All photos in this post show my grandson Pete and fellow Scouts and leaders (including Pete’s dad, Paul).
Surviving the Storm
Who would have dreamed, back in the fresh-faced fifties, when moms wore aprons at home and put on hats and gloves to go shopping… when boys named after their dads were called “Skip” or “Bud”… when families went for a drive in the country to escape the city heat on Sunday afternoons, maybe dining on cold chicken and potato salad at a shaded roadside picnic table… who would have guessed, back then, that the compact little self-explanatory phrase “Boy Scout” would someday take on a pejorative tinge? Overheard: “He’s such a Boy Scout!” Yep, he’s a lost cause, all right. (The feminine equivalent is, “She’s such a Pollyanna!”)
I remember my brother, John, eagerly packing for the National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He would have been about 12 at the time. My mom had been a den mother, Dad was the assistant scoutmaster, and they encouraged but never pressured John in his Scouting endeavors. It was not my parents’ way to coerce, so when, in the imprudence that is puberty, John and his friends tossed out their Boys’ Life magazines and started hiding Playboy under their beds—where their nosy little sisters would inevitably find them and go running to Mom—my parents were philosophical, just as they were when my sister quit Girl Scouts and I abandoned the Camp Fire Girls.
It wasn’t until much later—just recently, in fact—that I learned that some of the hippest guys I knew in high school were closet Eagle Scouts. It was the cynical sixties, and anything wholesome was suspect. Being a Boy Scout was the youthful equivalent of belonging to the John Birch Society, I guess.
In the intervening decades, Scouting has survived a storm of hostile scrutiny—some of it perhaps justified, most of it just plain ignorant. Scouting has been labeled sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist, or simply irrelevant. I wonder if Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has provoked second thoughts about the charge, at least, of irrelevance.
My oldest grandson, Pete, became an Eagle Scout at age 16 last year in a moving ceremony attended by fellow Scouts and adult leaders, as well as family and friends, of course. A few years earlier, on a crisp fall day, I had driven him about forty miles to a weekend campout at one of the other kids’ uncle’s farm, a picturesque spot in the Loess Hills that line the Missouri River on the east. When we arrived, there was no one in sight. Then we heard shouts: “Pete! Up here!” Eight or ten boys were exploring a wooded ridge some fifty feet above where we were standing. After a quick “Thanks, Grandma,” Pete was off like a shot, aiming for the steep path that led to the pinnacle.
They’d be pitching their own tents that evening, building their own fire, cooking their own food, nestling into their sleeping bags when the temperature dropped into the twenties. Where, except in Scouting, do kids experience that stuff? What, I wondered, would he be doing that sunny Saturday if he weren’t soaking up the clean country air (lightly laced, it must be said, with the aroma of livestock leavings)? I did my share of camping, girl-style, when I was a kid, but I also watched a lot of Circus Boy reruns and old Shirley Temple movies on Saturdays.
Last week, on June 12, a tornado killed four Boy Scouts at Little Sioux Scout Ranch, also in Iowa’s Loess Hills but a couple of hours north of the farm where Pete had camped a few years back. By all accounts, the eighty-nine Scouts who survived, and their leaders, reacted heroically.
Associated Press writer Timberly Ross reported that the Scouts helped “administer first aid and search for victims buried in their flattened campsite….” Thirteen-year-old Ethan Hession “said the Scouts’ first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.”
“We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we needed to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits, we had everything,” he said.
Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever in the path of a tornado, I’d like to be surrounded by people whose motto is “Be Prepared.”
And if I’m ever in the presence of someone who demeans the principles and practices of Scouting, I hope I have the presence of mind to reply, “Remember Little Sioux.”
The F-Word: A User’s Guide
It’s been my observation that the F-word is much more frequently used for emphasis—typically in adverbial form—than in its literal sense, which alludes to sexual intercourse. In some circles, it seems to be the only intensifying modifier its users can call to mind, as in, “That effing chick is effing gorgeous.” Such immoderation weakens the word’s impact—rendering it less effective on those occasions when it is indispensable. I am about to describe one such occasion—substituting the euphemism frog for the F-word itself.
