Category Archives: Uncategorized

Grammer matter’s bc other country’s know are language better then us*

Here’s a little lesson in humility for the following:

*  Every North American who sees no value in learning our own language well, let alone anyone else’s

*  Every North American who makes fun of people who come from other countries and struggle to live in our country, learn our culture, and speak our language

Over the years, I have led numerous grammar “review” sessions at various colleges and universities where I’ve been a professor. These sessions cover the three major problem areas for most people:

1. Apostrophes
2. Pronouns
3. Irregular verbs, especially transitive and intransitive (the biggies are lie vs. lay)

Did you notice how I put the word review in quotation marks? That’s because, for many of my students, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard it.

Of course there are other trouble spots. These are the main ones that lots of people get wrong, including many “professional” writers. Again, note my use of quotation marks.

In all my years of review sessions with hundreds of students, most of whom have come through our public K-12 schools, I have met only one student who already knew this material thoroughly — knew it so well, in fact, that he was able to stay one step ahead for most of the review session.

One student.

One.

Want to know where he’s from?

Iran.

 

 

*PS:  If you caught all eight errors in my headline, then you are probably either: a) as frustrated as I am at the appalling state of language instruction in the United States; or b) foreign.

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In which I confess my shameful drug abuse

This is how a nasty addiction gets started.

The little lies I tell myself. It’s just for today, just to ease the stress a little, just to help get through a patch of bad weather.

I’ll stop as soon as things get back to normal.

They’re only painkillers. The doctor wouldn’t have prescribed them if they were truly dangerous.

Still, he’s only 17 — too innocent, really, to understand the consequences of the choices I am making for him. Too innocent to understand how he might come to crave the hazy euphoria that creeps up on him within seconds of my plunging the syringe deep, deep into his docile, yielding form, while he tries to meet with his trusting eyes my own shifty gaze. And if the demand increases while the supply dwindles, where can he go to get his next fix? To what depths will he sink to score the next hit?

I’m only thinking of him

But hey. What am I going to do? The heat wave of 90-degree-plus temperatures is forecast to hold for several more days, and every time my cat wanders out for even a few moments, he comes back inside crawling with fleas. I swear they must be lying in ambush right by the  door, just waiting to pounce on his  shoulders, where he is unable to reach around and pick them off with his teeth.

Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to insist that he stay indoors until the heat breaks. Maybe by then, the fleas will have given up on Mozart and moved on to some other neighborhood, someplace where pet owners allow their animals to roam a bit more freely.

Still, he would go out, in this heat, fleas or no fleas. He is very insistent about this. He’s even taken to hiding himself under the hutch by the door, poised to make a desperate run for it as soon as one of us opens the door on our way out.

Seventeen years of getting used to things being done a certain way is a lifetime to a cat, and I worry that the sudden change in the order of things might be too stressful for him at his advanced age.

Excuses, excuses

That was why, today, I gave him a dose of the painkillers the veterinarian prescribed for a dislocated shoulder, even though he is no longer limping. I try to soothe my stinging conscience by reminding myself that, including the dose he got that day, this is only his second. It surely can’t do that much harm. It’s for his own good. It’s to help keep him calm. To get him through a rough couple of days.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that if anyone ever got wind of my behavior, this would all look very, very bad in the tabloids.

And I can only thank my lucky stars that, at least up to this point, Mozart has never shown the slightest interest in penning a tell-all memoir about how I led him to a life of debauchery and ruin. 

If he ever does, I’m in deep, deep doo-doo.

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Men Who Hate Women. And the therapists who love them.

A few days ago, I went to the library and checked out the book Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. Partly, I was just curious. Because it has long been considered a groundbreaking work, I figured any modern-day feminist worthy of the name should be well-versed in the relevant literature.

So, I started reading. Susan Forward, the psychologist who wrote the book, had me at the first couple of sentences, in which she described a destructive relationship dominated by a man who systematically destroys the woman’s attempts to assert her right to equal treatment. We’ve all seen relationships like that. Some of us have even been in relationships like that. Dr. Forward hit the nail right on the head.

