The Guerrilla Grammarian asked if she could guest blog today. I generally don’t have guest bloggers, but it’s hard to say no to your own alter ego, so, take it away, G.G.
– – –

Thanks, Amy. I thought I should speak up on this topic because, as a self-proclaimed guerrilla of grammar, I’m often assumed to be the kind who will swing into action, maybe even swing a battle-axe, in defense of the Oxford comma. You know: the comma just before the “and” in a sentence with a series of three or more items, such as this one:

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes.”

But in this I am profoundly misunderstood. I value grammar because it gives language clarity and expressiveness; rules added without good reason are just an irritation. Doubly so if they are accompanied by a load of self-righteousness, as, let’s face it, grammar rules tend to be.

I don’t actually have a strong preference between the Oxford comma and the whatever-the-opposite is (Cambridge absence-of-comma?). They convey different rhythms, and so sometimes I find myself using one, sometimes the other, depending on how long I want the reader to linger. However, I was taught the “Cambridge” and so it’s my default. Furthermore, I wish to defend it against the Oxfordites’ low-blow use of the straw-person argument against it.

The argument is made on the basis of clarity, and is inevitably accompanied by amusing examples, such as the probably-apocryphal dedication page

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

and the classic

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Oxfordites will argue that we need the comma after “Ayn Rand” so that the reader does not think she is the writer’s mother (shudder). Likewise, we need a comma after “JFK” so that it’s clear that he and Stalin are not the aforementioned strippers. (I still want to know what occasion could possibly have had that guest list.)

These examples do illustrate the need for an additional comma. The problem is that they do not illustrate the superiority of the Oxford comma in general. The rule I learned already clearly states that one omits a comma before the last item unless it is necessary for clarity. The people who wrote the “Ayn Rand” and “strippers” sentences, if they were real people, would have been using incorrect punctuation by either the Oxford or the “Cambridge” rule.

I repeat: these sentences are not examples of the “Cambridge” comma. They are examples of incorrect punctuation, full stop.

So this is a plea for fair debate. Straw people just fill the air with a lot of dusty chaff. None of us wishes to claim Ayn Rand and God as our parents, no matter which comma usage we prefer, and unless we are not proofreading carefully, none of us does.

Grammatically yours,
The Guerrilla Grammarian

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We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. The fact is that arming more citizens than are currently armed will not reduce the number of deaths by gun. You cannot point to any statistics, any other country, any studies that indicate otherwise–I know because I read the ones people link to, and they never say what the poster claims they say. In fact, the facts are that we have way too many guns for safety.

Two kids died and another 15 were wounded in the shooting at a Benton, Kentucky, school yesterday. It was the 11th shooting on a school campus in the first 23 days of this year, a tripling of the past several years’ rate of one such shooting per week. After the Benton murders, as always, there are people pleading with the president or the NRA to say something. This is counterproductive, because if the NRA or Trump offer any policy solution, it is always in the vein of “More guns in the hands of more people.” And along with them, hundreds of internet commenters emerge like worms after rain to claim that the problem is not enough guns.

I am sick of our treating these claims as if they have a shred of evidence to back them up. “More guns” is no more a strategy for reducing gun deaths than “Pray to the Tooth Fairy.” If it were, I would support it.

You who make this argument, and you who are silent as it rages, I am sure that we have something in common: you, too, would like to see fewer people die by guns in this country. Will you embrace the solutions that are proven to be effective?

Colored pencil on paper, 18×22 cm (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern 2018

You know what scares me most about Trump’s latest outrage? It’s not that he described other nations as “shitholes.” It’s not that he said we shouldn’t allow immigration from such countries. It’s not even the deep, toxic racism of his policies.

Those are all plenty frightening, but what’s got me most in a sweat is the evidence that no one, least of all Trump himself, has control over what Trump says and does.

There are those on the left and right who say he’s being strategic: shoring up his base with the occasional blatantly racist comment. But the people who love this comment don’t need shoring up, so if it is a strategy, it’s a bad one. Again: he is not in control of himself.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my appreciations of Ursula K. Le Guin, though I keep reading new and old works of hers. During my sabbatical last year I read Malafrena and Unlocking the Air for the first time and enjoyed both. This week I pulled one off the shelf that I have read once before–only once, several years ago, and I won’t wait that long again before my next reading, because there’s a lot to discover in Changing Planes (Ace Books, 2003). It’s a volume of short stories, in a sense, though what draws my attention in each is less plot or character, and more what, if this were non-fiction, might be called ethnography. The narrator is writing as a tourist, though a reflective one, of fifteen societies. They are sketches: brief anthropological visits to some of the rooms of Le Guin’s imagination. It’s as if she decided to just play at world-creation for awhile, and it’s something she does with so much creativity, humor, and generosity of spirit that I feel possibilities expand.