Any word that a speaker uses habitually and indiscriminately quickly loses its power. My piano teacher always said, “That was lovely, dear,” no matter how badly I played, and I soon developed immunity to the word lovely as a compliment. I urge all English-speaking people to avail themselves of the rich, nuanced vocabulary of our language and to save the F-word for Special Situations, such as the one recounted herein.
The crime scene
To visualize this particular Special Situation, it might be helpful for you to know that I live in an old church, as its caretaker. My apartment is partially below ground level and has a separate entrance, though it is also accessible through the boiler room of the church proper. I have lived in the apartment for five years without incident. Attached to the screen door is an ersatz “alarm”—really just a very shrill buzzer that is activated when the switch is on and the door is opened. (There is also a genuine alarm, which I have recently begun setting at night.) Usually, when people open the screen door and hear the buzzer, they retreat. The retreaters, however, are not, typically, in…
Altered states of consciousness
Tuesday, June 3, 3 a.m. Am standing in bedroom of apartment. Am working late, facing manuscript deadline, and have gotten up from computer preparatory to moving load of laundry from washer to dryer, with intention of visiting powder room on the way.
Front door of apartment is wide open, screen door is ineffectually latched. Obnoxious shrieking buzzer sounds. I wait for intruder to retreat in panic or else announce, “Mom, it’s me” (my son lives in house next door to church). Buzzer continues to shriek, son does not announce self, am considering other possibilities as intruder enters bedroom, grips my wrist in unfriendly manner, says, “Okay, where’s the money? I want the money,” as if we had appointment or I owed gambling debt to Cosa Nostra.
Is not son. Is not retreater. Is not disoriented dementia patient seeking late-night snack. Must be dream. No, pain in wrist is genuine. Must be joke. Intruder is wearing odd mask that covers all of head except eyes, though his words are not muffled. He tightens grip on my wrist. Is not joke. Is real deal.
3:03 a.m. Have displayed contents of wallet, purse, in response to repeated demands for money on the part of intruder (hereinafter referred to as “perp”).
Have impression perp is armed, though do not actually see weapon. In retrospect, think of classic Mae West comment: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
Perp glances hastily around, as if expecting to see emerald necklace dangling from bedside lamp, then turns his attention to my person. Mutters something unprintable, tugs at my shorts. I tug back. Tussle ensues. Perp exerts strength. I experience moment of panic, immediately succeeded by fury. Am enraged lioness. Have extreme aversion to being constrained, perhaps originating in early childhood when neighborhood bully, called Carol, twice corners me on way home from school, has one of her thugs hold my arms while she punches me in stomach, pulls down my underwear, laughs and goes away. Sick, pointless.
3:05 a.m. Decide would rather take chance on being shot or stabbed than raped, which would be tedious. Have low tedium tolerance. Extricate self from perp, who makes a few unseemly but largely ineffectual jabs without courtesy of washing hands, which will later necessitate tedious examination of my personal self in search of DNA not my own; also tetanus shot.
3:06 a.m. Notice that perp is unfocused, without clear objective. Asks again where money is. I infer, belatedly, that he is impaired. He is standing between me and bedroom door. I start to push, bellow: “Get the frog out of my house! What the frog are you doing here? You don’t belong here! Get the frog out of here!”
Perp pushes back, but I push harder. Cannot think of fresh, articulate monologue to paraphrase original tirade, so reiterate, “Get the frog out of here,” and so forth— estimated 437 repetitions. Am shrill, enraged broken record.
3:12 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., have no idea. Have pushed perp to screen door. Am about to make final, supreme effort to expel perp, but we both pause to take a breath. Perp looks at me in dismay, announces he is going to get his gun. I express approval of his intention, use left arm to push him against unlatched screen door, swing heavy front door with entire strength of right arm. Perp pushes back, but I have momentum, am not impaired; succeed in closing, locking door.
