Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Poem for Pain

Another of my forays into poetry:

Take Away the Vodka
Take away the vodka
And the wine; no stout for me.
I don’t want the numb
And fake honesty.
I am in pain right now
And I choose to feel it:
The bald uncertainty,
The fear of tomorrow,
The distrust of today.
The world is not a nice place;
No altered state will make it so.
This agony is truth; it clings
Like a worn lover.
It whispers bitter nothings:
“You must be broken
So you can heal.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Tribute to the Grandmother Who Encouraged Me to Write

Today marks the 100th birthday of my paternal grandmother. 

There is no significance to this in terms of writing, except that Grandma Vivian was the only person in my family while I was growing up who did anything creative. She painted.

I still have a painting she made of a white rosebush in her backyard. It is painted from a picture she took. The caption on the photo simply reads,“Taken May 18, 1981. My roses.”

Grandma never pursued her artwork in terms of education or sought recognition. In her day, women didn’t do that sort thing. She married young and, though she held a job for a time, she spent most of her life as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Nothing wrong with that, but I've always wondered if she maybe had other aspirations. 
Grandma was so laid back that she often seemed disconnected from her surroundings, like a kid at a carnival who tries to take it all in. Perhaps this is the sort of artistic temperament that is needed to paint or write or draw or make music. 

Perhaps people with this disposition see what could be and find it more interesting than what is.

I see that as a connection between her and me. I often feel like that kid at the carnival--alternately exhilarated and disturbed by the sights, sounds, and experiences around me. In my less optimistic moments, I compare life to a minefield: waiting for something to go off when I take my next step. 

It is through writing that I've found a way to navigate this carnival-minefield. I imagine that art served the same purpose for Grandma.

Nevertheless, it was Grandma Vivian who showed an interest in my work as a writer when no one else did. She took the time and effort to read a play I wrote about a rock band. (She said she liked it, except for the language.) 

She even sought to collaborate with me by coloring a drawing I had made of the Marvel Comics character, Tigra. She got the colors wrong, but she was doing her own thing—something I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

She also encouraged my interest in writing by suggesting that I write stories about the family she had married into, the Gildersleeves. 

Curiously, she never asked me to write about her own family, the DeFreeces. Perhaps the Gildersleeves seemed more interesting. (Two of my great-uncles served in World War I, and one later died of what she told me was a poisoned bullet wound. This turned out not be true—he died of appendicitis.)

Perhaps it was because she owned a history book written by a distant relative who had traced the history of the Gildersleeves in America back to the 1600s. (A cousin of mine now owns that book.)

I was into comic books at the time, not genealogy, so I never wrote the stories she wanted to read. I did, however, interview her a few years before her death to learn more about our family.

When I launched my own genealogical project a few years ago, I discovered that Grandma was wrong about certain details, especially dates. But she also gave me a lot of information I couldn’t have found elsewhere, including details of her family, which included seven brothers and sisters.

One of the more interesting aspects she told me was that her father—my great-grandfather—had been an acrobat. I couldn’t find any verification for this later on, but it’s a lovely idea and adds a sense of romance and adventure to our family history.

It would not totally surprise me if Grandma had made up that story, or perhaps misremembered and embellished something, as she apparently had done with the poisoned bullet tale. As I said, she lived in her head and seemed only mildly interested in the world around her. 

My mother used to tell me that she had tried to start conversations with Grandma Vivian, her mother-in-law, and was met with silence. Mom interpreted this as rudeness.

Yet I don’t think Grandma was trying to be rude. Some people are just better at small talk than others. I’ve been told that small talk is one of my areas of deficiency, and my dad was much the same way. 

People who live inside their heads often miss social cues or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Retreating into silence is safer than being called out for violating social norms.

Grandma Vivian passed away during my final year of college. Her passing and funeral are largely a blur—except that the pastor had calculated Grandma's age wrong, thinking she was 77 instead of 78.

Unlike Grandma, I was a stickler for details and meticulously recorded such things. I never said anything to the pastor about her mistake, but I’ve always remembered it. That’s how I make sense of the world inside my head.

But life goes on. I had to finish college and take a graduation trip to Germany, and then ... I had no idea what to do with my life.

Perhaps Grandma experienced her life in much the same way. At 19, she married a man 16 years her senior and moved away from her parents’ home in Nebraska to live with him in Kansas. At 20, she became a mother; when she was 22, her second baby died. 

Life just takes you in directions you never expected, and she had a husband whose strong personality often overshadowed her own. I don’t think she truly knew what it was like to live on her own until he passed away. She was 72 at the time.

I’ve often felt the way I imagined she felt: waiting for someone to come along, take my hand, and guide me through this carnival we call life. But on the two occasions when this happened, it didn’t work out. From my grandmother, I inherited the capacity to dream. But from my grandfather, I inherited a certain stubbornness that resisted being overshadowed by a stronger personality.

So, here we are, 100 years into this carnival, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. Maybe there is no sense to be made. Maybe there’s only an exit sign which magically appears when we’ve had enough.

But, through her art, Grandma Vivian taught me it was okay to dream. 

Happy birthday, Grandma!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Clarifying the Colon: The Mark of Expectation

Here is the final grammar article from my old foray into writing for Suite Enjoy. For more such articles, see the index for January and February on the right-hand side of the blog.

The colon—two tiny dots, one on top of the other—causes enormous confusion for beginning writers. Here’s why colons are helpful and how to use them.

Most beginning writers know that colons can be used to introduce lists. However, colons can also be used in a much broader sense: to set up expectation (as the colon just did for this sentence). Colons add variety and flavor to a piece of writing; however, they must be used properly.

