Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Ineloquent Response to Grammatical Criticism

It's largely considered bad form to respond to a critic. As a fan of bad forms I decided to go ahead and give it a try. You see, I recently came across a criticism of my book, Bad Unicorn, because the reader had encountered “their” as a singular pronoun and so stopped reading. My response . . . pfft!

He or she, in writing his or her review, must have reflected on his or her experiences as an editor/copywriter/kitten euthanizer, and in his or her dedication to one prescriptive style guide or another, found his or her panties/shorts wadded in a binding grammatical knot causing him or her great rhetorical angst and discomfort. Now that's how you write a sentence! 

Just to set the record straight, however, according to Merriam-Webster, “the use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” The use of “their” as a singular pronoun is found in the works of such hacks as Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, and others. There's actually a great post about this at Daily Writing Tips.

So to any future readers, let me suggest that if such nuances are troubling for you, you probably aren’t the type to enjoy a book about a carnivorous unicorn in the first place. That being said, let me salute my critic's grammatical vigor and ask that we at least part as friends. Or as Shakespeare put it: “There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” Now that guy can write. 

The only surviving photograph of "The Bard" when asked about this issue. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Simple Kind of Life

Goodbye social media.

I’ve given you a fair shot, but I’m turning you off and tuning you out. If you want to know why, please feel free to keep reading. If not, that’s okay too.

You see, I was born in 1967. That means my life can be comfortably divided into two halves: 1967-1990, and 1990-2013. Each of these 23 year periods are marked by remarkable differences and periods of change. And now that I reflect on both what I’ve gained and what I’ve lost in the bargain, I’ve decided to stick with what I like and get rid of what I don’t. So here's a little history—I’ll try and keep it brief:

I appreciate having grown up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. We had a rotary phone hanging on our wall, a three-channel television with rabbit ears, and Saturday mornings were the only time you could watch a half-day’s worth of cartoons (totally worth waking up for).  When we played, we grabbed footballs, bats and gloves, or BB-guns, and peddled off to whatever adventures we could find. In the late 1970’s we discovered Dungeons and Dragons, and despite our parent’s concerns we were secretly summoning Beelzebub through candle-lit pentagrams, we gathered and stretched our imaginations into characters and worlds fantastic and wonderful. Geeky, I know. But awesome too.

I had this bad boy
I watched as the personal computer came into the home, starting with a Radio Shack TRS-80 my dad bought me; then to the much upgraded Commodore 64 thanks to mom (and a divorce that left both sides offering material incentives to keep me smiling and playing along.) I soon decided computers were cool. I watched MTV when it was a small cable channel and listened to Howard Stern when he was a local DJ in Washington DC. Life was good.

I graduated high school in 1985. That was the year the first version of Windows was released, and in a computer science class I helped a girl with her homework by writing the answer: D$=”Mr. Hacking is a Jerk.” Yep, she didn't check it and that was the name of the teacher—score! The next year the 386 PC rolled off the factory line, and those riding the vanguard of technological change were called Generation X. That was cool too.

Then the decade turned over and my second 23-year clock started ticking. And while personally these were great years (I was married and we had four kids by 2000), I remember the rise of this thing called the Internet. I was in college and schools were the early adopters. Gopher was the first point and click navigation system, and we anxiously listened to sounds of modems squelching before the long march of pixels began to trace images across our monitors. We didn’t know it was slow at the time because it just was, and there was nothing else like it. Five years later CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy started providing dial-up services, and I remember the first time I saw a URL listed on a commercial—it was for Ford. It hit me that this Internet thing was going to change things.

Totally used this phone
As far as other stuff going on I had early access to cell phones because I worked as a radio DJ, and we had a version that had both a base and a handset. This is pre-brick folks, just to put it into perspective. I remember the first time I placed a call from a car--something very few people were able to do--and I started the conversation with, “I’m totally calling you from a car!” Yep, that’s how novel it was. Then things just exploded: modems disappear, phones get smaller, bandwidth goes up, and everything gets faster.

