Friday, December 30, 2011

Grammar Wars

Grammar is changing. And it’s not just the Oxford comma (which you can pry from my work over my cold dead body). Scads of commas are disappearing from usage. Lately, I’ve seen Saturday December 31 everywhere. (It makes me want to grab a sharpie and add the comma between Saturday and December.) And then there are dialogue commas: “Aren’t you hungry Bob?” (Beep! Noun of direct address alert.) And what about interrupters like “however, of course, etc.” that aren’t offset with commas? I want to smack the advertisers/writers over the head with The Chicago Manual of Style.

In the last year or so, I started seeing these grammar faux pas more and more, even in books published by the big three houses. And a niggling suspicion started. So I asked a fellow grammar lover who also has been writing for a big six publisher for years about the grammar “mistakes.” She confirmed my suspicions, style sheets* were changing.

I want to rage against texting and ignorance, and I want to extol the importance of semi-colons. And not because I’m some Luddite grammar freak (which may be true, but isn’t the point). Good grammar promotes readability. And clarity. And shades of meaning. And will keep the zombie apocalypse at bay. (Oops, that was a little over the top. Sorry.)

Anyway, I’m thinking of starting The Grammar Board. It’ll be like the language academies that promote linguistic purity, but we’ll guard grammar purity... Except part of the reason I like English is its fluidity of expression, the way it responds to culture and change. Hmm. Maybe I’ll just stick to writing whiney blog posts.

*If you’re not familiar with style sheets, they’re “sheets” (booklets) that many publishers/newspapers/magazines give to their authors to keep the grammar (sometimes even politically charged word choice) consistent throughout their publication. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Writer's Fix

I don't have a real post for you today. I'm staring down the end of the first big edit to the sequel of Screwing Up Time. Nineteen single-spaced pages left. My goal is to get this edit finished before the new year. I'm not sure if I can do it because we're actually on vacation. And today is my birthday. But I'm still planning to edit--I'm a writer, it's what I do. Besides if I don't get some writing done, I develop a nervous tick. So, back away from the writer in the bubble and let her get her editing fix.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Mystery of Reading

In our house, we have readers. They fall into two categories. First, we have the I’ll- read-books-in-any-format-currently available—iPod, Kindle, hardback, or loose leaf paper. And we have the you-can-have-my-hardbacks-when-you-pry-them-from-my-cold-dead-fingers readers. I used to be the latter. I love to hear the crack of a spine when a book is opened for the first time. I love the scent of the binding glue. And I love the feel of crisp paper under my fingertips. I love all those sensory experiences. A lot of people do, which is why hardbacks will never die.

But e-readers have a mystique that can’t be denied. There’s no sensory attraction; no bookish smell, no crisp feel, no sounds. But I can carry a whole library in my purse. I can still underline and take notes. I can adjust the font for my aging eyes. I can read on the treadmill without using rubberbands and paperclips. (Yes, I used to attract stares at the gym.) I can read books by authors whose novels are great, but couldn’t find a home with the big three houses (publishers).

However, none of those things are really the point. The reason I love my e-reader is the same reason I love printed books. It’s not the medium. About thirty seconds into reading, I don’t even know whether I’m turning a pages or pressing a button. Instead, I’m fencing a rogue, hunting a killer, or flirting with Mr. Darcy. (Sorry, Cal, but every woman flirts with Mr. Darcy.) And that’s one of the real reasons that people read. We travel through time and space to be another person, to think other thoughts, to be brave against all odds, and to feel other people’s pain and joy. That’s the part of reading that will never change. It’s why reading and writing will never die. 

Friday, December 23, 2011


Earlier this week my son Matthew got a Winter White hamster, whom he named Rumpelstiltskin. He's the cutest, friendliest ball of white fur. He has one fault. He's an escape artist.

He escaped from his cage early this week. And while we weren't able to find him, it was okay because he got bored and climbed back into his cage while we were searching for him.

This morning he disappeared again. And so we built a cute ramp leading up to his cage with raisins on it. But he hasn't turned up yet. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about Jezebel (our black Lab)--she doesn't like hamster snacks. Though I do wish she'd sniff him out for us, but she's already met Rumpel and thinks he's beneath her attention.

So our wish for Christmas is to find Rumpelstiltskin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Baking Day?

As I troll my favorite blogs, I see beautiful photos of Christmas cookies. Exotic ethnic cookies. Decorated gingerbread men. Or cookies filled with nuts or jam.

I look at the cookies and feel guilty. I haven’t baked a single cookie. I don’t feel sorry for myself, I don’t really like cookies. (I know, everyone tells me I’m crazed.) But I only eat cookies to be polite. The only sweet I eat with regularity is dark chocolate—but that’s not really a sweet, it’s a fourth food group.

But I feel guilty because my kids have no cookies. Shouldn’t they be indulging in cookies during Christmas break?

I can make ethnic cookies. I have a stroopwaffle-izer. Of course, the last time I used it, I had to reset the circuit breakers for the entire house. The electric cookie press was from the Netherlands and the person who rewired it for US current obviously made a mistake.

I won’t be making gingerbread because I hate it. It tastes too much like molasses.

That leaves the cookies filled with nuts or jam. I don’t understand the jam thing. I mean, the bright red jam makes the cookie look pretty, but then it tastes like toast. No jam cookies. Nut cookies. Yeah, I could do those. When I was a kid my mom used to make Russian teacakes every Christmas. I suppose I could do those. Or I could assign one of my four minions to make them. Yeah, I could get “good mom” points without having to bake. Time to rally the minions!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Did I feed the dog?

Just so you know, never plan family surgeries back to back to back. And never do them just after you finish several weeks of chicken pox. Because if you did that, afterwards you’d be drooling on yourself.

In all fairness, I didn’t plan them. They were scheduled for me. But I was silly enough to think, “At least, we’ll get it all taken care of all at once.” After all, it’s just some down time and TLC afterwards. We could handle that.

But I forgot to consider that there might be the possibility of multiple special diets. I already have a child with a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Then add liquid diet. And a high fiber diet. And you end up with three people, none of whom can eat the same food. I spent a lot of time cooking. And I was tired, so things got confused. Like the blender whose motor I almost burned out making the smoothies with too many frozen strawberries. Or that batch of homemade cream of potato soup that I put in Tupperware and left on a hot stove. It didn’t fair well.

But I was over tired for a reason. Both post-surgical sufferees were on heavy duty narcotics, but not on the same dosage schedule. It wasn’t a big deal during the day, but nighttime was a different story. Especially when I realized that heavy narcotics don’t allow the proper decision making capabilities.

