Monthly Archives: March 2012

2 Hot 4 U

Correct Punctuation Can Save A Person's LifeBecause you are an intelligent person (perhaps you wonder how I know that? do I have a secret camera in your house?), you probably read this blog with a critical eye, or even with two critical eyes, if you still have both. Maybe you ask yourself  “Are all these facts he gives in the blog actually true?” (Answer: of course they’re true—you’re reading them on the internet). Or perhaps you consider blog style, asking yourself “Is that a felicitous phrasing he’s using there, elegant and imaginative, or did he just come up with that combination of words from drinking too much beer?” (Answer: look into my eyes, you are getting sleepy, sleeeepy, you are thinking about how beautiful the writing is on this blog.)

Years ago, when I was a callow youth, a boy, a stripling, a youngun full of optimism, testosterone, and potential, I began to “learn” the Russian language, believing I could do that. That study brought before my eyes a Russian folk saying—they have many folk sayings in Russia, you need more of them there—which I found pithy and meaningful. I don’t know whether it’s a true folk saying, since I didn’t read it on the internet, but here it is: Truth is good, but happiness is better.

I’m putting that lovely aphorism into practice in my blog. I can say with my hand over my heart, metaphorically, I mean, because I’m typing, that my blog is most definitely true when I want it to be. In pursuit of happiness, however, as required by law (see the Declaration of Independence) I recognize that truth does not always make us happy and needs to be augmented with reality adjustments. In writing lingo, this is technically called “jiggled”.

So anyway, I took the bus to town the other day. I did this in order to get to yoga class, where I have made remarkable progress. The yoga teacher even said to me, “It’s remarkable that you’re still here.” I much appreciated that thoughtful acknowledgement.

“But wait,” I hear you say, as you read this with two critical eyes, if you still have both, “why didn’t you just drive to yoga class? Don’t you have a car? Aren’t you an American?” I somewhat appreciate your tenacity with facts, though you don’t have to feel obligated to keep that up. Yes, I own a car, but at that time my car needed a new transmission, which is, I believe, one of the parts. I don’t know what a transmission actually does, but based on my careful linguistic study, I will suggest that it “transmits” something. (I’m speaking as a language expert there.) What might be transmitted I’m not sure, though it’s possible that it transmits prayers. I know my own car mostly runs on prayers to God, and perhaps the transmission is involved in that.

So anyway I took the bus to town. While I was on the bus, a woman surprised us all by suddenly crying out. People naturally got excited. Some of them even cried out in turn.

When this happened, I stood boldly and said, “I’m a doctor!”

“Make way!” people shouted. “A medical doctor!”

“No,” I replied. “Not a medical doctor. English. I’ll speak to her in English.”

I sat down beside the woman and said, “Ma’am, I’m a writing specialist with a decent understanding of literary themes. How can I help you?”

She looked at me with eyes that kind of bulged, like this…well, you can’t see it, but anyway. Perhaps she was surprised that a good-hearted stranger would make such a kind offer. The woman was younger than I had at first realized, around twenty, she was holding a phone in her hand, and when I first sat down beside her she was looking at the screen. “You’re a what?” she asked.

“I’m a doctor of writing,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“There’s doctors of writing?” she asked. “Really?” She looked back at her phone. “Then look what my dick boyfriend just wrote.” She handed me her cell phone, with the text she had just read. It said “Y Rt U here.”

“I think he wants to break up with me,” she said with an unhappy voice. “He wrote ‘You are too ugly here.’”

“I don’t know your boyfriend,” I said. “But to judge a person who I don’t know and never met, nor ever hope to, I think he loves you. This doesn’t say ‘You are too ugly here.’ Your boyfriend just isn’t good with punctuation. Or the English language in general, probably.”

“What do you think it says?” she asked.

“Well, if you added a question mark at the end, as I believe he would have intended if he had ever heard of them, it would say ‘Why aren’t you here?’ He misses you.”

