Her and me are on the way

Recently a friend and I were discussing what’s known in some circles as “substandard English.”

To be specific: Her and me were having a little conversation about “her and me.”

My friend confessed to thinking poorly of native speakers who habitually violate rules of grammar. One of the most grating errors for her was the use objective pronouns as the subjects of a sentence (For example, “Him and me are having an argument.”) My friend felt badly about her reaction, but said that she couldn’t control it, even with transgressors she thought well of otherwise.

Her-and-meI commiserated. A sentence such as “Him and me went to the mall” has a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard quality to my ear. But while I agreed that this particular usage was lamentable, I predicted that it would become acceptable English within our lifetimes.

If a language is alive and well, changes are inevitable. (Latin’s not evolving much these days.) But that doesn’t mean that all changes come easily.

On the one hand, changes that are useful, such as words to describe technological developments, will be quickly absorbed. They don’t sound wrong, they just sound new.

But changes that aren’t useful, such as the use of “her and me” as paired sentence subjects, will meet resistance from everyone for whom they sound incorrect.

Curiously, speakers who would say “him and me ate breakfast” would never say “me ate breakfast” or “him ate breakfast.” Apparently using a single objective pronoun as a subject still sounds improper even to the language barbarians among us.

That’s why, on October 7, while scanning a brief item in the “On Campus” section of the Wisconsin State Journal, I was stunned to encounter the following passage:

Her and others in the Hmong community criticized the university…

and worse, because it seemed a further degradation:

Her is a Madison-based advocate…

I choked on my coffee. If this was acceptable to my local newspaper, then my prediction was fulfilled and my lifetime was going to be a lot shorter than I’d thought.

Then, on my way to the depths of despair, I noticed that the offending sentence referred to a man named Peng Her. Relief was immediate. Not yet, I thought. Not yet.

Still, it’s only a matter of time.

Look on your work, ye Mighty, and throw it away…

Sand stream

Monk at work. (The scarf is a sneeze guard.) Click to enlarge.

Recently I watched Buddhist monks labor over a sand mandala meant to celebrate the deity Green Tara, who embodies the feminine characteristic of compassion.

A mandala’s elaborate overall design is traditional, yet unique to the site and the situation in detail. Rendering one in sand involves carefully applying grains from the mouth of a narrow funnel called a jamphur. Rubbing the side of a full jamphur with an empty one generates a controlled vibration that dispenses the brightly colored sand, a few grains at a time. The sound of the jamphurs in action builds and fades like the buzz of cicadas.


Loaded with pigment, each of the hollow tools, when tapped or scraped, releases its contents precisely.

The sand mandala that I saw under construction was the product of scores of monk-hours over the course of a week. The intricate display was destined to be erased when finished, its mingled sands ceremoniously strewn onto the nearby Wisconsin River in recognition of the impermanence of life.

Mandala detail

Note the texture of the white border, like icing piped onto a cake. Notice too how uniform the layer of green sand appears.

As an artist, I was not surprised that it pained me to consider the fate of this beautiful work of art. I’d be tempted to try to preserve it.

Compassion is fine, of course, but being nonreligious, I think the act of destroying what had been so painstakingly assembled says much more about the humility of sacrificed ownership.

For many of us, this is an unobtainable ideal.


Tribute to the junk drawer

Junk drawer, as of 4/10/13

The undisturbed contents* of my kitchen junk drawer, as of 4/10/13 (click image to enlarge).

It’s the place to drop your to-be-sorted-later pocket debris.

The place to check for anything that isn’t where you thought you left it.

The place to look one last time before blaming your spouse or children for your frustration.

The junk drawer, that holding pen for stuff that doesn’t have a home of its own, is usually in the kitchen. Of course, the longer you live in the same house, the more you need auxiliary junk drawers. Eventually every room has one, and only if you’re lucky or the victim of a natural disaster does the proliferation end there.

It’s the last refuge of disappointment and the unfailing wellspring of minor surprise.

The junk drawer, where items that were once possessions before they vanished might–after you’ve given up all hope or even any remaining need–just might reappear, allowing you to celebrate their loss of usefulness.

Are you willing to show or confess what’s in your favorite junk drawer? Do you have a different name for this essential repository?