Me: Okay, here’s a list of your medicines and when you have to take them. See? So you need to take the Vicodin now.

Sufferee: Uh, did I just take it? Or do I still need to take it?

Me (realizing sufferee had narcotics brain): Right. Why don’t I be in charge of your meds?

So Cal and I are tired from getting up during the middle of the night for the first couple of days to prevent the sufferees from overdosing on narcotics. Of course, I realized the kids would have medicines, but I didn’t think one would have six and the other four. Managing ten medicines takes a spread sheet. (Another reason the person on Vicodin could not figure out what to take when.)

But I think we’re through the worst of it now. And no one has any lasting damage. Except maybe the dog. Though she’s not complaining. I suspect she whined her way into multiple meals—when you’re tired, you can’t remember if you fed the dog.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mason-Dixon Shopping Redux

Today I's participating in  Blog Deja Vu. (We repost a blog from years ago.) I've decided to repost a blog I wrote it almost three years ago because it's gotten a tons of pageviews over the last couple of years. I hope you enjoy it.

Last night at a New Year’s Party, one of the guests was from Scotland. And since it’s always fun to listen to someone with a cool accent, lots of discussion ensued. At one point, someone marveled to me about how large the United States is and how similar the people of each state are to each other. That got me to thinking. Granted the difference between each state is minimal compared to say the difference between Germany and France, especially in language. (Though I will point out that when I was a child living in a small town in Georgia and then moved to Hawaii where some people spoke pidgin English, I could've been in a foreign country—I couldn’t understand a word some of my classmates said. That’s where I developed a “polite I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-talking-about smile,” which has served me well as a pastor’s wife.) But, back to the issue. In order for someone to say there isn’t too much difference between states, they clearly have not recently moved from New England to the South.

There are so many differences that this might be a recurring blog theme. But the first topic is: Shopping. When we first moved here and walked in to the local grocery store, the cashier called out, “Good Morning!” My son Luke turned to me and said, “Why is that lady talking to us—we don’t know her.” I said, “I think she’s being friendly.” Luke looked suspicious; he didn’t believe me.

But it’s not just the friendliness. Once when I was in the local Connecticut Walmart, I found a coffee maker that had all the important features—it could make coffee and wasn’t too expensive. But, there weren’t any coffee makers in boxes, only the model on the shelf. So, I tracked down a saleswoman and asked her if she could find out if there were any extras “in the back” or if I could buy the floor model. She nodded and made other noises and gestures to indicate she understood my request. Then, we waited. We contemplated the floor. We studied the other coffee makers, toasters, waffle irons, and long metal sticks with whips on the end whose function we didn’t quite fathom. Then, the kids decided that since there was nothing better to do, they’d play tag. Not good. So Cal took them on a tour of the store. By the way, if you don’t already know, kids do not enjoy a tour of Walmart. And still, I waited.

After the tour was finished, I decided to “find” the salesgirl. I was a woman with a mission. I drew up my mental picture and hunted her down. And I found her. Before I came in for the kill, she must have had some primal instinct to turn and she did. She saw me—and took off running. Yes, as my kids can verify, the salesgirl ran away from me. Foolish girl. I’ve been running since I was 14, which is many, many years ago. If I’ve been running through four kids and a fortieth birthday, I can catch anything. When I had her cornered, she shrugged, gesticulated, and made vaguely hostile guttural noises that meant, “This is a bad day for me, go find your own stupid coffee maker.”

Fast forward to the South. I’m at BiLo, the local grocery store that (despite the “lo” in their name) charges way too much but is close to my house so I shop there anyway. I am buying yogurt-vanilla handsoap for the church bathrooms.
The cashier, handling the soap container, says: “Umm, umm, I love the smell of vanilla. Honey, does this soap smell good?”
Me: “Uh, I don’t know.” So, I unscrew the top and take a deep whiff. “Yeah, it does.” I hand the open bottle to the cashier. (Don’t forget there’s a long line of people behind me with whom I am trying very hard not to make eye contact.)
Cashier: “Oh, this does smell good.”
Me: “And it’s on sale.” Oops, I’ve now involved her in conversation—this is going to take a while. The people behind me now hate me.
Cashier: “How much is it?”
Me: “Uh, I don’t know.” She takes the receipt.
Cashier: “That is a good price. I’m gonna have to get me some of that.”
Me: Trying to avoid the gaze of people behind me who surely must be wishing instant death on me for taking so much time, “Yeah, that would be a great idea.”
Cashier: “Y’all have a great day, baby.”
Me: Though I am sure there’s only one of me and that I am not her infant, I say, “Thanks. You too.” At this point, as I gather up my things, I cast a furtive glance over my shoulder at the long line. Each and every person is completely unconcerned by my long conversation with the cashier. They are in contemplation mode, and even one lady may be vaguely irritated that she now can’t finish the People magazine article on Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

On my way to the car, I ponder their patience. If I’d been in line behind a chatty soap buyer I would have been tapping my foot, making guttural noises and thinking, “Buy your soap and get on with it. I have things to do.” And Ariel would have said her standard, “Be patient, Mom. This is the South.”

I guess I’ve got a lot more New England (or maybe it’s the Dutch “use each and every minute effectively”) in me than I thought.

So it's been three years. And do I like shopping in the South? Ninety percent of the time, yes. I love that the pharmacist knows me by name and asks about the kids. I love that he looks over the prescription and says, "Honey, you don't want to be spending $350 on this prescription. You call your doctor back and tell him you want a prescription for medicine A and medicine B--they'll do the same thing and only cost you $18." And he's right. 

And the other 10% of the time when I'm in a big hurry and the person ahead of me in line is recounting her third cousin's surgery for a hangnail...then I take a deep breath and try to avoid muttering imprecations. I tell myself that it's a good time to work on the plot of my next book. And if that doesn't work, I can always try to cultivate an interest in the latest People magazine. Now I finally understand why the magazine are in the checkout line. I thought it was for impulse buys, but they're really for Southerns who are waiting in line. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Weird Al Treat

Today's the last surgery day this week. (My mom's surgery went well. And Ariel's recovering--though pain management issues made multiple trips to the pharmacy necessary.) We have to be at the hospital at 5:30am for Luke, so once again I don't have an exciting blog post. But I do have a treat. If you're my age, you may remember Weird Al. If you don't, you're in for a treat. Enjoy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cello Wars

With the surgeries all starting today (we found out that two friends in the area are also having surgery this week), I don't have time to write a regular blog post. But I did want to leave you with something to enjoy.

