Commentary Comment Criticism
A common refrain is “Don’t read the comments on news sites.” But not for the reasons you’d expect – but because so many obvious non-readers leave comments there.
Commentary Comment Criticism
A common refrain is “Don’t read the comments on news sites.” But not for the reasons you’d expect – but because so many obvious non-readers leave comments there.
We all vividly recall colorful memories of carnivals, ocean beaches, or sunlit birthday parties. Many of us have an unseen bond with a few select books, ones so rich and engrossing that we often mourn a little with their completion. The memory of a great book fills our minds with joy as easily as childhood happiness.
Often, a first-time author will pour his or her soul and wit into a book. Without recognition, these books can fade, despite their hidden potential to ignite people’s minds. Those which pluck at our heartstrings and nostalgic memories deserve a chance to flourish and reach more people.
If you’ve yet to hear of “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee” by Talya Tate Boerner, I envy you. Your first time reading this treasure is ahead of you. The prose flows like melting ice cream on the back of your hand and the people and places in the book walk through your mind with a vividness that’s difficult to master as a writer. Talya’s mastery of language is equal to Pat Conroy, though her words are more sparse and evocative.
I heard of the book through social media. An avid reader I know spoke highly of it. Since I hadn’t heard of it, at least not that I remembered, I had a tinge of doubt. Buying it on Amazon was one of the best decisions I’ve made regarding a book. Since then, I’ve given the book to several people, all of whom have nothing except warm praise for it. Each book has passed from the original owner to someone else, a secondhand gift of true love for those who might receive it.
For those who might have grown up in eastern Arkansas or in some other rural community, you’ll find yourself back in those tilled fields, with your hands touching the rough edges of a cotton plant or your bare feet carefully treading on the boards of a long front porch. If you’re really lucky, you’ll hear the muffled bang of a screen door slamming shut in the summer as someone you love hollers at you for doing it – for the thousandth time.
“The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee” is a love story for a young girl’s childhood. It will make you stand up and look out on your current world and feel like we might have taken a curved path as we grew up and turned away from simple connections. The book stunningly hides a story line of acceptance and redemption inside, one between a stubborn dad and daughter; many of us will find ourselves comparing ourselves to one or the other.
My only wish is that Talya Tate Boerner would write a dozen more such books. In a world filled with books equal to her first, most of us could find happiness in their pages. It is a book like hers which whispers to me long after I’ve finished reading it.
For anyone with a love for reading or storytelling, please find a copy of this book. I’m sure that you will not regret the time you spend inside its world.
Barbara closed her book with resolve, knowing that Pat Conroy’s love of the land which defined him would welcome her once again as soon as she opened the pages. She leaned over to kiss her husband David, even as he paused to remove himself from the world of John Irving. “I’ll be back in a minute, my Lowenstein,” she whispered. He nodded and peered at her over the rim of his ridiculous reading glasses.
She cast aside the bedspread and climbed from the bed. Though the room was a historical catalog of the shared lives of her, her husband, and daughter Elizabeth, Barbara no longer needed to cast a glance at the myriad collection of photos to remember each individual memory. Most of her days filled with recollections of the life they shared before Elizabeth departed. Nineteen eighty-five might as well have been another life. In many ways, it was.
She walked barefoot from the room and turned left, heading toward the darkened room which comprised the epicenter of her life and once belonged to her daughter. She counted the eight paces to the window and pulled it open. The warm breeze enveloped her as she exited to the roof. Tonight, she could smell the honeysuckle floating on the air. A night like tonight was the last one Elizabeth had enjoyed, slightly more than one-third of a century ago.
Barbara knew that on so many previous nights, her daughter Elizabeth had emerged from the same window to smoke. Unlike her daughter, though, Barbara limited herself to a solitary cigarette. She hadn’t smoked a puff in her life until her daughter had died. Since that night, she hadn’t missed a single night without smoking. Rituals demand adherents.
