Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dr. Seuss, the Hardy Boys, and me

My birthday is the same day as Dr. Seuss’. I never knew that until after he died, when schools began adopting his birthday (our birthday), March 2nd, as a day to celebrate literacy.

I knew of Dr. Seuss’ books when I was growing up, of course. Who didn’t know about the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch? But I don’t remember having any of them around the house, at least not until my nieces and nephews started arriving. I think that my mother, a school librarian who had very definite opinions about what constituted “good books,” believed that his books’ fantastical illustrations and easy-reader qualities made them perfectly acceptable for other people’s children, but unnecessary for her own.

My mother was also less than thrilled when, in third grade, I discovered “The Hardy Boys” series and wanted to read almost nothing else for a year or two. I thought the books were terrific, and Franklin W. Dixon was a genius! I wanted to write him a fan letter and tell him I wanted to be a writer, just like him, when I grew up. My mother said the books were “formulaic,” and worse, she claimed Franklin W. Dixon didn’t even exist—she said that was just a pen name for an assortment of not-particularly-talented writers who had been authoring the series since the 1920s. I was crushed. And she was right, of course. You can’t fool a librarian.

Even if he didn’t exactly exist, I’m happy to see that Franklin W. Dixon rates his own entry in Wikipedia. I spent a lot of quality time with Frank and Joe (and their silly girlfriends, Callie and Iola, whom I could have done without), but I suppose their friend Chet Morton was my true alter ego. Besides the fact that Chet was more concerned with where his next meal was coming from than with solving crime, he took up a new hobby in just about every book. In one he was into fly-tying; in another it was carving scrimshaw. I also remember ventriloquism, taxidermy, and something to do with microscopes. He never stuck with anything very long, but he was always passionate about whatever he was doing at the time.

Sound familiar? If you know me, you know that I see nothing wrong with that!

By the time my own kids were growing up in the 1990s, the Hardy Boys had been turned into a dorky TV show (which, like previous TV incarnations in the 1960s and '70s, took outrageous liberties with the details of the books) and the favored book series was the ghastly Babysitters' Club. My kids were not big consumers of Dr. Seuss books, either, but a few of them ended up in their bookshelves, one way or another. I kind of liked them. If I were reading to the kids at bedtime, I could practically fall asleep to the sing-song sound of my own voice: “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”

When Caitlin was in first grade, she brought home a video of The Lorax from school, and just imagine the shock she felt as a six-year-old when it set off a veritable uproar in our house. It seems that her stepfather, who is a logger, felt that the book sent the Wrong Message—something like “all tree cutting is bad, bad, bad, and results in environmental devastation!” I guess he thought Dr. Seuss should have written instead about the benefits of the selective harvesting of truffula trees. (He never could tolerate that bulldozer scene at the beginning of “Fly Away Home,” either, because, again, he was convinced that the portrayal of the developer as the incarnation of evil was going to turn people against all logging. I said, “Are you kidding? Who doesn’t love ‘Fly Away Home’?” but it turned into a Really Big Controversy…and eventually Caitlin just learned to say, “We’re not allowed to watch 'Fly Away Home' if Tony’s around.”)

Anyway, since Dr. Seuss has become a symbol for literacy, and since I’m a big fan of literacy (and, even more important, since I especially like anything that helps to turn my birthday into a Big Event), I’m very pleased that he and I share a birthday, and that it’s now called Read Across America Day.

One more fun fact: I recently read of Dr. Seuss that “his mother often chanted pie-selling rhymes to her children to make them fall asleep at night.” I don’t happen to know any pie-selling rhymes, but I did used to be a pie-baker and pie-seller, so I think that’s significant.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In praise of the serial comma

Call it the serial comma, the Harvard comma, or the Oxford comma. Heck, call it the University of Phoenix comma, or the College of Lifelong Learning comma. (The New Hampshire school where I finally got my degree changed its name to Granite State College halfway through my time there, but before that it actually was called the College of Lifelong Learning--I still have the sticker on my car. But that's a story for another day.) I'm not fussy about what you call it, but I am a fierce proponent of the serial comma.

In researching the serial comma, I was happy to read (in Wikipedia, which I know is accurate and reliable, because it says so right here, in Wikipedia) that "most authorities on American English recommend its use."

However, most style guides for journalists (of which I am now one, albeit employed by a weekly newspaper with somewhat relaxed standards, whose editor is just happy I don't habitually write things like "the game was effected by the rain" and "the twelve day's of Christmas"), including the AP Style Guide, which I'm supposed to use, favor omitting the serial comma.

One reference says this approach is probably a matter of wanting to conserve space in newspapers. If so, I think it's time to let this one go. Believe me, the newspaper industry has a whole lot of more worrisome things to think about at the moment than how much valuable space is being taken up by a few commas they deem unnecessary.

