunately healthy dose of the parenthesized latter, I forge ahead and dare to write. So I call myself a writer.

Maybe that should make me biased in favor of the writers in this dispute, but it doesn’t really. I’m no expert in the nature of Labor Unions, other than to know that fear of their cumulative power drives me to capitalize the term. But strikes are, in general, very bad for business. I think parties on both sides need a good “snap out of it” slap across the face from Cher. Their inability to broker a deal is doing harm to them and them alone.

I believe Hollywood is positioning itself for a wake up call to a reality they don’t want to admit exists. People don’t need entertainment. Even if they did, they wouldn’t need to get it from the town of Hollywood. This strike comes at the worst possible time for writers, and the best possible time for an entertainment-starved country. Reality TV, a bulging sports industry, a pathetically easy-to-plunder music industry, and the exponentially exploding You Tube phenomenon all threaten to steal the admiration of the masses.

Give America a few more weeks, and we might just discover that we didn’t need TV as much as we thought we did.

There’s a reason for “The show must go on” axiom in showbiz. If there’s no show, there’s no biz. And even though the writer in me secretly loves to think that nothing in this world can be accomplished without writers, pride is little solace for the people who are without work.

As for the rest of us who are surviving on reruns, syndication, and alternate forms of amusement, we’re doing just fine, I think. Strike all you want. I’ll find something better to do. . . .

But please, please, don’t cancel Lost. Or The Office. Or 24. Or Boston Legal. And finish the last season of Scrubs. Other than that, I don’t need you. Oh, and House. How could I forget House? I am a tower of fortitude. Yes.

Who am I kidding? Please come back!