As with the semi-colon, there are really only two significant uses for a colon: to introduce a list and to set the reader up to expect something.

I.  Introduce Lists

When using a colon to introduce a list, make sure that the word preceding the colon is a noun:

Seven students went to the ball game on Friday night: Josh, Taylor, Courtney, Nick, Nathan, Patrick, and Jasmine.

Do not use a colon if the word that would precede it is a verb:

The seven students who went to the ball game on Friday night were Josh, Taylor, Courtney, Nick, Nathan, Patrick, and Jasmine.

Note that the content of these two sentences is the same. The only difference lies in stylistic choice of the writer. Which version is correct? They both are. But only the first requires a colon.

Do Not Use a Colon with a Preposition

Beginning writers often use a colon incorrectly:

            After getting off work, Steve went to: the bank, the store, and then home.

The colon adds nothing to this sentence. The preposition to shows the proper relationship of ideas; it doesn’t need any extra help. 

Colons are also not needed when introductory phrases are used instead:

Steve bought several non-essential items at the store, such as magazines and lottery tickets.

Such as also conveys what needs to be said. A colon would simply get in the way.

II. Set Up Expectation

In Sin Boldly!, David R. Williams (2004) described the colon as a mark that says, “here it is”; that is, it fulfills the expectation set up in the previous part of the sentence: 

The band played the last song Bill wanted to hear after Holly dumped him: “The Goodbye Girl.”

Holly said one thing about Bill always annoyed her: He spent money too freely.

When an independent clause follows the colon—as in the second example, above—the first word may be capitalized or not, depending on your preference or the style guide you are using. However, be consistent.

Test Yourself

Where are colons needed in the following passage?  (Answer appears at end of article.)

Todd is a big fan of '60s bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, and the Who.  He says there is one thing he’d like to do before he dies play bass like John Entwistle.

Use a colon to set up expectation, whether in introducing a list or in using a word, phrase, or clause that answers the previous part of the sentence.  However, do not use a colon if a verb, preposition, or introducing phrase (“such as”) is used instead.  (Answer: Place a colon after “dies.”)


Williams, D. (2004). Sin Boldly: Dr. Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper, 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Semi-colon Demystified: The Most Confusing Piece of Punctuation Is Actually Quite Easy to Use

Here's another of my grammar articles from the old Suite101 site. For more, see the links under January 2015 on the right-hand side of the blog.

The semi-colon—a period on top of a comma—looks as if it can’t make up its mind.  There’s good reason for that: It shows a separation of thought that isn’t quite complete.

Semi-colons and colons are two pieces of punctuation that beginning writers often think of as unnecessary.  Why use them, they ask, when a comma or period will serve as well?

In fact, a comma or period can serve for most casual forms of writing. But for academic, business, and professional writing, writers must often demonstrate a greater understanding of the relationship of ideas, hence the need for colons and semi-colons.  (In a future post, I’ll deal with colons.)

There are really only two uses for a semi-colon: to join two independent clause and to separate elements in a list.

I. Join Two Independent Clauses

Use semi-colons to join two independent clauses that could stand on their own as complete sentences. A period could, of course, quite easily be used instead; however, the semi-colon demonstrates a closer relationship between the ideas, as the semi-colon did in this sentence and below:

            John went to the store.  He bought milk.
            John went to the store; he bought milk.

Of course, you can also recast the sentence in any number of ways, such as by making the first clause dependent on the second: “When John went to the store, he bought milk.”

However, the semi-colon gives us more than information; it also shows emphasis. The writer calls attention to John's purchase of milk as opposed to, say, beer or lottery tickets.

Semi-colons can also join independent clauses that would sound awkward or wordy if they were joined in another way:

The Smiths sold their house far below market value; rather than turning it into rental property, they chose to get rid of it.

In this example, you could use “because” and a comma instead of a semi-colon. However, doing so would make the sentence wordy. One of the cardinal rules of writing is never use two words when one will do.

II. Separate Elements in a Series

The other major use for semi-colons is to separate items in a series. However, they should only be used this way when the list uses internal punctuation or when needed to clarify the relationship of items in the series:

The following stops are on our itinerary: Kansas City, Missouri; Lawrence, Kansas; Denver, Colorado; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Grants, New Mexico; and Tucson, Arizona.

The semi-colons clarify that there are only six stops on the trip, not twelve.

Semi-Colons Gone Bad

Do not use a semi-colon if one of the two clauses is a dependent clause:

            You can save time by going to the store on Oak Street; and it’s cheaper.

Do not use a semi-colon in place of a comma:

            For example; they have specials on frozen food this week.

Do not use a semi-colon to introduce a quote:

            Racing down the stairs, Mitch shouted; “Leave my car alone!”

Do not use semi-colons with short lists or lists in which the relationships of the items is already clear:

The Beatles consisted of John Lennon; Paul McCartney; George Harrison; and Ringo Starr.

Test Yourself

Correct the following passage. (Answer appears at end of article.)

When moving to a new apartment, you must do several things, for example, call the utilities to have your service switched over, notify family, friends, and your employer of your change of address, and make sure you have enough money to cover moving expenses. Also, don’t forget to tell your landlord that you are moving out.

The semi-colon is actually a very useful and easy-to-use punctuation mark. It shows the relationships of ideas and keeps the reader moving forward in a way that a full stop (period) cannot. There are really only two uses for semi-colons—those identified above—and, if you master them, your writing will be better for it.

(Answer: Replace the comma after “things” with a semi-colon. No other semi-colons are needed because the relationship between “family,” “friend,” and “your employer” is already clear.)

Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...