In the event of rain, Barbara would smoke under the overhang of the utility shed, just like Elizabeth. As the drops fell, they reminded her of the minutes her daughter failed to enjoy. Thousands of droplets, accumulating at her feet. At times, she imagined that she could feel each one as it fell.
David knew better than to question his wife. Contemplation requires tranquility, if not silence. Although he would never admit it, he loved his wife more for her dedication to the ritual of remembrance than almost any other thing. He couldn’t bring himself to join her on the roof, even as his absence sometimes drove a wedge between them. 33 years had failed to convince him otherwise.
Barbara measured her inhalations as she watched her quiet neighbors. If anyone now saw the glowing tip of her lit cigarette high on the roof, he or she no longer questioned it. Barbara’s loss was intensely private. When she finished the cigarette, she flicked it out into the yard. David didn’t mind. Collecting the butts was part of his ritual, one he did without comment. In his heart, he knew that one day he would give anything to have the chance to pick up after the people who were no longer with him.
Barbara paused on the other side of the roof, one leg draped over the windowsill. Elizabeth was somewhere out there, in a place of unknowing. Barbara sighed and headed back to her Lowenstein, even as her heart called into the blanket of night.
If someone says, “I should be so lucky!” it implies that they know they’ll never be that lucky. Everyone except those recently hit on the head with a Wile E. Coyote anvil easily recognize the words spoken and the intended meaning. The word for such a phrase is ‘idiom,’ which can be loosely defined as ‘words which have incorporated a meaning not easily evident in the words themselves.’ In other words, an idiom can take on any meaning we ascribe to it, regardless of how divorced it is from logic, lexicon, and lippitude. The more vibrant and involved a culture is, the more likely that the language used has evolved in an infinite trajectory, one more often determined by confused and seemingly incoherent words.
Those most invested in the idea of a stagnant and static language usually tend to be those who incorrectly think they’ve arrived at the imaginary train station marked as “Correct.” They tend to look at a painting and see that the proportion is slightly off rather than observe that a great work of art sees them as well, in part precisely due to its defect. While language’s mechanics might be best understood in the mind of a master, it is on the lips of the young and those dancing around the fringes of normal usage who see to it that it undergoes the transformation which grants our words magic.
Usage, collectively or popularly applied, constantly creates idioms that defy their own origins. Entire books have been written on the subject and a million doctoral candidates have expounded on the folly and futility of language. The well of this subject will never run dry, as most of its underpinnings sit on opinion rather than science. The rules can be any we choose. Regardless of our choices, none of us will ever learn ‘Standard English’ as a means toward poetry or as a dialect born in our infancy.
For me, it is sport to watch educated and well-intentioned people gnash their teeth at one another for esoteric perceptions of correctness. Almost all who do battle on the field of language do so at their own peril. At feud’s end, the language has already expatriated itself to foreign terrain, evolving even in the midst of disagreement. For those who’ve not noticed, I root for the team advocating a dose of anarchy.
Another peculiarity of our language is that we can juxtapose both negative and positive connotations of the same words and phrases, yet mean exactly the same thing. Our language is stuffed with examples, ones which remind us that language is not math and the roadmap toward language in no way follows a logical course. If I shout, “I can’t hardly wait!” you know that I’m full of enthusiasm. On the other hand, if I shout, “I can hardly wait!” I mean exactly the same thing. Both listener and speaker understand the context and content of the contradictory utterances. You can artfully quibble with this specific example but be warned that our language is an arsenal of similarly-defective pairings.
When you snarl your lip and smugly make your assertions, you are not presenting the scholarly front that you anticipate; you’re demonstrating an unwillingness to bend to reality. Language is not math and it certainly isn’t logic. Its consistency lies only in the recognition that it cannot be learned like a finite subject.
We use the word ‘awesome’ without stopping to consider that ‘awful’ also derived from the same root. Usage redefined the intention of the words. I could literally write a list a mile long, one filled with words which have drifted away from their linguistic docks, often to mean the opposite of its cousins.