So far, so good.

Then I come to the chapter in which she describes how men learn to be misogynistic within their families. As she describes the influence of a misogynistic father in shaping his son’s distorted perceptions of women, that too has the ring of authenticity and truth to it. We all know fathers who deliberately indoctrinate their sons in the belief that women are inferior, second-rate, worthy of contempt.

There’s where the problem sets in. After disposing in a few short paragraphs with a toxic father’s impact, she devotes the remainder of the chapter describing in great detail  the damaging effects of the mother-son relationship in response to the father. Page after page sets out the various dysfunctional models for how mothers trapped in marriage to an irredeemable jerk damage their sons. But not one further peep about what the father in all his destructive glory is doing on a daily basis. The daily snickering over the stacks of Playboy magazine hidden in the basement. The constant belittling of his wife in front of their children, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances. The overarching intolerance for anyone’s will but his own. Somehow, none of that is considered nearly as powerful as the mother’s futile attempts to cope with a situation that is completely out of her hands.

Same old same-old.

So in other words, even when the father is a complete and utter swine, it’s still somehow all on the mother’s shoulders if the son winds up damaged.

Doesn’t sound very groundbreaking to me. Sounds like the same old claptrap we’ve been hearing for generations. And the sad fact is, that’s still pretty much the presumption most family therapists are laboring under.

A not-very-modest proposal.

So for the record, bear with me while I make an outrageous, preposterous, revolutionary proposition. I’m just going to go out on a limb here, because someone’s got to do it. I realize this may be the first time anyone has ever dared to suggest such a thing, so you might want to make sure you’re sitting down.

Sometimes–often, in fact–when a man grows up hating women, it was the father who taught him that. Not the mother. And just as often, when a family’s dynamics are pathologically dysfunctional, the problems begin and end with the father. Not the mother.

Ultimately, though, when a man continues into adulthood hating women, there is one person and one person only who is responsible for that.

Him.

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Curvy schmurvy. I prefer well-rounded

Tell me if you see what’s wrong with this picture that was posted on Facebook from the Women’s Rights News web site: a plus-size model clad only in her lingerie, with this blurb emblazoned in all capital letters and vivid purple ink: “There is no such thing as percect (sic). There is just me, and guess what I’m OK with that.”

Underneath that photo is the text line: “Curvy is fine.”

Click here to see the photo:

Leaving aside the poor grammar and spelling in the blurb … and leaving aside, for the moment, the irony that such an act of self-objectification appears on a web site that purports to promote feminist values … I have to wonder if anyone besides me is bothered by the use of the euphemism “curvy” to mean something it doesn’t actually mean. It implies that all women of ample proportions are curvy, and that simply is not the case. It also implies that no slender woman can possibly be curvy. Also not true.

I prefer the term “full-figured,” which is far more accurate without being pejorative. Better yet, how about “intelligent,” or “talented” or even (and I know this is a radical notion) “human”?

But what’s even more troubling to me is the fact that women feel the need to pose in their underwear to prove something. Because frankly, I don’t choose my friends on the basis of how they look in their lingerie. I’m interested in knowing what books they’ve read, or the results of their latest lab experiments, or what they’re doing to eradicate puppy mills.

And if someone is judging me on the basis of how I might theoretically look in my skivvies–especially considering that the vast majority of the population will never in fact see me in them without the proper street attire on top–it’s probably not worth trying to prove anything at all.

Except perhaps how quickly I can move on to a more engaging conversation with a more well-rounded person.

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Chasing the elusive Chapter 2

Some people devote their entire lives to finding a cure for cancer. Some spend their lives looking for true love. For others, self-fulfillment is a lifelong goal.

The Holy Grail. The fountain of youth. The One Ring. Whatever the object, the quest for something larger than ourselves is what drives human civilization forward and separates us spiritually and intellectually from the animals.

Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.

For me, I’m afraid, the goal is far more simple. At least it should be. I’d just like to finish Chapter 2.