* Contents as of 4/10/13:
1 box strike-on-box kitchen matches
1 phone charger (only one!)
1 computer cord with two male mini-jacks
1 metal shoe horn
1 department store receipt
9 loose rubber bands, assorted sizes
2 emery boards
2 dead compact fluorescent bulbs
1 ziplock bag containing assorted rubber bands
4 pizza coupons
1 Chinese restaurant delivery menu
1 pair eyeglasses, old prescription
1 wooden pencil
1 tube lip balm
1 unopened pack chewing gum
1 book paper matches
4 packets cut-flower preservative
1 ziplock bag containing 4 mini-screwdrivers
4 unidentified house keys, one with leather tag labelled “Iowa Falls & Osceola Iowa”
1 mechanical pencil
3 small binder clips
1 sandwich shop gift card of unknown value
1 bottle auto touch-up paint
1 plastic harmonica in case
1 tape measure/key chain combo
3 wrapped anise-flavored candies
1 plastic potato chip bag clip
1 pair velcro fasteners, adhesive-backed
1 unidentified car key
1 halogen mini-bulb in box
1 three-prong outlet adapter plug
1 one-point Scrabble tile (U)
1 small metal snack-bag clip
2 Allen wrenches
2 paper clips
2 bobby pins
1 picture hanger hook without nail
1 Christmas tree ornament hook
1 “child-proof” electrical outlet plug

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Railing against imperfection

For most of my editing career, I relied on typesetting professionals to copy fit and make text changes. Each round of editing generated a new proof, which often led to further changes.

Offending railing

The offending railing.

The artists and typesetters I worked with were unfailingly gracious with my repeated attempts to “perfect” a story with corrections I thought essential. However, they made it clear that three proofs should be enough to finish the job. My asking for Proof #4 was pushing our friendship. Proof #5 was stretching the social contract between us. And as for Proof #6, well, I better bring doughnuts.

As a result, far too many imperfect articles left my hands because I finally ran out of the nerve to beg an artist to provide one more missing comma.

Not so with self-publishing. If I were counting “proofs” for this post, I’d hit double digits trying to correct every last imperfection. Online, I could–and would–always be willing to make another change.

So it’s especially frustrating when, in regard to non-editorial projects, I’m prevented from fixing that “one more thing.”

Take the new kitchen railing I recently installed. I ordered the parts from a local custom builder, and spent the better part of a day putting it up. (Never having done this before, it was measure 10 times, drill once. Oh yeah, and go to the hardware store twice.)

After seven hours, I was worn out and willing to overlook a number of imperfections that I was sure no one else would notice. (Can you tell how the ends of those balusters aren’t perfectly flush with the floor?) So I didn’t pay as much attention to the final step as I wish I would have.

Twisted rosette

The twisted rosette, a mockery of perfection.

See where the railing attaches to the wall? In my haste to finish the job, I drove nails through that oval rosette without aligning its wood grain vertically. As you can plainly see, the rosette is 6 degrees from the perpendicular.

Big deal, you say. But it’s forever. I can’t fix it, not without risking major damage to the wall or the rosette, or both.

So now I’m reminded of the flaw every time I use the stairs. As many as a dozen times a day, I’m mocked by my failure and forced to face the truth that all that stands between the job as it is and perfection is the equivalent of a Proof #21. And alas, that ain’t gonna happen.

Such is the degraded life of an former editor, thwarted by reality.

Faithful to the book

When two-year-old O finds a tricycle in his grandparents’ garage, he first puts on Grammy’s helmet before trying to ride.

Each time we play Driving the Car, O fastens his imaginary seatbelt.

O and his book

Photo © 2012 Cassandra May.

Between bouts of activity, O is likely to sit down with a book.

O is a modern child, growing up in a fully electronic household. His parents’ primary sources of news and information are Internet devices. O has long known how to unlock a phone or an iPad, and he loves, loves, loves pushing buttons. But just as O associates helmets with bicycles and seatbelts with cars, he connects books with relaxation.

O expects someone to read a book to him before his afternoon nap and again at bedtime. In between, he’ll ask for storytime whenever he’s in the mood. Sometimes he wants to be read to, sometimes he wants to explore pages on his own. In any case, books have become the linguistic equivalent of comfort food for him.

Because of the positive associations his parents set up, O doesn’t question the value of books any more than he questions the value of bicycle helmets or a seatbelts. All of them provide refuge from the uncertainties of a busy, stressful world. Because of the connections he’s making today, he’ll always travel safely, and he’ll always want to curl up with a book.


Superstition by the numbers

Balls that didn't make it.

The marks of balls that didn’t make it out of Fenway Park. Not humid enough?

A hallmark of human endeavor is conventional wisdom. Sports seem to be particularly rife with self-appointed wise men and their decrees. And the overlap of the baseball and football seasons is particularly fertile ground for pundits to plow.

Conventional wisdom, of course, goes largely unchallenged and eventually becomes “law.” It also gives life to superstition. Consider these examples:

* By this point in 2012, you’ve surely heard that no NFL football team that started with a 2-4 (or 1-5 or 0-6) record has ever played in that year’s Super Bowl. This factually correct statement is always delivered predictively, as if such numbers were a curse, rather than the marks of mediocre teams unlikely to finish in contention.

* Every year that the New York Yankees earn a spot in the MLB playoffs, we hear that their mere presence should strike fear into the opposition because the Yankees have a (current) record 27 championship trophies on the shelf. This factually correct statement is also delivered predictively, as if the ghosts of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had influence over the flight of the ball.