I would like to comprehend the language of the Nna Mmoy, whom no visitor has yet understood and whose texts “are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.” (166)

I would not like to visit the Veksi, who are perpetually angry: fighting, sulking, quarreling. But as unpleasant as they are, after this peek into their community I wonder whether their anger is not mostly a response to the perpetual losses and griefs of life. Maybe that’s where our anger comes from too.

On Gy, about one in a thousand adolescents develops wings, in a painful process that changes all of their bones as well as adding these two limbs. As a result, life on the ground becomes difficult for them, with their delicate bones and ungainly appendages; however, many winged Gyr choose not to fly, because catastrophic wing failure is a constant and unpreventable risk. Le Guin draws no analogy, but I draw my own. Maybe wings are like extraordinary talents; flyers are the equivalent of certain artists, writers, scientists, mystics, choreographers–visionaries of all kinds, who take risks in order to experience the inimitable intensity of “one’s whole body, one’s whole self, up in the whole sky. . . . It takes everything to fly. Everything you are, everything you have” (210). Do I live like that? Do I want to? And is it as risky as the Gyrs’ flights, fatal one time in twenty?

I’m both drawn to the migratory life of the Ansarac and sobered by the homesickness that must accompany it. Each of their years is about as long as 25 of ours, and they seldom live much longer than three of their years, never as long as four. So the annual migration north in spring, to where they live in families, in rural villages, and there dance their courtship dances, is made by each of them no more than three times. Come fall–which is a good dozen years later, in our terms–they migrate to an urban life in the south. Couples separate, children go off to school and away from parents, not to be reunited until the following spring, after another one-sixth of their lives has passed. What happens when they are offered a new development that would allow them to travel as often as they wish between the two places is vintage Le Guin. She is never naive, but resists the simplistic stories both of technology as ruin and technology as salvation. She’s interested in how and why people choose the changes they do–and so she imagines for us a more discerning, deliberate approach to “progress” than we have generally imagined for ourselves or our society.

This book doesn’t get the attention it merits. It’s a beauty. And it’s yet another reason that, when my daughter asked me this week who my favorite writers are, Ursula Le Guin was the first name from my lips.

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Ghost Ship, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

A year ago tomorrow, 36 people died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time I did these three drawings in my sketchbook. I was haunted by the stories of people being trapped, trying to flee the fire by going down a staircase that ended only in more fire.

The larger story, that haunted me at least as much, was (and is) the extreme scarcity of safe, affordable housing in our area. These people lived there because actual apartments, which have stricter codes, were out of reach to their budgets (as they are to an increasing number of Bay Area residents). Their landlord got away with housing them in a warehouse because everyone concerned wanted it to work, even though it wasn’t safe. The housing crisis is another rapidly narrowing space that leads to suffering and possible disaster.  I knew when I drew these that I wanted to do more, a piece with specific allusions to the cost and scarcity of decent places to live, the way people are trapped by a poverty we have created. I haven’t yet. But I am still haunted.

 

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Ghost Ship 2, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

ghost ship 3

Ghost Ship 3, marker on paper, approx. 4″x6″ (c) AZM December 2016

Yes, yes, condolence calls don’t bear much scrutiny and it’s time to stop analyzing what each of these poor people had to endure, or what they appreciated, about a call from our 45th (in chronology and rank) president. In a way this is a minor blip. Though of course it is not minor for the families, no one will die from a bad phone call, which is more than we can say for some of his other decisions. But it’s deeply significant for our country, the other countries of the world, and all of the billions of us who are affected by this man’s holding so much power.

1. Trump is the worst person in the world to deliver condolences. He has no capacity for empathy, he is completely clumsy with words (see: inability to distinguish between “He was willing to die for his country” and “He knew what he signed up for”) and has zero sense of what is appropriate to say when (see: same).

2. Trump, when criticized, immediately attacks others. Even if they are grieving Gold Star families.

3. Trump is a pathological liar: he lies constantly and in situations where his lies are easily exposed.

4. One of the many things he habitually lies about is his own generosity. He promises money, or claims to have given it, and then little of the money ever materializes. His charitable “foundation” is a scam.