Run through boiler room to church, knowing alarms will sound. Go to nearest phone, call 911. Much tedium ensues—questioning at “crime scene,” more questioning at police headquarters, being transported to hospital, waiting for specially trained nurses who are on call, undergoing invasive examination, which is, inexplicably, legal. Meanwhile, am not allowed to pee, which, as you will recall, was my intention at 3 a.m. when perp entered premises. Is to my credit, don’t you think, that I did not, at that time, pee in shorts?
9:30 a.m. Transported home by kind, patient police officers. Slept rest of day.
Security measures too lax; should keep heavy door locked, use alarm system.
Am enraged lioness when threatened by lightweight impaired weenie.
Dominant residual emotion: annoyance.
F-word, used forcefully and repeatedly by grandmother of eight, can catch perp off guard.
In sentence “Get the frog out of my house,” “the frog” is adverbial phrase.
If you are reading this today, June 2, then you will see, to the right of this blog post, a Flickr thumbnail photo of a pregnant woman lying naked on a bed. If you read this tomorrow, or another day that is not today, then I think you can find the full-size photo by clicking here. The photo—“Laid Bare at 37 Weeks”—is breathtaking, but the comments made me weep like a fool… words of goodwill, out there in the cosmos, like starshine….
The photo’ed mama writes, “This weekend has been hell with Violet’s pox (We had to take her to the dr. today as she’s really poorly, turns out her whole mouth is lined in them and she needs antiBs…poor baby).”
Underneath are scores of comments… maybe hundreds… “stunning stunning wonderful beautiful picture” is typical.
It’s the words of consolation, encouragement, and compassion, though, that gave me a little jolt. All that power! It pounds, it pulses, it fairly runs off the page. (Wow! Sounds pretty erotic—unintentional on my part, but it works. Power is sexy. Sex is powerful. “Laid Bare at 37 Weeks” is living proof.)
- I’m so sorry to hear that V is having such a toughie of it, though. What a rotten nasty infection. Poor thing, hugs
- Hope Violet gets better soon – especially before your boy arrives!
- Get well soon vibes for V.
- So sorry to hear that V is so poorly. I hope she’s soon feeling better.
Do you suppose all these commenters know “Laid Bare” personally? Or are they like me, passers-by drawn in by a remarkable image and caught up in the drama of Violet’s virus? (It’s apparently chickenpox, by the way. I infer* from some of the idioms that “Laid Bare,” whose name is, I think, Lyanne, is British. Perhaps they don’t vaccinate babies for chickenpox in Britain, or maybe Violet’s mum and dad decided against the vaccine, as many responsible parents do, for whatever reason. Could it be that Violet had the vaccine and it didn’t work?)
In any case, Lyanne’s and Violet’s lives have intersected with mine, and now with yours, in a small way because of technology, and I say, God bless technology! I am not an active member in an Internet community. You won’t find me in MySpace. I use songlists from imeem.com on my website, and several imeem users have asked to be my “friend.” I checked out the last person who asked, and she had something like fifteen thousand “friends.” I looked around a little, and lots of folks have even more. I don’t get it. Someone explain it to me, please.
Make friends, don’t be stupid
The people whose job it is to worry while the rest of us fly by the seat of our pants—the control freaks who want to put warning labels on shoelaces (“Do not wrap these objects around your neck, or anyone else’s neck. Do not snake these objects up your nose. Do not slice these objects into little pieces and put them in your salad with cucumbers and baby carrots.”)—these people issue nonstop warnings about Stranger Danger. It seems that, before you agree to meet, in person—say, at Target for coffee at 8 a.m. on a Saturday—an Internet Friend hitherto unseen by you, you ought to have that person investigated, preferably by the National Clandestine Service, and “patted down” at the door.
Me, I’m crazy about the Internet as a communication tool, and I know of several joyous long-term relationships that originated online, with the participants’ observing a modicum of common sense before getting together face to face. In any case, I like to think of all the “vibes for V” converging on Violet like a gentle wind, or a soft white light, hastening the healing her little body already knows how to do.
