I believe in the image, the line, the stanza, the iambic foot, the perfect word. Assonance, slant rhymes, that the formal forms still have a place in modern poetry. I believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays. I believe in a constitutional amendment outlawing poetry about poetry and the use of the word “suffuse.” I believe in revision, interlinear translations, publishing in print — not on-line, and I believe in long, slow, deep, wet poems that last three days.
I’ve always had an unreasonably intimate, if somewhat stormy, relationship with punctuation.
On one hand I want punctuation to make sense — to be useful, predictable, and consistently applicable. On the other hand I want to be able to make use of it for my own ends — to fudge, push, pull, invert, and subvert its prescribed and proscribed uses. To make my particular meanings just a little clearer. I want to instruct my reader in how to breathe my prose. In how to inhale its meaning and to exhale its sense.
I start messing around with punctuation right from the beginning, my usual drafts are hashes of fragments, repetitions, parentheticals, fragments, whizzes, bangs, splits, splotches, hen scratches and flyspecks. Type some words, throw down a comma to indicate a break in thought, add a dash — a minor detour if you will. Type some more words, drop in another comma for a slight turn to the left, use a period to mark the end of the whole thought and it’s trailing little brothers.
Then a new paragraph, or maybe an extra blank line if I’m really going to jump the hurdle and land in some entirely other field. I love ellipses, en dashes, em dashes, parentheses; all of the brackets — angle, curly, and square. Each little glyph adding, to my eye, a slightly differ flavor of pause or linkage. They create connections or disconnections between the little thoughts that flow and stumble out of my fingers.
Eventually I make a proper first draft out of my mess. Using scissors, tape, and several colors of highlighter I take all of the fragments and push them to and fro and make them stand in, if not straight lines, at least convivial groups. Marshal them and march them out on to the field. Much of my crazy, lazy punctuation disappears in this process. Not all of it. And some mistakes are made.
A recent round of editing led to questions about how, exactly, to punctuate dialog. Because I had written a whole story using my usual, utterly consistent form of punctuation. Which it turns out is wrong about half the time. Grade school failed me in so many ways.
Worse yet, my wrongness makes my favorite editor twitchy because it involves commas.
Now I like commas as much as the next writer. In fact I like them a little too much. I’ve been known to sprinkle them about in my writing like jimmies on an ice cream cone. With a free hand. But in dialog? I have a problem with them. I can never get them in the right place when it comes to the dialog tags. And now, after being asked specifically to go look the damned things up, I know why. It’s because the rules make no sense.
To wit: this is the simplest, correct punctuation of dialog with attributions.
“Go away,” said Tom.
“Go away!” said Tom.
“Go away?” said Tom.
That comma in the first example is the source of my anxiety:
“Go away,” said Tom.
Why pray tell does the simple declarative sentence lose it’s simple declarative punctuation (the period) and get saddled with the breathy little we’re-not-done-here-yet comma? That comma leads me to expect that Tom is going to have more to say once we get done identifying him. That what’s coming up is more like:
“Go away,” said Tom, “I’m not finished wrapping your birthday present.”
Meanwhile, the exclamation and the question get the full dignity of their true it’s-all-over punctuation marks. But there’s no comma to set off the clause. Why? If there needs to be some sort of comma to set off the speaker’s words as a clause in the first example there should be a comma in the second and third examples. Why don’t we have:
“Go away!,” said Tom.
Or better yet…
“Go away!”, said Tom.
(Okay so we put the comma insides the quote because we always violate the order-of-operations and mis-nest our punctuation. We’re Americans. And we’re lousy programmers. That part I can usually remember.)
But still, why?
“Go away,” said Tom.
It completely baffles my sense of how punctuation should operate. It’s taken me almost 50 years to finally get this ludicrously illogical rule straight in my head.
But now that it’s lodged up there, I promise that I will do my best when re-working my dialog to forgo the humble period and to get all the commas lined up on the right sides of the quotes. Because misplaced commas make my favorite editor twitch and he has enough twitches already.
Recently, after many years of being away from the art of putting pieces of fabric together with lengths of thread, I bought a new sewing machine. A sewing machine that requires not one but two getting acquainted classes for the new user, and whose owner’s manual is considerably larger than the one for the Dodge Aspen station wagon on which I learned to drive.
