Sunday, May 17, 2015

"Do tears not yet spilled wait in small lakes?"  ~ Pablo Neruda

On Wednesday two men I've never met died. One of them is known by most of the English-writing world. The other one was, I think, known by only one or two, and, maybe by no one at all.

William Zinsser wrote "On Writing Well," a book that is mandatory reading by anyone thinking about writing… even writing a good letter. He said things like:

       "Clutter is the disease of American writing."

       "We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon." 

        "Simplify, simplify!"

        "Few people realize how badly they write."

        "Clear thinking becomes clear writing. One can't exist without the other."

I read in his obituary that he "played show tunes on the piano while a friend played the sax." I'm not surprised. To be as good a writer as he was, he had to have a "wonderful ear - for music, for writing, and for life," as he was described in the newspaper obit. He was a soldier in World War II, a newspaper journalist, a member of the English faculty at Yale University, and, lately, he even authored a blog.

His book, "On Writing Well," has sold over 1,000,000 copies, and one of those is sitting in one of my bookcases right now. I think I have his book, "Writing to Learn," as well, but I'm sure I don't have another of his books, "Writing With a Word Processor." I'm using a MacBook, and I don't have to know much of anything to use this "machine!"

Your influence on writing in the English language is priceless, clear, and critically important, Mr. Zinsser. (Oops, I used an adverb!) I inferred from his writing, and taught my students, that if you pick the best noun, you don't need adjectives. If you pick the best verb, you need no adverb. Adjectives and adverbs are just sentence props because the author didn't choose potent nouns and verbs.

Thank you, Mr. Zinsser, for influencing so many 20th and 20-first century writers with your ideas, sir.

The other man who died on the same day was known by nearly no one, I think. He sat in a wheelchair staring at the traffic racing along a busy Southern California 6-lane street that travels the length of the snake-narrow city of Anaheim for nearly 12 miles. He had a dirty-white bandage around the top of his head. Part of it was always loose and snaked down his forehead, nearly to his nose.

He was always there, this tall, empty-eyed man in the wheelchair who spent his days watching the traffic go by. I saw him every week when I drove down there to meet a close friend for lunch. That is, until last Wednesday.

The traffic was frenzied and busier than usual. The red light was longer than usual, and I stopped behind two cars in front of me at that light on that street with the man in the wheelchair, waiting for the green. 

The wheelchair was there, but the man was doubled over. His full, uncombed, shaggy hair on the very top of his head was snarled in the grass on the ground by his feet. His forearms and hands were splayed on that ground on either side of his head. There was no sign that those hands had tried to break his fall. His limp fingers were so relaxed and still. 

I knew he was dead. I looked at his side to see if there was any movement, any sign of him breathing. There was none. The red light stubbornly refused to turn green.

How long had he been there, dead? Hundreds of cars passed him by, but there he lay. Wonder how long he'd been like that…  just a foot from the sidewalk, half of him still in his chair. 

Two cars behind me was a police car. They would see him and check on him and call for back-up, I supposed. They must have, because two hours later, when I drove back home from lunch, he was gone... no trace that he'd ever been there… no trace that he'd ever lived on this earth, this man I saw nearly every Wednesday for two years.

I remember him, and I will for a little while, but then I'll forget. And it makes me very sad that a person can be present, right there in front of me, but left out, even when he's dead.

Friday, May 8, 2015

"Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing."  ~  Benjamin Franklin

"Read to your belly!" she said.

Read to your belly? Read to your BELLY! What in the world was that nut-case blithering about, I wondered. 

In fact, I more than "wondered." This was an experienced teacher talking, one whom I highly respected, and here she was, talking to one of our senior girls who was pregnant. I didn't know the girl, but the school board had just passed a new regulation that pregnant students would be allowed to stay in their high schools, instead of automatically being transferred to the district office's "unwed mothers program" placement. But what in the world did that statement have to do with "the price of eggs in China," as my Mom used to say when I made a remark that had no relation at all to the subject I was supposed to be speaking about.