Part of the reason I'm so adamant about the use of the serial comma is that I hear that comma in spoken language, and whenever I read something in which the serial comma is omitted, I have a little hiccup in my head. If I read that the colors of the American flag are "red, white and blue," I hear "red, white-and-blue."

Another reason is that use of the serial comma, in most cases, helps to avoid ambiguity. (Yes, I'll concede that there are occasional times when using it actually leads to ambiguity, but this is my blog and I'm not going to talk about that, except to say that the aforementioned Wikipedia entry has an amusing little section concerning the phrase "Betty, a maid, and a rabbit" vs. "Betty, a maid and a rabbit.")

For example, suppose I want to make some homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner, but I've discovered that I've run out of a few key ingredients. I'm rushing off to work in the morning, and my husband will get home before I do. If I were not an advocate of the serial comma, I might leave him a note that says, "If you happen to go to town this afternoon, please pick up milk, butter, macaroni and cheese."

There's only about a 50-50 chance that (assuming he does go to town) he will come home with the four items I thought I wrote in my note, and an equally good chance that we'll be eating Kraft macaroni-and-cheese-from-a-box for dinner. You see the problem?

If you still don't believe omitting the serial comma can lead to big trouble, consider this hypothetical book dedication cited by the Chicago Manual of Style: "With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope." Yikes! The Catholic church has enough scandals these days without being dragged into another simply for lack of a serial comma!

Sadly, it seems that more and more editors and publishers of books, not just newspapers and magazines, are choosing to omit the serial comma or, worse, to ignore a lack of consistency regarding its use throughout a single work. Yes, I know I can be obsessive when it comes to grammar, but I can honestly say that the increasing omission of the serial comma is having a negative effect on my enjoyment of reading.

So I'd like to thank a blogger (and fellow serial-comma aficionado) called The Laughorist for his truly excellent post, "Let's Stop Serial-Comma Killing Now!"

Commas, in general, can be tricky things. (On one website I read the intriguing suggestion that a college student who wishes to become a better writer should pay a deposit of $5 for each comma in his paper or essay, and ask his English professor to return the deposit for each comma that is used correctly--excellent incentive for getting it right.)

I'll leave you all with a quote from Oscar Wilde:

"I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."

You and me both, Oscar.

PS: I know there are probably some of you reading this and thinking, she really needs more in her life than obsession over the serial comma (especially if you happen to take note of the fact that this was posted rather early on a Saturday morning). Well, for your information, the only reason I'm blogging this morning is that I got up at 4:30 to make rolls that were requested for a church supper by my dear sister-in-law, so I've had plenty of time to spend on the computer while they were rising and baking. So there.

Boy, do they smell good! Admit it: you wish you were here. (Oh, and that fire extinguisher in the background? It is in no way meant as a comment on my competence in the kitchen.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Urban chickens

(I "borrowed" this cool image from someone named John Coulter--I don't know if that's even legal, but I thought if I gave him credit for it, it might be OK. Thanks, John, whoever you are.)

The city council in Portland, Maine, is holding a public hearing tonight on a proposed "Urban Chicken Ordinance." If approved, the ordinance would allow residents of Maine's largest city to keep a limited number of backyard chickens, as long as they obtain a permit and adopt good husbandry practices intended to limit noise, odor, and the possibility of attracting rodents to stored feed.

Several of Portland's neighboring towns, including South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Biddeford, Westbrook, and Falmouth, already have Urban Chicken Ordinances. In the two years since South Portland enacted theirs, the city council has had no complaints (probably because roosters aren't allowed under their ordinance).

I neither live in a city, nor own chickens, but I might someday (own chickens, that is, not live in a city), and I think it's great that residents of urban Portland may be allowed to keep a few chickens. After all, most of us have very little idea about where our food actually comes from, and the growth of the local foods movement is a wonderful thing.

The proposed ordinance is also being touted as a way for people to save a little money on food, although the city is proposing a $12 per chicken annual fee for a permit, which seems excessive. After you shell out $72 to make your half-dozen egg-layers legal, build them an ordinance-compliant coop, and feed them, I doubt you're going to save much on the cost of eggs. But I've eaten homegrown chicken eggs, and they really are undeniably tastier than store-bought, not to mention the advantage of knowing your chickens haven't been fed unnecessary antibiotics or other weird chemicals.

I've also heard that chickens make pretty good pets, although most of the poultry I've met haven't impressed me as the most intelligent critters. And just in case you're thinking of bringing one into your home, I know you'll be glad to learn of the availability of...wait for it...chicken diapers. Yes, it's true, and here's the proof:

The website where, apparently, you could once order chicken diapers is, sadly, shut down for technical repairs, but you can still access their FAQ page, which will answer such burning questions as, "I just put the diaper on my bird and it is acting funny. What can I do?" and "My bird has a lot of fluff on the backside. Can she wear a diaper without getting poop stuck to her?" Yes, really.

