Monday, July 04, 2022
Monday, June 27, 2022
I used to teach the idea that English has characteristics just like mathematics, but I do not any longer because, as you might suspect, every English rule, unlike mathematics, has exceptions. While 1 + 1 always did, always does, and always will = 2, honest writing teachers must admit to their students that language is far more subjective, all too often laden with uneducated opinion and fraught with majority- or authority-rule tastes.
Take the rule claiming two negatives make a positive, just like math. Saying "I am not unaware" means I am aware, saying "I cannot make a mistake" asserts I want to do something correctly, and saying "I will not hurt you" implies you will be safe with me.
But you can't count on two negatives making a positive. For example, you can imagine an astronomy professor facetiously saying, "Galileo did not err when he distanced himself from heliocentrism during the Inquisition." In fact, you can't even depend on two positives making a positive. If you asked whether I was willing to freefall from the roof of a 14-story building, you can picture me ironically replying, "Sure I would do that."
Too much depends on context for insisting on right-wrong rulings for English usage. Ain't that right?
Monday, June 20, 2022
Besides death and near-death occurrences during the coronavirus pandemic, one of the worst setbacks was the loss of freedom of movement. We all missed either eye-opening vacations to exotic locales, or simple walks along tree-lined neighborhood sidewalks with friends; inspirational excursions to museums, cathedrals, or monuments; or warming visits to the homes of family or friends. So many missed moments. In other ways, I believe many of us with the advantage of a computer and the willingness to stay connected saw more than we ever had just by staying home more.
I saw more of loved ones through Zoom meetings than I did when the expectation of such such meetings required physical contact. Those meetings continue to this day, over 100 weekly ones on Sunday night with four groups of family members, nearly 60 biweekly ones on Wednesday night with six friends from the old neighborhood, and nearly 60 biweekly ones of Saturday evening with five friends from the old job. We all continue to show up when we can, so the increased facetime means something to all of us.
From my backyard patio, I have seen so much of nature that I usually did not have or take the time to enjoy. I saw a crow descend on a hole in my lawn to peck for baby rabbits when the mother rabbit emerged from apparently nowhere and dashed toward the encroacher to defend her brood. After a quick skirmish causing the crow to lose a feather or two, it flew away with nothing for its trouble. I saw squeeze out of a 15-millimeter-diameter hollow 5 meters up my maple tree a full-sized squirrel, followed by another full-sized squirrel, followed by a third full-sized squirrel. I saw in midday sunlight two robins engage in the most elaborate dance from one end of my 27-meter lawn to the other, the first one leaping over the second, the second hopping in a circle around the first, both of them bouncing in a circle while facing each other like two boxers ready to attack, and then repeating and exchanging these moves while continuing to the starting point of the dance before flying into the leafy shade of my oak tree.
I also saw art with the focused attention that it deserves. While I admit that nothing beats seeing an original artwork, I took to my old books that I had not opened in years to examine the paintings or drawings of Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Audrey Flack, Chuck Close, Kerry James Marshall, and Jean-Michel Basquiat to challenge my assumptions and affirm my convictions about their artistry.
I never had to leave my home to experience new sights and reimagine old ones. Tragedy can breed triumph.
Monday, June 13, 2022
The coronavirus is nothing to ignore. It has already taken more than 6 million lives globally and still accounts for some thousand deaths daily. It also has given unexpected pleasures: more reading and writing time, among many other delights. Yet while most people have not read as much as they could have, and even more have not written much even in a pandemic, most working adults have had more time to listen in the solitude of their home during the quarantine.
Besides the endless barrage of Netflix or Amazon miniseries, what have we listened to? For one, sounds of nature. Just yesterday morning, I heard a persistent drumming I thought was coming from inside my house. When I approached my opened window, I realized the sound was the rain smacking the roof above me. I've also grown familiar with different types of winds slashing against my house and I've begun naming them: rumble, tumble, grumble, jumble, crumble, fumble, stumble, mumble, and humble, in descending order of strength. In addition, I sense contrasting silences at 4:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., mainly because my tinnitus tends to hum early in the morning and scream late at night. And while the mourning dove's call has been a staple sound in the 38 years I have lived in my house, I have not heard so distinctly as now the heckling song of the mockingbird, the persistent hammering of the woodpecker, and the sharp scratching of claws as squirrels chase each other in dizzying circles up and down my backyard maple and oak trees.
