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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Can Identify With This Thought

The experience of centering was one I particularly sought because I thought of myself as dispersed, interested in too many things. I envied people who were “single-minded,” who had one powerful talent and who knew when they got up in the morning what it was they had to do. Whereas I, wherever I turned, felt the enchantment: to the window for the sweetness of the air; to the door for the passing figures; to the teapot, the typewriter, the knitting needles, the pets, the pottery, the newspaper, the telephone. Wherever I looked, I could have lived.

- M. C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person

One More Teeny Tirade from a Word Crank, Plus a Slightly Shady Joke

Maiya busted me yesterday on multiple-digit numbers. They do not take an apostrophe, as do single-digit numbers when plural, so my post needed editing to incorporate her correction. I had already edited it once to add in the its/it’s confusion, my original motivation for writing about apostrophes in the first place.

To recap that one little area: its: possessive pronoun (like my); it’s: it is. They are not interchangeable. This is not a question of variable style on which opinions may differ.

My crank for today is short and simple. I, he, she, they are subject pronouns. The object forms are me, him, her, them. (You doesn’t change so creates no problems.) The most common error made by educated people is to use ‘I’ when ‘me’ is correct. “They gave Richard and I a gift.” No, no, no!!! You would never say, “They gave I a gift,” would you? Correct: “They gave Richard and me a gift” or “They gave a gift to Richard and me.” When in doubt, leave the proper name out and see how it sounds.

John O’Hara used the incorrect form intentionally in dialogue, arguing with copy editors who wanted to "correct" the way his characters spoke that young, upperclass, educated people really did make this mistake all the time. And such people--not just young ones, either--still do. So if you’re writing dialogue, and you want to show your character making a grammatical error, it works. Otherwise, you’re the one making the error, and that doesn’t work.

Oops, I almost forgot the joke. It’s about a philosopher giving a lecture and looking to generalize his point by using letters instead of specific object names. He was talking about 'essences,' or what medieval philosophers called ‘quiddity,’ such as the 'horseness' of horses, only he didn’t want it to sound as if only horses or apples or tables had essences, so he began by using the letters ‘a’ and ‘b’ but was quickly led into a –ness form that sounded very peculiar and distracting. Backtracking, he erased the chalk letters ‘a’ and ‘b’ on the board and replaced them with the letters ‘p’ and ‘q’. Where the lecture went from there I leave to your imagination.

Yes (sigh!), this is what passes for a joke among philosophers.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Help Stamp Out Weedy Word Forms (Warning: Word Crank on Soapbox)

Let’s start with the simplest apostrophe error first. Plural nouns do not have apostrophes, with the exception--and even this is in flux--of letters and numbers. Single letters, e.g. p’s and q’s, 6’s and 7’s, take the apostrophe, longer strings, e.g., 1960s, etc. do not. Correction to yesterday's post as it appeared: Maiya has reminded me that only single letters and numbers need apostrophes, which makes sense upon reflection. The plural of the letter ‘a’ without an apostrophe would look like the word ‘as,’ whereas ABCs is unambiguous as it stands. I still seem to remember numerical decades taking apostrophes in my younger days, e.g., 1950’s, but Maiya is correct that current usage (she says going back at least 30 years) is to omit the apostrophe, so write that decade as 1950s to avoid the copy editor's pencil. Just goes to show how we can keep each other on our toes. Thanks, Maiya!

But apostrophes can still be confusing, and people worry about leaving one out where they should have put one in, so the little squiggly superscript comma gets thrown into all kinds of situations where it doesn’t belong. When you see a sign for a “Farmer’s Market,” don’t go by the punctuation and expect to find one lone farmer. Similarly, it’s unlikely that an event sponsored by the “Lion’s Club” is being hosted by a single Lion. And when the sign says, “No Dog’s Allowed” or “No camera’s, please,” you can mentally delete those apostrophes, too. In each of these cases, a simple unadorned plural is what the writer intended. Several (possibly many) farmers, a group of lions, no (i.e., not one!) dogs or cameras!

Plural noun: no apostrophe (unless a single letter or number is standing in for a noun).

Possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes, either. My, our, your, his, her, their. Carry the lack of inappropriate decoration in these words over to his, hers, yours, theirs, its.

In short, just because a word ends with an ‘s’ doesn’t mean it needs an apostrophe!

Here’s where you do need it:

(1) Use an apostrophe when two words are joined in a contraction (do not = don’t; is not = isn’t, it is = it's, etc., including the first word in my sentence above, here + is = here’s);
(2) Use an apostrophe to show possession with a noun, common or proper (the tree’s leaves, the sun’s warmth, Sarah’s dish, Pamela’s bookstore, etc.).