Having written all the above, I move to one of my most cherished phrases: “I couldn’t care less.” An idiom which reveals the flawed understanding of its detractors more efficiently would be impossible to find. Many an argument has been waged by those using the word in the presence of those who’ve made up their mind about an idiom that means exactly what it is supposed to.
There is no real controversy here, not really. Before this phrase appeared in popular usage, even before its counterpart of “could care less,” people always said, “No one could care less than I.” If said aloud, this phrase sounds as if it had been born in the stilted and feverish imagination of a terrible English writer. It died precisely because of its ridiculousness.
Saying, “I couldn’t care less” in no way conveys confusion, except in the mind of the person who doesn’t understand language, idioms, or the dynamic and evolving presence of our language. If you persist in your insistence that “I couldn’t care less” isn’t correct, you are doing so in contradiction to all evidence to the contrary. You have become contrary yourself.
Language is whatever we decide it is to be.
The sacrosanct of today will soon lie dormant on our lips, replaced by what is to come.
I couldn’t care less.
You don’t need my permission, of course. You certainly don’t need my approval, either. Likewise, you are entitled to roll your eyes in derision, mockery or contempt at anyone who corrects you for your punctuation or grammar in a text message. Unless your relationship is based on inequality, you should also expand this idea to include all private messages.
I’m not advocating total disregard for decorum – it’s not an invitation to use the ceiling fan to shave your back hair. Rather, my point is that anyone who takes the time to admonish you for informal text communication is a bigger nuisance than any perceived wrongdoing from sloppy language.
If the other person is chiding you good-naturedly, it doesn’t count as snobbery, so try to let those instances slide without a street duel. I’m not advocating that you be an ass to light-hearted cajoling or ridicule. What I am asking is that you take charge of your life and stop worrying about grammar and content when you are informally communicating. We didn’t vote on this concern – so ignore it.
It’s amazing how much of your life can be lived in this manner. Even a life perfectly lived will draw criticism, right down to the style of pants you wear or how you like to eat your french fries.
Those who relish correcting grammar can’t be stopped, so it’s best to adopt the position that they all suffer from the incurable disease of Grammar Tourette’s Syndrome, except their affliction stems from the mistaken idea that they are arbiters of grammar, spelling, and usage and this status compels them to lash out in self-appointed glee.
Sidenote: English doesn’t have a committee to decide usage or structure. It’s a fluid, evolving mass of ridiculous logic and rules. It belongs to all of us. Standard English is a myth we strive for without pausing to consider that it’s a moving target. Even if we understand the rules, they certainly don’t hold sway in our intimate private lives.
Life is short. Using tools for rapid, convenient communication should not be an ordeal or an exercise in English 101. Be as vigilant as you find it necessary to be and adjust accordingly. But if your blurbs to others are treated with a hostile eye, assume that the person complaining is a bit of an ass and go about your life as if his or her presence in no way determines how you’ll live. That part is most certainly true.
One of life’s greatest pleasures is knowing the rules and ignoring them. No matter how vigilant you are with language, you’re going to make mistakes. Even when you’ve followed all the rules, there will still be disagreement, even among the most educated and learned individuals. Language is not science, nor will it ever be. Since it’s always evolving, become a deliberate part of that process and reject all the components and obligations which don’t serve you.
Take a moment and really, really piss off a language purist. Write as you will and laugh when the sputtering objections commence. If they’ve taken the time to let you know how irritated they are by your lack of adherence to the ‘rules,’ you owe it to yourself to help them get over their unnatural affliction.
Get out your phone and text someone now. Pretend that you’re drunk and can’t spell any word longer than ‘eel.’ You’ll thank me for it.
C U later.
Apostrophonies: a word to describe those dedicated to the linguistic contortions of logic and denial to justify the continued existence of the apostrophe.
After years of watching the apostrophe debate ebb and flow, I’m voting that we eliminate it. Most of our communication occurs verbally and we’ve survived centuries without needing to wave our arms when an apostrophe is needed.
