Retail Therapy

The haul

The haul

I’m having a particularly hard week recovering from an unexpected surgery. After things quieted down and my mom flew home and all that was left to do was rest and recover, I spent a day on the couch watching Netflix. Something I often do when convalescing. But by the end of the day—un-showered and bleary eyed—I didn’t feel any better. Possibly, I felt worse.

This bleak post-TV-binge feeling could have been residual guilt associated with growing up in a house where my mom called the television the boob-tube and my dad regularly told me that watching TV made the muscles in my brain atrophy. Whatever the case, I knew that I needed to find a more life-giving form of distraction to get me through this business of getting better.

Spending money generally gives me a little pick-me-up. So, cue retail therapy married to a pastime my father thoroughly endorses and I made my first post-surgery outing to my favourite bookstore, McNally Robinson.

I bought three books:

While I haven’t cracked the grammar book yet, I have spent the last two days working through the books of essays with equal delight.

I have been intrigued by Lena Dunham since I started watching Girls a few seasons back (my TV-guilt comes and goes). So far, I’ve read through the first section “Love and Sex,” which is funny and heart-breaking and raw. Parts of it (particularly a chapter called “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously”) read like stand-up comedy. I could really hear Dunham’s voice (or is it Hannah Horvath’s?) in my head.

Some sections struck me with that feeling of recognition that good writing can evoke, while other experiences were so strange that I felt like I was privy to something I shouldn’t—or wished I didn’t—know.

One particularly difficult chapter called “Barry” opens, “I’m an unreliable narrator.” It goes on to tell about a sexual encounter that may or may not be a rape. While certainly deeply violating, the narrator does not come out and call it a rape, even when it seems clear to those around her that it was.

The whole thing is actually a retelling of the encounter with Barry. The first version in “Girls & Jerks”* is much less sinister. Coming back to the event and telling it in a different way calls up interesting questions about the narratives that we tell others and ourselves about our lives. There is something revealing about writing a couple of different versions of one event.

In coming back to it and working it over again in a longer essay, Dunham reminded my of those stories or events in my own life that I come back to again and again mining for truth or meaning. Though she claims to be unreliable, there is something honest and refreshing about being brought along as she plays this event over and over—leaving it for a while, then coming back to have another think about it after her perspective has shifted.

I had read some of Joan Didion’s essays in the past, but have been wanting to read more of her work for some time. Her essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem are interesting and beautifully written with immediacy, detail, and self-restraint, always showing never telling.

The title essay paints a poignant picture of San Francisco in the spring of 1967. She builds the essay on short vignettes: interviews with teenagers, car rides, failed plans, observing people on LSD. But instead of the intoxicating narrative of the Beats, the whole affair is banal.

Other essays chronicle interviews with well-known figures or delve into her personal experience. All are written with a sharp sense of timing and a deep trust of her reader.

I’m not sure why I was so drawn to two books of personal essays on this particular visit to the bookstore. But I’ve really enjoyed bouncing between these two women’s voices. Both have a way of observing the world that is fresh and true.

In an interview with Jian Gomeshi, Dunham talks about Hannah Horvath’s often quoted line: “I am the voice of a generation.” Dunham is quick to point out that Hannah says that while high on drugs, but Dunham goes on (somewhat resignedly) to accept that that is the line that is going to follow her around. While not accepting that she is ‘The’ voice, she accepts that she is ‘A’ voice.

Didion too stands as a voice for her generation—a definitive way of looking at and writing about the world.

Looking back after two days on the couch engrossed in their words and their worlds, I am better off. Though still bleary eyed and un-showered, the double dose of retail therapy and reading therapy has left me feeling slightly better than before.

*Side note: “Girls & Jerks” opens with a quotation from “On Self-Respect,” one of Joan Didion’s essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Grammar is Weird

Renting bikes in Cafayate, Argentina—Note the sign!

Renting bikes in Cafayate, Argentina—Note the sign!

In mid-July, I started getting tweets from students about a new “CreComm anthem” that included sentence diagramming. It was all very exciting. But being in rural Argentina, I didn’t have a strong enough Internet connection to actually watch the video. All I could figure out was it had something to do with “Weird Al” Yankovic and grammar.

Before these tweets, my strongest “Weird Al” association goes back to the summer I was 14. My mother had arranged for me to get a ride to summer camp with a family that was dropping off their son to work for a couple of weeks. This was the sort of thing my mother was always arranging. As the middle of five children, I got used to these schemes; but as a 14-year-old, I didn’t even try to hide my disdain.

I had met Phillip* before, the younger of the two sons who was being dropped off at camp, but I had never met his parents or his older brother Myles, who were continuing on to Winnipeg to visit some family.

As we pulled into the driveway, Gordon—the dad—was putting the last suitcases into the full trunk of the car.

“How can you be doing this to me,” I wailed at my mom. “Six-and-a-half hours in that car is going to kill me.”

“They’re super nice,” my mom said.

“Yeah, nice and dorky,” I said. “He’s seriously the weirdest guy that works at the whole camp.”

As I got out of the car, Lynda—the mother—was arranging sandwiches in a cooler and called out in a sing-songy voice.

“Emily, we thought you could sit in the middle between the two boys!”

I got in and settled onto the hump with my backpack on my lap. As we pulled off, I gave my waving mother one last death stare from where I was wedged between Phillip and Myles, as if to say, “Don’t think two weeks at camp will make me forget this!”

Before we even turned off their street, Myles turned to look at me and began tapping his fingers together à la Mr. Burns.“I have a plan to take over the world,” he said.

“How ‘bout some music?” his mother called out from the front seat.

“Okay,” said Myles, his eyes never leaving the side of my face, “but you know my rule mother, only ‘Weird Al!’”

And so it was—six-and-a-half hours of “Weird Al.” And the whole family sang along.

I had kind of forgotten all about it, but since returning to work last week “Weird Al” and his new song “Word Crimes” has come up over and over again. So, I finally watched the video.

It’s catchy and clever and a little bit annoying. It has sentence diagrams (!!!) and dancing punctuation and lots of other nerdy grammatical stuff that I love. But what I found most interesting was how “Weird Al” points to the deeply ingrained connection we make between using good or proper or standard—(the term we use here is a debate in itself)—grammar and intelligence.

In this song people who use poor grammar are seen as morons, mouth-breathers, spastic, and immature (e.g. “unless you’re 7” and “go back to pre-school”).

Parody is a complex form—often one that comments on culture. As a writing instructor I see these deeply held views about language and writing in the classroom. Lots of student are embarrassed that they don’t know more about grammar, or maybe that they have never really had any formal grammatical training.

I teach a fair amount of grammar, and since my students hope to go on to work as writers in various industries it is especially crucial that they learn to use appropriate forms of grammar, syntax, and spelling. To this end, we do lots of exercises, diagram sentences, talk about gerunds until it becomes a hash tag, and some people even memorize poems about the eight parts of speech. My students simply have to get it right—their future careers depend on it. So, I don’t apologize for teaching grammar.

But the point of it is not to create a bunch of meanies, who are now able to ridicule those who haven’t had the same training or education. The point is to foster successful, confident writers and communicators.

Writing is hard, and it is even harder when you feel ashamed. Shame clams you up and makes you afraid of failing. Curiosity is a better place to start. So if grammar makes you nervous, as it does me, forge ahead and when you are not sure look it up.

*Some names have been changed to protect innocent “Weird Al” enthusiasts. I did not know what cool was at 14.