Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Confessions of a Grammar Despot

It is true, I am a grammar & punctuation freak.  I took a test on Grammarly today & received the title of Grammar Despot.

It comes from a lifetime of listening to others read to me, reading myself, escaping into & soaring within text.  It comes from being a perpetual student, accumulating over 80 hours of English Lit courses & a few creative writing courses.

Or perhaps it comes from a paper I wrote as a senior in high school for Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis at Dulles High School.  Back in the day, before technology revolutionized the creation of text of every medium, students researched in libraries, were required to submit index cards documenting the research, & wrote our papers out in legible, cursive writing.
I did not receive my first typewriter until I went to college.  For those of you unfamiliar with typewriters, here is a pic of one very similar to my first:

But, as I said, a typewriter came later.

Back to Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis (I know her full name because she showed us her Master’s thesis).  The first day of her Composition class, we were all required to write.  The next day, as I was leaving her classroom, she handed me my paper from the previous day & said,

You have a very distinctive style.

At the time, I thought What is style? 

Mrs. McGinnis was the third high school English teacher to read one of my papers out loud to the class.  It was a paper on The Great Gatsby, using Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence.

While she may have seen a distinctive style in my writing, like many of my teachers, she believed I talked too much.

(My freshman English teacher at Coronado High School in El Paso, Lucy Leavitt, wrote in my yearbook – You will do well, if you control the perpetual motor machine that is your mouth.)

Unfortunately, that particular trait has not ever come under control in my sixty plus years on this planet.

My friends & I sat in the back of Mrs. McGinnis’s classroom.  We did pass notes & whisper to one another.  But no matter who was the offender, no matter if I was silent & not participating in breaking the taboo against talking, I was blamed. 

It became a joke among us.

Over time, I have forgotten the subject of the paper I wrote for Patsy’s Composition class that turned me into a grammar Nazi.   

I wrote two research papers that year – one for my English class & one for Patsy.  One on the Christian symbolism in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings & one comparing & contrasting Camus’s The Stranger & The Plague. 

On every writing assignment in Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis’s class, we received two grades – one for content & one for grammar.  My research paper for her resulted in a 100 for content & 85 for grammar.

I left out a semi colon in the final sentence & she deemed it, correctly, a run-on sentence.  A deduction of 15 points.  (She marked the deduction in a large & firm Run On Sentence!  – 15 ).

Not only that, before Patsy handed out our graded papers, she made an announcement to the class:

One of you, who knows better . . . [DRAMATIC PAUSE, looking my way]
 . . . wrote a run-on sentence.

(I am really still not over that 85 or the embarrassment of the announcement of my grammatical transgression.)

When I confess, what many people know, that I am a grammar Nazi, I am using a term often cited on social media.  For most people, the difference between they’re & there & their is inconsequential – the content of their post supersedes grammar or punctuation.

I make this confession of my despotism public with a caveat – I do not have a problem with breaking grammatical rules.  I have done it for over fifty years.  Sometimes it works & sometimes it has unfortunate results. 

Because words have consequences.

The use of words has consequences.  Spelling & punctuation have consequences.

'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
-       From Stairway to Heaven

Words do not disappear.  Never more so than in the digital world that is our present & future.  Words posted & written & spoken have a life of their own. 

Words breathe life into our culture, our philosophy, our spiritual being.

We are all writers, the authors of the texts of our lives.  What we write & post & speak & film & sing & paint & sculpt & create is woven into a breathing braid of texts – strands & strands waiting to be brought out & rewoven & reborn into something new.

By other writers & creators.

Words matter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Jaki Jean on Christmas Missives

With the advent of the Internet & email & Facebook & Twitter & Instagram, we have lost the fine art of letter writing & sending birthday cards & Valentines & thank-you notes & Christmas greetings that arrive in an envelope.

Every year for more years than I can remember, friends have sent me Christmas letters.  I understand that many recipients of the annual Christmas letter grew weary of them.  At times resentful of the glowing news people wrote about their families & fabulous experiences during the year.