“Oh.” Now she smiled and grew misty eyed. You know what I mean, eyes slightly wet with tears. As a doctor of writing I was using a metaphor there. “He misses me.” She smiled even broader, then frowned. “I wish I hadn’t sent that text to reply. I wrote ‘UR2’.”
“No problem,” I said, in my capacity as a doctor of writing. “Just add the word ‘sweet’.”

While I watched, she sent him a text that said “ST”.

“I’m sure he’ll understand it,” I said and moved back to my seat. Really, though, I could think of a whole lot of other possibilities than sweet. But maybe that’s just me, in my professional capacity.


Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Singing of South Africa

South African landscape

South Africa

Most people in America (and by “most” of course I mean “me”) know almost nothing about the history of South Africa. I know it was invaded by the Dutch long ago. I know the British came along and took it from the Dutch, because…you know, they were British. And I can figure out that compared to the native people already living in Africa, both the Dutch and British came thundering in with advanced mechanical technology and an attitude of cultural superiority. So local people were there to be killed, enslaved, or degraded (think of America, Peru, Australia).

Some of that history comes to life in a novel I had heard of, sort of, but knew nothing about. The book is Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, a white writer who recognized the damage and injustice from the white society that dominated his country. The book follows several characters, both black and white, for several months, but the real purpose is to comment on social and political conditions in South Africa.

Possibly Cry, the Beloved Country was only published because Paton was out of South Africa when he wrote it. The novel was written in 1946, in only three months, while the author was traveling in other countries inspecting their prison systems. He finished the book while in the United States, and friends here helped him to publish. Only two years later, in 1948, the Afrikaners (descendents of the Dutch) came to political power and officially instituted the apartheid system that lasted until 1994.

The two major characters of the book are two elderly men, Stephen Kumalo, a poor black minister, and to a lesser extent a white farmer named Jarvis. They live near one another, but they never have any interaction until an extreme incident causes them to cross paths, which leads them to discover a humanity in one another, with some surprising twists by the end. It is not a happy book, but it does contain a sense of hope.

Paton has also made the country of South Africa a character, symbolized, perhaps, by the title itself. The book is, after all, about South Africa, and the characters, however much they may hold our interest, are meant to represent ways of thinking and living in the country in 1946. The place itself is given some prominence in several ways. In some sections of the book, we read about social issues affecting the country, which the author brings in either through the interactions and conversations of the characters, or through narrative discussions from the author. At other times—repeatedly—South Africa is shown to be important through the poetry of the writing. Listen to the first two sentences of the book: “There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

I found the writing style of the book to be especially interesting, something I would pay attention to. Although the entire book is written in English (with a good sprinkling of Zulu and a few Africaner words), the style of the narrative changes according to which characters are being emphasized. When the action is focused on the Zulu Kumalo, for instance, although written in English, the speakers do not use contractions and they seem to use more repetition, as well as some ritual phrasing. The overall feeling is rather formal and stiff, and at first I didn’t like it. In other sections of the book, focused on white English speakers such as Jarvis, the style changes, and it felt more natural to my expectations. It wasn’t until I got to later sections of the book, with the contrast, that I could get a sense of how Paton was deliberately using these styles.

I can’t say that I felt especially connected with any of the characters, and that is a possible problem to any book whose real goal is something as large as presenting ideas about a country. I suppose that what Paton was after in writing this book was to talk to the citizens of his country, to say to them “If we want to be a decent country, we have to become more civilized and recognize one another’s humanity.”

I also got a feeling for that place at that time, with some sense of where South Africa has come from. I don’t know if Paton’s message to his fellow citizens was successful at the time he wrote it (official apartheid followed soon after), but the book continues to be read because the message about humanity is still relevant to most of us, and in presenting that message to all of us, I think the author was successful.

Everywhere on the earth, it seems to me, we are still trying to figure out how to be civilized. That is yet to come. It is books like Cry, the Beloved Country that nudge us in the right direction.

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Filed under Book Talks