In those times there was a daily 20-minute "Nutrition Break" in all the schools. Students could bring items from home to munch on outside in the school "plaza," or they could buy something from the "snack bar" window serviced by the cafeteria ladies. Students, and faculty, too, could buy apples or bananas or fruit juices or donuts. It wasn't a perfect idea because the lines at the 6 windows were always miles long, and many slow-walking kids would make it to the window just as the 5-minute "warning bell" rang. Kids had to watch their fingers because the windows were slammed shut on the dot. After all, the cafeteria ladies had only a short time to get all the lunches ready for the noon-hour. Yes, "hour!" In those days schools devoted a whole hour for teachers and students to have lunch.

Of course, teachers were allowed to butt into those "Nutrition" lines at any time, so I always had my daily donut just about 2 1/2 minutes after the bell began to ring. I know… I know… as a teacher I ought to have been buying fruit to make a silent stand as a health statement to all the kids, but I always had plenty of fresh fruit sitting in a pretty bowl at home. I could get that anytime, but fresh donuts? Setting a good example flew out the window for me every time that "nutrition" bell rang. 

So, donut in hand, I wandered over to the colleague who told a pregnant senior to "read to her belly."

"What did you mean when you told that girl to 'read to her belly'? Never heard that before…"

"Terry, babies can hear from inside their mothers. Didn't you know that?"

"Wait! Babies INSIDE OF THEIR MOMS can HEAR the outside world? You're kiddin' me!"

"No, I'm not. Terry, sit down…"

This esteemed teacher, this lady who was the sort of teacher I hoped I could be someday, began to explain her own experience…

"While I was pregnant, I read this research about babies being able to hear while they were still in the womb. In fact, because I loved Shakespeare, I read several of Shakespeare's plays out loud to my stomach." 

"You're kiddin'," I stammered.

"C'mon, Terry… I had several months to wait for her to be born. I didn't know how to knit booties, so what else could I do while I waited? By the way, did I ever tell you that I wanted to be an actress when I was younger? So, I even read each of the parts in a different voice," she laughed.

"Well, Terry, I had a daughter, and the terrible thing for me was that she never liked school! I mean, I'm a teacher, and my first and only child didn't like school! She loved playing with the kids in school, she loved P.E., but she only did her homework because I nagged her every single night."

This teacher told me that her daughter did graduate from high school, and then she went to college only because she needed a college degree to go into the field she did like which was math. There she had to take the required college English classes, and she had passed each one, but only by the skin of her skin-less teeth.

"But, Terry, the summer before her junior year of college, MY DAUGHTER signed up for a class in SHAKESPEARE! MY DAUGHTER!"

"Why would she do that? We're talking heavy-duty English class here. That was weird!" I muttered.

"That's exactly what I said to her, right after I got up off of the floor where I'd fallen over backwards! She said, and I quote, 'I dunno, Mom… I dunno………..' And off she went back to college to take all sorts of higher math classes where she was getting A's and to take the 'Shakespeare's Dramas' class, too."

"She jumped in head first, didn't she!" I was stunned.

"That's not the amazing part, Terry. Be quiet!  There's more…" said the English teacher with the treasonous daughter. "She came home at the semester break and showed me her grades, and there it was - an A in that Shakespeare class. AN A!"

Her daughter, a girl who hated English classes and didn't like to read any literature at all, had aced a first semester class in Shakespeare! She told her Mom that she'd already signed up for the second semester classes. The  one class she could hardly wait to take was called "Shakespear's Comedies!"

"Mom," she had said. "I don't understand it! I KNEW those plays. I DID! I KNEW those plays… it was like magic or something. I'm not saying that that was an easy class, or anything, Mom. In fact, it was hard for everyone else, but it was easy for ME! Mom, it is soooo weird!"

"Now, Terry, I had NEVER told my daughter that I'd read to my stomach! Never!"

Now, Dear Reader, that was "back in the day" when I was a new teacher, teaching art at my first place of employment after I graduated from university. But, just this morning I was reading the newspaper, and there was an article explaining that expectant Moms ought to read aloud to their unborn babies. The article said that research absolutely verifies that the child you bear with that pre-birth experience will do better in school than those children who were not read to. 

Of course, it's never too late. If Moms haven't read to their bellies, they can certainly read to their babies. But, I'm just sayin'… and it doesn't have to be William Shakespeare, you know.