My best friend from the second grade, Sue Ann McLauchlan Faulker, used to send a Christmas letter every year – sometimes in July.  I loved those letters that connected us across time & space.

I get fewer letters & cards every holiday season.  I treasure each of them.

This year, as we have for many years, we received the annual Barkley Christmas missive letter from my cousin Vicki Willimon Barkley & her husband Hal.

Vicki is my cousin, one of the four Willimon girls, the daughters of Jean’s sister Janette & her husband Ed.  The Willimon girls are a family treasure – four unique women bound by sisterhood, history & growing up with Janette & Ed.  And love.

Laura, Vicki, Suzanne & Jenny

I still remember when Vicki & Hal were students at Texas Tech & visited Jack & Jean’s house on DeLeon in El Paso.  They were on their way to a skiing trip in New Mexico.  I asked Vicki about Hal & she indicated he was a keeper. 

All these years later, they are still married, have raised two sons & enriched the lives of those around them.

When I opened the Barkley missive, I was once again struck with its thoughtful content, how each year’s letter contemplates something deeper than tinsel or toys or traditions associated with the holiday season. 

This past year, three of the Willimon Girls, Suzanne, Vicki & Laura, & their husbands traveled to Europe together.  This year’s missive was about their visit to Normandy.

It is a worthy read & I share it with you as a reminder of the meaning behind that tinsel & toys & tradition.

Monday, December 5, 2016

On Finding Baby Jesus

Over the years in the houses we lived in with our parents Jack & Jean, Nativity scenes have come & gone in favor of a new scene.  But for all the years my sons & nieces & nephew grew up, the last Nativity Jean bought was featured.

But not for the last few years.  I vaguely remembered packing it away.  For the past few years, I have not gone in search of the box containing Jean’s Nativity scene.

Memory is an elusive thing – it is filtered & rewritten over the years.  In my memory of the Nativity scene, the Baby Jesus was missing.

When my sons were growing up & my nieces & nephew visited their Grandmother’s house, the Manger scene was always placed where they could see it.

My youngest niece, Sarah Jane, was fascinated by the Baby Jesus.  Sarah would take the Baby Jesus from the Manger scene & carry it around the house with her – sometimes she would take it to bed with her.

As my memory rewrote the story of Sarah Jane & the Baby Jesus, Jesus was absent from the Manger.

But this year, as I was consumed with wondering if it will be our last Christmas with Jean, I went in search for the box containing her Nativity.

Influenced by watching too many Hallmark & Christmas movies to avoid hearing the voices of Donald Trump or Kellyanne Conway, movies that did not tell the true meaning  of what we celebrate at Christmas, of the birth of the Savior.

I went through boxes in the garage – but no Nativity.  In desperation, I checked out an unmarked box & began taking treasures out of paper.  At first, it was a miniature Christmas tea set. 

Then I unwrapped a lamb.

When I took the box into the house to unwrap the Manger scene, I saw that it was clearly labeled.   On the inside of the shelf it occupied.

Clearly marked in a script I used to mark my sons’ school things.  Until both of them instructed me to cease using it.  It is embarrassing, Mom.

And after finding the lamb & donkey & the cow & the shepherd & the three Wise Men & Mary & Joseph & the Angel, I found Baby Jesus.

And I was happy that my memory failed me.

And reminded me of what exactly we celebrate during Christmas.

Monday, November 28, 2016

About the Current Spelling of my First Name

In a post about something totally unrelated to me, a friend I met on Facebook & respect, asked this question in a discussion about voice:

So Jaki I have to ask is Jaki a nickname, or did your parents name you that. We busy bodies have to know.

And this missive is my answer, Andres.

Originally, I was named Jacky Jean Ettinger.  My father was named Jacky, a male diminutive of John, after his father, John Simpson Alexander Ettinger. 

My mother was Lavera Jean Sims Ettinger & I never met one of her siblings who called her Lavera, just Jean.
My cousins, who remem
ber the youngest of the Sims family, have always known her as Jean.  My cousins still call me Jacky Jean.  (It is so very east Texas).