In summary, yes, possession is sometimes indicated with an apostrophe and sometimes not, but the distinction is simple: possessive nouns take the apostrophe, possessive pronouns do not.

Then just keep in mind that the apostrophe in a contraction indicates a letter left out (such as the ‘i’ in ‘is’ or the ‘o’ in ‘not’).

There are a few special cases left out of this discussion, but for the sake of correcting 99% of common errors I’ve gone for the broad brushstrokes. Many years ago, I worked in a very boring office for a very dull boss. One day, he surprised me by saying something I found interesting. You may think this remark of his mind-numbingly dull, but I’m interested in language, and you have to know the kind of thing he usually said, word for word from day to the next. The unusual, interesting observation was: “We may see the disappearance of the apostrophe in our lifetime.” Little did that man anticipate that apostrophes would proliferate like spotted knapweed, popping up everywhere!

So don't be guilty! Nip those inappropriate apostrophes in the bud! Do not propagate! Your old high school English teacher will sleep better at night, knowing that you are doing your part.

Postscript: I've gone back into this post to add the most misunderstood pair of words related to this subject, its/it's. I hope you can see the difference! The cat drank all its milk. It's too late to give the kitten any. Possessive vs. contraction. See?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My Month in India Was Not Long Enough

When I say that A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth, is like a 1349-page soap opera, I mean nothing derogatory by the comparison. As high school freshmen on half-day schedules (due to what adults called “overcrowding” but what to me just seemed what high school was, since I’d never known it any other way), my best friend and I were able to keep up with most of the television soaps of our day. She followed the morning programs while I was at school, and I went home to the afternoon shows when it was her turn to be in the classroom. We updated each other by telephone every evening. You might say we were addicted.

It was fascinating, this peering into the inner recesses of people’s lives! Characters in long-running soaps (many of the shows we watched had begun on radio) grew up over the years, often had love affairs, usually married, still sometimes had affairs, frequently divorced, eventually grew old and died. Sometimes characters died young. A show usually had at least one core couple with a solid marriage, but there were complicated extended families and any number of unusual custody arrangements, along with plenty of skeletons in all the closets. Along with love and family, there were also political ambitions and business dealings and medical emergencies. In other words, there was all the stuff of real life, in a format that allowed the characters to age like real people, if at a somewhat faster rate.

More fascinating than the characters' physical aging, however, was seeing them learn about life, draw lessons from what they learned, and change accordingly, all of these changes taking place within a complex web of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, all of whose actions kept reaching in to tangle the strands. But stand back far enough, and a tapestry would appear. Always, the shows reflected their times. Always, they captivated their audience, who saw the characters as real people and cared what happened to them. So it is with this sprawling novel by Vikram Seth.
“You too will marry a boy I choose,” said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter.

How much do you know of the history of India? The year is 1948, a year after independence. Ravages of the partition of Pakistan and grief over the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi are still raw wounds. But ordinary life, as it will do, goes on, despite political unrest and religious prejudice.

Mrs. Rupa Mehra, sadly a widow, loves to travel, to visit and to write letters, and with no husband to arrange a marriage for Lata, it falls on the mother to seek potential suitors from every friend and relative who can be pressed into service. The object, of course, is to find a “suitable boy,” one from a good family, educated, preferably one who speaks English as well as Hindi and who has good prospects for the future. No one expects Lata to find a husband for herself. In fact, when she begins seeing Kabir, a fellow university student from a Muslim family, the campaign to guide her into a more “suitable” romantic path is quickly stepped up. Will Lata risk outraging her family by entering into a mixed marriage, or will she allow herself to be led?
Kabir was smiling. He put his arm around her shoulder and, instead of protesting, she let it remain. It seemed to be in the right place.

The Mehra family also includes Lata’s older married brother, Arun, a socially ambitious snob, and his wife, the selfish, unfaithful Meenakshi; an older sister, Savita, and her husband, Pran; and younger brother Varun, single and apparently without direction in life. Arun believes he has made a good and happy marriage. Will he discover Meenakshi’s infidelity?

Thanks to Savita’s marriage into the Kapoor family, politics enters the picture, for Pran’s father, Mahesh Kapoor, is a member of the Congress Party and part of the government, one of those responsible for the Zamindari Abolition Act. This act would, in effect, take land from wealthy nobles and give it to those who had actually worked it for years. The Hindu-Muslim plot axis thickens when Pran’s little nephew Bhaskar, a mathematics prodigy, is introduced to Kabir’s father, a brilliant, eccentric professor of mathematics.

