Staring at Trees

This tree is made for staring This morning, as I sat staring at a tree while the coffeemaker labored through its agonizingly slow drip, drip, drip, a crow crossed my field of vision, coming in for a landing on a dead branch protruding from the leafy green. The branch snapped just as the bird's feet made contact, sending a shower of splintered wood to the ground below. This must have confused and angered the crow, because it immediately reversed thrusters and flapped off in a different direction, possibly toward home to reconsider the day's trajectory over a second cup of joe.

After fetchingfinally, and with gratitudesome coffee of my own, I returned to my bench and locked onto another tree where a blackbird sat clacking at one of its many foes. An old Beatles song began playing in my head, and I wondered if this blackbird knew how to sing at all, never mind the time of day. I don't remember hearing a blackbird sing, ever, but especially not in one of those night-of-the-dead zombie flicks. Silly Beatles.

I had just finished my eleventh cup when I discovered another tree halfway between the first and second. As I stood scrutinizing its rough bark, I thought about the troubling wetness on my right foot, and how much coffeemakers and zippers have in common, speedwise. A robin peered at me, head cocked to one side as if listening for a meal. I shook my head, which discouraged the robin and made it fly away. I like trees, but birds sure can be pesky.


Subjective Facts

Aye, and a fine hat rack you'd make, too, laddie! In the rational world, facts result in perceptions, and not the other way around. But there's another, parallel world where a different sort of perception takes the place of observation, and renders the final verdict on what's real, and what's merely an aberration. In that shadowy world, decisions are madeand lives hopelessly derailedbased on nothing more than a feeling within a mood.

"Ah," you may be thinking, "but what of the argument that facts are themselves subject to the whims of perception? After all, what are facts but the reflections of our impressionable senses, through a glass, darkly, and all that? Hmmmm?"

It's a fine argument, and I agonize over it whenever I get the chance. It's just thatin my experience anyhowthis argument is often accompanied by another, related line of reasoning that follows, eventually, after I've gotten to know the person better. The actual problem, according to certain now-better-known individuals, is that their perception is generally accurate, while mine, alas, has more in common with that of a piece of wood.

Alas indeed. Nevertheless, I take solace in the possibility that it's mahogany they have in mind.


Denying Stress

Chaos: more than a theory Stress is a killer. It may not automatically result in heart attack, or stroke, or even the infamous stomach ulcer your parents may have equated with excess worry. But it always results in something, even though that something may be so elusive that it avoids detection entirely, especially by that nebulous entity commonly referred to as the self.

Because perception is such a subjective business, any term containing it must be immediately regarded with suspicion. The concept of self-perception is unreliable for this reason, which may explain why stress-induced symptoms so often remain misdiagnosed, if not ignored completely. It isn't so much that crash detection is disabled; the situation has more in common with blaming the user for inherent operating-system instability.

To use an actual example of this perceptual projection, I routinely blame too much coffee for the sensation that my heart is about to explode. The truth, of course, has more to do with trying to solve unsolvable problems. I love a good paradox as much as the next guy; it's just that the next guy probably won't take full responsibility for the outcome.

But he may live a longer, happier life, and althoughin my opinionlongevity is overrated, there's something to be said for happiness, no?


Why I Fear Lingerie

And next time I'll poke out your other eye, too! I hate shopping for lingerie. The terminology is foreign to me, and it doesn't take long for the salesperson to figure out that I don't know a spaghetti strap from a noodle belt. So, having made the decision to buy my Significant Other a meaningful yet intimate gift, it was with some trepidation that I approached the clerk at my local department store.

"Excuse me. Can you help me with a gift for the woman in my life?"

The salesperson turned her head just enough to indicate that she had noticed me, but her eyes remained fixed on the computer screen she had been scrutinizing when I arrived.

"I'll be with you in a moment, sir."

I nodded, and stepped away from the counter to examine the handbag display. I was immediately overcome by their leathery fragrance and buttery softness, so I didn't notice the clerk approaching from the side.

"Sir!" Her voice was strident, and left little doubt that the bag I held against my face was for display purposes, and should not be sniffed.

I said I was sorry, and returned the bag to the rack. The clerk looked at the ceiling, shaking her head slowly from side to side.

"This woman," she said tightly, "has a name?"

I nodded. "It's Lil. But everyone knows her as Nanc . . . "

The clerk cut me off. "You should call her by her real name. She deserves that much, don't you think?" Her eyes were hard.

I nodded again. "Sure. You're right. I love her name, but she just . . . "

The clerk's hand was in the air. "Lil. What does she wear?"

I glanced in the direction of the lingerie. "A bra. I want to get her the overwire kind."

The clerk's mouth was open, but no words were coming out of it. My face felt hot. I tried to clear my throat, but it made a squealing sound instead.

The clerk moved closer. There was a new malice in her voice, and her words were slow and deliberate. "You want to . . . an over . . . wire . . . The last two words came out through clenched teeth, loud and hard.

I staggered backward into the leather handbags, bringing the rack to the floor with me as I fell. Before I lost consciousness, I could hear the clerk's voice on the store's public-address system, calling for security. Then there was only the smell of leather.