* Don’t use infer when you mean imply. Infer is roughly synonymous with deduce: “You just smashed me in the face with your enormous, warty fist, causing me to infer that you are angry with me.”
From a February 20 story on Newsmax.com:
[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]
I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.
By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.
It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”
Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”
Why it matters
In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.
In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:
(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.
(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.
(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.
Is Barack Obama ‘black’?
Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.
It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.
“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.
I and Thou
I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).
“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”
I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)
When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.
I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.
Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”
‘Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is’
If there really is a collective consciousness, it must be something like the Internet. We could, if we wanted to, virtually hold hands and sing “Kum-Ba-Yah,” but we choose instead to huddle in our little corners — the News Junkies sipping cybermartinis over there by the plasma-screen TV, the NASCAR buffs drinking domestic beer in their chat rooms — and they wouldn’t even be aware of one another’s existence if there weren’t a line at the virtual bathroom.
Or maybe they get together all the time. Maybe they Do Lunch. Who am I to say? I don’t even know if there are NASCAR chat rooms.
Meanwhile, right under our virtual noses, side by side, sharing some massive server in Seattle or Silicon Valley, are the Recipe-Exchangers and the Terrorist-Plot-Hatchers.
It’s astonishing, when you think about it, how differently people define what’s important.
Recently, doing some research on Scotland, I stumbled upon a Web site that describes the unrelenting grip of temazepam addiction. Back when prescription temazepam was dispensed in gel-filled capsules, certain adventurous types who like to blaze new trails on the frontiers of self-destruction figured out that it was much more fun to melt the capsules and inject the liquid than it was to (yawn) swallow the capsules. (These visionary pioneers were Scots, which is how my research and the temazepam phenomenon happened to intersect.)
All good things must end, it seems. Not only did injected temazepam (“jellies”) cause inflammation around the injection site, it also congealed in the arteries. Gangrene was a not-infrequent consequence.
I read on, in masochistic revulsion. A temazepam addict whose leg has just been amputated barely blinks before he starts punching holes in the other leg. A man dies after injecting temazepam into one of his eyeballs.
You read stuff like that, it makes you want to listen to Yanni, take a lavender-scented bath, carry an armful of lilacs to your grandmother, and all the way to Grandma’s you pray that while you’re pulling into the driveway she’s pulling cookies out of the oven.
There’s so much we don’t know, couldn’t even imagine, about one another. Everybody suffers, everybody rejoices, but for each, regardless of geography, the causes of pain and bliss might be galaxies apart. A woman in Darfur weeps because of the flies that cover her baby’s pus-encrusted eyelids. A woman in Tacoma weeps because a contractor installed the wrong hardware on her kitchen cabinets. She wanted eggshell porcelain drawer pulls, for God’s sake, not winter white.
I had a neighbor once who threw a big party after her doctor gave her wonderful news: Her malignant tumor hadn’t grown. Great bash. Totally impromptu. She went up and down the block, inviting everyone on the street, even people she’d never met. There must have been thirty-five people there.
It’s a wakeup call. I ask myself: How big is your world? How inclusive is the context of your joys and sorrows?
One of my favorite movies of all time is The Untouchables. Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Costner are Catherine and Eliot Ness, observed billing and cooing as Elliot packs for a business trip. Destination: Chicago. Mission: To put crime boss Al Capone (Robert de Niro) away.
Ness arrives in Chicago. Chaos turns to bedlam. Ness is getting his butt kicked until he enlists the help of a street cop named Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery).
At one point, when Ness and Malone haven’t slept for, I don’t know, months, what with people being “offed” and buildings exploding all over the place and Robert de Niro’s Capone strutting around Chicago, magnificently arrogant and wicked — and smug, because the Feds can’t touch him — the phone rings in Ness’s headquarters, where he and Jimmy are looking at maps, or maybe they’re perusing photographs of evildoers — the sneering Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) and his ilk.
Ness picks up the phone. Listens. Says something like “I don’t care, Sweetheart. Sure. Yellow would be fine.”