Mahesh Kapoor is incredulous when young Bhaskar wants to advise him on his political career. Will Mahesh Kapoor be re-elected in a new district since leaving and then rejoining the Congress Party? And if the Zamindari Act is allowed to stand, how will that affect his friendship with the Nawab Sahib, when the latter loses land that has been in the family for generations?
While the zamindars on the one hand and the framers of the act on the other, the tenantry on the one hand and the retainers of the landlords on the other, all underwent these swings of elation and depression, the judges continued to frame their judgment in secret.

Meenakshi is a member of the Chatterji family, she and her four siblings the children of Justice and Mrs. Chatterji. For the children of a judge, the young Chatterjis seem a frivolous, light-hearted bunch, given to uttering extemporaneous and utterly impertinent rhyming couplets as part of their daily conversation with one another. The most amusing sections of the novel involve the flighty Chatterjis. Will Meenakshi’s poet brother Amit succeed in winning Lata away from Kabir? Will he try? (And how much of the Calcutta-born author of this novel is to be found in the character of Amit Chatterji?)
Amit paused in his scribbling and doodling. He was attempting an inscription for Lata. Now that he had run out of inspiration he began to wonder which of his two books of poems he should send her. Or should he send her both? Perhaps the first one was not such a good idea. Besides, the second, though it too contained some love poems, had more of Calcutta in it, more of the places that reminded him of her, and might perhaps remind her of him.

The Khan family stands to lose much if the Zamindari Abolition Act holds up to constitutional challenge. Twins Imitiaz and Firoz Khan, sons of the Nawab Shahib of Baitar, are also, despite their Muslim heritage, drinking companions of young Maan Kapoor, Pran’s younger brother. Where will all this carousing lead? What dangers await the young men when they begin to visit the home of famous songstress and courtesan Saeeda Bai?

A third suitor for Lata’s hand is brought forward by an old family friend of Mrs. Rupa Mehra. Haresh Khanna is an educated, confident, hard-working, serious “self-made man.” With her mother pushing this young man so determinedly, how will Lata be able to see his merits? Will she be swayed by her brother Arun’s opinion that Haresh’s chosen field of work, the manufacture of shoes, with its “taint of leather,” is beneath her?
Haresh noticed that Lata was looking at his co-respondent shoes with what appeared almost to be distaste. But the moment he looked at her, she turned away a bit guiltily towards his small bookshelf with its maroon-bound set of Hardy novels. Haresh felt a little downcast; he had thought a great deal about what to wear.

A Suitable Boy is not told from a British imperial point of view. British influence is still strong in this period, but that rule is over. One British couple appears briefly, but the other characters are all Indians. They are Hindu and Muslim, men and women, young and old, traditional and modern, rich and poor. There are women in strict purdah and university women, men cultivating muddy fields and men in the highest levels of government. Every character, down to the youngest child, is a unique individual, however, not a mere “representative” of a group. This is India from the inside. Intimate family scenes are juxtaposed with crowds in the streets celebrating religious holidays, the holiday scenes full of color and nail-biting drama. The same is true of the political campaigning and the tension building toward the General Election of 1952, the largest popular election the world had seen to date. Conflicts abound—religious, political, familial, personal—and it is all connected.

I have focused on Lata because her mother’s search to find her a husband frames the novel from beginning to end and because there is so much in this story that doing justice to all the characters—well, from the author’s point of view it required 1,349 pages, and there isn’t a single page I would edit out. Maan, his love for Saeeda Bai, his friendship with Firoz and his Urdu lessons with Rasheed—these could be a novel all on their own, but that would mean giving up the farther-reaching connections, and there isn’t a character who doesn’t add to the story.
And Rasheed? Censorious, pitiable, worn out, torn between family shame and family pride, forced to choose between loyalty and justice, between trust and pity, what must he have gone through? Was he too not a victim of the tragedy of the countryside, of the country itself?

Does that sound as if the novel ends tragically? Never fear. There are gains as well as losses, births to counterbalance deaths.

I realize that a recommendation for a novel of this length is not going to find many takers. Anyway, I’m not selling the book. A friend loaned me the copy I read, and our local librarian said the library copy finally fell apart (publishers take note: auch a big book should really be bound in two volumes), but if ever you run across A Suitable Boy, pick it up and read a few pages. You will be hooked. And, having come to know the people in this book, you will think of India in a whole new light.