But the absurdity of a sewing machine with more computing power than my first desktop is a topic for another day. The thing that I want to discuss is one of my characteristic failings: my inability to approach a new craft or art with any sort of restraint or sensible plan. You see I got this new sewing machine and, rather than start back into sewing by making something I’m familiar with — clothes or curtains — I figured that I’d move straight into quilting.
I mean, if I can manage a princess seam how hard can a lot of straight lines be? Besides I’ve done this before. I think. Once. More than 30 years ago.
Every craft or trade has its magazines and journals. The quilters and knitters and woodworkers and boat builders and bike builders of the world can subscribe to and read and ponder and hopefully learn from a plethora of publications dedicated to furthering their art. And there are always new techniques to learn: appliqué, marquetry, hand pin striping. The magazines and books conveniently provide instruction in these things and along the way they provide a series of projects designed to let you learn the technique and put it into practice, generally on a small, nominally useful project. Some tchotchke that will serve no great purpose in your life beyond giving you a place to learn the new technique. Scarves, jewelry and cigar boxes, garden ornaments — any of them could be useful, if you happen to have a cold neck, a pile of bangles needing a home, a number of loose cigars. But you can only wear one scarf at a time (certain Hollywood practitioners of the fine art of BoHo fashion statements aside) and if you have enough jewelry to require multiple jewelry boxes, well …
The patience to work my way through even a few of this astounding number of practice items isn’t on the horizon. I could have, for example, started with a nice patchwork pillow project. A simple block. Something with only squares. Learned how to get the seams all lined up perfectly, and to get that all important consistent 1/4 inch seam allowance. And then made another pillow — something that had triangles in it: learned to work with bias edges and their tendency to stretch. And maybe added a little border. And then another pillow, one with, say, four mini blocks, something requiring the fine art of sashing between blocks. Something on which to learn how to get those blocks all to line up in perfect ranks and rows. And let’s not forget about the actual quilting: putting together the sandwich of pieced top, batting and backing, then basting the layers to hold it all in place while you quilt it. Stitched in the ditch first — the easiest — then on the next one, a few straight lines, moving on to some curves and curls… maybe a little stippling, or some pebbles? One little step at a time, ending up with what? An entire couch full of pillows that I hate.
Because yes, I have to say it. I hate patchwork pillows. They annoy the crap out of me. Single blocks look unfinished and random. And not in that good, artless, effortless way. They look forlorn, alone, bereft of their patchy buddies.
So here I am. I want to learn to do something but all of the Learn To Do This projects are little, useless time wasters, not the thing that I see in my mind when I think of being able to do that thing. There are no cute tea cozies in my knitter’s mind; there are beautiful sweaters. There are no cigar boxes next to that table saw; there are Mission style blanket chests. There are no patchwork pillows; there is a queen size bed quilt. And so I start with the thing I want, then figure out how to make it. It takes me longer than it takes someone who knows how to do it. I waste a bunch of material making mistakes that someone who knows how to do it wouldn’t make. And it most certainly is not as “nice” as it would be if it was made by someone who knows how to do it. Truth be told, I’d be time and money ahead if I had just sat down and done all the little learning pieces and then tackled the final piece. But to Hell with it. I don’t want the little learning pieces.
I want to dive right in and make the Thing That I Want. And I will, and I’ll love it. All of it’s flaws included. Okay, mostly, sometimes. A few of them have need up being untenable messes that can not be saved even by the blind love of a mother. I don’t think that there is a practice piece in the world that would have made that lime green, knitted tank top a good idea for me, no matter how perfect the execution.