Nonsynchronous Timekeeping

What time isn't it? Most of us know at least one person who's habitually late. While the underlying reasons for chronic tardiness range from simple forgetfulness to full-on passive aggression, the effect on those doing the waiting is always the same. In my particular case, the perpetrator only adds to the frustration by arranging highly specific meeting times that, in the end, have nothing in common with the actual time of the event. The meeting, when it occurs, may be anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes on either side of the prearranged time.

This, of course, brings up the subject of synchronized timekeeping, because that's generally how people arrive at the same place at the same time. Ordinary timepieces are useless in this context, which is where my new invention comes in. Using a normal digital clockor wristwatchas the electronic foundation, the addition of a simple pseudorandom number generator results in the arbitrary display of hours and minutes.

Although chronological randomness may seem absurd at first, its utility becomes obvious when you consider that tardiness is impossible when no one is sure of the time.



The common root of politics and religionIf I had to choose between fame and infamy, the latter would be the more appealing choice. Becoming entangled in politics is one way to achieve it, but religion is preferable because it's more likely to get you killed. While the need for this level of negative attention may fly in the face of reason and logic, there's nothing reasonable about politics, either, which is where the whole thing begins to make sense.

Reason and logic are similarly useful for proving and disproving the existence of a supreme being, so I know I'm on the right track. It tells me there's a common root of reason that connects politics and religion, although I'm not entirely sure how it works. I just know it does.

I mention these things because rupture is imminent, and even though I don't quite understand how that works, either, it doesn't sound good. I've seen what happens to a balloon when it springs a leak, and it frightens me.


Abandoning Prescriptive Grammar

Two in the mouth, son. You'll feel better in no time! Hi. My name is Jeff, and I'm a Grammar Nazi. I'd like to believe I'm over it, but recovering is the label I use to describe my illness. I know I can slide backward into old ways at any moment; my earliest blog posts are proof enough of that. But I have the support of those closest to methey smack me on the head when I show signs of relapseand I have my prescription, so things could be a lot worse.

Actually, my prescription is more of an anti-prescription. The formula is designed to create revulsion at the idea of strict, rule-based grammar; it undermines the notion that writing is nothing but a set of laws to be followed at any cost. Every so often I'm fortunate enough to get my meds for free, which is exactly what happened a few days ago. In this case, I ran across a most excellent article that rescued me from the brink of reversion, and returned me to my former, semi-rational state.

In Tech Writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude, Bruce Byfield explores the devious underpinnings of grammar for its own sake, and why this malignant concept ought to go away forever.

Some are afraid to break the rules of grammar and risk being denounced as incompetent. A handful, smugly sure that they know the rules, use their rote learning of the rules as an ad hominem attack, nitpicking at typos and small errors to discredit writers without disproving their viewpoints. Most sit in the middle, haunted by the ghosts of childhood grammar classes until they can hardly tell on their own authority whether they are writing well or not. But underlying all these reactions is an attitude that rules are rules, and cannot be broken.

The problem, he points out, is the difference between writing properly, and writing well.

This attitude is usually known as a prescriptive approach to grammar. It assumes that grammar exists mainly to tell us how to speak or write properly--not well. It is an attitude that tech writers share with almost everybody in the English-speaking world. It is a form of conditioning that begins in kindergarten and continues through high school and even into college and university. It undermines nearly everyone's confidence in their ability to communicate, especially on paper. Yet it is especially harmful to professional writers for at least three reasons [ . . . ]

Really, the article's length and depth prevent me from doing it justice here. But if you're in need of a quick remedy for your own grammarian impulses, this might help you, too.  


Day of the DaddyO

Not Lou Reed Yesterday was, of course, Father's Day. This could be good or bad, depending on the distance between you and your progenyphysically and otherwiseand whether or not the child units are bearing gifts when they arrive. Although I've been blessed with a daughter whose proximity isas it's always beenentirely positive, and even though I remain as proud of who she is as ever, yesterday was historic for a couple reasons.

She showed up with my favorite pizza and ice cream, and that would have been good enough. But when she handed me the bottle of yellow pills, I immediately knew I had reached the infamous stage of fatherhood that requires medication, and rest. The label described the contents as Happy Tabs Because Life Sucks, and one side of the bottle bore a brief description of symptoms that might be eased by ingesting these happy yellow tablets.

For those days when you need a little help. Turn that frown upside down without the help of a clown. Never be a grumpy bastard again. Other depression medications have nasty side effects. But Happy Tabs make you numb so you can't feel a thing, including your legs. Crash your car, lose your job, find a partner in bed with a group of strangers, nothing will bother you ever again.

Warning: Do not drive a car or try to speak in complete sentences while on this drug.

As you've probably already guessed, I slept like a baby and woke feeling refreshed, although I can't say I remember much of anything about my own childhood now. Evidently, the meds worked.

Yesterday's second historic point came in the form of a simple story. In a nutshell, the brother of one of my daughter's friends had somehow insinuated himself into the back seat of her carthe other front seat was occupied by a female friendand had apparently decided to entertain himself at the expense of the two helpless females. Anyone who knows my daughter is already smirking at my use of the helpless word. The poor guy just didn't understand.