So, I was named after my parents.

Which does not explain the current spelling of my name.

When I was a Freshman at Coronado High School, my advanced English teacher was Lucy Leavitt.  Mrs. Leavitt was not named Lucy.  But I thought of her as Lucy & called her Lucy & it probably drove her crazy.
As a Freshman & during all the high school years that followed, I was a skinny, knock kneed geek with really bad hair who talked too much.  I am not sure I have changed much, except for the skinny part & my hair is more palatable now that I have accepted the fact that it is going to curl.

One day, before Lucy Leavitt’s class started, a new friend who I would come to think of as my big brother & I were talking. Somehow the subject of my first name came up.  I told him that each time we moved or I started a new school or class, teachers would expect that Jacky was a boy.

We came up with Jaki as an alternative.   I decided that it was unique & looked really cool when I signed cards or paintings or drawings.

I used it so much over the years that I had it legally changed when I returned my husband’s surname to him in the divorce.

Over the years, I have never met another Jaki.  One day, driving in Galveston, I stopped at a light & the car next to me had a script on the side inscribed, Jaki Jean.

My friends & I actually tried to follow the car to ask its owner about her name, but lost the car in traffic along the Galveston seawall.

A few years ago, when I was working for a Managed Services group owned by a Norwegian mega-group, my counterpart in the Oslo office came for a visit to Houston. 
He found the Accounting area & asked for “Yak-y.”  Everyone he asked was perplexed, until he identified my position & was brought to my office.

Jaki is an actual Icelandic name -  in Denmark & The Netherlands, it is a diminutive for Jacobine – a feminine version of Jacob or James.  It Norway it means  floating piece of ice, floe, iceberg.

Had I known the definition, I probably would have never decided to change it that morning in Lucy Leavitt’s Advanced English class.

Friday, November 25, 2016

On Unsolicited Blessings & Senior Mishaps

A few months ago, my youngest son Sam called me & told me that one of his friends was moving to Colorado & had chairs he did not want to transport.  Sam said,

You need sturdy chairs.  Yours are old & rickety & falling apart.

He also said he did not need the chairs & would give them to me.

It is true, our barley twist chairs are old – the really fine ones are antiques my mother bought thirty years ago, to match a barley twist table I bought at an antique store in the inner city.  The chairs, like our three barley twist tables, contain no nails.

Yesterday, when Sam & Snoopy came over for Thanksgiving (Snoopy is a Doberman Pincher & a delight), they brought chairs.

The chairs are from Ikea & contain nails.  They also need to be stained a color – any color, maybe each one a different color. 

They are extremely sturdy.

After every one of our guests yesterday left & all the dishes were washed, I went to my computer for the first time of a day that began at a 5:00 am in spite of my careful planning to prepare everything but the turkey, gravy, & spinach salad on Thanksgiving.
I sat in one of those antique barley twist chairs.

And ended up on my ass.

The chair completely came apart.  Because I was in a dress, I could not crawl to a place to bring myself up & had to call on my brother Jason to get me up.

Last night, I felt fine – a little tumble.

This morning, I woke up & struggled to move.  My body feels just a smidge better than it did when I tripped getting out of a chair & fractured my left clavicle & bruised the entire left side of my body.  This time, it was the right side of my body.

Including my ass.

Recently, my friends Cate Poe & Nita Gulbas & I were talking on Facebook about the dangers of falling as we grow older – Nita pointed out that it is not if a senior will fall, but when.   Cate took up yoga after her mother started yoga at age 70.  Nita is an avid horsewoman & also works out at a boxing gym.

Although I am convinced that they both know how to roll & minimize potential damage when they fall, I am not sure either of them would have emerged unscathed in the collapse of an antique barley twist chair.

Today, after Round II of Thanksgiving with my Aggie sister & brother in law, I am grateful for my family & friends, for surviving my latest Senior mishap, & for my son Sam’s unsolicited gift of sturdy chairs with nails.