Friday, December 9, 2011


Today's blog post is short. I have one million and one things to do today. And I can't really procrastinate on any of them because next week is really crazy. Next Monday my mom (who lives in the area) is having part of her spine fused. On Tuesday my daughter is having all four of her wisdom teeth removed. On Wednesday my son is having surgery on his tailbone to remove a cyst.

The most exciting thing today is that it's my grandmother her 93rd birthday. I embroidered pillowcases for her.

Okay, so the lighting's not great--the pillowcases do match. As I was working on these, my daughter fell in love with embroidered pillowcase when she saw these. I let her pick out a set that I'll make for her birthday. After I bought the set she liked, I noticed that they were really complicated. I've never even heard of some of the stitches involved. I guess it's a good thing that her birthday is in April.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Milk Cartons & the End of Western Civilization

I think there’s a serious flaw in our college system. Especially in engineering departments. I think the accreditation boards need to get involved. Where are the good old days when engineers knew how to design a functional Christmas tree stand that didn’t need a dipstick (see here)? Or city storm drains that don’t flood our street? I could see an occasional design flaw. But lately everything has them. Even milk jugs. It used to be that milk came in waxed cardboard containers with spouts that folded out. You could pour milk without spilling a single droplet. Then, came the big plastic gallon containers. They weren’t quite as good, but with a little care in pouring—no problem. Now my milk comes in plastic rectangles with a rounded opening on a recessed end on the top. And they don’t work.

If you’ve ever poured milk from one of these monstrosities, you know that it “blubs” milk. No matter where you position your cereal bowl, when you tilt the carton, the milk will splat on the tablecloth. At first, I thought it was me. You know, pre-coffee and pre-cereal I don’t have the best mental function. Then a friend was at the house and I tipped a new milk carton to fill my creamer—the milk blubbed all over the counter. The woman said, “Don’t you hate that.” And in that moment, I knew it wasn’t just me.

So I complained at the Costco where I buy my six gallons of milk a week. (The checkout person always asks me if I’m a cheese maker. I say, “I have four adult/teenage kids.”) Anyway, the Costco manager explained that the weird containers save money because they ship better. He seems to be missing the point that at my house they lose my money—every time I open a container, 20 cents of milk ends up wasted and I have to wash a tablecloth. He didn’t seem to be concerned.

But this is my worry, a culture who can’t engineer a working milk container will probably never be able to put a man on the moon again. Sigh. The end of Western civilization as we know it.

But maybe this post will make a difference and engineering schools will teach their students “Milk Carton Design.” In the meantime, I take off the tablecloth for breakfast. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Dray of Walters

You may remember Walter (here and here), the brilliant squirrel who lived in the attic and eluded capture for weeks. But after great gnashing of teeth, we caught him and dropped him off in the wilds of Georgia. In fact whenever we pass the huge oak tree where Cal dropped Walter off, we shout, “Hey, Walter!” That should be the end of the story. But it’s not.

The other day Cal and I heard a party going on in the attic. Not just a squirrel running along the rafters. We heard a squirrel rave going on. I’m pretty sure they even had a mosh pit. Cal sighed heavily and went up to take a look. After he pulled himself into the attic (remember we have no ladder, it’s just an angled passageway that looks exactly like a laundry chute), Cal discovered a dray of squirrels. (Yes, I looked “dray” up.) They were partying. Cal yelled at them. They scampered, mocking him with their squeaks. He drove them from the attic. They jumped from the attic vent onto the garden window and to the ground. I was in the kitchen at the time, not realizing what was going on, and it seemed like it was raining squirrels.

Of course, chasing out squirrels in an attic with no subflooring of any kind carries some risk—those two by fours are only two inches wide. Cal fell. Thankfully, he only got a face-full of cellulose insulation. One of my nightmares is that Cal falls through the ceiling and takes the ten foot plunge to the floor. That didn’t happen, but we do have a convex handprint in my office now.

Cal finally solved the problem by covering the attic vents with plywood screwed into the frame of the vents. (We have peak vents now, so the old ones aren’t necessary). Cal discovered that Walter’s buddies had cleverly chewed the vent edges in ways that weren’t visible unless you knew where they were.

Problem solved. Except not. There’s another squirrel in the attic. We don’t know if he’s stuck in there or if there’s another entrance. So Cal will put the trap up there today. Hopefully we’ll catch Walter’s friend and then drop him off at the old oak tree. Of course, if that doesn’t work and there’s another entrance, we could cede the attic to the squirrels and make an Allstate commercial. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Spreading Immunity to the Community

December 3 is a highlighted day on my calendar. First, because it’s my son Luke’s 21st birthday. Yay, Luke! *Throws confetti* But the third is also special because it’s the very last day of the incubation period for chicken pox. Our youngest Matthew had chicken pox a couple of weeks ago.

December 3 was so near that I stopped thinking of chicken pox as a possibility. After all, all the kids had the CP vaccine and all four had CP about 12 years ago. Then, yesterday Ariel showed me her arm. And I saw the spots. Then, she showed me her stomach and her back. And I couldn’t deny it. MORE POX. And then Jacob showed me his stomach and his back. EVEN MORE POX.

When I announced the scourge, Luke fogged the house with Lysol (he’s now the only one of the kids who’s still CP-free). Matthew is concerned that he’s going to get shingles, I’ve explained that having had CP two weeks ago probably would protect him from shingles, but he still carries the bottle of Lysol and sprays every surface that comes into contact with Jacob or Ariel. The scent of Lysol is so strong in the house that I can taste it. Ugh.

What makes this even worse is that both Jacob and Ariel have finals next week. Jake went to class today—he had an assignment due. Ariel emailed her prof and mentioned the CP. I was sure the prof would say, “Don’t come to class.” But her prof emailed back, “I hope you feel better soon. I’ll see you tomorrow at class for the exam.” Um, hello? Can you say contagious disease? I’m sure Ariel’s fellow students were not pleased to see her spotted face. Personally, I belong to the quarantine school of CP containment. But I have a pediatrician whose motto was “You’re just spreading immunity to the community.” Yeah, us and Typhoid Mary.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Medusa's Come to Call

Today is the last day of November. How did that happen? November can’t be over. All of the things that have to get done before Christmas aren’t.

I do have the Christmas photo done. But my Christmas letter sucks. I have three decent paragraphs in the whole letter. I’ve been waiting for the beautiful muse of writerly inspiration—her name is Calliope. I think she's visiting Steven King. So the only Greek available to help me was Medusa—and she turned my prose into stone.

I haven’t bought Christmas presents for anyone. My daughter is almost done with her Christmas shopping. Even my husband is done with his shopping—though that hardly counts—he buys one gift, mine. And I buy the gifts for everyone else.