So, no patchwork pillows. Nope, there’s going to be a sizable blanket when I get done with this sucker. And it’s going to be a bit of a mess. It’s going to have all of the beginner mistakes writ large and repeated a bunch of times because I’m kind of a slow learner and I’m going to try a couple of my own solutions every time I run into a snag before I give up and actually go to look up the Right™ way to do the thing. And everyday for the rest of the useful life of that object (and some of them have lasted a good long time), I’m going to be looking at those beginner mistakes. The unmatched seams and little pleats and wobbly stitch lines and probably a dozen more mistakes that I don’t even know are there yet.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to fish, bake, draw, garden, knit, meditate, solder silver, or frame a picture. No matter what there’s the sensible beginner, without-a-lot-of-cost-and-risk way. Knit a one skein scarf, plant some marigolds in a planter by the front door, build a bird house, weld a garden ornament. Then there’s the Lara Way. The full, damn-the-doubters, make-the-whole-thing-and-make-it-a-useful-thing-right-now way. Knit an Aran sweater, build a garden shed, tear out the lawn and put in enough raised bed planters to grow all of your vegetables for a year, weld up a rat-bike frame from that old Honda you found in your uncle’s garage, or make a queen-size bed quilt. Because no one needs another scarf, or bird house, or garden ornament, or pillow as much as they need a sweater, a garden shed, a rat bike, or a warm quilt to sleep under. Especially a quilt.
I don’t like calamari. It’s not a big deal, but it’s emphatic. I really don’t like the stuff. It’s rubbery and unpleasant in the mouth and it tastes like dead fish. So I don’t like calamari.
I’m surrounded by people who loooove calamari so I can’t figure out why I don’t. And every five or 10 years I lose some of my sense and figure: What the heck — it can’t be that bad. Everyone else loves it, and I love all these other things that they love. Even difficult things. Like roasted brussels sprouts. So I’ll try it. Um, no. It’s always a total, damned-near-to-gagging-at-the-table (my grandmother would be appalled by my manners) failure. Some things are just not meant to be liked by me.
It’s not that I spend a lot of time thinking about my hatred of calamari. In fact I would say that I spend more time thinking about toothpaste or shoelaces than calamari. It only comes into my consciousness at all when I pass it by on the appetizers section of the menu at the Italian place in town. You know going through the appetizers… Antipasto plate — no, too much; bruschetta — maybe; calamari — ugh, No; bread sticks and fruity olive oil — yeah, that’s what I’m in the mood for.
On the other hand I can dislike olives without the drama. No, I don’t like olives. But my dislike of olives is just a basic “I’d rather not but it won’t kill me if there are some in the salad.” I’ll pick out the ones I can see and leave them on the side of the plate but if I accidentally get one on my fork and into my mouth then it’s not great trauma, I just won’t like that bite of salad as much as the one before or the one after — unless of course I’m being particularly hapless and both of those also contain an olive. Okay, there’a certain level of suspense in the olive thing, but not real drama.
Calamari involves drama. An unsuspected bite of calamari is absolutely revolting. That texture first and then the taste of bilge water. (Yeah, I do know what bilge water tastes like, and yeah, I do think that calamari carries with it not only the taste of stagnant sea water but a hint of kerosene.) There’s an actual catch in my stomach and a little hint of a flip — a threat, if you will, that any further attempts to inflict calamari on the system will result in open revolt.
There’s something shameful in not liking calamari, it’s like not liking oysters. Calamari, like oysters, are grown up food. Marks of having made it out of childhood food preferences and taboos. Being willing to eat those salty, sea-tasting and rankly slimy delicacies. I’m not an oyster fan either, but somehow I don’t find myself trying oysters every five or 10 years and being revolted back into my senses.
Some people are like olives — the ones I’d just as soon avoid but if they end up in the same conversational group at a party it’s not big deal. I won’t walk away or sulk and I don’t particularly wonder how it is that anyone else could like that person. They’re just not my taste. Live and let live.
No matter how much my friends and family are always going on on about them — “Joe is so funny.” “Lucy is so sweet and a great cook!” Joe and Lucy just aren’t going to be on my list of people I want to spend time with. Joe is an egotistical blow hard and Lucy is just so damned twee it makes my teeth ache. On the other hand Joe is someone’s favorite uncle and Lucy has never let anyone suffer a bereavement without a good supply of casseroles in their freezer. But they’re like olives. It’s not going to ruin my evening if they happen to cross my path or end up monopolizing a bit of conversation. They’re just olives.
And then there are the calamari people. The ones whom I can’t understand how anyone tolerates, and whose presence I will actually be rude to avoid. There’s Tony who is consistently cruel in the way that only guys who weren’t one of the cool kids then but are now can be. And Joyce whose all-encompassing jealousy poisons even the most casual friendship.
The stupid thing is that for at least one of them I have to go back and remind myself every so many years why I don’t like them. It takes forever to get the taste of kerosene out of my mouth.
