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.