Now before you remind me that there are twenty-five days left until Christmas, I have to tell you that we have three surgeries before X-mas. My mom’s, my son’s, and my daughter’s. And don’t forget the pre-op visits. So my days are limited.

And even worse, I promised my kids that I’d have the first draft of my sequel to Screwing Up Time ready to be read by X-mas break. Break starts next week Friday and I’m only halfway. Plus, I’m not one of those writers who can work for 48 hours straight, surviving on coffee, Red Bull, and M&Ms. I’m usually drooling after I finish editing one chapter. (I think this makes me really bad, but I’m figuring that I can edit while I do my motherly post-operative comforting.)

Oh, well, time to pour some brandy on the fruitcake. And spike the eggnog. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Holiday Overview

Thanksgiving didn't happen quite like we planned. My mom ended up with a badly pinched nerve in her neck, so we hosted Thanksgiving dinner at our house. The kids all pitched in, and it was wonderful. (Can you believe that while I was at the gym on Wednesday, the kids started doing the things on my To-Do List?) First, thing they did was straighten the Christmas tree.

Ariel got out all the linens, china, crystal and silver. Here's a photo of the table she set.

Then on Friday after everything was put away, and Ariel and I finished shopping. (I got a beautiful pair of $70 black leather pumps for $19--now I don't have to wear the hand-me-downs that are a half size too small. That's really my own fault, I'm too cheap to buy anything not drastically reduced and I haven't been able to find anything at the thrift store.) Anyway, after all that, the kids decorated the Christmas tree. Matt made spiced cider from scratch, it even had thin slices of lemon floating on top. Jacob did the lights--the tree looks like it's light from inside. Ariel sort and organized all the ornaments. And then the kids put them on. Cal and I sat on the couch and sipped cider. (Though he did make comments asking why it took them so long to do it--he's not used to sitting down and doing nothing.)

Here's the finished product. (And we didn't have to buy garland or ornaments despite the tree's 9+ height. Yay!)

I'm trying not to ponder the fact that in a couple of years, Cal and I will be doing all this alone again. Why is it that when kids finally become useful, they grow and move away?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Early Christmas "Cheer"

On Saturday we got our Christmas tree. (We bought a tree early because it was a fundraising event for a crisis pregnancy center.) The tree was supposed to be 6 ft. tall. I would’ve been happy with a 5 ft. tree, but with ten foot looks kind of dumb. So we ordered the 6 ft. tree. They must’ve run out of 6 ft. trees. This tree is at least 9 feet tall, maybe more. It takes up half our living room. Okay, a quarter. And it didn’t fit into our old tree stand. So we bought a new tree stand. Old stand was easy to fill with water, new stand is not. New stand was created by an engineer who was a Grinch and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. With new stand, you can’t tell how much water is in the stand because the stand is so deep. It should have come with a dipstick. Instead, you fill up the stand and water drips out the screw holes—there are eight screw holes. I’ve tried sticking my hand into the tree stand and feeling where the water is, but the girth of the tree forbids access. Not to mention that it’s just too deep—my hands are long and skinny, so if I can’t get my hands in there, no one is. So I mop up the dripping water every fifteen minutes.

Of course, the tree itself is gorgeous. It looks like something out of a movie set—full, perfectly balanced. (It’s leaning a bit, but that’s because we’re a bit frustrated with the stand and the eight adjustable screws.) Eventually, the tree will be fixed. We have too many “picture straighteners” living in our home for the tree to stay tilted.

The other problem with the tree is that Luke started sneezing when we brought it home. He’s kind of been sneezing non-stop since Saturday. Yesterday when he was playing piano he was rubbing his eyes between verses. But before you say tree allergy, I don’t think it’s the tree. Luke doesn’t have pollen allergies. He’s allergic to molds. I’m sure the tree is covered with molds (most trees are). This means that today I get to spray the tree down with Lysol. I wonder if they make Christmas tree scented Lysol.

The tree is still undecorated. I am not an eager decorator. It’s even worse because there’s no way we have enough lights, garland, balls to cover a tree of this magnitude. Even if we don’t decorate the back side.

I’m beginning to think that maybe I’ll drop the hint that we should skip the tree thing next year. But then I’d be known as a Grinch for the rest of my natural life.

Child 1: “Do you remember back in 2012 when Mom didn’t want to put up a tree?”

Child 2: “Sad, really. She’d been such a nice mother up to that point.”

Child 3: “Though there was the time when she made us scrub the sidewalk...”

But that’s another story.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chicken Pox

Wednesday Matthew said to me, “Mom, would you look at my back. I’ve got all these itchy pimples.” At the words “itchy pimples,” a muscle in my face twitched. A shudder went down my spine. And a voice in my head said, “Oh, no.”

I said, “Let me see, Matt.” So he lifted up his shirt. And my suspicions were confirmed. “Matt, sweetie, those aren’t itchy pimples. Those are chicken pox.” My fifteen year old son, who has had the chicken pox vaccine AND who had chicken pox twelve years ago, has CP again! This is NOT supposed to happen.

Luke, Ariel, and Jacob all expressed their disapprobation in varying ways as they contemplated the possibility of getting chicken pox before/during finals. To keep the peace, every surface of the house has been sanitized and Matt has been banished to our bedroom though everyone realizes that they’ve already been exposed.

Matt, who now has pox everywhere, is getting by on Benadryl, oatmeal baths, hydrocortisone, books and movies. His plan is to watch the entire extended version of the Lord of the Rings. In the meantime, we’re all scrutinizing every red dot/spot that shows up on our skin.

Incubation is 10 to 21 days. So if we don’t get the pox by December 8, the last day of finals, we should be good to go for the rest of the holidays. If I don’t comment on a lot of your blogs in the next month or so, you’ll know why—we’ll be having a Jolly Spotted Christmas.

(Note: If you’ve been waiting to buy Screwing Up Time, now’s the time. I’ve put it on sale for 99 cents for the holidays.)

And here’s something fun. "Christmas Can-Can." Give it a moment--it starts kind of slow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Yesterday we were streaming a tv show and a Lady Gaga advertisement came up. Now I don’t know much about Lady Gaga other than her meat dress, which was really gross and mortally offended all my veggie friends. I mean seriously—wearing meat? No wonder no one wanted to sit next to her. Anyway, this isn’t about her clothing. She had some kind of Tweet going about all her little monsters and she was Mama monster, etc. It was a Gaga celebration of life thing, but it got me thinking about monsters, especially since the show we were streaming was Grimm.

