The Word "Whom" Deserves a Defender*

I often face questions of grammatical style in my day job; medical writing rivals the deepest Southern dialects for “most made up words.” When people come to my cubicle to ask if “flowability” is hyphenated, my first response is, “I don’t know. Is flowability a word?”

With no grammatical style guide to reference, I’m free to make up my own rules. I get to decide, for example, that a comma before the “or” or “and” in a series is superfluous. Why? Because I think they’re stupid, and with no concrete rule telling me otherwise, I’m the boss on this one!

So is flowability hyphenated? No! Why? Because I said so!

Perhaps all this power has gone to my head. What was it Lord Acton said about absolute power? That it corrupts absol…oh who cares. He should have diversified his adjective and adverb.

But now a secret: I don’t know everything. At least three eleven times a week I’m stumped by a grammatical question, and because I don’t trust printed language manuals that are out of date before they’re fully printed (after all, “ours is a living language,” as one of my colleagues eloquently pointed out yesterday), I usually turn to that source of all that is true and good, the Internet.

Many of you may know Grammar Girl from her popular podcasts. For me, podcasts are kind of “meh,” because I can’t sing along to them at the top of my lungs while imagining myself in old jeans and a western shirt playing a beat-up Gibson in a Nashville studio alongside Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons (I know, he’s dead, but this is my fantasy and I can resurrect whomever I please). I just have to sit there and listen, and is it any surprise that I’m not very good at that?

But Grammar Girl also maintains a delightful website, where she posts transcripts of her podcasts for pod-non-believers like me. I visit her site hourly to check usage or recall a rule. The other day, I noticed her post on style guides.

It’s another in a string of great resources from Grammar Girl. She links to the Economist’s style guide, my favourite for its snooty disdain of "Americanisms" (it’s hilarious; I imagine it being read aloud from a parliamentary bench by a powdered-wig-wearing John Cleese-type sillyman). She also links to a map of language from the MLA, which I imagined as a map of colloquial language, of regional dialects. In fact, it's just a map of who speaks what language where, and isn't quite as detailed as I'd like it to be. Imagine, though, a map of the United States with the dialects in place. So, for example, Western PA would be listed as a place where people pronouce the "ow" sound like "ah." So it's "dahntahn," not "downtown." And Utah would be noted for its peoples' love of the past perfect and past future tenses. "She had gone with me. Were you going to come with us?" What? That doesn't even make sense! Here's another example, frequently used by receptionists, "What was your name?" No! No! My name IS what it is, was and will be! It hasn't changed, it won't be different tomorrow!

Good lord, I feel like one of these guys:

Well, anyway, you get my point. That's all I have for you tonight. Tomorrow will be a big day, so I'm off to bed.

* Many thanks to Liz Lemon for her dedication to good grammar.


What Updike Taught Me

Over the weekend, I spent some quality time with The New Yorker.

The February 9th & 16th issue was largely Updike focused, in the wake of the great man’s death, and included two obituary tributes as well as several pages of snippets from the writing he’d done for the magazine over the years.

One of the snippets, from an early short story, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” hit me so squarely that I gasped – actually audibly, right there in the salon chair, prompting the woman applying my foils to drop the whole lot to the floor – in comprehension. Once again, as I have so many times before, I felt like the tall skinny man with the big nose was speaking directly to me.

It’s partially my huge ego, partially the Pennsylvania connection.

In the story, the main character, a younger Updike, according to popular opinion, says this of his – and my – homeland:

“There was the quality of the 10 a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility—you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element—and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state—as if you had made your life.”

This is not a sentence oft critiqued by scholars reviewing “The Happiest I’ve Been.” This is not a sentence overly quoted by college freshmen, idealistic and hopeful in the development of their own writing styles. This is nothing, really, just another Updike sentence—but to me, it is poetry.

I know that 10:00 a.m. sunlight; I know those high hills. I love Pennsylvania with a ferocity otherwise reserved for my family and furry animals, so for me, that sentence makes the piece.

In a New York Times review of The Same Door, the book in which “The Happiest I’ve Been” appeared, William H. Pritchard comments on how Updike “taps the rich vein of nostalgic, guilty affection.” And it’s true. So poignant, the memories of home, but so small now, the buildings, the distances, the dreams. Where do you go once you’ve achieved everything you hoped for – staring out the window above your desk, bored by the familiar landscape – when you were 17?

A couple nights ago, climbing with a friend, I got on a new route rated near the limit of my redpoint ability. Whether it was softly graded or just my style, I climbed the first 25 feet with unusual grace. It felt easy. As I clipped the 5th bolt, I thought, “Oh shit, now I have to keep going.”

And isn’t that telling? I mean, suddenly it was so obvious to me why I haven’t climbed anything hard for years, why I can’t seem to improve. In that rare moment of unguarded thinking, when honesty trumped expectation, I said it all: I’m terrified of success, because I don’t know what the other side looks like. I don’t know how it feels to try something, not knowing the outcome.