(Marigolds play a role in all the Hindu festivities. These were photographed at Northport Nursery on Mill Street.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Report from Michigan's Little Easy

A visitor today from farther south in Leelanau County remarked that Northport looked "kinda quiet" to him. Really? He thought that? It seemed very busy to me! But then, we don't go in for elbow-to-elbow crowds here, except on the Fourth of July and dog parade day. Northport should really be called the “Little Easy.” Like New Orleans, we’re not on the way to anywhere else--if you come here, it's because this is where you set your compass. Also, like the Big Easy, we got our own way of doin’ things here. This is life in the slow lane. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening--don’t be fooled. There’s things goin’ on, cher. You just gotta seek 'em out.

For starters, there’s the Friday Farmers Market, down by the marina parking lot, just past the Depot. In June, local produce means, among other things, local strawberries; any time of the summer, you’ll find local honey and fresh-baked bread; and I don’t know about your heart, but there’s nothing to warm mine like the sight of young people involved in growing produce to bring to our local market. Here's the gang from Bare Knuckle Farm with their gorgeous edibles:

Busy bookstore day, Sarah greeting and charming, i.e., playing proprietor, while I played clerk. Division of labor. It works.

A little after five o’clock, after closing Dog Ears Books until tomorrow, I made way up Mill Street to David Chrobak’s latest venture, a little shop where he is selling various items he has collected over many years and housed in the Old Mill Pond B&B. David’s looking to downsize, and that means opportunity for new collectors. Today was opening day at Pot of Gold, and by the time I got there he’d sold a third of what he’d started with that morning—but never fear, there are literally tons remaining, and the shop will feature new items (that’s “new”) on a daily basis.

Finally, to wrap up the last Friday in June, Northport’s first “Music in the Park” featured the Stray Dogs from 7 to 9 p.m. I’m betting there was a good crowd, as this is a favorite weekly summer event for many who call Northport home or home-away-from home, and the rain seemed to be holding off, but I'll have to find out tomorrow from someone else. The front porch of the old farmhouse was calling my name....

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy Feast of St. John!

Strong winds in the morning and threatening skies did not deter Sarah and me from our morning run/walk, and I found a few little flowers that hadn’t made yesterday’s list, too. Still not all-inclusive. Can’t keep up. Reminds me of when my son “exploded into speech” and I couldn’t keep up a list of his words for more than a couple of weeks, so quickly did they multiply.

It was a mostly rainy day until late in the afternoon, and then the sky cleared and the sun shone. The meadow flowers and grasses danced in the magical early evening light.

Deep in the woods, under the shade of the canopy, not much is blooming at this time of year, but I did find the flowers of the wild leeks, along with a few little herb Robert blossoms.

Summer is now. Have yourself a feast. I had one already this morning, getting up in the dark to read PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, by Geraldine Brooks, to the tune of rain pattering on the porch roof. Cozy!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stop and Smell the Milkweed

As another summer launches, trees ringing with birdsong and meadows bright with wildflowers, everything seems to be happening at once, and I get a panicky feeling (completely unreasonable, I know) that there will be nothing left for July and August. Yesterday I began a list of what’s blooming now, a list which is surely not comprehensive (how many did I miss?), and here it is, not in alphabetical order or arranged by families or color but just as I took down the names:

St. Johnswort, bladder campion, daisies, coreopsis, cow vetch, clover (red, white, yellow), buttercups, goatsbeard, daisy fleabane, birdsfoot trefoil, leafy spurge, wood lily, soapwort, spiderwort, milkweed, hawkweed (orange and yellow), cinquefoil, sedum, sweetpea, beach pea, mustard, roses (all kinds, including wild shrub forms), vervain, harebells, all kinds of grasses, catalpa (tree) and highbush cranberry (shrub). The flowers! How many I have left out! And all too soon they will be gone for another year!

This happens to me every May, every June, every July and August. The flowers in bloom at any given time are my favorite flowers, and it’s hard for me even to remember what will come next until its time arrives, so I worry that the fields will become bare. I do know that we have coneflowers to look forward to, and Queen Anne’s lace, and asters—but then my mind goes blank, returning me to the present beautiful moment. Not a bad place to be on June 22.

