Say That Again Maybe Better Next Time

This is a mini-rant.

I have no idea how much this influences the times we are living through now, but—allow me to set the stage first—part of my job (day-job) is reading books for possible inclusion in inventory. These are generally self-published. In spite of everything, I have become…an editor.

As a youth, I experienced impatience with what have become known as Grammar Nazis. As with so many elements of good writing, I didn’t care that much as long as meaning was conveyed and the story moved along. Event was my drug of choice, character not so much. The elegance of the prose…well, sure, but it wasn’t necessary.

So I thought.

Years later, having labored at my own fiction, I found myself pitying that young idiot. Event means nothing unless character conveys impact. The elegance of the prose is primarily a property of the kind of writing that allows a reader the full range of experience through a story. Style, substance, character, plot. Take any one away, the text falters. Make them work together and you get something worth reading, perhaps even memorable.

And now I see the downside of haste and the ease of Getting The Book Into Print regardless of its quality. Or qualities.

And then I listen to the speech of our public figures and can’t help but wonder if we are in a state of communicative disarray because they (not all, but some, perhaps many) never learned how to write or speak well.

Once upon a time, Rhetoric was taught as one of the primary Arts.

There are many reasons we should revisit that.  I will say here that Grammar (as it was taught to me in school and probably as it is still taught) is no substitute for a full course on the Reason To Learn To Write Well.

If we cannot speak to each other intelligibly, how can we ever hope to solve problems?

Regarding the books I read for my job, most of them, usually, are written in what I would say is serviceable prose. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, subjects, objects, all those elements are mainly in their proper places and meaning comes across.

But sometimes, where it matters most, a significant handful of hopefuls write in what I can only assume is a manner (mannered), a style they think is “literary.” Convoluted constructions, run-on sentences, what Mark Twain called “second cousin words” instead of the right ones. And attempts at conveying…something…of which the writer has no real understanding and covering that lack by piling on Important Sounding Verbiage.

Primarily, the problem is the writer does not actually have a grasp of what they are trying to convey. Secondarily—and fatally—they haven’t taken the time to find out how to do the craft.

Likewise with so many second-rate pundits and politicians.

We live at a time of unprecedented access to public dissemination. In the past, you couldn’t get your words published unless they could get past an editor. Now we can put out any damn set of sentences we want with no one to tell us we shouldn’t.  Self-publishing has created a glut of bad prose and an entitled generation of self-important blatherers who think their words are worth the same time and attention as someone who has worked hard to learn the craft and—most importantly—understood what is important to say.

And I’m not talking about paper books or even ebooks. Multiple platforms exist to allow access to people for anything they feel moved to say. In the sense of it being a forum, all the social media outlets are functionally publishers and too many people think they’re worth reading by putting something on them.

The result of which is a degradation of public discourse. Hitting Enter has become the sinecure of too many empty minds, vacuous ideas, and poorly reasoned diatribes.

Something about seeing bad prose on a page between the covers of a physical book makes it more obvious.

Years ago I became aware of a subset of wannabe writers who felt they could be writers while eschewing reading. This baffled me no end. To begin with, why would you conceive of the desire to be a writer if you did not already love reading. Of course, the truth is, they do not want to be writers. They have no idea what that would be.  What they want is to be Important. Noticed. They want a stage. They assume the desire is sufficient to the purpose.

Likewise for people who wish to be Thinkers without troubling themselves to learn how to think. But of course, they don’t really want to be Thinkers. They want to tell others what to think. They want to be Important. Noticed.

We have given them a stage. Many stages. And since the price of admission to the show is usually free, well, as they used to say (and may still) you get what you pay for.

Please. Communication is not a trait like hair color, height, or eye color. It has to be learned. You have to work at it.  And just because you learned how to talk does not mean you automatically know how to speak.

Thank you for your time and attention. I’m going to go read some more books now.

Walking

I took a walk this morning, around my neighborhood. You should understand, in some ways I am a very typical urban dweller.  I don’t know my neighbors.  We don’t hang out together, we don’t have each others’ phone numbers, we aren’t pals.  Nothing deliberate, just a product of the car and the phone and the pace of our lives.  When we moved into this neighborhood a quarter-plus-century ago, we would take evening walks and see many older residents sitting on their porches.  Some would wave and smile.  I finally realized that some of them, at least, were indulging a practice from a faded era.

They sat on their porches in the evening specifically to greet passersby and maybe have conversations. As these people disappeared—moved, died—we stopped seeing this.  In the last few years we have had an influx of immigrants—Hispanics, Eastern European, Asian—and again we see this practice.

I don’t know how to engage this way.  I am, in fact, a basically shy and self-conscious person, and I can’t imagine most times anyone wanting to talk to me who doesn’t already know me.  Maybe that’s a symptom of the urban social matrix, too, I don’t know.

But lately there have been even fewer. The streets are emptier.

