Monday, August 19, 2013

She plans to dream...

When I was a little girl, I used to sneak into our attic and curl up on my sleeping bag under the rafters with a pad of graph paper and draw my future home. In my head I had pictures of it: a stone-front mansion perched on the cliffs of Maine overlooking the Atlantic ocean. The inside would be cavernous, all high-ceilinged and warm-wood.

I drew floorplans, where every room took the shape of a rectangle, where the second of three floors consisted entirely of a library which I envisioned as one of those magical, two-story rooms with mahogany shelves and ladders and spiral iron staircases and a massive fireplace to read in front of and leather couches with white fur blankets slung over them to cuddle up in on cold night.

Looking back, I can see how utterly uncreative I was, that house all boxes and 90 degree angles. But I had my priorities right. And as I grew older, that library grew to be my writing room, a large mahogany desk taking center stage by the windows overlooking the cliffs and outstretched ocean. There would be a typewriter on that desk - one of those old black manual ones with the mother-of-pearl keys - and a banker's lamp, because nothing seemed cooler than a green-hooded lamp.

When I met the wonderful writers that became my first critique group, we talked about flying in from around the globe to meet somewhere, spend a weekend in a writer's heaven. It was a grand dream... grand enough for my Maine house. So that became our running joke - that we would meet there, at the Maine house. We'd write all day, and in the evenings we'd sit around and drink wine and talk about books and writing and all the things the people we saw everyday only vaguely understood. And I knew I'd need to put a porch on that deck for us all the sit out and enjoy the fresh air. So I imagined that porch into my dream.

More than a home, my dream became being with those writers, somewhere away from the traffic and superstores and raging suburbanites. And then I went to residency at Pacific. And I realized it wasn't just a dream. At least, not the house.

Every night, every lunch, every walk across campus I'd revel in the conversations of other writers. Late at night, we'd sit in our dorm living room and talk about oxford commas and diagram sentences and argue the value of certain writers. We talk about our writing, about careers, about dreams and dream crushers. It was a little slice of paradise.

A friend recently posted a poem on facebook called "Plans," by Stuart Dischell. If you want to read it, you can find it here. It begins:

She plans to be a writer one day and live in the City of Paris,
Where she will describe the sun as it rises over Buttes-Chaumont.
"Today the dawn began in small pieces, sharp wedges of light
Broke through the clouds." She plans to write better than this
And is critic enough to know "sharp wedges" sound like cheese.
She plans to live alone in a place that has a terrace
Where she will drink strong coffee at a round white table....

It made me think of my Maine house, and of my dreams, some of which have come true and others of which are still waiting for their day. Maybe I will never own that stone home on the cliff overlooking the ocean. Maybe I will never have a library that looks like something one would find at Cambridge. But it never hurts to dream it could still happen.

And in the meantime, I'll revel in the fact that I have what is most important about that dream: the friends who will gather with me - around a fireplace, a dorm room, or an email chat group - to drink a little wine, debate the merits of grammar rules, discuss books, and commiserate about how awful/awesome it is to be a writer. But mostly, how awesome.

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Kingdom for a Well-Placed Comma!!

(I stole this picture from the Grammarly facebook page. They have hilarious literary posts! They also have a cool website where you can paste in your document and it will check it for spelling, grammar, punctuation, better word choice, repetition, plagiarism, and a ton more. I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because I didn't want it to end up as the punchline of one of their facebook pictures!)

Since I graduated, I've been doing a bit of freelance work on the side, mostly editing other writers' manuscripts, but also tutoring college students with school essays. It's been enormously fun. I think I'm actually a much better editor and tutor than I am a writer, and the vast array of material is fascinating. The college students, especially, don't come with literary pieces. They come mostly with essays from other classes, so I've helped students with papers on streaming digital ciphers, Heidegger's theory, nuclear weapons, genetically engineered foods, and struggles with differences in race and religion. These people are smart people.

But most don't know how to use a comma.