Time to break the pattern

You see, it’s no problem for me, when inspiration nudges me toward yet another not-too-shabby book idea, to knock out Chapter 1. I have a long and impressive history of producing butt-kicking, attention-grabbing, spine-tingling first chapters. At last count, I had  six Chapters One for various books that never made it to Chapter 2.

Well, it’s time to break the pattern. Today I started working on Chapter 2 of the seventh pretty decent book idea that, come hell or high water, I am going to finish. Now. This summer.

And this time I’m pulling out all the stops, looking at every possible angle, studying every obstacle. And what I’ve discovered, as I think about all the distractions that have prevented me from forging ahead into the rest of whatever book I’ve started, is that my biggest obstacle is me, and how I always manage to get in my own way.

I have met the enemy …

I might call it something else. The dishes piled up in the sink. The papers that need to be graded. Serious questions about whether this is really going to be a marketable idea and, even if I succeed in landing an agent, who’s to say anyone will want to read it?

The reality is, those are all obstacles of my own making. I even understand the basic underlying principle here. If I never really make a serious effort, then I’ll never have to face the painful possibility that my best just wasn’t good enough.

No one has to tell me that this is the classic definition of failure. I already know from firsthand experience that the only regrets I have ever had in life are about the things I didn’t do. They’re never about the things I did do … even when those things didn’t work out as I’d hoped.

I know, too, that by sending myself my own rejection slips before I even get started, I am making sure no one else beats me to it. Unfortunately, in so doing I am also ruling out the possibility that somebody might be interested enough to take a chance on me. And that maybe somebody else–and maybe a lot of somebody elses–might actually be glad I made the effort.

Tell me what you think

Sound familiar? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please respond in the comments below and tell me what stops you from pushing through your own negative self-talk. And, tell me what tricks you use to get past it.  I’m looking for some good ideas, and there’s a good chance I’m going to try try some of your suggestions. If I do, I’ll write about it here and tell you how it worked out.

So there’s my challenge for my fellow authors out there. What does your negative self-talk look and sound like? What do you do to get past it?

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A paragon of professionalism

Pen poised, wits sharp, I nod in profound comprehension as my brilliant colleague, a science professor, explains the groundbreaking research he and his students have been engaged in. This is all familiar territory to me, having spent the past several years of my career reporting on some of the innovative technologies under development at the Notre Dame nanotechnology facility.

Paragon …

One of the things I like to reassure my scientist sources about right up front is my comfort level and professionalism with the subject matter. I want them to know they’re in good hands. That their prized investigative research  will be handled with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. That they can entrust to me their most complex and advanced concepts, knowing that I will distill them into simple, easy-to-understand explanations without altering a single subatomic particle of their sense and meaning. I may be a journalist, I may be an English professor, I may be the writing center director, but I also have a head for grasping  complex scientific subjects and translating them into everyday language for a variety of audiences. (You can check my LinkedIn profile. I think it says almost exactly that.)

So here I sit, nodding knowingly, laughing appreciatively at his brainy-scientist jokes, scribbling furiously to get down some of his better quotes.

Heck, I even smile sagely when our interview is interrupted by a call on his cell phone and he carries on a brief conversation that goes something like this on his end:  “Pronto. … Sì… venti minuti … ” and a few other phrases I forget now but the point is I understand every word.

When he hangs up, I say, “Parli italiano? (Do you speak Italian?)” See? I even speak the same second language he speaks.

Yep. That’s me. Ever the consummate professional, right down to my high-powered demeanor and my businesslike attire: chic red sheath dress accented with pearl jewelry, ivory peach-skin jacket and  elegant ivory pumps.

… or paradox?

And, for the pièce de résistance, a big glob of spinach left over from lunch, wedged prominently between my front teeth. So every time I smile at him, which I do engagingly and often to demonstrate that I am right there with him, he can’t help but see it.

And which I myself don’t discover until I happen to glance in the mirror, several hours afterward.