(God, I love blogging! I can write about anything, and no one, no one, can stop me! Bwaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

My mother's hands

Several years before she died, my mother was asked to participate in a local photographer's project, a collection of photos of hands. The owners of the hands were all from our area, but were all of different ages and walks of life. My mother was photographed knitting a pair of her famous, four-needle, double-yarn, intricately-patterned mittens. It is one of my favorite photos of her.

My mother's hands were nearly always busy. She knit while she watched TV, and while she listened to Red Sox games on the radio. She brought her knitting with her to family gatherings, to meetings, and on car trips. She knit something tiny and precious for every new baby who arrived. She knit what she hoped were trendy garments for teenage granddaughters who wouldn't be caught dead in them. She knit sweaters and scarves and socks, but mostly she knit mittens. She probably knit thousands of pairs of mittens in her lifetime, from "trigger-finger" mittens (knit from a pattern she created so my brothers could use their index fingers to roll the newspapers they delivered when they were kids) to plain, utilitarian, it's-no-big-deal-if-you-lose-one mittens, made with the leftovers of wool sweaters...I always had at least a dozen pairs, shrunk to fit from being soaked in the snow and dried on the clanking old steam radiators, the fibers matted from making snowballs. (Nowadays we'd call them "felted," and go to great lengths to get that look).

Friday, February 13th was my mother's birthday. (She was not superstitious. She was born on a Friday, and was always especially pleased when her birthday fell on Friday the 13th.) I got an email from one of my mother's oldest friends, who said, "I always remember that February 13th was your mother's birthday, so I thought I'd just send a word or two..."

I am not that much of a knitter. I can manage a scarf or a simple hat. I can make simple four-needle mittens, although the two in a pair never quite come out the same size. But when my brother called, two days after my mother's birthday, to say that someone tiny and precious had arrived--his new grandson--one of my first thoughts was, I'll have to knit him something!

So, Salvador, I'll try to channel your great-gramma, so that maybe I can keep the rows straight and the gauge even, and not drop a stitch.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fun With Food -- You can call me Nannerpus

There was just something catchy about that Denny's commercial--the one that first aired during the SuperBowl, and featured an animated, singing banana/octopus creature perched on a stack of pancakes. The message of the commercial--"Isn't it time for a serious breakfast?"--implies that anyone in their right mind would rather have a Denny's Grand Slam breakfast than a singing Nannerpus breakfast, but I just don't agree, and I've been itching to make my own Nannerpus ever since. I finally got around to it this morning, and I am pleased to report that Nannerpus was every bit as delicious as he was photogenic.

After creating my own Nannerpus, I did a little research and discovered that Nannerpus has attracted a small but avid cult following. He has his own website, complete with links to a couple of artists who have immortalized him, as well as a musician who completed the Nannerpus song. All very clever, but my hands-down favorite is the YouTube poster who went to the trouble of dressing an actual, real, live baby up as Nannerpus and creating a video. You rock, "gonnalaughatyou," even if your kid does grow up to require years of therapy!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Office Sunshine Girl

I am the self-appointed Office Sunshine Girl at the Rumford Falls Times, where I work (as I have been at every place I've worked since I was 19 years old and started giving out homemade holiday goodies at Bob's Corner Store). This means I get to make all the birthday cakes, and for our managing editor's 50th, I decided to make a special "good news only" edition of the paper. My frosting hand isn't as steady as it used to be, but, all the same, everyone seemed mightily impressed.

Pitchers & catchers are in camp!

Red Sox pitchers and catchers have reported for spring training, and their first workout is scheduled for today. In spite of the fact that it was about 10 degrees here this morning, and all my car doors and windows were frozen shut, the start of spring training always gives me hope that warmer weather can't be far away.

My daughter says she is ready for the baseball season, as she is now sporting a tattoo that she has been wanting for years. I suppose as tattoos go, the Red Sox logo is preferable to just about anything else she might have chosen. And as tattoo locations go, the back of her shoulder is probably a good place, since it's a piece of skin that will be exposed a lot while she's young and thinks nothing of wearing tank tops all summer, and will gradually grow to be exposed less and less often, until by the time she's 50 the only time it will show up is once or twice a year, when she's sitting on the deck at camp.

And, best of all, it will never be an issue when she applies for a job, unless she decides to become a topless waitress or a porn star, in which case her tattoo will be the least of my worries.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pileated woodpeckers

Yesterday I went for a walk on the camp road, and before I had been walking for even a minute, a pair of HUGE pileated woodpeckers flew in from somewhere and landed on a couple of trees just a few yards off the road. I've only ever seen one of these birds a handful of times, and I've never seen a pair before. They were about to settle in to pecking some of those peculiar, rectangular holes, and I was trying to figure out how to use the camera on my cell phone when a snowmachine came by and they both flew off.