One of the things I like about Grimm is that the monsters are really monster-y. Monsters should be scary. That’s kind of the point. In Grimm, even the beautiful women who turn out to be monsters are hideous looking—the pretty blonde is an uber-creepy hexabeast. Have you ever noticed that many times gorgeous men/women become attractive monsters? A kind of that Disney Beauty and the Beast approach. The beast isn’t ugly; his only negative features are his animal ears (which are cute in a puppyish way) and long fingernails. His grotesquery is something that a good shave, mani/pedi, and, okay, a nose/snout plastic surgery session could cure.  

Maybe handsome/beautiful monsters are supposed to appeal to the rebel in us, who wants to fall in love with the bad boy/bad girl monster. (The bad boy never appealed to me, I’m too much of a realist—can you see a bad boy rocking a puking baby at 2am?) At any rate, the handsome bad boy could be a marketing thing, or maybe it’s a vanity thing and the actor/actress said, “I’m not going on stage looking like that.” In any case, I prefer my monsters scary. What about you?

Monday, November 14, 2011


I’ve decided that allergies are a hoax. They’re real enough—just ask Calvin. This past week, I’ve been waking up sneezing during the middle of the night. I sneeze for about an hour, then sniffle for thirty minutes more before I can go back to sleep. Of course, this isn’t a new experience for me—I’ve been doing the allergy merry-go-round for years. It started with the fun allergy tests. Which consisted of “Excuse me, nurse, um, that little red mark has now spread up my forearm past my elbow and is heading for my shoulder.” The nurse made a squeaky noise and slathered me in Benadryl. Afterwards my allergist has explained that I’m allergic to dust mites, birds, cats, dogs, horses, mold, mildew, kapok, etc., etc. (Kapok? Really?)

My allergist gave me all kinds of meds. BTW, I can’t take decongestants. (The doctor discovered this when my heart was beating so fast it couldn’t get enough oxygen—who knew that could happen?) Then he prescribed the inevitable topical steroids. After a couple of weeks, he said, “Why aren’t these working?” I was thinking, silly me, “You graduated from Yale Medical School, so maybe you should know.” My allergist visits were also punctuated by the allergist pressing on my face or thwunking it with his finger and saying, “Aren’t you sure this doesn’t hurt?” Yep—no pain. (Unless you count the bruises from the thwunking.) After multiple painless thwunkings, he ordered a CT scan. Guess what? No frontal sinuses, which explained the painless face issue.

Then we did allergy shots for a year. After the 365 days, the allergist said, “This isn’t working.” Yeah, I sort of guessed that since I was still sneezing all the time. Eventually, he gave me more meds and called me “the walking sedated.” He also told me that I should avoid all allergy triggers from dust mites to mold to birds—basically, I need to live in a sterile bubble.

But I’m beginning to think that contrary to all medical knowledge, allergies aren’t really the body’s immunological overreaction to stimuli. Nope. I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities. One, a hybrid virus developed by pharmaceutical companies to increase their profit margins. Or two, my favorite explanation for unexplainable things, allergies are a sign of the coming zombie apocalypse. I’m pretty sure it’s number two. (I'm pretty sure the CDC would agree. Check their website for their zombie apocalypse preparedness novella.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Head in a Bag Plot Device

Did the title get you? Yes, this blog post is about the infamous head-in-a-bag plot device. But first, a foray into literary theory. (Sorry, I have to find some kind of use for those college classes. But I promise it will be brief and fun—which is not a use of irony.)

Anyway, lit crit folks have an idea that only a handful of stories exist and most stories, no matter how dissimilar, can be boiled down to one of these “genres.” Allow me to oversimplify with a couple of examples. Greeks thought stories were either comedies (ends in a wedding) or tragedy (ends in a death). Hence Shakespeare’s works are divided into Comedy and Tragedy (and, of course, “histories,” but if Richard the Third isn’t a tragedy, what is?) Detective/murder mysteries are viewed as modern versions of the quest epic.

So if all stories fit into just a couple of categories, how do we keep it interesting? That is in the telling. (Enter head-in-a-bag plot device.) Jasper Fforde writes the Thursday Next “mysteries.” Thursday is a literary detective/fixer. (According to Thursday, she actually “repaired” Jane Eyre. In the “original” version, Jane and Mr. Rochester never got together. Thursday almost lost her job over that fix.) Anyway in Mr. Fforde’s world, characters often try to improve their novels by buying plot devices. One character, who is afraid that his novel may be shredded, goes to the plot device store to buy a plot device. The-head-in-bag device is on sale because, you know, it’s been so overdone, so there’s not a lot of demand. A couple of months ago, I saw an episode of Castle. Guess what? It had the head-in-bag. But the writers made it fresh. (It was a mediocre episode, but still it was the head-in-a-bag. And my kids yelled, “No way, the head-in-bag plot device!”) In the episode, the dead man had his head stolen and stuffed in “cryogenic head container.” The “bad guy” claimed it was for cryogenic purposes. But the truth was that the brain contained evidence of experimental cancer drugs ineffectiveness—which is a totally overdone plot device—the writers need to go back to the plot device store.

All that to say, even if there aren’t any new stories, all you need to do is find a fresh way of writing it—and avoid the head-in-bag plot device. After all, you can only toss the bag through the air and say “Heads up” once or twice before is gets lame.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


When I was in college, class titles were kind of self-explanatory. I took stuff like Restoration Literature, which was literature of the Restoration period. (Surprise, surprise.) And World Lit was literature of...wait for it...the world.

My daughter (the math major) is registering for classes in spring semester. And she’s getting emails from professors about their classes. They explain the classes they’re teaching. For example, “Non-Linear Operations Research.”  The blurb is “using scientific methods to determine the best way to analyze, operate, and predict (yada, yada, yada).” Then the professor listed “celebrated applications” of this type of math study. Celebrated? Really? Does anyone celebrate math?

But there’s more behind these emails. They’re worded like advertisements. Hey, take my math class, you’ll love it. It’s “celebrated.” I suspect the profs are trying to make sure that they have enough students for the class. You see, the department rotates professors through the classes that no one wants to teach. And who wants to teach remedial math? (Though most of those are taught by grad students; Ariel’s friend had a student whine, “You want us to memorize three formulas?! But that’s too hard.”)

Or perhaps it’s to combat Here is a sample of an average entry of a math professor: Nice guy, who’s really good at math. However, he has only a nodding acquaintance with English. The average grade in his class is a 30, but it’s okay because at the end he distributes a few good grades just for the heck of it.

