Friday, October 30, 2009

A Cup of Cold Coke

Matthew 10:42

              When I think of the Great Depression, I think of scrimping, saving, and never having enough. Hope does not line the edges of the photographs of the homeless and hungry, and giving is a luxury the dead eyes have long forgotten. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us on this side of the photographs. For my great-grandfather, however, generosity was a means of survival.
              My great-grandfather was a teenager when the Great Depression hit, and like many teens, he wasn’t paying attention to the economy and politics. He’d learned hard work on a farm when his father became ill and Grand Dad had to “grab a team of horses and go to work in the field,” with neighbors to help him “lay by—clean out and plow the fields for the last time that season.” He was left to cut the cotton himself, bearing the man’s load of the farm work in the heat of a Texas August. He was ten years old that year, and he was 94 the last time he mowed the lawn. The lessons of hard work never left him.
              When his dad got well, Grand Dad’s family sold the farm and moved to town, where he had a paper route, a shoe-shine stand, worked as a soda-jerk, and sold cheap haircuts to brave boys who would let him scalp them with a pair of scissors for a nickel under the price of a professional haircut. He went down to the bank and asked the manager if he could take out a loan, “to buy old Mickey’s shoe shine stand off of him.” The bank manager kept a straight face and wrote out the papers to loan Grand Dad fifteen dollars. Grand Dad paid his “loan” off early and eventually earned himself a chair inside the barber shop where his father worked as well as the honor of being the youngest person in the state of Texas ever licensed to cut hair. Now he was giving full-priced haircuts and sold his shoe-shine business for a profit.
              Sometimes, he said, he’d line the other kids in town up at the counter of the drugstore where he skeeted sodas and buy drinks for them. His parents thought it was terrible to waste a whole quarter like that, he grins, but he knew none of those kids could afford a Coke. He had more money than any of them, but he was always quick to point out that he was working harder than any of them, too. I’ve wondered if that wasn’t because he had every job in town.
              He was sitting at another drugstore, nearly ten years later, buying a Coke for someone once again, watching women and children across the street at the New London School, when the building exploded in front of them. He and the school janitor had just come from the building after talking in the busy halls about the life insurance Grand Dad was selling. They spent the long night working shoulder-to-shoulder with many other people, trying to find lives to save. Over the next few weeks, Grand Dad helped people file claims on their children and wives, a few of whom he’d loaned the quarter to start the policies. He was only 25.
              Grand Dad spent his youth in the Depression years like a thief, one step ahead of disaster, always on the run from a poverty that haunts our memories in gray and yellow photographs of starvation. He got by with hard work, luck, and reckless generosity.  In the midst of national panic, Grand Dad was foolhardy, leaving his hometown to cut hair across from the State Fair for twice the money, never stopping to consider the sure thing he was risking. Later, he quit what he knew, what his father had done, the certainty of 50 cents a head, for commission-only life insurance sales. And after working through the night and nightmares of the New London school explosion, Grand Dad walked away again and started over.
              He worked in California, delivering cheap used cars from Texas, and earning extra money by working with a travel agency, offering rides in the empty seats of the cars he delivered. He moved from job to job in California, seeing better opportunities and jumping on them. When he found that carpenters made more money than drivers, he got O’Dell’s Carpenter Book and studied it with Grandmother at night. Getting into the carpenter’s union required a test that he passed “because it was all I knew. Men who had hands that showed they’d been carpenters all their lives showed up for the test and failed because that was all they didn’t know.”  He bought himself a new set of tools and went out and traded them, one by one, for used ones. The men he traded with were glad for the new tools, and Grand Dad instantly gained the years of experience his hand-me-down tools carried.
              When he was drafted for WWII a few years later, Grand Dad was trained as a tanker but then sent to the Philippines where they were not using tanks but where the fighting at the end of the war was particularly fierce. As his commanding officers searched for a place to put him, the sights and sounds of the long New London night were once again becoming his daytime reality, and he knew that he could not watch more people die. He scrambled to find ways to make himself useful: he built walls around the showers and latrines, built a clubhouse, cut the officers’ hair, and did anything else he could think of to avoid the death that seemed to follow him.
              There is a phrase that repeats itself throughout Grand Dad’s story. He leaves one place as he leaves another, “with less than a dollar in [his] pocket.” Grand Dad lived his life with audacity, walking away from the comfort and security of what he knew, time and again, to try and find something better, and not in the 90s finding-myself-while-I-sip-coffee kind of way, but in the crazy-insane spirit of our pioneer forebears kind of way. The way that believes in hard work and courage and a hint of blind-faith-stupidity.
              The year after he wooed my grandmother with his Model-T Ford and clever charm, for example, Grandmother & Grand Dad sold the car for new spring clothes. I never got an explanation for that one, and the best I can figure, youth is the same then and now. It’s reckless and foolhardy and somehow survives. At the end of so many days wracked with fear and the stench of death and hunger, though, it was his hard work and foolish generosity that saved his life and the lives of those around him.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In Defense of the Comma

