Posts Tagged ‘Personal Uncategorized’

A story told to me this afternoon at the local parrot and exotic birds supply shop:

A customer comes into the store. She’s about fifty, well-dressed, and articulate enough that she’s probably well-educated.

She wants to buy a Moloccan cockatoo, so the woman who owns the store starts talking about the pros and cons of buying male and female birds.

“Of course you’ll need to know what to do when she starts laying eggs,” the owner says.

“I’m not going to buy a male,” the customer says. “So I won’t have that worry.”

“Umm – hens can lay eggs without a cock.”

“Nooo! No way!”

“Where do you think the eggs that you buy in a store comes from?”

“The hens need a rooster to lay eggs.”

“No they don’t.”

“Are you lying to me?” The woman seems to be trying to come to terms with a difficult concept.

The store owner tries to speak quietly. “You release eggs every month, or used to, depending on how old you are. Why would you assume that birds are any different?”

“I didn’t. You must think I’m stupid.”

Aware that several other customers are laughing in the background and not wanting to humiliate the woman, the owner tries to disengage from the conversation. But, convinced that she is right, the woman persists until the owner turns to help another customer. After a moment, the woman leaves, shaking her head and every bit as ignorant as when she entered.

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After writing professionally on the web for several years, I’m no stranger to careless readers and wonky comments. I learned long ago that not only can you not count on everyone to read your thoughts carefully, but that some subjects, such as Microsoft’s intentions towards free software, cause many people’s critical facilities to go on holiday. But none of the subjects I’ve written about provoke as much blind reaction as the suggestion that grammar should be descriptive rather than prescriptive.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I noticed that my article “Tech-writers, Grammar, and the Prescriptive Attitude” had not survived a redesign of the Techwr-l site where it was originally posted. Because I still get requests for it, I asked Deb and Eric Ray, who maintain the site, to send me a copy of the published version, and posted it on my blog. The request also prompted them to repost the essay on the original site. In the days since, I’ve been fielding a comment or two per day from both sources, most of them sent privately.

Some people approve the sentiments in the article, but perhaps half are outraged. They set out to correct my thinking by pointing out that, without consistency, language ceases to communicate. Their assumption seems to be that only official English has consistency. I answer that all forms of English have their own rules – for instance, a double negative, which is considered wrong in official English, is perfectly understandable with the context of some Afro-American dialects (and, I might add, Old English). So far, none of these conversations have continued beyond this point.

Another conversation about the article begins with someone asking if I’m saying that we (by which the reader usually means sophisticated, literary folk like themselves) should go along with mispronunciations or incorrect uses, usually in sarcastic tones that suggest that, of course, I mean no such thing. I reply that I do mean exactly that, that, when a pronunciation or usage reaches a certain degree of popularity, it becomes standard usage.

To this comment, my correspondent usually replies that it is the duty of the literate to fight against such barbarisms. My response is that you are, of course, free to use any language that you care to, but, if you imagine that your example is going to inspire an outbreak of proper usage, then you think far too much of yourself. The most anyone can do is avoid usages that are vague in the name of clarity and personal style – and, at that point, another conversation peters out.

And these are just the most common ones. I’ve been accused of advocating complete chaos, of insisting on poetic language at the expense of clarity, and all sorts of other stances that have nothing to do with what I wrote, no matter how you construe my words. Often enough, people insist that I believe something that I frankly state that I do not believe. Apparently, many people – particularly those who work with words – have so much invested in their self-image as initiates into the secrets of proper grammar that any suggestion that their knowledge is as useless as heraldry immediately robs them of their ability to read and analyze text.

Personally, I find the idea that we have, not one but dozens of versions of English exciting and challenging. It means that, as a writer, I have more to explore than I can possibly learn in one lifetime. But that, unfortunately, seems to be a minority viewpoint.

A good thing that I thrive on being a contrarian, or I might find the hostile responses disheartening.

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I’ve always thought that Beau Brummel has a lot to answer for. He’s the one who, in the early 19th century, set the standards that reduced the color palette in men’s clothes to brown, black, gray, and dark blue and – even worse – restricted men’s jewelry to rings, watches, cuff links and tie pins. No doubt his look was an improvement on Prinny’s excesses, but what Beau did was to condemn us to drabness. And if, like me, you don’t wear ties or French cuffs or carry a wrist watch because you look at it every twenty seconds if you do, your choices are even more limited. But, yesterday, I found a way around these restrictions that nobody can find fault with: I took home a three inch West Coast bracelet.