In fact, they often start off the session asking me to help with that. "Can you check my work for punctuation and spelling?" They understand their content. They are medical students and engineering students and theology students, and for the most part they know how to write an intelligent paper. What trips them up are the little things. Things like commas.

It doesn't surprise me. I wrestled with commas in my own writing for a long time, and even now I will pause over one, wondering whether I should put it in or keep it out. When I taught junior high English classes, I struggled with helping kids learn the rules for commas. It seems like comma use is a bit hazier and random than other punctuation.

I think in my own youth I was taught to "put a comma where you'd take a breath." I think that is still taught. Could there be a hazier, useless guideline? Where I take a breath might not be where you'd take a breath, and what about all those people who talk non-stop without taking a breath at all?

Looking to things already published doesn't work either, because no one follows the rules there, either.

When my book was being copy-edited, the editor pointed out that I almost never used a comma between the two independent clauses of a compound sentence. "That's a rule," she wrote. I so doubted her that I spent an hour trying to find one website that said otherwise. I couldn't. Every list of comma rules out there says, in no uncertain terms, that compound sentences require a comma. 

I challenge you to find a published book where that rule is uniformly followed. (Except mine. In mine, it is uniformly followed. Because my editor was sticky that way.) 

There is a rule that you should put a comma after an introductory phrase, but if that introductory phrase isn't too long, you can omit it. There's no rule that states how long is too long.

Appositives are almost always set off by commas, unless the writer determines the appositive is necessary to the understanding. Then the writer can choose to omit it. At least until an editor comes along and says it's necessary.

You should use a comma to set off a sentence that shows contrast (The wind was warm, not cold.), but it's okay to decide to leave out the comma if you use the word but (The wind was warm but chilling.). However, if you want to put a comma before the word but, that's okay, too.

No wonder writers of all ages are anxious about how to use commas. 

In one paper I was editing, I was marking out half the commas and putting in a bunch of others, and my student said, "Boy. I either put in too many, or put in too few, but I never do it right." I told her I'd give her a few websites that had the rules for comma use on them and give her some tips, and she nearly cried with thanks. "That would be so helpful!"

I wish it was as cut and dried and helpful as she wanted it to be. 

One of the top websites on comma rules - an educational one at that - said in several of the rules, "If there is ever any doubt, use the comma, as it is always correct." Then, the very last rule was, "Use Commas with Caution. ...The biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse."

I'm banging my head on the keyboard now.

Maybe the best advice is this: know the basic rules. You can find an easy list here and here. When in doubt, though, use a comma when you need it to avoid confusion. Like the example above, no one wants to cut up a bunch of kids. At least we hope not.

(I should disclose that Grammarly contacted me with an offer to "sponsor" this blog post, which I was already writing. Usually I don't take offers like that, but I've been a fan of Grammarly for a long time. They offer a quick check of your text for free, but that only gives you a list of problems found. If you want the full service, it costs (after a free trial membership). Of course, this won't be for everyone, but I think it's very useful for students or people who are self-publishing, or writers that are getting ready to submit something to an agent or publisher and just want to make sure it's clean without paying an editor.)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Snaps for Vacation

 Our vacations haven't been going so smoothly over the past year. Case in point, last year's vacation of DOOM.Anything that can go wrong, has been. While we've managed somehow to stay away from emergency rooms, the vacations have still been a little less than relaxing at times.

We make the best of it. We have a family that laughs a lot, that can find something funny in just about everything, that loves being together, no matter where we are.

But just in case the location was jinxed, we thought we'd go back to where we know we love.

We've had a beach we're crazy about in Florida, but finding a hotel room there lately (there is only one hotel) has been difficult. So, we decided to get almost as close as we could, and try a new hotel a dozen or more miles down the road. Nothing but beach and sand and ocean and relaxation, right? And a hotel that came very, very highly rated despite its reasonable price tag.

 If only reversing a curse were that easy.

Halfway between Virginia and Florida, I realized that, despite my obsessive worry and second-checking, I'd forgotten a key piece of diabetes equipment: the small plastic double-sided needle that gets the insulin into my pump. I had insulin. I had a pump. I had no way to get that insulin into me.