Maybe I've been selecting the wrong reading material lately, but the following is also a response to an article I read. The bigger issues it addressed—the nature of good writing—have left me too shocked & emotional to presently respond. However, the author's suggestion to see if a writer sounds "smoother by omitting some of the rule-book commas" needs addressing, & I need a blood-pressure pill.

As a society, we are fairly well versed in periods. While there may be one or two trick questions in the advanced grammar books, everyday writing rarely gives even the least-educated among us reason to pause over a period.

Commas, however, seem to be the grammatical equivalent of the ancient Greeks' hamartia, or inescapable fate. The more educated we are, the harder we try to get our commas just right, and in the end, the harder we fall as comma misconceptions creep in upon us in disguise.

Despite the gravity of the previous paragraph, there is hope. Comma rules can be broken down into two categories: the Really, Offensively, Unkowably Stupid and the Easy. For convenience and in honor of The Princess Bride, let's call the former ROUSs—I don't think they exist, anyway—and the latter Easy.

ROUSs are the comma rules that even the experts can't agree on. They use their degrees and experience to back their tenacious beliefs about commas and to beat dissidents over the head. These include obscure rules and obtuse exceptions such as

One must use a comma after a prepositional phrase, except when said phrase fails to reach the minimum length of four words. In such instance, the comma is acceptable but not required.

But WHY? Why four words and not three or five? Why so many exceptions when there are already so many rules? And why the fancy language? Most of us would have to spend the better part of a half hour trying to understand this rule in the first place—who remembers prepositions or prepositional phrases after Mrs. Nelson's grammar test?

And so we look up prepositions, read the examples of prepositional phrases, cross our eyes, and hold our tongues just right. In the end, we still don't know for sure where the comma goes, but we've finally figured out why English teachers are so cranky.

Easy commas, on the other hand, are quite simple, and the wonderful thing about Easy Commas is that these are the only ones anyone's sure about anyway, so if you get these right, you don't have to worry about the others.

First there are commas in a series. You get apples, oranges, and bananas from the store. For formal essays in college English, that last comma before the “and” is required. This can be confusing because there are exceptions, but until you are a graduate student in a very few particular disciplines, these exceptions do not matter to you. Unfortunately, many teachers teach the exceptions and the reasons for them, and the rule becomes murky or lost altogether. An entire essay could be written about that one comma, about the trials it has faced, and at last in its defense and honor. It is enough for now that you should embrace this friendly easily-placed punctuation mark.

Second there are the name & date commas. These are the ones that always follow a person's name when he's being directly addressed:

Landon, it's so sweet that you hide chocolate for your wife.


Landon, have you considered that if you hide the chocolate, your wife won't be able to find it?

Dates are easy, too. To punctuate, not to remember:

On June 45, 1800, I married a wonderful man.

The commas simply follow the numbers. These are the comma rules they teach in first grade because they're so beautifully unambiguous.

Finally, commas do something magical that I was not taught until college, where it was suddenly a surprisingly big deal. This last comma rule could be called the Science of the Comma Splice, because indeed it is far more of a science than an art. One of the functions of the comma is to mark complete sentences, as we have been told only periods can do. We know to put periods at the ends of complete sentences, and we know we can combine complete sentences to create compound sentences:

Landon hid the chocolate.

Aubrey could not find it.

The comma, when combined with a conjunction (I apologize for invoking the grammatical term), lets the reader know that there's a complete sentence on BOTH sides:

Landon hid the chocolate, and Aubrey could not find it.