No less pleasurable is the sound of music, which has become much more than just background noise to my reading and writing and household chores. I marvel at the mysteries of life revealed to me through the magical notes of Bill Evans's piano ebbing and flowing through Some Other Time, John Coltrane's soaring tenor saxophone opening My Favorite Things, and Billie Holiday's velvet voice pleading in Love for Sale. I now hear progression, not repetition, in Philip Glass's String Quartet #4. I feel blood course through my veins throughout Duke Ellington's orchestration of Sunset and the Mocking Bird and weep at the climax and resolution of Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings.
More important than any of these pleasures, listening to you has become a sought-after activity and an improved skill, not because I am getting older and wiser but because I am home more, and more relaxed, patient, contented. What you are saying sounds more purposeful, more interesting to me. You make sense to me, so I think more before responding, cringe more when responding lamely, and smile more when just listening to the silence that follows your wisdom. Less talking, more listening: a good recipe for relationships.
Monday, June 06, 2022
Monday, May 30, 2022
I do not want to seem insensitive about the COVID-19 pandemic, which is in its third year and has killed far more than 6 million people worldwide. I knew a good family man who died from the coronavirus during its initial outbreak. Some of my favorite jazz musicians also succumbed to the virus, including pianist Barry Harris, saxophonist Lee Konitz, pianist Ellis Marsalis, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, as well as the legendary playwright Terrence McNally. Many terrific small businesses, including restaurants and jazz clubs, have gone under due to the economic strains of COVID. I also feel fortunate that all I have lost is money, which, as the saying goes, isn't everything.
In fact, my health has improved since early 2020. Before then, I would get laryngitis twice a year, sometimes more, sometimes leading to bronchitis. These ailments have disappeared from my system. I attribute this reversal of fortune to fewer rides on buses and trains in proximity to germ-carrying commuters and fewer handshakes with people attending my live classes. And health, as the saying goes, is everything.
I can think of other big benefits of quarantining at home. Since March 2020, I probably have read more than I had in the previous decade. I have been collecting books for years that I promised myself I would eventually read. As my writing consulting business grew increasingly successful, I began to think the only hope for reading those books would be retirement, incapacitation, or incarceration, but I was not planning on any of those circumstances. The pandemic offered me found time. I read scores of novels, short story collections, philosophical treatises, biographies, histories, poetry volumes, and plays. I enjoyed the time-consuming process of being transfixed by chilling chapters, rereading powerful paragraphs and scintillating sentences to examine the writers' rhetorical strategy, and delighting in their wonderful word choices.
I am convinced that these exhilarating experiences have made me a better reader, a more powerful writer, a more informed writing teacher, and a more sensitive writing critic. By the way, my business has coming roaring back this year. Patience born from using idle time productively has paid off. The point is of this post is that you can use waiting time, from standing in line at the bank to getting through a pandemic, by entertaining and educating yourself through reading. When your turn comes, you will wonder where the time went.
Monday, May 23, 2022
I read poetry nearly every day. How could I not? When Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" begins with "Who made the world?" and Rita Dove's "Canary" ends with "If you can't be free, be a mystery." When Billy Collins's "Forgetfulness" begins with "The name of the author is the first to go" and Audre Lorde's "A Litany for Survival" ends with "we were never meant to survive."
I read poetry because of the focus it brings to my daily activities, the pleasure it brings to my professional responsibilities, the surprise it brings to my ill-advised assumptions, the inspiration it brings to my human interactions, and the serenity it brings to my loneliest moments. I suggest you get started reading poetry at the Poetry Foundation, which offers a seemingly endless supply of great poems.
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