Not abandoned.  Lawns are tended, sidewalks swept, plants on steps or railings watered. The evidence of human presence is as visible as ever.

The silence is different.  Even though I have rarely indulged speaking to strangers just because they were waiting to be spoken to doesn’t mean I never appreciated their reality.  We would walk by and wave, give a good morning or good evening, smile.  It doesn’t take much to reaffirm our connection as human beings.

I doubt I will change my basic nature when this current situation is ended. I’m just not like that. And I do value the structure of contacts from before. Choosing your friends has, I think, more significance than having people thrust upon you because there are no other avenues for interaction.

But I will appreciate them more, I think.  The sounds, the scents, the frisson of neighbors in the now.

I wish them well.

Big Green Bow Tie

Trying to make sense of the argument raging back and forth in this country over civic duty, social courtesy, politics, and the evident incommensurability of conflicting “lived experience” among the various parties reminded me of something the other day. I laughed and shrugged it off and thought well, yeah, that’s apt but silly.

Then I thought, if we filter out the presumed topics and just look at the behavior, maybe it’s not so silly, Because, really, it is silly.

When I was in first or second grade (yes, that far back, that deep down), I was beginning to learn how much I didn’t fit. I didn’t know that was the issue then, just that I kept looking at my “friends” and the teachers and the whole thing like some foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. Spring came around, and we were going to do a Maypole Dance.

Why? Beats me. I mean, seriously, a Maypole Dance? For grade schoolers? Obviously, we didn’t know what it meant. As for the teachers, it was just this neat thing they could use to teach…well, I assume cooperation, group unity, and make us feel pleased with an accomplishment. I have no idea.

But I was excited as everybody else.

We learned the steps, practiced, got good at it. It would take place in the gymnasium and it was an early evening event. Parents and interested parties would be present. A Big Deal.

I remember being informed that the boys would wear green bow ties and the girls would wear pink ribbons. (The streamers around the pole matched.) Well, I owned a green bow tie, so that was fine. I showed up prepared.

Only to find out that my bow tie wasn’t good enough. Wasn’t allowed. No, we were to be fitted with these great big paper things, way oversized, and, frankly, to my eye, stupid things made of green tissue paper. I took one look and thought Nope, ain’t gonna happen, I’m not wearing one of those.

Whereupon I proceeded to Make A Scene. I made things difficult for the teachers. I even hid under a desk rather than be subjected to the indignity of being forced to wear one of those silly, stupid, childish Things, especially when I already had a perfectly good, normal bow tie. The argument that I would look like everyone else did not impress me. Why would I want to do that? The argument that this was a group thing and we had to conform for it to look right bounced right off.

In the end, I was made to yield. I endured being fitted with one of those idiotic (I thought) kiddy ties.

Then the Dance happened and I forgot all about it.

The people stamping their feet and getting all huffed over wearing face masks remind me of that intractable seven-year-old. “I ain’t gonna do it! It’s silly! I don’t wanna!”

I am extending it, though, to a whole range of social issues, and watching the reactions of those who refuse. Try as I might, I cannot find it in myself to sympathize, not with the screaming, red-faced, intransigent self-centered, entitled drama addicts who think because of this or that or the other requirement they are somehow being so unduly imposed upon that civilization is about to fall.

I am willing to discuss the issues in reasonable tones, with facts at hand, and logic and rational consideration on tap. But the comparisons are absurd. No, your constitutional rights are not disappearing because of a public health measure. The Constitution does not afford you the “right” to live any damn way you please if others are put at risk.

But those who are stoking this fire with fuel know that very well. They know their audience. They know they’re dealing with people who can’t tell the difference between inconvenience and moral necessity.

I Want and I Don’t Want are the only two positions that get any traction, it seems.

I recall my unreasoning and unreasonable seven-year-old self because that seems to me the exact parallel. Things have gone a certain way for so long that this would seem a perfectly reasonable reaction.

The good news, though, is this: I was the only one in my class chafing at the requirement to wear the same green bow tie as everyone else. In the same way, the red-faced, distraught, petulant dissenters over face masks, I believe, are also a small minority. They only seem like more than their numbers because they’re making a scene, hiding under their desks, and everyone else is staring at them.

Amplified tantrums.

We seem incapable of looking away, of ignoring the traffic accident, the class clown, the guy with the End Of The World sign screaming at the pigeons in the park. The attention feeds the fit and he seems like a multitude.

In the meantime, the rest of us are respectfully doing what needs to be done to have a successful dance.

Sit down and put your bow tie on. It’s not the end of the world.

Transformations

Just playing around here. I shot this image on the road back from Houston last November, intending to play with it. I finally got around to it. Here are three versions. The first is pretty straightforward, slightly “corrected” for contrast and color, but pretty much As Found. The next two are variations I worked on it for effect.

Enjoy.