The grammar brigade can gnash their teeth in protest as they make the tired argument that tradition trumps utility or that our collective language will lose some of its elegance. It’s snobbery to decry nonstandard usage and it bemoans the history of every single change to our language.
Elimination of the apostrophe isn’t a capitulation to the myth of uneducated misuse or modern texting; it’s an overdue necessity. Our language has continuously evolved, and usage determines its structure. We have no arbiter of official usage; “Standard English” is a myth perpetuated by those whose livelihood depends on it, comprising a cabal of dusty minds looking backward.
To make matters worse, many people don’t realize we have a verb to describe the insertion of an apostrophe: apostrophize. Or ‘apostrophise,’ if you’re in the country in which our language was birthed.
One can make subtle arguments regarding those instances when an apostrophe MIGHT reduce vagueness, but if this is your argument, you can’t turn a blind eye toward the other 3 dozen ways in which English contains aberrant structures which inhibit clear understanding.
Contractions, plurals, plural possessives, apostrophes-of-omission, and all other usages have exceptions which don’t further the objective of language or increase its beauty.
Like it or not, we can literally change the language in any manner we see fit. We’ll either rid ourselves of the apostrophe or worsen its usage as people struggle against its ongoing and needless usage in our language.
The apostrophe should get its coat and make a graceful exit before we kick it in the seat of the pants.
Purists might miss it but I’m certain they’ll find another rallying cry of illogic to focus on. Those insisting on tradition always do.
Please remember that I love language but despise the focus on mechanics. Language should not be an obstacle to expression.
P.S. Remember that I’m not advocating for a free-for-all in regards to all rules, so please cook up a better point about what I am NOT saying.
If you like reading a wide variety of smart commentary, you will love Scott Adams’ blog. Even though he is the creator of Dilbert, you won’t find much concentration over comics here.
It’s surprisingly smart.
And I’m still astounded by how many people seem to have never heard of it, much less read it even once.
The Chronicles of Narnia are, of course, a christian story. The spectacular thing about this is that many religious people seem don’t know this. Even though it sounds critical of me to say so, I think that anyone aspiring to be christian should read these books. C.S. Lewis had a huge impact on modern christianity, for good or for bad. His Chronicles of Narnia are easily the most easy-to-understand allegory for the bible and Jesus.
I probably read the entire 7-book series a dozen times when I was younger. The stories of Aslan and other-world wardrobes was a true fascination to me. I’ve given a dozen sets of the books to several people who I thought would love them as I did.
I’ve read the books 3 or 4 times as an adult. Even now, knowing that books serve as a story version of the bible’s main themes, I still love the books. I’m sure that much of my love for the series rests on my memories of reading as a kid, letting the books take me away from the horridness of my childhood.
These books are one of the few hallmark memories of my childhood. I don’t have many things that can evoke a remembrance of happy things. If I go to a bookstore and see them, I have an instantaneous reaction to grab one and either read it standing there or to buy it and take it home to read, a cup of coffee in my hand.
Below is a story written by my childhood friend Mike. He wrote it a few years ago and it is one of the best examples of nostalgia short story form that I’ve ever read. Not only because I’m involved, either. I later did a revised version, but this one is the simplest and most direct.
It was the summer of 1981. Reagan was in the White House, Styx was on the radio, and I was about to enter junior high school, about to cross that bridge from elementary school just like the Billy Goats Gruff. The promises of junior high school, with its class changes, personal lockers, real sports teams, and cheerleaders, beckoned like the green grass of the far meadow. The threats of junior high trolls- adolescence, puberty, and ninth graders- were nowhere in sight yet, especially on that hot August day. What was in sight was a financial quandary. I needed twenty dollars to rent a trumpet to participate in band, which was another cool thing about junior high school. A kid could be in a real band with a real instrument making real music, and I’m not talking about one of those plastic flutophone-recorder gadgets from grade school, either. Real instruments.