So I can understand why they’ve resorted to advertising (i.e., propaganda). Maybe the lit departments should consider doing something similar. I can imagine how they’d advertise Restoration Lit. Instead of “obscure literature written by giddy royalists who never met a clause they didn’t love,” it would read “forgotten plays and essays by writers who are thrilled to be rid of Milton/Cromwell and are pre-modern precursors to the bawdy situation comedy.” Literature studies would never be the same.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Let the Holiday Season Begin

For me the holiday season begins at the end of October when I bake my fruitcake. Before you groan or crack a joke, this is not the doorstop brick that your grandmother used to buy. This is an old Southern Living fruitcake, which is actually called "light." Not because it's low calorie, but because it's less dense--leaving more more for the brandy to soak in. YUM.

I start with this:

And end up with this:

Notice the white cheesecloth, it's there to keep the fruitcake damp with brandy. And it's sealed in a Tupperware container.

In early celebration of the holidays, here a Straight No Chaser song. Who knew that a'capella could be cool?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Writing Style

Several writing friends and I have been discussing writing style. What it is, how it works, its difference from voice, etc. What precipitated the discussion was I’ve noticed that agents who have asked for fulls of my current novel are often those who have asked for fulls of my earlier novels. That might not sound unusual, but the genres I’ve submitted to these agents are very different—young adult, murder mystery, and literary fiction.  And it’s over a long period of time, so it’s not as if they remember my name. I’ve been pondering what it is that makes some literary agents consistently ask for my work and others not. (Note: And these agents are not those who ask for lots of submissions.)

One writing friend (Adele) mentioned that she’s always been taught that while voice can/should change from book to book, style does not. I think she’s right. Maybe that’s how computers identify the authors of those “anonymous” books—they analyze for style. According to M.H. Abrams (you know you’re a lit fantatic when his Glossary of Literary Terms is at your fingertips):

“Style is the manner of linguistic expression in prose or verse—it is how a speaker or writer says whatever it is that he says. The characteristic style of a work or a writer may be analyzed in term of its diction...its sentence structure and syntax; density and types of its figurative language; pattern of its rhythm, component sounds, and other formal features, and its rhetorical aims and devices.”

I suspect that the reason I’m more “successful” with certain agents is that, like all readers, agents have certain styles they enjoy reading. And certain ones that they don’t. That may explain why agents often turn down books that later end up on the NY Times best seller list. The style just didn’t work for them. And I guess that’s not surprising since we see this in classics all the time. Some people love James Joyce—though why they do is a mystery to me—and some people love F. Scott Fitzgerald.

One of the lessons to take from this (besides that you should query widely) is to keep records of which agents requested your work—they may be more likely to consider your next book. It also explains why query letters are so important. I’ve heard a lot of writers gripe that query letters are archaic and hard to write. But query letters are an opportunity too. A query letter is your chance to introduce an agent to your style. It’s a chance to see if your styles will mesh. And you really don’t want an agent who doesn’t “get” your style.

What about you all? What are your thoughts on style? What are your experiences querying multiple books—are they similar to mine?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

College Football and Embroidery

Baseball season is over! Yay! I’m doing the happy dance. it’s college football season. I really don’t get the whole crazed sports thing. I don’t mind watching a baseball game now and then. As long as I know a bit about the team. But college football is another beast altogether.

For example, last night he watched the last quarter (thankfully, he’s not one of those, I have to watch the entire game people—he’s too busy for that) of the Northern Illinois vs. Toledo game. (It’s not like Cal actually cares about either team.)

 I asked, “Why are you streaming this game?”

Cal said, “Because this is the highest scoring game ever in this division.”

Me: “And you care about that?”

Cal: “Yeah, because neither team has a defense to speak of.”

Me: “So you want to watch a lot of losers play football?”  Okay, I didn’t actually say that—I thought it.

Watching a game for no reason other than a statistical anomaly, only shows how statistics obsessed sports is. And obscure stats can make any game seem special. For example, “This game has the most punts by a left-footed kicker who’s blind in one eye.” (And yet the earth keeps spinning. Imagine that.)

Cal and I have been married 23 years, and I knew this college football thing was coming. I’ve tried “getting into the game.” I assumed that if I knew enough about the game, I’d get involved and interested. Nope. It’s still mind numbing—though I did enjoy watching Colt McCoy a season or two back.

I’ve tried writing while Cal watches the game, but it’s hard for me to mumble appropriate words of encouragement/agreement while I’m writing. Cal: “Check out that running back—both blockers missed him.” Me: (In the midst of rescuing a character from destruction) “Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe next time.” Cal: “No, our team just scored.” Me: “What?”

This year I’m doing something different. I bought pillowcases and I’m embroidering them. (Yes, mom, your years of torture are paying off. My mom was a firm believer in the old European training of daughters. I can sew, cross-stitch, embroider, etc. And I know that the tidiness of the back side of the embroidery is as important as the front. My aunt Louisa, who’s a Swiss boarding school teacher, used to grade her students on the back of their embroidery as well as on the front. She once gave me a “C.” That’s the last time I ever showed her my embroidery.) Sorry, back to football. Anyway, I’m embroidering.

Now Cal and I have the following conversations.

Cal: That coach should’ve called for a time out—that’s rotten clock management.

Me: Yes. I agree. (Holding up my embroidery to his face.) Does that row of satin stitches look even to you?

Cal: Looks great.

Me: You give it an “A,” right?

Cal: Absolutely.

Me (smiling like a Cheshire cat): I love college football.

p.s. Check out this great post on self-promotion by Stina Lindenblatt.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Zombie Pandemic

I don’t get the whole zombie fascination. What is it about bloody semi-dead humans? I mean they’re not really scary—they seem incapable of rational thought. So even if there was a zombie apocalypse, it doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to defeat them. Of course, the whole undead-so-you-can’t-kill-them thing does make it a bit hard. But it seems to me that it wouldn’t be too hard to round them up a la the Pied Piper routine and take them out. I’m guessing that zombies are susceptible to RPGs. Once they are separated from their entrails, I’m guessing they’re a done deal. (That might be too gory, but I’ve got boys in the house so entrails are a hot topic.)

Jake and Matt are fascinated by zombies. Jake has made a zombie game, which is actually pretty fun since it’s a competitive/cooperative game and the only way you can survive the zombie onslaught is to work together. Matt draws murals on our big white board of the zombie apocalypse. Just when I thought my boys were getting too obsessed, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) put out a Preparedness 101 novella, Zombie Pandemic. Yep, find out how you too can survive the Zombie Pandemic. Click here. The art is pretty impressive. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bomb Threat

Yesterday, Luke called me from campus and said, “Uh, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but sirens are going off and students are being escorted out of Grote Hall.” It’s the end of midterms, and a midterm cycle can’t be complete without a bomb threat.