I used to. I spent entire years floating from one thing to the next – mountain bike racing to African drumming to rock climbing to third world travel. I didn’t know what was coming next, and I didn’t care. I embarked on a year-long solo journey to Southeast Asia without even glancing at a guidebook. My mom knew more about Nepal than I did, and even as my parents sat with me at the airport gate (pre-9/11, they probably could have walked me right onto the plane if they’d wanted to), she was telling me about the climate, the currency, the cultural mores.

But, it’s scary now. Planes seem to be falling out of the sky with increased frequency. Our snow season has been, pardon the pun, unsettling. With several in-bounds avalanches early in the season, the mountains feel like a place far wilder and more unpredictable than the Wasatch. Every day there are more job cuts and bankruptcies; industries that built this country are collapsing around us.

How can we plan for the future when we don’t know what the future will look like?

So I’ve become a planner. My to do lists include such obvious reminders as, “play with dogs,” and “vacuum.” It’s compulsive, but it keeps me calm.

Of course, it also stops me from going too far, from trying too hard, from seeing what will happen. I don’t let the day unfold as it will; I force the day to fit my needs. I say, “Take!” while climbing, because if I don’t, I don’t know whether I’ll fail or succeed, and I don’t like not knowing.

(Is it any wonder I always have hamstring pain? Look how I constantly hamstring myself.)

Maybe this spring, as I plant my first garden and learn to accept growth as it comes – or doesn’t – in its own time, I’ll also learn to release the white-knuckled grip I feel like I need to have on every single aspect of my life. Maybe I’ll decide to try – really try – to climb a route, and not worry about falling off. Maybe in letting go, I’ll learn to hold on.


The only cure is a sundress

It was 50 degrees today, sunny and clear. I bolted out of work at 3:00 pm and sped home to fetch the dogs; we made it to the trailhead by 3:27.

My old New Balance sneaks left deep prints on the soft ground. The boys splashed in the mud and sniffed the air - grass and earth and freshness and promise.

I love this time of year. All I can think about is going south to climb for the weekend, camping in the desert and heading home again on Sunday night dirty and tired and happy.

We have lots of plans for the next couple months. There's gardening, of course, but there's also Red Rocks and the Red River Gorge and Santa Barbara and Mexico and Elephant's Perch and the City of Rocks and, obviously, Indian Creek. Oh, and Zion.

Oh dear. Hard to fit it all in, but fun to try. Arnold and Red are game, too, and will be our constant companions, looking up and wagging their tails at us as we try and try and try to climb our projects before our strength fails, before dark, before the weekend is over and we have to drive home to shower up for work on Monday.

I'm looking forward to wearing sundresses and flip flops and being tan and having a sock line from running and approaches.

I never liked spring when I was younger. I always wanted to keep skiing. I still love to ski - it makes me really happy - but something about spring, about newness, growth, possibility, the ease of warm weather (ahem, not HOT weather, mind you...I'll be bitching about Utah temps come July), the desire to hightail it out of town, swimming with the dogs in the resovoir at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon, daylight till 9 pm....

It feels right for me right now.


Well then. No excuses but laziness.

Before I do anything else, there’s this:

Thank you, Jen.

This talented, generous woman, whom I adore despite having never even met her in person (we’ll remedy that soon), sent me a gorgeous scarf, intricately knitted in regal, deep purples. Here it is, up close so you can see the beautiful quality of the knit. Jen, I’ve asked this before, but seriously – is there anything you can’t do?

Here's the beautiful new addition to my wardrobe (shown on me as model, because I have not removed it for days):

I feel so lucky. Everyone should have a Jen in their lives.

Now then, as to what I’ve been doing that’s taken all my focus away from blogging:

I've been admiring this print,

And this artist,

And this artist,

And this blog.

My goodness. Donkeys and sheep and dogs, oh my!

I also just finished Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver. Please read it; it’s beautiful.

A memoir of her family’s year growing most of its own food and committing to eating as locally as possible, Kingsolver’s book was never preachy or judgmental. In fact, it was hopeful and eye-opening. I am not a gardener; I do not like manual labor. That said, after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I’ve decided that it’s time to start “voting with my dollars” in terms of our nation’s food industry. For the record, I’ll be voting with Brad’s dollars, too.

So I’m going to grow fruits and vegetables (we already have absurdly prolific peach and apricot trees). I’m going to till and plant and tend and harvest. Then I’m going to dry and blanche and freeze and can. In doing so, I hope that we can convey to the food industry that we do not approve of the excessive petroleum required to ship us bananas in Utah in February, of the minimal wages paid to the farmer, of the majority of our food dollars going to the shipment of the food, rather than the farmer.) We’ve bought a share of a grass-fed cow (the noshing fellow was raised just a few miles away from our house), so that, from our own little kitchen, we can tell world that we do not approve of the way that feedlots raise animals and our corn production.

So there.


That's all I have for you tonight.


When the News Makes Me Smile

Ah, another delightful story in the morning’s news – this one about the origins of some of the Muppets.