The only problem, however, was that my mother did not have twenty dollars. I know, because I pestered her until I was sure that she was not withholding the money to keep her house noise-free. She remembered quite well the flutophone days. I had no other prospects lined up, and I certainly didn’t have that sort of cash stashed away anywhere. Things looked bleak to be sure. Then, like a messenger from Heaven above, my dear friend, Bobby, came to my door to announce that my problems were solved. Bobby was a couple of years older and already in band. Bobby did not need the money for instrument rental, however, because he played the French horn. The French horn is a school-owned instrument, with no rental fee required. He told me that we had been offered a job that would pay us each twenty dollars, exactly. All we had to do was mow five acres with a high-wheeled Yazoo mower. Five acres, a push mower, and twenty bucks apiece, I thought. What could go wrong?
Five acres, you say? I exaggerate not. These five acres were on the side of hill, too. I mean really on the side of a hill. I am not telling some “when I was in school we walked to and from in the snow uphill both ways with old men throwing rocks at us” story, either. And if you aren’t familiar with the Yazoo push mower, suffice to say it is probably the heaviest push mower made. Mowing with a Yazoo is like pushing a Chevette. But with visions of financial gain and future trumpet glory, Bobby and I accepted the job.
On the first day of mowing, we arrived at the homestead and got to work right away. Five acres does not mow itself. All day long we mowed, one pushing the Yazoo while the other rested, switching when the first got tired. We mowed. We mowed forever. It was the longest day of mowing that I have ever known. As heavy as the Yazoo was, it seemed to gain weight as it ate each strip of grass. Each strip was hopelessly thin however, and progress was slow. If only the cutting width of the mower matched the length of the machine, then we could have finished in a third of the time. It became dreadfully obvious that the Yazoo, while a fine mower, was not the best choice to push mow five acres with.
Finally, the day was coming to a close as the sun started to lower in the west. We had only succeeded in mowing about half of the five acres. Weary from the day of labor and daunted by another day of the same, we decided to take a break. I couldn’t help think that the builders of the pyramid had it easier than we did. I was willing to bet that the rocks they moved were lighter than the Yazoo we were pushing. We stood exhausted near the top of a steep slope that was near the north end of the property, overlooking a small creek that bordered the estate. We rested comfortably after a hard day’s work, but little did we know that a near-death experience was waiting for me at the bottom of that hill.
I have tried in retrospect to determine just how the discussion between Bobby and me came about, but I can’t remember how or who or when the question of debate arose. I only know that a theory was proposed, either by Bobby or me, that a person could ride on top of the Yazoo mower down the hill, jump off of said Yazoo, and stop the Yazoo from plummeting into the creek below. A part of me believes that I was duped into defending the belief that it could be done. Whether that is true or not can only be answered by Bobby, but he either does not remember or does not want to disclose such a thing. After a time of spirited debate, it became apparent that a real life test was needed to settle the argument and determine a victor in the dispute. As I was the advocate that the feat could be accomplished, I was the obvious candidate for test pilot.
I climbed atop the Yazoo and sat upon the motor. The sweat forming on my brow was not from the heat of the August day. I was internally trying to find a way to bow out of the experiment. Bobby, sensing my second thoughts, quickly challenged me with words that no self-respecting twelve year-old can back down from. My fate was quickly sealed as I gave a gentle push with one foot to get the Yazoo going. As the red mower quickly picked up speed and rocketed down the hill, I learned three things: No other mower would “handle” as well as the Yazoo with the high wheels in the rear, no man in history has ever traveled as fast on a Yazoo push mower as I was, and NO MAN, EVER, could ride the mower to the bottom of the hill, jump off, and keep the Yazoo from flying into the creek.