5. He is desperate to be the unique, the best, the first. Other presidents didn’t make calls, he claims (of course they did). No other president writes a check for $25,000–or maybe what he means is, no previous president would have promised such a check and not send it until compelled by public exposure, which may be true. This narcissistic neediness causes harm to other people, such as the grieving father he strung along. What might be even worse is that Trump seems not to perceive that a promise is not actually meaningful unless fulfilled; words are not enough. No wonder he stiffs creditors, reneges on contractors and now, as president, blithely breaks treaties.

6. When caught in a lie, it’s also part of his m.o. to pass the buck like it’s a hot coal. In this case, he immediately blamed the fabrication on “his” generals. “I was told,” he said. He lacks the most elementary courage needed for leadership.
7. A president does not need to call each family that has lost a servicemember; a letter, crafted by a staffer, is fine. Likewise, some people will appreciate the call, some will be angry and bitter, and many will not remember a word. They’re in shock and grief, damn it. There is no perfect, right thing to say–but there are many wrong things to say. There’s a “first, do no harm” principle to such things that he does not grasp.

8.  In no circumstances is it acceptable to complain about this duty. Again: if you don’t know that “this is one of the hardest things a president has to do” is not a complaint, whereas “Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day. It’s a very, very tough day” is a complaint, then it’s best to just keep your mouth shut.

9. People who have lost a child are not “politicizing” the incident by talking about it in a political context. You can’t politicize what is already political, and what could be more political than asking someone to die for his country’s aims? They are not tarnishing the sacredness of their sacrifice by pointing out its connections to policies, parties, or politicians. I lost my last scrap of respect for John Kelly yesterday when he implied the Khans had done so.

When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.

If there’s something or someone else he could have meant by this reference to Gold Star families, please enlighten me.

10. Don’t even get me started on a so-called leader who keeps trotting out “the dog ate my homework”-level excuses. Again: leadership skills 101.

11. And the whole thing blew up because Trump didn’t want us to hear about Niger. So: what are we doing in Niger? And why was it such a secret? I was hoping the silence was only because he couldn’t bear to report a failure, but it’s become apparent that this is a secret mission. So what’s going on there? Did Congress know about it?

I know there is a long list of things to worry about that Trump is doing vis-a-vis Puerto Rico alone, yet this little exchange may be what frightens me the most. (Transcript from the Washington Post.)

THE PRESIDENT, in Puerto Rico: I want to thank the Coast Guard. They are special, special, very brave people . . . . Would you like to say something on behalf of your men and women?

AIR FORCE REPRESENTATIVE: Sir, I’m representing the Air Force.

THE PRESIDENT: No, I know that.

Our daughter used to do this. 

“Mama, my lunch isn’t in my backpack.” 

“Yes it is, honey, see, right here.” 

“I know.”

It drove us nuts. It peaked at about seven or eight, I would say. Now, at ten, she knows not to say “I know” to a fact that she has just demonstrated she doesn’t know. Yet the President of the United States (age 71) is too emotionally stunted to utter the words, “Ah, so sorry, my mistake. The Air Force. Please, tell us about what your people are doing.” 

How can such a person lead? He is constantly boxed in by the need to protect his fragile ego. How is he ever going to change course about big things if he can’t even cope with being wrong about something as small as this? And how can he have a reality-based policy about  anything if his response to a mildly embarrassing fact (mixing up Air Force and Coast Guard uniforms) is to tell a roomful, a worldful of people, “You didn’t see what you saw. My version of reality is the true one”? 

Joy spotted a sign for an etching workshop here in Oaxaca (grabado en metal, in Spanish): three days, five hours a day, various techniques. Investigation confirmed that the artist, Marco Velasco, would gladly teach a ten-year-old how to work with acid, something not all printmaking workshops here have been willing to do, so all three of us signed up.

The germ of this piece came to me seven years ago; it even inspired me to begin learning GNU Gimp (open-source Photoshop) because I envisioned it as a digital collage. But I didn’t learn how to make digital collages (yet), and the piece sat in my sketchbook and a corner of my mind. When I learned about the variety of marks one can make with etching, it emerged and said “make me a print!”

