Lesson in communication; grumpy Sunday edition

It’s May. The entire month of April has passed without a word from me. Clearly, I’m not to be relied upon for regular communication. Part of it is good old fashioned laziness. Why write when you don’t have to? And part of it is my usual excuse-making when I complain about my lack of productivity to my husband. “I really don’t have anything of value to say,” I whine.

That may be true, but other writers are adept at finding something humorous or insightful in the mundane happenings day to day. Why can’t I? Well, today, I can. It isn’t humorous. It’s a little sad, really. But it gave me a topic, and away I go:

My email recently contained a renewal notice from a writers’ organization that shall remain nameless for reasons that will become obvious. The notice urged me to renew now to “avoid loosing member benefits.” “Loosing!”

I know it sounds like it should have two “o”s, but it doesn’t. “To lose” means to misplace or, in this case, to forfeit something. “To loose,” were it used in a verb form, which it usually isn’t, means to set free or in my case, it might mean to unbuckle my belt. My fourth grade teacher Miss Lyons, for whom grammar and spelling were a religion, would have been horrified. I was, too. I sent them an email suggesting a correction.

Picky, picky, picky. I know. But for a writer’s organization to send out a notice that hasn’t been proofread by a person, not a computer program which doesn’t recognize such niceties (at least none that I’ve seen) is indefensible. Whatever else we writers can do, we should try to uphold the standards of the language.

Writers break the rules all the time, I can hear someone thinking. That’s true. Take James Joyce and William Faulkner, two names that spring immediately to mind. A more modern example would be Emma Donohue who invented a whole different syntax for an imprisoned child in The Room.  If we changed media and took modern art as an example, we could see that early works by Pablo Picasso show highly developed “hand skills,” as my high school art instructor used to term them, before Picasso evolved into painting the more avant garde pictures we more commonly associate with him. In each case, the artist knew the rules before he or she was free to break them.

Of course, business forms do not fall into the category of creative writing. They should always demonstrate accepted standards of correctness. Just as a typo in a novel will stop the reader who notices it–and sometimes annoy him or her enough to send the author a nasty note–business organizations should strive to ensure their communications with members or potential members do not contain any glaring errors that distract the reader from the organization’s purpose.

Those who differ will argue that I’m tripping over safety pins, that language is flexible and changes over time. I acknowledge that–even though Miss Lyons must be spinning in her grave. Nevertheless, I am certain I can speak for the rotating Miss Lyons as well as myself when I say I dread the day “loose” is accepted for “lose” because we were all too lazy to ask for a correction when we saw the error, or worse, didn’t even recognize that it was wrong.

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Lessons in Taking Inventory; incipient hoarder edition

Giving credit where it’s due, let me start by confessing that this post was inspired by a piece in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section; so apologies in advance to James Collins. Mr. Collins begins with the startling assertion that he will never outlive his office supplies. Musing over a box of 5,000 staples, he estimates he uses 15 staples a year, and at that rate he will need 323 years to finish the box. Extrapolating, at that pace of consumption, Methuselah, who died at age 969 would have gotten through fewer than three boxes of Swingline staples in his lifetime, although admittedly he might have found more uses for staples in the years preceding the great flood than Mr. Collins has in the 21st century–or perhaps not.

Even though arithmetic was never my strong point, I wondered if we, too–my husband Don and I–would bequeath our children a lifetime supply of staples and other office supplies, and lo and behold, we will. A quick inventory this morning turned up seven boxes of the “sharp-point” version (@ 5,000 staples apiece); three round canisters of multicolor paper clips divided into six pie-shaped segments of 75 clips each for a total of 1,350 paper clips, not counting the ones on my desk in the cut-glass case and hanging off the magnetic holder, nor those on Don’s desk in the inlaid Russian box; 752 rubber bands, apart from a large bag of the same in my gardening tote that I use to bind up the leaves after the daffodils have bloomed. On the desks in my office alone, I have six coffee mugs and one Moutarde de Meaux jar holding my collection of pens, pencils, highlighters, markers and grease pencils (roughly 23 per mug), along with three pairs of scissors and an emery board. Between us, we have 10 filing cabinets totaling 33 drawers, and I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess at the numbers of pieces of paper that occupy them, nor how many half-used boxes of stationery and packets of never-to-be-used again “specialty” paper are stored in the office closet.