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The strawberries

A trip down memory lane to a brief but powerful long-ago epiphany

We are sitting around the table: my parents, my two older siblings and I. My brother has possession of the bowl of strawberries, which means that it may or may not be heard from again. Judging by the way he keeps shoveling them onto his plate, I suspect it’s probably going to be Choice B.

Not that I care, really, one way or another. I hate strawberries. Still, it’s a golden opportunity to make a sarcastic remark about his unbridled gluttony, a subject that has made for some pretty easy shots since he turned 12 and his growth spurt kicked into high gear. He is constantly hungry, and constantly eating. Who could resist such low-hanging fruit?

As I watch the mound of strawberries pile up on his plate, my mouth curves into a mean smile.

“You gonna climb that or eat it, hog?” I blurt out finally. Then I sit back with my arms folded, gloating. Got ‘im.

He gives a small guilty motion and looks at me down the table. The whole world freezes around his eyes, large and blue and stunned.

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Simple pleasures

“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.

This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs  … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)

“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”

I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone  in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.

Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.

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Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

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Almost famous

Sometimes opportunity doesn’t exactly knock. Sometimes it just rings the doorbell and runs away again before you can answer.

I was pleasantly surprised late one recent afternoon when I received an email from HuffPost Live, the online news network of the Hufffington Post. They were doing a segment on scent-related technology, and I was being invited as as a guest. If you check way back to the early mists of time on this web site, you’ll see that one of my early posts about a year-and-a-half ago was about the untimely demise of my sense of smell (anosmia) after an accidental encounter with white vinegar.

Don’t ask. You can go read it if you really want the gory details. It’s in the November 2011 archive.

Out of the blue

Still, that brief blog written shortly after the vinegar incident is the only thing I’ve ever written about it. I’ve given the matter little thought since then; certainly I’ve never pretended to be any sort of expert on the subject.

So the email came out of the blue as far as I was concerned, and I had to do a bit of a scramble just to remember when, exactly, I had written about it. I couldn’t remember what I’d said, either, so I had to print out the post so that I could read it over and highlight passages I thought might interest them.

I was a little apprehensive waiting for the appointed time of the live segment, hoping that the conversation wouldn’t stray too far from the two or three catchy phrases I wanted to share with the listening audience.

But I was ready. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the breakneck pace of our high-tech information age, it’s that the fast-paced world of journalism has no time for expert guests to hem and haw while they try to figure out their main idea. If someone needs a quote from you, he or she needs it now. Right now. Not five minutes from now, when you’ve had time to think about it. Right now as in right this second.

Ready … set … no go

Therefore, I had my key phrases highlighted, my main ideas memorized, by laptop camera poised at just the right angle to de-emphasize my double chin.

Then I waited.

The appointed time came and went–the featured speakers were introduced one by one–the lively conversation began, and I sat poised in front of the camera, smiling, waiting for a call that never came.

Was I disappointed? Sure I was. But there was a slight sense of relief as the discussion unfolded and I quickly realized I simply had never thought about the subject in the same detail as had the selected guests. Two were scientists who specialized in the olfactory system. Two were authors who had written entire books about  anosmia compared to my meager 727-and-some words. The fifth guest was an artist with an entirely different perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have done my level best to be articulate and interesting, and certainly I would have welcomed the exposure. We writers are grateful for any chance we can get to promote our work. But the selected guests were simply more immersed in the subject than I was, and therefore they were better for that particular segment.

It’s all good

Still, I am proud that something about my work stood out enough for the staff at HuffPost Live to consider me worth inviting. That feels like a pretty decent feather in my cap.

Meanwhile, I do have a host of subjects about which I have written extensively. Migraine, for instance, or sibling violence, or bullying, or sexual assault. Those are my areas of expertise. And someday, I hope some enterprising journalist will need an expert source on one of those areas, will comb the existing blogs and find something in my words that’s worth a second  look, and come calling for my opinion.

And I won’t have to re-read anything I’ve written, and I won’t need a moment to collect my thoughts, because it’s all in my head.

When that happens–when opportunity gives my door a good solid knock–I’ll be ready.

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