Leaving off this comma, then, is rather like writing a run-on sentence, and worse, placing a comma beside a conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so—not the eye infection), except in a series, in essence creates a sentence fragment.

Since most people can't keep comma rules straight due to the fact that they were subjected to ambiguous comma instruction as children, I can hardly argue that readers depend upon these comma rules for smoother comprehension. I do believe, however, that well-punctuated literature is easier to read and comprehend than poorly punctuated material. Think about William Faulkner, after all, and you will realize the value of a well-placed comma.

Comma splices—or unsplices, since we are speaking of their correct placement—are easy because they are like math.

Wait—come back. Breathe into a bag while I explain. Think of an algebra problem.

Remember to breathe into the bag. I promise it gets better after this. Let's try an easy one:

x + 4 = 2x + 2

Comma unsplices are like the equal sign. We don't even have to do the math! (See, I told you it would be ok.) The equal sign is very important to the balancing of the equation, but it's the easiest part to insert. Like an actual balance, the middle doesn't move—only the stuff around it. So one complete sentence balances another. Otherwise? No comma.

For too long commas have been misrepresented as an art, a secret handshake, the mysteries of which are guarded by a hallowed few. Whether commas have been held back from the common folk out of generations of ignorance or from some sinister plot, I am not one to judge. I am simply holding open the door, teaching the secret handshake, and inviting all who would come to enter in.

A Plea for Logic

I was recently reading an article in one of my favorite magazines about the evils of *** and why *** parents should not ***. In general, I agree with this conclusion, and because of that, my husband had some difficulty understanding why the article made me so angry.

While I agreed with the basic conclusion of the article, the author's method of arriving at this conclusion was filled with logical fallacies, assumptions, and blanket statements, not to mention inadequate research. Presenting a reasonable conclusion via unreasonable logic is a little like going to the grocery store by driving backwards down the highway. Perhaps no one objects to your destination, but no one will ride with or follow you, either.

There seems to be an assumption that if one is writing about ***, the writing does not matter. Some think the truth of *** is self-evident. Others seem unable to distinguish between a conclusion and its supporting arguments.

First, insufficient or illogical reasoning insults readers. Failing to do adequate research implies that an author does not respect his audience enough to expect them to recognize the failure. Poor research and logic smack of charlatanism, as if the author thinks his audience is too stupid, too uneducated to recognize his failure or to be worth greater effort.

The greater problem with such writing lies in the case of an author who has rightly evaluated his audience. Perhaps they are indeed either too naive or too uneducated to recognize the author's audacity. Then they in their ignorance repeat his fallacies and assumptions, believing fully that they are spouting great wisdom and insight, relying on the fact of the author's publication for support. These unsuspecting people are then blindsided by ill-will when they find their own, less-receptive audiences much cooler toward them than they were to the weak author who began the whole mess.

The article I read actually ended with a plea to readers to go out and share this information in whatever public or private venues they could find. Through bad writing, then, an entire group can develop a bad reputation for itself, as its leaders fail to communicate ideas well and its members follow the bad example. It is like an entire caravan driving the wrong way down the highway. Some members will be so convinced of the leadership of the author that they will honk angry horns and shake outraged fists at other drivers who dare to drive in opposition. Chaos follows the group wherever it goes.

The gravest result of bad writing happens when the sweeping generalizations and faulty logic are met by those who do not embrace the conclusion—those who get hit head-on by one of these backwards drivers. The group's reputation suffers harm because they are doing real damage to those around them, not because of their beliefs, conclusions, or destination, but because of their method of delivery.

Writing, like any other sport, has rules. Sure, it's tempting to bend them, to sneak in a jab when the opponent isn't looking or to quote one's friends regarding the mission statement of an opposing group, but that would be cheating. Following the rules is what makes a sport interesting, and without them, all we would have is an embarrassing brawl.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Martha & Mary

Sometimes I carry the weight of everything with me at once. Instead of worrying about today's problems today & leaving tomorrow to worry about itself, I take the entire laundry list of possible problems from now until a generation after me, & I worry.

It's like student loans. I worry about the entire 5-figure sum that my husband and I owe, as if a loan shark were after our children, threatening to take them if we don't pay the entire sum by the end of the week.

Instead of just worrying about what to teach this year, this grade level, this week, today, I worry about my kids' whole education, k-12, as if I only have this week to finish educating them. (The big ones are only in the 1st & 3rd grades.)