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Colony Collapse Disorder, etching, about 4″ x 8″, (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern July 2017

 

It involved fun research. I did not know that the headache-medicine people, Bayer, own a company called Bayer CropScience, soon to acquire Monsanto. Nor that it is one of the biggest manufacturers of neonicotinoids, the pesticides that work by attacking insects’ neurological systems, and of course an ardent advocate of the claim that they have no significant effect on bees. Nor that Monsanto has decided to protect Bayer’s flank by producing a new kind of bee. (It’s the Roundup Ready corn of the insect world. Make poison, spread it on everything, and when you discover that it kills some species you like, instead of changing the poison or ceasing to spread it, alter the species.) Bayer’s logo even resembles the cross-hairs of a rifle, a pleasing bit of serendipity. I also did not anticipate that looking up images of the Gadsden flag, the one that says “Don’t Tread on Me,” would cause websites full of US flags and pugnacious political mottos to pop up in my ads, but of course it did.

I think the founding principles that united the American colonies left us particularly vulnerable to attacks like the one on the bees (and our food sources, and the entire web of plant and animal life), but these ideas are still too abstract for art; I don’t have the image yet to express what I think is threatening to cause the collapse of the human colonies. Maybe there will be future works in a series.

I know for certain that I want to do more etching. I loved the techniques. You can scratch into the varnish that will resist the acid, or use a different kind of varnish and draw right onto it (the smudges in the lower left come from my leaning on the plate as I did that, a mistake), or scratch into the plate itself. And make areas of darker and lighter tone by how long you leave the plate in the acid, and by gently sanding the plate’s surface. Unlike relief techniques like linocut, where you think in negative (what you want to be dark, you leave behind as you carve), the marks you make on an etching plate will be dark. This makes it possible to transfer images to the plate in my own drawing style. The three days involved painting, drawing, scratching, sanding–I enjoyed every minute.

A Mexico first for me: yesterday, in order to get from Tlacolula (home of a huge Sunday market) to the small town of San Marcos Tlapazola, we and our friend Jacki took one of the ubiquitous tarp-covered trucks that are a cheaper alternative to taxis. I’ve ridden in Mexican taxis, colectivos, buses, moto-taxis, and–an experience our daughter remembers as one of the highlights of our six months in Oaxaca, and possibly her life–the back of a friend’s pickup truck. These transports are small pickup trucks with a bench running along each side. The rear is slats, which, like the uncovered last couple of feet, allow a view of the countryside one has just passed.
 
The ride was fun. The route to Tlapazola was dusty, and other women covered their mouths and noses with their rebozos, the also-ubiquitous long woven scarves that are used to shield one’s head from the sun or rain, hold babies, carry groceries, keep warm, and who knows what else. I have a beautiful one, but it’s wool and I left it at home on this warm day–foolish gringa! I commented to Indigo, “Otro de los muchos usos de rebozos” (another of the many uses of rebozos). I don’t know how much Spanish the woman closest to us spoke, because she was speaking Zapotec to her friend and Joy noticed later that some of the women in Tlapazola knew little or no Spanish, but she saw us covering our faces with our hands, and offered the end of her rebozo to both of us.
Tlapazola was having a feria de barro rojo, a fair to promote the red-clay pottery that is its particular art form; during the Guelaguetza most of the villages near Oaxaca hold an event like this. The woman with the rebozo had a table, and I bought a little skunk that she’d made, loving its snout and the curve of its tail. A troupe of small children–they couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, some younger–performed the Danza de las Plumas. Usually it is done by grown men, with huge feathered headdresses; the boys had smaller ones, but wow. (Girls also have a small part in this dance, but don’t apparently get to wear the headdresses or play the clowns who harass the other dancers.) Unfortunately, I can’t upload any of my photos or videos until I get back to the US, but here’s one on YouTube.

They did at least a dozen dances, standing patiently in between dances while a man told the story being acted out by the dance (and explained, every single time, that the group was from a cultural center at Teotitlan del Valle). I loved hearing the story, which was about Moctezuma and the “malos presagios” (bad omens) being told him by his advisers, as unknown people and monstrous beasts arrived on the shore. Lacking the perseverance of the children, I finally got so hungry I had to go get tamales from the food section, and missed the end of the story. I am sure it did not end well for Moctezuma. But it was very cool to hear this story of conquest, colonialization, and the culture that has withstood them, the first time I’ve heard the context for these dances.                                                                     
On the way back to Tlacolula, it was raining, which solved the dust problem. The bumpy road often adds false steps to a pedometer’s reading. This one didn’t add more than a few hundred, but my Fitbit seems to think they were all taken on stairs. It reports that I climbed 43 flights.

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