The mind is capable of great thought in time of approaching peril. I realized quite quickly that I had left out an important factor in my earlier argument. The Yazoo was not mine. And though I knew that I could not stop the Yazoo, I knew I must try. I had a terrifying glimpse of my future in which I would have to mow these same soul-eating acres for the rest of my life to pay for Yazoo. The bottom of the hill rushed at me, precious seconds lost. At the bottom of the hill, I jumped off of the mower, and grabbed for the handle. With speed and grace and skill that I have yet to match in my lifetime, I was able to successfully dismount the machine and grab the handle. Instant joy turned to instant horror as the Yazoo jerked my 115-pound body horizontal to the ground. A bystander viewing the scene at that split second might have marveled at the sight of a flying Yazoo push mower and the airborne young boy trailing quickly after it. Thankfully, I was unable to hold on to the mower, which flew over the six-foot drop into the creek below.
I turned to look at the top of the hill. My former friend was gasping for breath in a silent scream of laughter. I had to make a choice: Return to the top of the hill and beat him to death or save the Yazoo from a watery grave. I decided to kill Bobby later as I slipped down into the creek below. Luckily, the water was only a couple of feet deep. I tried in vain to push the mower up the steep face of the drop-off, but 115-pound boys cannot push Yazoo mowers straight up a cliff of six feet. Bobby had since made his way to the bottom of the hill. The tears streaming down his face were not in sympathy for me, and every time he regained any semblance of composure, a mental replay of the event would start the laughing fit once again. I turned the Yazoo down-stream and waded the mower to a low bank where I was able to get the mower back on the ground it was meant to mow.
The Yazoo would not start. “My God in Heaven,” I thought. “I will have to mow this stupid five acres for the rest of my life: My own personal Purgatory to pay for a push mower.” I quietly pushed the Yazoo up on the porch of the residence. Luckily, the owner was not home, and my mother picked us up minutes later. My wet clothes were explained by a voluntary swim in the creek to cool off from a long day of work. She seemed to buy the story. The story I would have to sell the next day would not be bought as quickly. I had already planned to play dumb as to the reason the Yazoo suddenly didn’t work. “Worked fine yesterday,” I would say, with a stupid twelve year-old look on my face. Bobby, who shared half of the guilt, agreed to stick with the same story. The Yazoo had just died in its sleep, or so we wanted the owner to believe. We thought it might work, as there was not visible damage from the ride. The story was our only chance.
I did not fall asleep easily that night. I practiced my lines until finally the exhaustion caught up with me, and I slept. The ride to the estate the next day was like a slow walk to the principal’s office. The homeowner had already left for the day, so all of my rehearsing would have to wait. Just to go through the motions, we pulled the cord of the mower. In true Yazoo fashion, it started right up and mowing continued, with a joyous and thankful heart I might add. I learned later that a wet spark plug had been to blame. An eternity later, the five acres was finished and twenty dollars each was paid. No mention of the Yazoo land speed record was said to the owner of the land and the mower. Nor was this tale told for many years after. God had saved me from death and debt, just like He usually does. I also learned many other things from the experience, including the toughness of a Yazoo, the importance of thinking things through, and the beauty of the French horn. It’s a school-owned instrument you know.
The following is what I wrote on Amazon, serving as a review of the book:
“…Whether you are a history buff or simply enjoy heart-felt stories, James Huffman has compiled an artfully executed and eloquently-spun book of memories about one of his relatives as she grew up in the Ozarks.
Instead of focusing on arcane details, the author weaves emotion, historical fact and simple language into a written image of what life was like for one little girl growing up in the depression era. Unlike a true biography, the book captures the love and mysteries of her youth without losing any magic by being historically true.
Were someone to attempt a telling of my life, I would hope that the story would be as compelling as this author’s tale.
Even though the book is obviously a labor of love for the author, anyone with an open heart will enjoy this book. As you read this book, you will find yourself imagining that your family would have been lucky to have grown up with a similar story..”
I’ve written a few other people, trying to get attention for the book. Jim published the book in 2011. I’m not sure how it got past me, but it is a gem of a book. It is rare to find anything historically accurate that touches the heart strings. Most books become bogged down by overly-immersing the tale in details. Maybe it is Jim’s academic and pastoral experience that has tempered his writing style.
Get a good cup of coffee and a quiet corner somewhere and read this book. It will make your day better and also probably inspire you to try to be as simply eloquent as possible.