One of which is now at my computer.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A different perspective in the aftermath of the election . . .

Photo by Jaki Jean

I woke up last Wednesday morning devastated, dismayed, & ranting. 

And then I remembered a friend, a family & their extended family grieving over the loss of a young man who chose to take his own life.

So I prayed, again, for the family, for this young man's friends, & for my friend who has been connected to the family for three generations.

While I appreciate the importance of this election, of any election, I was reminded of what is important.

Connection, family, faith, hope, inclusion & belief. 

Outside of the election, we have had, in the house that my parents Jack & Jean built, incredibly complicated electrical problems.

Not a national & world issue, but our issue. 

I woke up on Monday before the election to a dark room (a different darkness than Wednesday morning).  My mother Jean’s air mattress was deflated.  My brother Jason & I got her up with the Hoyer lift & lifted into her reclining wheel chair.

During the time that passed & we had one outlet with power, Jean was, as always, a trooper.  She never complained.  As things progressed, I kept her updated.  We had one TV operating & internet access, cable for a few hours.  One lamp & flashlights.

 My sister Janet, the true hero of our journey with Jean, arrived. 

When I first called Janet, she asked if I checked the breakers.  (We did).  She asked if I had used an outlet tester.

I said no, I don’t know what an outlet tester is.  (I know, I am pitiful.)

When Janet arrived, Jean was reading Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,”  & I was watching another episode of “The Crown.”  My sister took my car, which is really hers, to replace a tire that went flat over the weekend. 

In the aftermath & difficulty getting back power to the house, I did not notice exactly what my sister Janet did about that tire.

Oh, I witnessed how hard she fought with our energy provider for an emergency bypass (I always explain to people that Janet is more fierce than I can ever hope to be). 

The bypass was finished in the early evening.  (Janet is really effective.)

The next morning, I looked at the tires on the car my sister gave me & saw I had four new tires, a fifth one in the trunk, & a full tank of gas.

Overwhelmed, I wept.  Later that afternoon, when I thanked her, I broke down & she hugged me. 

In that moment, all was right with the world.

This is what matters.  In light of all that happened last Tuesday, in the midst of what so many of us view as potential chaos & destructive change & the divisive results, this is what matters.

Our families & connection.  A respect & inclusion of & for the Other.  Our faith & our hope for another day.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is from Psalm 30:5 –

Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.

The Psalm does not promise that joy or celebration or that relief will come tomorrow morning. 

But it does give us the promise of a different perspective & understanding & hope.

Photo by Nita Gulbas

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Jaki Jean on the Word of the Day this Election Day

Every day I received an email from with their Word of the Day.  

Once, in a prior incarnation of myself, I sat around a table in a meeting with my supervisor & the head of a company in his office, in a shipyard in Galveston, Texas.

Our host asked each of us how we were & I replied, “Scintillating, thank you.”
He sat back & smiled & asked:

Was that the Word of the Day?

I laughed & assured him that it was not the Word of the Day, that I truly felt scintillating.

He did not believe me, went to his computer & checked’s Word of the Day.  Then he looked up the definition of scintillating.

He left his desk & rejoined us & looked to my supervisor, & asked, is she always like this?   My supervisor smiled & said:  

This is just one of the reasons I have her on my team.

Today’s Word of the Day is suffrage.

Origin of suffrage
Suffrage comes from the Latin noun suffrāgium meaning "voting tablet, vote," which is a derivative of the verb suffrāgārī, "to vote for, support." When it entered English in the late 1300s, it originally meant "intercession or prayers (for someone)." By the time of St. Thomas More in the early 1500s, the word had acquired the sense of "a vote in favor of a motion," gradually coming to mean "collective vote, voting power." Its current sense "the right to vote" first appears in the U.S. Constitution (1789).

Today, I hope that everyone who is a registered voter will exercise the right to vote under the U.S. Constitution & that every eligible voter not yet registered will register in the near future.