This casual inventory intrigued me, not because I’m regretting what our children will have to sort through upon our eventual demise, but because I think many of us tend to amass and cling to items that will never get used. How many spices in your kitchen cabinet are more than five years old, perhaps used for a single exotic recipe? How many packages of cold medicine did you have to toss the last time you got sick because they were past their sell-by date? How many packages of eye shadow, blush, hotel soap, half-used deodorant, half-squeezed tubes of toothpaste are moldering in your bathroom vanity drawers?

I suspect that we’re all incipient hoarders, which may be one reason I find those reality TV shows on the hard cases so mind boggling. I watch in morbid fascination as those poor souls wade through piles of detritus, while I think: I would never let myself get to that point. For many of us writers and readers, the weakness is books (23 to-be-read on my night stand, ten on the table next to Don’s recliner along with two manuscripts, 67 stored on my Kindle/Nook/iPad cloud), not including those on the eight bookcases and assorted shelves scattered around the house. Books don’t count, I can hear you thinking. But I wonder if it’s just a matter of degree.

Even if you’re diligent about instituting an annual spring cleaning–or have a husband like mine who stripped the house for our last tag sale (I still peek in the oven looking for my pizza stone)–possessions have a way of piling up.

What do you need to sort through and throw away? Staples anyone?

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Lessons in Patience; post-Olympic edition

Ask anyone who knows me. Patience is not one of my virtues. I’d rather add fully grown plants to my garden than wait for seeds to sprout. I’d much prefer to buy prepared foods than spend time chopping and sauteing and whatever else it takes to put a meal on the table. I’ll do all my clothes shopping in one fell swoop rather than look for bargains.  Prep work is a drag. Final product is what I seek.
So it may come as a surprise to my friends that there are some areas in which I have infinite patience and figure skating is one of them. I love to skate. I love the feel of gliding on the ice, moving to the music, the satisfaction of a strong edge, a smooth crossover, even a good T-stop. Clearly, I have limited skills. But I have always had gritty determination to improve–and I have.

I’ve skated on and off (mostly off) my whole life: as a kid at Kelton’s, the outdoor rink under the el on Broadway; at Twin Rinks, as a young mother with my children, hoping one of them would fall in love with the sport; at the Ice Arena, as an adult when a new rink was built a few miles from my house. At the ripe old age of <mumbles here>,  I went back to the sport that I love to relive the experience for one of the “Murder, She Wrote” books written and bylined by my husband, Donald Bain, and with whom I collaborate anonymously. In the book we wrote, Skating on Thin Ice, Jessica returns to the ice after a long absence, falls, and conks her head, resulting in a trip to the Emergency Room. (Talk about primary research!) In the last chapter, her good friend and physician, Seth Hazlitt, presents her with a helmet (I have two) and instructions that if she wishes to continue such foolishness at her age, she should at least take appropriate precautions.

Anyone who has ever tied on a pair of boots and blades knows that proficiency in this activity does not come easily. Years and years and hours and hours of practice are the only way to acquire the agility that enable skaters to leap into the air in a graceful axel or toe loop or salchow and land on one foot with such a soft knee that they appear to float down to the ice, or to add counters and brackets and choctaws and twizzles to the simple crossover in a complex step sequence, never mind the presence of mind it takes to launch themselves into a spin–whether camel or layback or sit–that would leave the rest of us staggering if we could keep our feet under us at all.  Which leads me at last to the Olympics.

The Russian teenager annointed the likely gold medalist in the ladies event, fifteen-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, is a brilliant skater with all these talents and many more. She is blessed with a sweet face, dramatic expression, and extreme flexibility to add to her skating skills, all on display in a long program that was both dazzling and moving. Unfortunately, whether it was Olympic pressures, ordinary nerves, or a brief lapse in concentration, she did not achieve the height her country and certainly the Olympic audience in the Sochi Iceberg Skating Palace expected of her. She fell and so did her final score leaving her in fifth place rather than first. The top honor went to her seventeen-year-old countrywoman Adelina Sotnitkova.

Putting the controversial scoring aside, Yulia has many years, perhaps many Olympics, ahead of her to skate for medals and first place finishes. All she needs is patience. And patience is likely the number one quality all top figure skaters have always had.

At the moment, I’ve taken a respite from skating. Several falls resulting in concussions (even with a helmet) have convinced me that exercising my passion is not worth the risk of dementia. But if I ever change my mind and get back on the ice–and I toy with that idea all the time–I know that no matter how well or how poorly I skate, I will undertake it with great patience.

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