Aside from the very remote possibility of an actual bomb, the threat is a massive hassle. Grote Hall is the chemistry building, which explains why bomb threats are almost always centered at Grote. If I were a freshman, I’d want to get out of a chemistry exam too. But the threats play merry heck with our schedules. Luke is a full-time chemistry major with two jobs and research. Ariel is a full-time math student with a job. Jacob is a dual enrollment student taking Calc 2 lecture and lab. For everyone’s schedule to work together, it takes a spreadsheet and a careful car usage study. Thus, when everyone’s schedule gets whacked (they empty buildings one at a time, and some buildings not all, and no one knows which/when) and the parking lot is off-limits because the bomb dogs are sniffing the cars, it makes my spread sheet irrelevant.

I get phone calls. “Uh, could you pick me up?” I say, “Sure.” (I think, “Ack! I was editing—I’m not going to get this chapter done.”) “Where shall I pick you up?” Adult child, “They’ve closed the road. So I’ll try to get to the corner of X and Y streets.”  After I got to campus and passed the fire trucks, etc., and picked up said child. The child said, “I’m so glad to have a mom who can pick me up. Most students are sitting on the sidewalk, missing work. Thanks.” And then, I remember that editing isn’t the most important thing in my life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Books On Writing

I’m just getting over a bad cold. I spent yesterday evening going over edits with my husband as his second set of eyes (He’s been asked to write material for a website and heard back from his editor.) I’ve also been editing the first draft of the sequel to Screwing Up Time. And I’m up to my neck in winter clothes that need to be washed. So instead of writing a long post, I thought I’d do a list of books on creative writing. Please feel free to add your favorites—I love reading new books and discovering new ways of looking at the process.

Here are my favorites:

1. On Writing by Stephen King

2. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King

3. How to Write a Damn Good Novel 2 by James N. Frey

4. Pen on Fire by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

5. The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

Two more notes of interest.

A big shout of “Congratulations!” to Lydia Kang on the sale of her novel The Fountain to Kathy Dawson at Dial/Penguin.

If you didn’t see it yesterday, check out the Internet Book Fair

Monday, October 24, 2011


I’m not a hoarder. My husband and I belong to the if-you-haven’t-used-it-in-six-months-give-it-to-Goodwill club. But I’m seriously considering setting aside an area in the basement for incandescent bulbs, which are being phased out by the government. I know compact fluorescent bulbs save lots of energy. But, setting aside the fact that I have mercury concerns, and that CF bulbs are really ugly, I don’t want them because they flicker and flickering lights give me migraines. Even watching a movie on the new TV with their LEDs, which have much less flicker, can give me migraines.

So I investigated CFBs. I’ve read reputable reports—not just scare websites. Some say “Technology has improved. The new CFBs won’t cause migraines.” Though I can’t find any research that supports this claim. But other websites, also reputable, say “danger: CFB may cause migraines.” A WebMD website recommends that people with flicker-induced migraines wear blue-green tinted glasses when they’re around CFB. Right. I can just see myself wearing Jackie O-type glasses with blue-green lenses. Everyone will look like Martians. On the other hand, they might give me the eccentric-writer look. And everyone knows that makes you more successful. And I could write by candlelight. Except...candles flicker too. Time to buy up those incandescent bulbs.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Five

Top Five Ways You Know That Autumn Has Begun

1. The smell of burnt dust is in the air from all the heaters and fireplaces that have been turned on.

2. We’ve shivering and it’s only 60 degrees. (When it’s that temperature in the spring, we wear shorts.)

3. I have mountains of laundry—all the winter clothes that need to be washed and ironed before they can be worn.

4. I sweep multiple times a day. Jezebel’s winter coat is coming in so she’s shedding her summer fur.

5. You don’t need rose-colored glasses. Sunlight reflects off the fallen leaves and gives the world a pink glow.

I Love Autumn.

What about you all? How do you know it's autumn?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Good News

Two blog posts in one day?! That means I have some good news to share. This morning, we caught Walter! (If you've missed the Walter sage, click here and here.) He is even now being released into the wild to carry on his squirrely life.

It's kind of sad now that he's gone--hygienic, but sad. No longer will I hear the patter of his feet in the attic. Unless, of course, Wanda lives there too. I guess we'll find out.

Here are some photos of Walter. Note the intelligent eyes and beautifully bushy tail. Have a good life, Walter!

I'm a Realistic Cynic

I’ve always thought of myself as a positive individual. But Cal says that I’m a glass is half-empty kind of person. So I re-christened myself a “realist.” But with the latest election stuff swamping the newspapers, my response has been to misquote Bertie Wooster, “It all sounds well enough, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.” Which makes me a cynic. And I wondered, “Have I always been a cynic or did it crept up on me slowly?” Then, I remembered elementary school.

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would occasionally have days when they were sick of the kids. On those days, they’d herd us into the big multi-purpose room, plop us on the indoor/outdoor carpet, and turn on an educational movie. Usually, the girls all sat together and braided each other’s hair. I was never big into hair braiding—I’m not sure how the other girls made the braiding take two hours.

Normally, we watched some kind of Mutual of Omaha flick where a cheetah stalked and ate a gazelle—I think they got these movies to keep the boys quiet. After all, they didn’t spend the time braiding each other’s hair. (I found out later these episodes were staged!) But one day, we had something different. A kind of weird cultural oddities movie. My teacher must have been late to the library and they were out of mayhem movies. Anyway, one of the oddities was a house without a roof. I think the house was in Southern Egypt. The voiceover announced that the house was cool because it had no roof. The people who lived in the house didn’t need a roof because it hardly ever rained in this area of the world. This would be believable if people were actually living in the house and it hadn’t been abandoned. But no one lived there (except jackals) and there wasn’t a stick of furniture in the house. And judging from the sand and dirt, no one had lived there in quite some time. Maybe the reason they weren’t living there...was the lack of roof!?

Even if you lived somewhere without a lot of rain, it seemed to me that you’d still need a roof to protect you from the heat of the desert during the day. Not to mention the wild animals at night. Or the sand storms that plague desert areas. But apparently, those considerations weren’t vital. At least not to the producers of the educational film.

So to answer my own question...yeah, I was born a cynic.