I want every citizen to experience what my friend Andres M. Dominguez experienced this morning when he voted:

For me there is just a powerful feeling to stand in line with others who have a vested interest in our country, even though we may disagree.

America, this continuing experiment in democracy, depends upon the participation of its citizens. 

It will be a long night in the house that my parents Jean & Jack built.  Jean will stay awake until the final concession & acceptance speeches.  And I with her, just as I have done in the past during our journey together. 

So, I close with this, totally appropriated from Harry Belafonte’s thoughtful op-ed in The New York Times:

“O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!”
— Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again”

America will be.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Curious Incident of the Blue Bowls in the Nighttime

Yesterday was a curious day. 

First, there was the incident of the bird at my neighborhood grocery store.

Just as I arrived at the check-out line of my favorite cashier Marcella, she left her station & went to the only other line open & began chatting with Catherine at that register & a young woman from Wells Fargo Bank.

On the arm of the Wells Fargo employee was perched a very large, gorgeous white bird.  I don’t know much about birds, but I think it was a Cockatoo.  It looked very much like this, only more beautiful:

I wish, like Catherine the cashier, I had pulled out my phone & captured a picture of it.

When the man in front of me finished paying for his groceries, he reached over & took the creature & placed it on his shoulder. 

I wondered if it was his service bird.  I wondered if there was such a thing – I was familiar with service dogs & cats & equine therapy, but birds?

Yes, Jaki Jean, there are service birds.

The incident was curious, but the sight brought a smile to my face & to my soul.

This morning, I discovered the curious incident of the blue bowls in the nighttime.

As I was passing the back door, I looked out its window panes & spotted a blue object in the middle of our yard.  At first, I thought it had been dropped by the lawn maintenance crew yesterday afternoon. 

Annoyed, I went to retrieve it, only to discover dozens of blue Solo bowls scattered around the two trees near the back fence.  It would have been impossible to miss them yesterday.

Had the squirrels who believe our trees & yard are their personal territory been hoarding plastic bowls in preparation for the winter?  Where did the blue bowls come from & why? 

The bowls were neither clean nor dirty.  No food remains – just bits of sand as if they had been used as a shovel in a sand box or at the beach.  

While I do not know the family who lives in the house directly behind us, I do know our neighbors on either side.  Mr. Israel & his late wife Nora, & Juta & Deitmar both bought their homes 1971, when Jack & Jean bought this house.

Littering a neighbor’s yard with sandy plastic bowls is not their style.  The placement of the scattered blue bowls was suspicious – between & surrounding the trees near the back fence.

But I am curious – why blue bowls?  Why scatter them deliberately in someone else’s back yard?  Why my back yard?

The blue bowls did not cause damage & cleaning them up did not require the amount of work caused when children or young adults toilet paper houses & trees, egg cars or front doors, leave a lobster in the mailbox during 95˚ heat, spray red paint on the back of a new car, let the air out of tires, toss tampons & sanitary pads coated with ketchup across the front yard or scatter bags of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish on the front porch & sidewalks because your youngest son’s nickname is Fish.

All of these things have happened here in the yard of the house Jack & Jean purchased 45 years ago.

Perhaps the motivation behind the curious incident of the blue bowls in the nighttime is similar to the motivation behind messy vandalism.

The idea of crossing a line, transgressing without getting caught or answering for one’s actions.  To see if you can cross the line & transgress without consequences.  I don’t know – in my first youth I never egged or papered a house or left a lobster in a mail box during 95˚ weather. 

However, during my high school years at Coronado High School in El Paso, my friend Colleen Tubbs & I saved all the straws from drinks at the Charcoaler Drive-in Restaurant & when we collected enough, we would toss them in the front yards of several Coronado basketball players & one alumni from the football team.  We also used to leave giant lollipops on the front seats of their cars.

Littering a yard with plastic blue bowls makes about as much sense as straws & lollipops.

But blue bowls don't smell like a lobster left in a mailbox in 95˚ weather.  And blue Solo bowls are recyclable.