I suppose I could have opted for the full Scottish effect for formal wear. Never mind that I don’t have the remotest connection to a tartan; kilts suit short-legged, barrel-torsoed men like me, and, like my late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer, I could have used an unclaimed one like Ancient MacAlpin. And Scottish regalia has the advantage of allowing you to wear more jewelry, although too much of it has banal thistle designs and you have to be careful that nobody that nobody calls your skean dhu a concealed weapon. But kilts are even more trouble than suits, and fabulously expensive as well.

I suppose, too, that I could have got a tattoo. But tattoos are too permanent for my liking, and good ones surprisingly rare. And why go through discomfort for the sake of mediocrity?

Instead, for almost twenty years, I’ve wanted a thick West Coast copper bracelet. At least in British Columbia, such bracelets are works of art, thanks to the fame of artists like Bill Reid, and nobody is going to make tiresome remarks about effeteness if you’re lucky enough to have one to wear (not that I would care if they did; my identity as a straight male is well-established, thanks very much). Not only First Nations men, but men of every ethnicity can wear West Coast bracelets and nobody thinks twice about it – everyone’s too busy envying them.

But most West Coast bracelets you see are in silver or gold, metals that don’t catch my eye nearly as much as copper, even if they are more expensive. Besides, although I know that modern West Coast art is a blend of First Nations traditions and modern metal work techniques, copper seems more appropriate because the local cultures did work copper before their first contact with Europeans.

Moreover, few bracelets in any metal are more than an inch and a half wide, and most are made for the tourist trade. What I wanted was an original work of art, on a surface whose size would do the design full justice, and a weight that I could never forget while it was on my wrist. And for years I couldn’t afford one, although I came close once or twice to placing an order.

But in December, I suddenly had the the spare cash. I had long since narrowed down the shops to order from to two or three that were far above the watered down traditions in the Gastown tourist shops. Further investigation showed that Coastal Peoples in Yaletown was the only shop among those known to me that would take custom orders, so I placed my order there.

My choices were limited by a lack of artists who work in copper. However, I did have three or four possible artists – assuming any were available for a commission. After careful consideration, I decided I wanted Tsimshian artist Henry Green. Not only is Green a versatile artist who works in several media – his carved masks are especially fine – but all his work had a strong sense of line that the others lacked.

The Coastal People staff were polite, but non-committal about whether Green would accept the commission. However, a few days later, one emailed to tell me that he could do the piece in about a month. I rushed to put a deposit down before his schedule filled.

Then came the design decision. Not wanting to be too exacting for fear of receiving uninspired or merely competent work, I diffidently suggested that the design include Raven and Mouse Woman. Raven, of course, is the trickster, while the lesser-known Mouse Woman is the keeper of tradition and domestic values, so I thought the combination an interesting contrast. So, apparently, did Green, since he told Coastal Peoples that he liked the idea.

We did bandy about the idea of receiving a sketch from Green of the design, so that I could approve it. However, when I learned that it would be only a sketch and not a finished design, I decided it was not worth the additional sum he would charge. I abandoned the idea and settled down to wait.

A month passed, and I heard nothing. I didn’t want to get impatient. Art doesn’t work well to timetables, and, besides, the holiday season had intervened, yet I was nearly shaking in anticipation.

Then, yesterday afternoon, I received a call that the bracelet was ready. I soon abandoned the pretense of working, and knocked off early to pick it up; one of the advantages of being freelance is that you rarely have to work to schedule.

The work was – overwhelming, in a word. Green had created not only an inspired work of art, but, between the size, metal, and design, a unique one. It was also a well-engineered one, since Green had chosen the gauge of the copper to be thick enough for strength, yet thin enough to be pliable and relatively light. Even the staff at Coastal Peoples seemed impressed. I told the clerk to tell him that I was extremely satisfied, and left wearing it.

I plan to wear it in the future whenever possible, until it becomes my trademark for the rest of my life. Living with art is always uplifting, and, while Green did all the work, as the patron of the work with my stipulations, I can’t help feeling that I played a small part in its creation. And to have waited so long to get something that exceeded my expectation means that I couldn’t be more pleased to have this cuff of copper on my wrist

Someday, I might get a matching bracelet for my other wrist, and cement my reputation for eccentricity. Meanwhile, I keep looking at the design of Mouse Woman in the center and raven below her, and marveling at the bit of metallic beauty that has come into my life.

Bracelet by Henry Green

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