We all know how much I adore the Muppets – the combination of furry animals and silly nonsense completely delights my inner child. And my outer adult.

My favorite take-aways from this story are the “other” Oscars the grouch – “In Pakistan, his name is Akhtar and he lives in an oil barrel. In Turkey, he is Kirpik and lives in a basket. And in Israel, it's not Oscar at all -- it's his cousin, Moishe Oofnik, who lives in an old car” – and the knowledge that the Count was quite the ladies’ man, having been romantically “linked to Countess von Backward, who loves to count backward; Countess Dahling von Dahling and Lady Two.”

What a nice way to start the day.


The Dealer Always Rings Twice

I love this story, from the AP, about a milkman who left weed on doorsteps, along with his daily dairy deliveries.

How quaint, the thought of dawn in the British countryside, sheep and roosters waking and starting to talk, the narrow, grassy lanes shrouded in mist. The dog barks at a noise on the stone steps leading into the garden, and you open the door to find fresh milk from the cows down the road, and a dime bag of marijuana from, well, wherever they grow weed in England. Could be anywhere, it’s so verdant there.

Poor milkman. He was just trying to rid his customers of the aches and pains of aging, which he probably understands well, being in his 70s and still working manual labor....

Really? Nothing better to do in Northwest England than chase down an elderly milkman who’s making a little extra change and helping people feel better?

I’m disappointed in you, England. I had higher hopes for such a civilized nation.


Not an Enjoyable Ride

For the past few months, the skin around my mouth nas been dry and flaky and red and painful. Yes, it's been months, and I just got around to going to the dermatologist today - lame.

Nonetheless, in I went, ready to meet a new doc to talk to him about my skin and ask him about this "sunscreen" business (I'm convinced it's all a scam by Johnson & Johnson).

I was terribly disappointed.

I walked in to find a brisk, angular little woman with bad skin behind the registration desk (Note to bitchy, angular receptionist: when you work at a dermatology office, you might want to employ some of the free samples loitering about the place. Otherwise, new customers will take one look at your face and comtemplate walking out). After 12 minutes of explaining to her that yes, I do have an appointment and no, I've never been here before and no, my insurance has not changed, as I have never in fact been here before, she asked me to please take a seat and stop preventing other clients from checking in.

That should have been my cue to leave. Really, I should have walked right out the door at that point.

Instead, I waited 15 minutes to be called back (not entirely inappropriate, but a bit annoying when one is trying to get back to work in time for a brainstorming session. That includes food.), and then sat for 75 minutes in a cold exam room with no magazines (thank god for iPhone Scrabble), wearing a backless robe, waiting for the doctor to see me. Twice convinced I'd been forgotten, I peeked into the hallway and asked a passing nurse if I should perhaps reschedule.

Let's just say that the passing nurse made the receptionist seem like Glenda the Good Witch.

Finally the doc burst in, and I thought, "Maybe it'll be worth it; maybe this guy will be an awesome doctor...."

Here's what happened. 10 minutes later I was standing back at the reception desk, doling out copious amounts of cash for products the doctor all but forced me to buy, having neither explained why I needed said creams and cleansers, nor told me what, exactly, was wrong with my face.

It all happened so fast - and with such disregard for customer service - that I was too shocked to protest, and was in my car heading back to work before I managed to form the question, "I'm sorry, but what is this stuff and why are you selling it to me?"


I shall not return.

(Frank Coble cartoon)


Oh Happy Day!

Friends, readers, give thanks on this day, because it is the birthday of Christopher Guest, whom we have to thank for a number of moments of hilarity.

Not sure who he is? Here are a few clips of his genius:


Wednesday is for Goldens.

What I love now:
-The return of Golden Retriever Wednesdays, with this close-up of Arnie.

Note the bluish glow on the right side of the image? That's from my computer. That's how near Arnie likes to be to me. Is it any surprise I love him so much?
-Eminem’s new song (with Dr. Dre and Fifty Cent).
-The proliferation of tie-dye in the Spring lines
-Mexico and the thought of going there
-Daylight until 6:00 pm
-A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which is silly, silly, silly. Here's one of my favorite sketches. (Try to watch the whole thing, but if you must skip forward, start at 1:20 and go from there....)
-The endless debate in my office about who would win in a fight: Gandalf or Dumbledore. Here are some supporting facts, though the supporting facts are wrong, as the obvious answer is Dumbledore. Duh. Note that the website also pits Yoda against Magnito and Frodo against Harry Potter. And yes, at my office, we are all HUGE dorks.
-That we’re heading to Zion next weekend – climbing with friends, camping in the desert, perfect.

Speaking of silly, I also love this photo:

Ducks always seem to be mouthing off; I think that's why I like them so much.Look at that guy. QUACK QUACK QUACK! I'M A PENGUIN! So brazen, he is.

I found that shot while researching a concept for a new ad campaign for work. I used the following phrase in my search: imposter, duck. I wonder what the IT department thinks of my internet browsing history....