He hangs up the phone and — this must be the hardest part of film acting — he has to stand there for a long time, not saying anything, just looking bemused. For us, the audience, there’s music, there’s motion, there’s context for the look. But Kevin, he’s sizzling in a studio, facial muscles twitching from overexertion, having to look bemused for what must feel like hours without the benefit of bemusement-inducing music and with all those people listed in the credits (the Key Grip, the Secretary to Mr. Costner’s Masseur, etc.) looking on.
Jimmy says, “Was that your wife?” Ness replies that it was.
Jimmy: What did she want?
Ness: She’s sitting in some room, surrounded by people she doesn’t know, going over kitchen color charts or something. [Pause. Bemusement.] Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.
Damn good thing, too.
I love that line. I look for ways to work it into conversations.
Sara: Looks like rain.
Me: Yeah… Well, some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.
Got a writing question? Leave a comment!
One of my former jobs was to introduce new faculty members in a college newsletter. At least half of each introduction consisted of the person’s educational attainments, teaching awards, innumerable publications, and so forth. The dean insisted that the entire introduction be in narrative format, so I was constantly inventing new ways to say, “After earning his Master of Science degree at Prestigious University, he received a Ph.D. from Even More Prestigious University, where he continued to teach until joining the faculty of Backwater University,” and so forth.
When you are conveying data, as above, the data belong in a list — which may be in paragraph format or in the usual “list format,” one item under another. List format has the advantage of breaking up daunting blocks of text.
Either way, items in a list should be parallel (similar in type and construction).
Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback riding, and making crank phone calls. [All items in the list are gerunds or gerund phrases.]
No: Our powerful software is flexible, intuitive, easy-to-use and integrates seamlessly with your other tools.
No: Artemis’s Labrador retriever, Margaret, had several jobs in the household:
1. She licked Artemis’s face when he was sad.
2. She brought Artemis his pipe and slippers every evening.
3. Barking at intruders.
No: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and the opera.
Yes: Portia’s favorite activities are swimming, horseback-riding, and going to the opera.
About the Harvard Comma, or the Oxford Comma, or whatever you want to call the comma that belongs before the final item in a series
I’m for it. Associated Press style omits it. Here’s an example, followed by my rationale:
With Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole, and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
Without Harvard Comma: I’d like syrup, guacamole and peanut butter on my eggs, please.
1. When you say it out loud, your voice pauses after guacamole. One of the purposes of a comma is to signal such a pause. Be courteous to your readers: Let them go with the flow of text that simulates natural speech.
2. Often the items in a series are phrases rather than single words. In complex sentences, omitting the final comma can muddy the meaning, causing the reader to reexamine the sentence or stop reading altogether. I know what you’re going to say: If the sentence is that complex, it should be recast. Here’s what I say: Go soak your head.
3. Even in short sentences or phrases, omitting the Harvard comma can be all but fatal, as in the famous (possibly apocryphal) book dedication “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Adapted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell
GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net
Bad writers sit down to write, and they think, “Ah, I am writing. I must use special Writing Language.” These people may communicate beautifully in conversation, but their writing is stilted and usually verbose. They write to impress rather than to communicate.
The difference between writing and conversing is that conversation isn’t a unit. When you are talking with, say, Marcella, she is usually talking too. So your conversation is interactive. You and Marcella give each other verbal and nonverbal cues that guide the conversation. You can tell if she doesn’t understand something, and you say it a different way. You can also use body language to make your point. The two of you make constant little adjustments to keep the communication flowing.
When you’re writing, however, the reader (Arturo) can choose to read or not read your writing (unless he is your English teacher). He can stop reading at any time without letting you know. Arturo bases his choice on three things:
(1) his interest in the subject,
(2) the energy in your writing (your style), and
(3) the integrity (unity) of your narrative (that is, does the piece hang together?).
Excerpted from Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell, designed for business writing but useful for any nonfiction genre
GOT A QUESTION? Enter it as a comment, or e-mail mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.