Superstition is part of sports’ charm to some degree. However, superstition makes us less likely to question factually incorrect pronouncements. For instance, how many times have you heard the conventional wisdom that humidity gives baseball pitchers an advantage “because the ball doesn’t travel as far,” ignoring the fact that water vapor is less dense than the other stuff that air is made of.

Unfortunately there’s little that can be done to remove conventional wisdom and superstition from sports. It does pay, though, to roll your eyes when you hear it and check the facts when pundits have their say.

What’s your favorite example of conventional wisdom or superstition in sports?

What’s your child’s storytime preference–paper or glass?

Perhaps you heard about the recent report that parents and children both prefer books on paper to e-books when reading together. I suspect that if you’re above a certain age, you found this news to be an encouraging reaffirmation of your values, otherwise known as curmudgeon-hood.

Conventional (read “elderly”) wisdom has it that paper is a more “warm and nurturing” medium than an electronic device. I agree, at least for the time being.

The key phrase above is “reading together.” What is warm and nurturing about reading together is the physical contact between parent and child. At present paper books lend themselves to better contact because they give readers a qualitatively different physical experience–a distinctly three-dimensional experience. Think of what’s involved in turning a paper page:

The Poky Little Puppy

1. Grasp the right-hand page, usually at the corner, by separating the top sheet from those underneath.

2. Life the page and carry it to the left;

3. Drop the page and smoothe it.

Can a child do this easily? Some can, some can’t, especially the very young. (That’s why “board books” were invented.)

Poky on screen

Now compare that with what’s involved in “turning” an electronic “page:”

1. Swipe the screen or press a button. That’s it.

Can a child do this easily? Probably. So in terms of ease of use, the electronic book wins “hands down.” But in terms of physical interaction, paper provides the reader with sensations on more than one level.

Electronic pages feel the same to your touch whether they’re displaying War and Peace or The Poky Little Puppy. In tactile variety, paper is the clear winner. Different paper books have different size pages, using paper of different weights and degrees of opacity. And who has not noticed and enjoyed a “new book smell?” As a result, a paper page turns with more fanfare and tactile feedback than an electronic page. So much so that learning the skill of paper-turning can give a young child a sense of accomplishment, an added positive association.

Of course, the relative advantages of the two media will likely change as technology improves. Already e-books provide color, a major shortcoming of early devices, and full-blown Search features. But I’d say the jury is still out on the hyperlinks that e-books make possible. Although they have the potential to enrich text, hyperlinks can also distract viewers with games and activities of dubious value. As a result, e-books are just as likely to detract from a good story as to make it better.

The complex positive associations that many of today’s parents have with the books of their youth prejudice them in favor of paper. The above study also found that 60% of parents prefer that their children read from paper rather than glass.

But who knows? Twenty years from now when today’s children, who are more familiar and comfortable with technology of all kinds, become parents, they might prefer e-books. And then the definition of “warm and nurturing” will change, despite what the old folks think.

Until then, though, let your child be your active reading partner. Together enjoy the feeling of lifting each page to see what that precocious puppy is going to do next.

Paper or glass? What’s your preference for your own reading? For reading with your child?

Another national observance of defeat

Another year, another anniversary, another national observance of defeat.

One more annual reminder of how we blew the chance to prove our strength of character.

The recent wrangling over who’s responsible for funding the National September 11 Memorial & Museum is just the latest bit of evidence of how that terrorist attack has redefined this country for the worse. Also consider “the iron curtain of security surrounding the site,” a mashup of all the inconveniences that nervous authorities have devised to make citizens think that their government is on top of terrorism.

Then, of course, there’s the design itself, an evocative display of respect for our dead whose redundant symbols of loss hammer home how much we miss them.

But the fact that the memorial’s centerpiece is a fearful double void is something to regret. We merely compounded our weakness when we decided to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11 with these symbolic representations of absence.

The site’s twin holes in the ground–footprints of a rampaging monster–are exactly the opposite memorial image we should be projecting. They say: You have taken American lives; look at what we’ve lost.

Instead we should have restored the New York skyline, not to feature two open graves, but two upthrust fingers. The rebuilt twin towers–rebuilt to correct previous design and construction flaws–could’ve housed a suitable memorial to the victims while erasing the most obvious evidence of the attack.

Imagine what a recreation of the familiar, iconic New York City profile would’ve defiantly declared: You have taken American lives, but you cannot take our resolve. There is a hole in our hearts, but our will and our courage is undiminished. We can take your best shot and show no sign of demolished ideals, liberties, or spirit. We will carry on, not pretending that nothing happened, but constantly reminded of our dedication to keep this great nation whole.

Then this anniversary would not be an observance what has killed us. It would be a celebration of what has made us stronger.