Anyway, the perp began spewing demeaning sexist commentsthat was after the racist stuffand although he was warned, he didn't believe. His belief level increased a bit when the car came to an abrupt halt, and he was told to get out. He hesitated, partly because he's a lot bigger than my daughter, and partly because the neighborhood she'd stopped in isn't known for its kindness, especially toward arrogant young lads sporting the latest designer labels. But he got out and she drove away, leaving him alone to reflect on his words and his attitudes. Well, not really alone, but as alone as he could have been at night, under a bridge, on the wrong side of town.

She did come back, eventually, to pick him up. He was penitent, and spent the rest of the evening in a considerably quieter mood. What long-term effect the experience might have had on him is still uncertain, but if the past is any indication, his ingrained and malignant worldview has been altered, if only in a small way. But he's still young, and there's still hope. My daughter is young, too, and although hopeor fatherly pride for that matterhas never been an issue, yesterday reminded me that one person can change the world, and it's done one person at a time. Baby steps, and all that.

Maybe it's just parental prejudice, but if the past 19 years are any gauge, she'll continue to affect others' lives in much the same way she's affected mine. It's been a pleasure.



Bouncing bundles of arachnijoy

It's my lucky day. Whenever Friday collides with the number thirteen, I know I can expect blue skies, perfectly brewed coffee, and as many chocolate donuts as I can stuff in my mouth without blowing my cheek gaskets. On this particular day, my joy is further bloated by the tiny bundles of octal joy in the nursery outside the patio door. Am I beside myself, or what?

But high up on the mountain, when the wind is hitting it . . . I might also point out another high point of the day, which involves the teetering chunk of granite on the hillside above this place. On any other day, I know the eroding forces of Mother Nature and bad luck could come together, resulting in a rather rude awakeningif only for an instantas the monolith passes through my bedroom on its way to Kansas. But this is, as I mentioned, my lucky day.

Maybe, like me, you've already reconsidered your own position on the number thirteen, and My lucky numberFridays, and their relationship in the larger context of serendipity, and perhaps the grandeur of the thing has already blown your so-called mind. If so, you've probably also come to grips with the evil of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, especially when those days fall on any date containing the number two. It's a problem.

But not today. Today is my lucky day, and it could be your lucky day, too. At least until midnight.


An Odd Path

A zigzag pathMark Twain has always been among my most admired writers, so when I saw a quote attributed to him on the main page of a favorite site, I felt a slight urge to investigate further. The quote was exceptionally poignant in the context of writingand more to the point, bloggingwhich propelled my urge to the point of action.

Write without pay until someone offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.

Mark Twain

I decided to snip a few words from the quote, and wound up pasting "a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for" into the familiar Google search box.

This is where things got a little weird. Although Google came up with over two million results for this query, the fourth slot was occupied by the same site from which I had culled the quote to begin with. Stranger still, the result also contained the title of one of my old blog posts, which I had posted on that site in an effort to spread a little sunshine in an otherwise dreary technical-writing environment. That's just the nature of tech writing; it isn't a negative reflection on this particular site.


Waiting for Irony | A Technical Communication Community

May 21, 2008 ... If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this as a sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for." Mark Twain ... - 23k - Cached - Similar pages


Anyway, if there's any meaning to this, it may lie somewhere in the circular pattern that brought me back to the point of origin. Not only did my search deposit me within four degrees of my starting point, it included an unexpected reference to my own history, at least that portion of it having to do with writing in the blogospheric scheme of things.


Lapsing Into a Comma

Graphic courtesy of The Mothership Looking back on it from yesterday's vantage point, last week had such a dreamlike quality that I wondered if I had been in a coma. Looking back on yesterday from today's compos mentis vantage point, I now understand that I wasn't in a coma at all. I was in a comma.

Although it may seem trivial at first, the difference between the two goes beyond mere semantics. When one is in a coma, the smallest task becomes tedious, and disagreeable. Simple pleasuresmouthwash and peanuts come to mindlose their fascination, and begin to chafe. Friends stop calling. Strangers cross to the other side of the street, and household pets seem indifferent, or even hostile.

But last week wasn't like that at all. Mouthwash was as much fun as ever, the dog wouldn't leave me alone, and I received just as many telemarketing calls as before. Really, last week had more in common with using a comma as the final punctuation mark in a sentence; there was the sense that something ought to come next, and it shouldn't be blank space.

On the other hand, spending a week in a comma doesn't have to be ruinous. I'd like to believe there's a lesson to be learned from every impediment, which may explain today's special optimism. I may not remember it tomorrow, but today I'm confident in my new understanding of punctuationality, and oblivion.



ReflectionAt dusk I watched a hawk float high in the darkening sky. Above the green, below the stars, its silhouette in fading light became the outline of the moon. When it dropped toward the field and up again, away into the western sky, its wings held the rhythm of the rain that started just as lights came on.

Halfway to morning, moonlight through the slats of my old window shade exposed a splintered dream, and sent it back for a new cadence that lasted until dawn.

Sunrise brought a crimson sky, and the pulse of the feather I found among the thorns held the rhythm of the rain.