Another not-bad place to be is within a hundred pages of the end of A Suitable Boy, though I have mixed feelings about finishing the novel at all. The friend who loaned it to me (urging me, when my eyes widened in dismay at its size and weight, to read “just the first hundred pages) said that one of her relatives had “lived in the story for a whole summer.” There again! As it is with the roses, soon I must leave Lata and Maan and Rasheed and Haresh and Mrs. Rupa Mehra, the Nawab Sahib of Baitar, baby Uma and all the other characters and move on to the next book of the summer and my life. There is no hurry, yet neither is there any slowing of the process. I turn pages quickly, impatient to learn what will happen next in India in the early 1950s. Oh, but the characters! How many I have not mentioned!

Mrs. Mahesh Kapoor was dead, and felt nothing, this ash of hers and sandalwood and common wood could be left to the doms at the cremation ghat to sift for the few pieces of jewellery which had melted with her body and were theirs by right. Fat, ligament, muscle, blood, hair, affection, pity, despair, anxiety, illness: all were no more. She had dispersed. She was the garden at Prem Nivas (soon to be entered into the annual Flower Show), she was Veena's love of music, Pran's asthma, Maan's generosity, the survival of some refugees four years ago, the neem leaves that would preserve quilts stored in the great zinc trunks of Prem Nivas, the moulting feather of some pond-heron, a small unrung brass bell, the memory of decency in an indecent time, the temperament of Bhaskar's great-grandchildren. Indeed, for all the Minister of Revenue's impatience with her, she [his wife] was his regret. And it was right that she should continue to be so, for he should have treated her better while she lived, the poor, ignorant, grieving fool.

-Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunshine, Saved Up Earlier, For Gerry Today

Gerry, I confess that I saved these sunny shots for all of us, starting last Thursday when the weather predictions for the weekend looked dark and foreboding. If we'd had thunderstorms on Saturday instead of bright, blue skies, we would have needed cheering up in a big way, but the weekend was lovely. Now, you're right, summer's official start is rather moody. On our side of Grand Traverse Bay, the air is eerily still, and the marine forecast is talking again of thunderstorms. So here are a few reminders of how beautiful summer can and will be, once the rains pass and the sunshine returns. But rain is summer, too, no?

Isn't it good that the hay was gotten in ahead of the rain? And please take note of those wisteria blossoms! I've waited six years, at least, for that reluctant debutante vine to bloom!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Saturday Morning at Peterson Park

How windy was it Friday night out on the bluffs? Here is evidence that wind was here.

In the early morning, high Lake Michigan bluffs keep the beach cool and shady. Overnight wind and waves pulled the sun’s stored heat from the rocks.

People were here recently, though, perhaps at Friday’s sunset. These stone cairns tell of human presence.

Were dogs here on Friday, too? Sarah found a toy that someone left behind, and we’re pretty sure that coyotes don’t play with Frisbees. Sarah understands “Go get it!” but “Bring it!” continues to elude her, unless she’s in the mood—and there are too many other things to explore on the beach to focus on a game of fetch.

As in the field or woods, I walk and Sarah runs. At the beach she runs into the water while I tarry on the rocky shore, but for both of us this hour-long mini-vacation refreshes and fits us for another day in town with people and books.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Night Out in Traverse City

It’s all about Northport today, so first, before a look backward to yesterday evening, here are a few reminders about TODAY: Saturday, June 19 – Northport Lighthouse and Marina Festival, including famous Northport Fish Boil, at Haserot and Marina Parks, down by the water. Also at 7:30 p.m. Leelanau Children’s Choir and Youth Ensemble spring concert, “Simply Sondheim,” at the NCAC. Tickets available at Dog Ears Books and at the NCAC. $15 adult/$5 under 18 years of age.

So, about last night. Last night was a big night for us in Traverse City, with the season opening reception at the Artisan Design Network gallery, and on our way from parking lot by the Boardman River to gallery on Front Street we met this beautiful working horse, Buddy. He and his driver take people on carriage rides, and I’d love to do that some summer evening—get all dressed up and take in the sights to the gentle clip-clop of Buddy’s hooves on pavement. Shades of Mackinac Island! Or Manhattan....

No time for a carriage ride last night, though. On to the gallery, where friends were spilling out onto the sidewalk.

In we plunged. We admired the art (especially David’s paintings, because naturally we are biased), visited with old friends and met new people. David schmoozed and I photographed. Crowds, heat, noise and wine don’t make for the most serene atmosphere in which to view art, but an opening is an opening, and this was a good one, beautiful and well attended.

We were just very tired afterward. I, in fact, sneaked out a couple times, once to the alley behind the building and later to the sidewalk in front, to catch a breeze and snap a few urban shots, a change from my usual country and small town fare.

This morning Sarah and I managed a mini-vacation on the rocky beach of Peterson Park, but those pictures will have to wait a day or two.