shiny things in messy little piles

Category: writing life (Page 2 of 3)

Things I’ve Learned Since Grade School — Dialog Commas

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.

All In

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. 

Russian Prints Quilt

Once you’re snug­gled under it, you can’t see the mistakes.


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. 

Toddler Head

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. 

Thoughts on Arrivals

We’re final­ly in Mex­i­co after an overnight delay caused by not hav­ing a flight attendant. 

So I have to ask — is this real­ly vis­it­ing a for­eign coun­try? When the first thing that you do after the inevitable post-flight-hangover nap is walk down the block to the gro­cery store to buy pro­vi­sions? When you can find every­thing you want at the gro­cery store? And none of the prod­ucts is so amaz­ing­ly strange that you’re going to think of them for days after­ward won­der­ing just what they might be? 

On the oth­er hand I’m com­plete­ly cut off lin­guis­ti­cal­ly. My Span­ish goes not fur­ther than order­ing beer and get­ting a cab to take me to a lim­it­ed num­ber of des­ti­na­tions. (No impro­vi­sa­tion­al side trips, please.) 

The first day is always a lit­tle odd. Soul lag I think some­one explained it as. Actu­al­ly that was an expla­na­tion for jet lag. That the soul can’t fly as fast as the body in a jet and so it gets left behind and you feel all fun­ny and out of sorts while you’re wait­ing for it to catch up with you. The first day in Mex­i­co feels a lit­tle like that. You have a list of things you have to take care of. Like the gro­cery store and the going to the bank to get mon­ey, but you’re too tired and the alti­tude is too much (we’re above Den­ver here) to make run­ning right out and _doing_ things a good idea. So you sit around with a lit­tle beer and a bag of peanuts and your lap­top and talk to your part­ner about who the oth­er guests are and secret­ly won­der if you’ll like any of them and debate where to go for din­ner. Should we go to one of the places you’ve been look­ing for­ward to revis­it­ing, or is it waste to do that the first night because, well it’s the first night and my soul is still stuck in a pat­tern some­where over Hous­ton try­ing to fig­ure out how to make it the rest of the way south to join me in the sunshine. 

Today the temp is get­ting to be close to 90. 

We have beer. Bohemia oscuro. Which is vague­ly bet­ter than no beer. But not by much. Good beer is some­thing that you have to go to town to get. Or dif­fer­ent gro­cery store. 

And then a bird took a crap on my com­put­er. Right on the caps lock key. I’m sure that sig­ni­fies something. 

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