BTW, if you’re interested, I posted on my book blog about the physical tools I use for editing. Click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Walter Update

Today my chances of coming up with a creative post on something new and delightful are almost nil because I have post-migraine brain. Late Saturday night (i.e., early Sunday morning) a sort of neighbor called. She was upset about something. She didn’t want comfort or encouragement. She wanted to whine. Now if she were a friend, I’d have listened semi-patiently to her whine (even though it was the middle of the night). But I barely know this woman. If that wasn’t bad enough, she called back a second time to whine. It was the second call that gave me the prickle in my brain, which said, “Migraine.”

Anyway all that to say that today is a Walter update. (Click here if you don’t know/remember who Walter is.)  In the last Walter post, Cal had gotten a humane trap to put up in the attic for Walter. Ariel was very concerned because the trap had been in the attic for several days and she was worried that Walter was starving to death in the trap. Cal reminded her that we could still hear Walter playing in the attic so he wasn’t “caught.” But he went to check.

Getting into our attic is an athletic acheievment. There is no pull down ladder. Instead a wall in the pantry has a small “door in the wall.” You open the door, hoist yourself into opening, which doesn’t have a flat bottom but slopes toward the ceiling. Then you grab the ceiling rafters and pull yourself up. (This becomes important later on.)

So Cal went to check the trap. When we’d tried the humand trap the first time, we discovered that Walter had bumped the trap enough that the bait dish moved and he could pick it clean from outside the trap. This time, Cal wedged the trap so that Walter couldn’t bump it. (Yes, Walter has a very high IQ. We grow smart squirrels in Tennesssee.) Since Walter couldn’t bump the trap, he ignored it. The trap bait was untouched. So Cal moved the trap closer to Walter’s nest. Maybe the smell would overwhelm his squirrely wisdom.

When Cal was finished, he decided to leave the attic. Except there was a problem. Even though Cal told me that he was going into the attic, I forgot. In the meanwhile, I saw the open “door in the wall,” decided that one of the kids must have left it open (shame on them), and I shut it. And locked it. Fifteen minutes later, Cal was stuck in the netherworld of the attic chute. Eventually, I heard him kicking the door—he couldn’t reach it with his hands. He was very nice about it. He even smiled. But the smile was one of you-see-I’m-right-about-you and added weight to his You-clean-up-before-I-even-start complaint—I’ve been known to put his tools away before he starts a project. I’m very blessed in my choice of spouse. He even talked to crazed, whiney woman the second time she called. He was very nice, but I don’t think she’ll be calling to whine during the middle of the night any time soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My Week Of Relaxation

Last Friday I finished the first draft of the sequel to Screwing Up Time. This week was supposed to be my week of relaxation. Week of Relaxation. I may have said those words, but I didn’t really mean them. What I meant was “my week to catch up on all the things that I slacked off on when I was writing.” (See this post.)

So did I get the yard work done? No, I didn’t even get Round-up sprayed. Instead, precious child number three, Jake, had a midterm in Calculus 2 (he’s taking a dual enrollment class—college and high school credits at the same time). Now you’d think that child one, Luke, and child two, Ariel, who are fulltime students at the university would be able to squeeze Jake into their schedule and transport him to review sessions/office hours. You’d be wrong. Luke and Ariel have jobs with weird hours. I drove Jake back and forth, even one time when guess what—the prof wasn’t available. I just love those car trips with no purpose.

Did I get the ironing done? Sort of. I got a pile finished, but not the one I wanted. I wanted to get Cal’s winter dress pants/shirts out of storage, washed, and ironed. (Our old house has miniscule closets.) I didn’t even get the clothes out of the basement. Child four, Matt, was taking the PSAT this week and needed help with the bizarre writing section—I had to explain that “B” was the right answer because the clause was modifying the correct noun even though it broke a grammar rule. I hate defending bad writing.

Did I get the refrigerator cleaned and washed? No. (Though I did throw out the scary food.) Instead, I helped Ariel get information sent off for a summer internship. You’d think that getting a transcript would be easy. At UTC, she just walks into the records office and they print one up. At Chatt State, she had to submit a request form and wait up to TEN days. And they don’t allow you to call and ask if it’s ready. And you actually have to drive down to the campus to find out. Seriously. When it was finally done, we had to fax everything. Except the fax machine was down at the site Ariel had to fax it to. It was finally back up five minutes before Ariel and Jake had to leave for class—Jake had his midterm waiting. He was doing the “I’d better not be late to my midterm.” I was promising, “You won’t be late. You won’t be late.”

So I’m looking forward to next week and getting back to writing. I never get anything done when I’m “relaxing.” 

N.B. If you're interested in discovering which character you're most like in Screwing Up Time, click here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lying About Writing

My baby is taking the PSAT today. For those of you who aren’t Americans, PSAT stands for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Of course, he’s not really preliminary yet—that would be next year when he’s a junior. So this is a practice preliminary SAT. Which seems kind of redundant to me. But we take testing very seriously in the US. Though not as seriously as Europe.

Matt’s spent the last two weeks preparing for the PPSAT. (Not to be confused with the SSAT—secondary scholastic aptitude test, which is given to junior high students hoping to get into very academic high schools. Or at least it was when I was young.) Anyway, Matt was preparing by taking a PSAT prep writing quiz. He got an answer wrong and called me over.

Basically, he was supposed to read a sentence and then decide whether the sentence was correct as is, or if one of four other sentences presented the same information but in a better way. I read the sentence. I paused. What?? I re-read the sentence. I paused again. It was a piece of crap sentence with more clauses than Santa. Hmm. At least I knew it wasn’t “correct as is.” Then I read the four other sentences. Whoa. They were worse. Misplaced clauses. Weird verb issues. Parenthetical tripe.

Me: Uh, Matt, the right answer was “correct as is.”

Matt: But it doesn’t even make sense.

Me: It sort of does.

Matt: scowling and thinking “If I wrote that, you’d lecture me and make me rewrite it.”

Me: Okay, you’re right. The sentence is terrible, but it’s better than the other choices.

Matt: These tests are stupid.

Me: Yeah.

Part of me understands why they test the kids on these kinds of sentences. If you’ve ever read a college textbook, you know too. Academic writing isn’t too concerned with clean writing. (I know, I worked in the Academic Press division of Harcourt.) For example, Luke is taking Scientific Writing for Chemists this semester, and all he does is give Powerpoint lectures on really exciting stuff like Acid-Base Theory. I understand that they’re preparing him to be a professor or a researcher because unless he was forced, Luke would never learn to use Powerpoint. But maybe, writing classes should encourage clean writing. Crisp sentences communicate clearly. Stuffy, pedantic writing isn’t smarter. It’s just stuffy.

If they did that, then the PSAT could have examples of good writing. And Matt would be happy. And I wouldn’t have to explain why a terrible sentence was really not terrible. I hate lying.