Am I the only one here who’s sick unto death of managing myself like some balky damn toddler?
When you have a toddler in the house every single moment of your life is consumed with managing the toddler. They are ingenious, … and they can walk. In fact, when on one of their laser guided missions toward trouble they can walk a hell of a lot faster than the average sleep deprived parent of a toddler. There’s nothing trickier than keeping a toddler out of trouble. Except maybe getting one to do something that they’ve decided they don’t want to do.
Having a puppy is kind of like having a toddler. I recently had a puppy in my life. My normally pretty calm, grown ups only house was a maze of gates, barriers, crates, and playpens; and a mine field of chew toys, bouncy balls, and squeaky things. Not to mention the 42 pounds of 4 month old Bouvier. And one, very damn grumpy, old Miniature Schnauzer.
The puppy I managed pretty well. Like the clown in the bull ring said: Not my first rodeo. I know where to put the gates, when to take Monkey-Socks with Extra Teeth out for potty breaks and not to leave any shoes below waist level. No, my problem is the other toddler. The balky, sullen, overgrown toddler that is me. Yeah, there’s more than one black dog in the house. There’s the pup that’s sits under my chair while I’m typing and there’s Mr. Churchill’s dog, who’s once again taken up residence in my brain. The damned thing turns me into the worst kind of toddler. Not the tiara wearing pageant brat that somehow seems to have made it onto TV. Nope, this is the snot nosed, snuffling, arms slack at her sides lump of clay that Won’t.
I cannot get the little shit moving. There is no promise, no wheedle, no cajole, no threat, no mind game that can budge her. She’s too damned smart. Just sits there and looks back at me with a knowing glower.
There are tricks, a thousand tricks. And we’ve all heard them. From well-meaning friends, from the self-help books, from our therapists. Yeah, I’ve got a therapist. She and I go way back.
Have you been through this? The therapy where they teach you to “manage” yourself? Make lists, schedule things, set priorities. Build up a routine, get up and do something, any thing, it doesn’t matter. Exercise is key. Set a timer and do just five minutes of something. Make a list. Don’t allow yourself to engage in repetitive activity. Don’t turn on the computer (yeah, right, I’m a writer. WTF — I’m supposed to copy this shit out in crayon and send it out to you all by balloon?) Take a walk, Think happy thoughts, Call a friend. Breathe. Go to yoga class.
Ah, go to hell. If I could get the kid to do any of those things with any sort of ease I wouldn’t be in this mess.
I try talking sense.
Take a walk — you’ll feel better.
Go to the gym — you’ll feel better.
Call a friend — you’ll feel better.
Take a shower — you’ll feel better.
Write something — you’ll feel better.
I try bargaining.
Set a timer for 5 minutes and clean the counter. I’ll give you this cookie. She swipes the damned cookie right out of my hand. Hey, she’s bigger than me.
Sort your inbox, just to be sure that there’s nothing in there that can hurt you. You can play Bejeweled afterwards.
Just empty the dishwasher. You don’t have to load it.
Write the draft of a blog post. Maybe it’ll be funny. You can have a nap when you’re done.
Make the three phone calls. You can ignore the email messages today.
I make threats:
Sort the mail — or something won’t get paid.
Clean the fridge — or something will rot.
Take out the trash — or something will smell.
Read those emails — or someone will be angry.
Get off your ass — or something bad will happen.
I try blackmail.
Well, okay, blackmail doesn’t work because blackmail depends on someone caring and the battle cry of the toddler is Don’t Care!
The problem is that the toddler is savvy. The toddler has been around the block a few times. The toddler is on to me.
Best story ever…
Microsoft, like most big, modern companies offers their employees a host of training opportunities. Things like Project Management Theory and Software Coding Security Standards and the ever popular Building Effective Teams which includes assessing team roles and personalities, setting and meeting team goals, helping your employees to manage conflict, and all that crap.
One guy took it all a little too far. He took his skill set home with him and when faced with a domestic crisis forgot that he was sitting at the dinner table not a conference table and that the person over there was his wife not a team member.
When she determined that her concerns were being met with conflict de-escalation and team goal alignment strategies rather than proper spousal attentiveness she blurted: “Don’t you dare manage me.”
That’s my toddler, all over. “Don’t you dare.”
Believe me, I’d rather not have to.