Ensue panic.

I went over all the options I could think of, which involved calling my dad to break into our house and find the needle and ship it to me overnight. Or call my sister, who also has a pump, and ask her to overnight it. Problem here is that it was Sunday, and they wouldn't be able to even get it in the mail until the next day, which would mean Tuesday before it would get here. Which would mean I wouldn't be able to eat until Tuesday.

I thought about calling my doctor (on Monday) and having him fax a prescription to a local pharmacy for a regular syringe, which I thought might be able to work. Then, once in Florida, after hours of panic, I realized that I didn't think you needed a prescription at all for needles - the AIDS crisis bringing needle-sharing health to a crisis point. So we swung by a CVS, and the pharmacist asked me a lot of curious questions, which I think defeated the point of helping out drug addicts who need to not share needles, and I walked away with a 25 cent syringe that worked like a charm.

(This is long, I know. Bear with me. We're getting to the snaps.)

Off to dinner, happy I was. We stopped at a favorite restaurant down here - a quick-stop burger joint. We'd just spent 13 hours in the car with only one stop. We were tired and thirsty and hungry - especially me, since I'd spent ten of the last hours envisioning not eating for three days.

I cannot over-emphasize how poorly run this restaurant was. We waited fifteen minutes before a waiter even came by to get drink orders, then another fifteen before he brought the drinks. We needed refills for another ten before he came back, and it was at least another hour before we got our food, which was burned. It took us two and a half hours to get out of this place that is a semi-fast-food service restaurant. We'd missed the sunset at the beach. We were all grumbly.

In complaining about dinner and the horrid service, I said, "Well, he did always at least get our drinks right. Snaps for getting the drinks right."  And I snapped.

Which no one got.

So then I had to explain the clip from above from the movie Legally Blond (2), and how, when one is tempted to gripe about something, instead one can find something good about it, and then snap. Kind of like mini-applause.

So we snapped for the waiter getting the drinks right.

Then we found our new hotel. I'll tell you right now, I will never look at online reviews and trust them again, even if there are 408 positive reviews of them. This hotel is next to the worst I've ever been in, and that's saying something since our Vacation of DOOM hotel was no picnic.

I won't even go into all the details of the hotel. It is very, very old. Looks like a prison. The pool is miniscule. The rooms are sub-par. The bathroom might as well be an outhouse. You can hear everything through the walls. And they "upgraded" us to a "beach view," which consisted of being on the beach side of the hotel, only the beach is blocked by the nightclub which blares live rock music until 2am. Which, of course, we can hear all too well.

Finally, after talking about just packing up and going somewhere away from the beach, or heading home, my husband said, "At least the rooms are clean. For a beach hotel, there isn't any hardly any sand on the floors."

And we all said, "Snaps to the cleaning lady for no sand on the floors!"

And so began our tradition.

I'd like to say things got miraculously better, but only marginally. What has gotten better is our ability to laugh about it all, and to find the little things worth complimenting.

Waiting another hour and a half for food to arrive in another restaurant and missing another sunset and having the food arrive cold? "Snaps for the pretzel bread, which was unlimited!"

Getting horrifically sunburned despite having SPF50 painted on us liberally? "Snaps for it not raining!"

The list goes on, but for every bad, there is a snap, and that keeps us laughing. We are together, at a beach, where I do not have dishes or laundry and my husband does not have all the politics at work and 4am wake-ups and my son does not have summer school (which we just found out he got an A in! Snaps for the brilliant son who got an A in advanced Spanish over the summer so he could take more science classes during the school year!). We have swum hours and hours in a perfectly clear ocean, rode the waves, watched the fish, had great service at one restaurant that we absolutely didn't take for granted. From the balcony of our room (which is, I promise, much more glamorous sounding than it is, since we share it with three other couples who smoke profusely and it overlooks, as I mentioned, a bar), I can reach out and touch a palm tree laden with coconuts.

And we did finally get to see a sunset. Snaps for a beautiful sky!