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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Penury Is the Midwife of Invention



     I was planning to make a pinwheel out of a Chipotle takeout lid, a sort of aluminum pie pan stretched into an oval. Two fabulous steel pinwheels already stood in one of my backyard peanut patches, but they were too darn expensive for doodads with no other purpose than to amuse the eye and make me feel cool and modern. Pinwheels are also supposed to scare squirrels. Though I could almost hear the little blighters snickering when I installed the store-bought ones, I decided to make my own pinwheels to stand in my raised garden beds.
     So there I sat at my kitchen table with a paper pattern, kitchen shears and a Chipotle takeout lid. I figured if I trimmed off the heavy crimped edge, I could flatten the rest of the lid, snip toward the center, turn in the corners, stick a small nail through the center, and voila. The shears bit in and made their way around the edge of the lid where it bent outward. As the trimmed bit grew, it began to curl, and when it dropped to the table, it looked for all the world like a snake.
     I did make the pinwheel, and it spun all sprightly on its bamboo stick, but my mind kept revolving around the aluminum snake. I set it in the garden with a chunk of concrete on one end. It was wonderfully reptilian, curving about and moving a little in the breeze. With another lid, I began cutting at the edge, and snipped around in a spiral all the way to the center, leaving an oval at the end as the snake’s head. I shook it out and exulted at the way it shimmered and shimmied.
      Last year, one of my adolescent fig trees produced a dozen or so fruits. Squirrels ate all but one of them, before they were even ripe. The only survivor was hidden under a leaf and discovered by a party guest. We shared it. Few things are as luscious as a ripe fig fresh from the tree. This year, the tree repeated its performance, only draped with aluminum snakes. We humans ate all the figs except one, which ants got into. What a triumph. Now the garden is swathed in snakeish effigies, and I’m—well, sort of proud of myself, but more than that, thankful to have stumbled on a solution to rodent depredation. I even sent a photo and description to local ag agent emeritus Tom MacCubbin, whose book The Edible Landscape, or, as my brother-in-law calls it, Eat My Backyard, inspired my plantings. He said he’d try it.
     So, after all the trapping and shooting and throwing stones at the squirrels, the sprinkling of cayenne and the dripping of peppermint oil and growling fiercely at the critters that ventured close to the porch (Yes, I confess I growled at them. I may have used some unkind words too.), the solution needed only Chipotle and cheapness to reveal it. Come around next summer. We’ll eat figs.
 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Write Right

     Do viruses affect the English language? Or is there a linguistic climate change? I wonder, because it seems to me that several goofy errors and misuses began to turn up in American conversation a few years ago, and now they are rampant. 
     All of a sudden, no one can write January 2 or June 3 in an ad or poster or PowerPoint slide. They add the unnecessary ordinal and make it January 2nd or June 3rd. It adds no information, and it looks clunky. So why is it ubiquitous? Perhaps it came in holding hands with the ampersand. The little blighter "&" has multiplied all over the place, like an invasive species taking over the habitat of the correct and perfectly serviceable "and." The Associated Press Stylebook allows an ampersand if it's part of a company name, like Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, but nowhere else. Poster makers and newsletter writers, take note. Please. 
     It must be about the five-year anniversary of the beginning of the language mutation. See what's wrong with a "something-year anniversary"? Check out that root word "anni-." It means "year." The "-versary" part means "return," or, we could say, "observance." So a "five-year anniversary" is a "five-year year-observance." Dumb. Redundant. All you need is the ordinal, spelled out, please, if the number is less than ten. When the ninth anniversary gives way to the 10th anniversary, use those little ordinal endings all you want. Some publications used to spell out through the "-teenths." I don't care. Just keep the ordinal endings away from the dates.
     Hey, did you notice the careful placement of quotation marks above? They are very happy when used correctly, but they will twist things up if you try to use them for emphasis. Watch for signs that advertise "vegetarian" burgers or "real" cheese or "fun" carnival. Or even "sausage" on a stick (for all you Terry Pratchett fans out there.) Tossed in like this, they nudge us in the ribs and say, "Not really." It can get so embarrassing, you want to die, literally. Ah, a clever introduction of a new fungus. Guess what? Literally literally means literally, as in "really, truly happened." So if your head explodes literally, there are brains on the wall. The literal outbreak is literally non-partisan, as Joe Biden famously misuses it for emphasis, but so does Sean Hannity. It must be stamped out before nothing makes any sense!
     Now, that was an exclamation. It has an exclamation point after it. The exclamation point belongs there because the sentence expresses emphatic emotion. Desperation, even. It probably doesn't belong with comments on cute puppies or new haircuts. And even if you think your group's picnic is going to be the best ever, a long string of exclamation points won't make it so. List all the nifty activities, and give me a chance to say, "Golly, that sounds like fun." Please don't try to force me to be impressed. That would be great. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The News That's Unfit

"We're hearing the frantic 9-1-1 calls from when a five-year-old fell from a nine-foot diving board..." Oh, no, we're not, I shouted, and slammed the radio off. I couldn't move fast enough, though, to avoid the horrible image and the anger it inspired. It made me remember another case from decades ago. Here in Orlando, a man came home to find both his wife and their little grandson floating dead in their backyard pool. Apparently the boy had fallen in, and the woman had tried to rescue him, but both drowned. Neighbors were there trying to help when he called emergency services. "Are they breathing?" the operator asked, and the man cried out to the neighbors, "Are they breathing?" and sobbed. I heard this on the radio. It felt obscene to me to hear this man's anguish. 
The radio reporters added to the story by knocking on the doors of neighbors to ask how they felt about the death of the lady next door and the grandson. I wondered, did they think we could not imagine what such an event would feel like unless we heard it from the people next door? Did we need some guidance as to how we should react? That felt obscene to me too. I was telling friends at church about the whole debacle when someone else walked up to the group. She hadn't heard the news story. I gave her a quick report of what that poor man found at his home, and she gasped. That was a normal, human reaction, and she didn't need any 9-1-1 recordings or interviews with neighbors to elicit it. 
"How do you feel?" has become the reporter's standard question, it seems. Most of the time, like at sporting events, it's lame, but when it comes at a time of tragedy, it's vile. If I'd been one of the neighbors asked to comment, if I could get words out, I believe I would have said something like "How the bleep do you think it feels?" and then slammed the door with more than my usual vigor. Then I'd start to demand that 9-1-1 calls be made private, at least to the extent that they could not be played on the news without the permission of the caller. 
Both of these elements of "news-gathering" seem to me like running up and lifting the veil of a grieving widow in order to snap a photo for FaceBook. Some things are none of our business.