I worry about housework, too, as if the secret police will show up at my back door with white gloves at any moment. But the computer got a Windows-eating virus last week, the toilet backed up, the keyboard got fried, the car broke down, & I got sick. It was a bad week all around, and the house shows it. When the dishes piled up so badly that I couldn't squeeze the coffee pot under the faucet, we stopped & washed dishes. When the laundry piled up so badly, kids were foraging for socks in the dirty clothes, well... When the laundry piled up so badly, the smell nearly knocked you down, we stopped & washed clothes. And washed clothes. And washed clothes. We still haven't found the smell, & the toilet's fixed & cleaned, so I guess we'll keep washing clothes.

And now I have a new problem: the sofa's piled high with clean laundry to fold & put away. The kids ate...everywhere...while I was sick. There are pizza crusts & cheerios on the carpet in the school room, yogurt on the art table & in the doll house, & bits of ham, cheese, & bread from a rejected sandwich trailed from the dining table to the living room, I guess in case the baby forgets his way to his high chair.

But wait. This isn't supposed to be a confession. Let me start over.

Sometimes I worry about a lot of stuff all at once. These problems remind me of Jesus' words: "The poor you will have with you always." There are some problems, like student loans & laundry, that won't be solved by a silver bullet or a magic plan. They're long-term problems, & when we realize & accept that, they become a little more manageable.

Jesus might just as easily have said, "The laundry you will have with you always."

I realized this today when the odor from the laundry room forced me to pause & start a load. Walking back to the school room where the bigs were sweating over math while the baby tried to grab their pencils instead of his lunch, I saw the 2 loads piled on the sofa to be folded & put away, & I began to feel hopeless, the way I do when I look at debt or curriculum decisions. Sometimes these important tasks, like laundry & dishes, tempt me away from essential ones, the Martha in me complaining to the Mary.

Sometimes I listen to Martha. I gripe at my kids, sweep my floors, & miss all the reasons I chose this life. On those days, I look behind me, & all my work was for naught, a trail of debris following the paths I just cleared.

Sometimes I listen to Mary. My house is still a mess, but I can hear the smallness of their voices, feel their innocence, see their tooth-mottled grins—everybody in our house has teeth either coming or going. Most of all, I can hear the still, small voice, who says that this is the better part.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I knocked one of my great-grandfather's paintings off the wall tonight. With a ball. Yes, a ball. I threw it. In the house. It was fun. You should try it some time.

But if you plan to keep the no-balls-flying-through-my-house-over-my-dead-body rule? Wait till the kids are asleep.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Expert on Toddlerdom

I responded to a call for writers recently. Among the topics needing to be addressed for this publication was "homeschooling with toddlers."

I emailed the administrators, telling them that with two toddlers in the house, this was one of the subjects about which I could write. From experience, you know. Everybody loves a funny toddler story, especially with somebody other than oneself at the brunt of it.

A couple of weeks passed before my first article was due, and during that time, the idea sunk in: by sheer virtue of having a toddler (& being willing/able? to write about it), I'm an "expert" of sorts.

The thought hadn't fully dawned on me until the morning last week that I was sopping the last cup of coffee available in my house up from my keyboard, papers, etc. Holding the keyboard up, watching the coffee pour out of it, wondering wildly how I was going to make it through the day without the legal substance, not to mention the dying keyboard on a day when three articles were due, it hit me.

Other women in the coming weeks would be sopping coffee up from their keyboards & reading my as-yet-unwritten-article as if I know what I'm doing. As if I'm an expert.

It was a terrifying thought.

But I walked OUT of the room a little friendlier than I might have otherwise. I walked out thinking, hm—what would an EXPERT do?

I vacillate between the despairing feeling of ohmygoshwhatifI'mIT? and a friendlier, more patient persona. Why? Because ohmygoshwhatifI'mit?

Try it. Pretend you're an expert at your most challenging task. Whatever your knowledge or experience, however inadequate it seems, despite repeated failures & inadequacy, pretend for some reason, somebody's looking to you for your "expertise" in that field. See how it changes you.

And toddlerdom? I figure we're all equally expert at nailing jello to a tree, but for what it's worth, I missed an email.

I'm writing about homeschooling in tight spaces with no money.