Social media came on the heels of the technology that supported it.  I remember Geocities as the first virtual hub of sorts (it’s still available in Japan, by the way.) Blogging starts and Google comes on the scene. Jump to the 2000’s as Wikipedia arrives and Friendster, MySpace, Digg, Facebook, and YouTube bubble up to prominence to either thrive or succumb to the next offering. Meanwhile we have three more kids (awesome). Also, I realize my kids will never know a time before the Internet. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Now as we move into the next decade social media has wrapped its tentacles around everything we do. It’s no coincidence that twitter founder Jack Dorsey listened to emergency dispatch calls as a kid and found the idea of short blurbs of information announcing who you were, what you were doing, and where you were going, as inherently interesting. Now we’re all dispatchers, and if we choose we can listen in to whomever we want (notice I wrote “whomever” just to be a smarty-pants).

One of the more useful philosophers
My problem with social media goes back to my favorite philosopher, who wrote meaning is always a derivative of use. Or in other words, Facebook isn’t about what it represents but about how it’s used. If I were to reach back to my 1985 self and describe the social media experience, I’d use the following metaphor:
Imagine you’re walking through a crowded mall. Everyone there has a megaphone and shouts what they’re doing, thinking, or feeling. Friends are those with megaphones turned in your direction (being a friend has nothing to do with how much you really know or care about someone). Everyone else is shouting too, but their megaphones are pointed in other directions (these are non-friends). And a lot of people are angry: about the government, elected officials, the media, neighbors, religion, and social issues.  But these are not arguments in the Socratic sense of hoping to work toward some truth—these are arguments about winning. Being entrenched is seen as strength and being open-minded a surrender to moral relativism. Since this is a contest, he who shouts the loudest and with the most vitriol seems to win. Those not in the argument have lots of things to say as well, because it’s important to know what everyone is doing as often as possible. These are not mean spirited communications, and there are real moments of love, laughter, and appreciation; but every life seems to require its own running commentary, and since everything is news what’s really important is easily lost.

For some strange reason most of the stores in this mall are filled with Hallmark card shops offering various inspirational saying, platitudes, or images of cats demanding to be liked. Of course there are other stores too, but you’re never left to just quietly browse these. The maelstrom of noise is everywhere, and at each step smart billboards follow. And these billboards never leave your line of sight, constantly advocating that you buy this or do that. All the while there’s more shouting and more updates from friends who may or may not give you the time of day if you really needed them, and more opportunity for billboards to watch, track, target, and add their messaging to the fray. We have surrendered wisdom for knowledge, and conversation for data. And so long as you remain trapped in this mall that will not change.

1985 Self Reacts to Metaphor
Knowing my 1985 self I think the answer to this scenario would be rather straightforward: “That mall sucks. You should totally ditch it.”

So I’m finding the exit and walking away. If you really are my friend you’ll know that this has nothing to do with how I think of you and what I’d be willing to do for you. Instead, my analysis of the two 23 year periods of my life found more joy in the simple things, and less in the ongoing chaos of being plugged in to social media. I desire a more simple kind of life. I will continue to write and post updates via book pages and such, but I am largely disconnecting from social media. I hope you understand and don't take it personally, because my decision feels really, really good. Almost waking up on a Saturday morning and watching cartoons good. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Poem

Okay, so completely off topic. But . . . eh . . .

Two Temples

I build my temple on a hill.
Come and worship with us; see the trappings that mark our devotion,
Gold and silver arranged just so,
Unblemished by those who would use such things,
To satiate unworthy stomachs.

This temple belongs to me.
I am glorified in my abundance; righteous in my opulence;
Lick my heel and be rewarded when I am gone,
For my corporate piety has promoted me.
Let my status be heralded again and again.

You, son, do not belong here.
Salty tears will stain; bloodied feet leave sanguine trails,
Across rugs not made for walking.
These are holy fibers,
Sewn from pecuniary tithes - in numbers known precisely.

I am the High Priest of this temple.
See the knife cut through familial sinew, tendon, heart,
Woman, children—such distinctions hold no sway.
Only the beautiful and deserving walk my grounds,
And have the privilege to call me father.

Two temples sit upon the hill,
One to reap and one to sew; see them thus together?
To each tokens of devotion cast.
But most of all I am pleased to note,
Of the two, mine is slightly higher.