Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Writing Tip #2

From June 23:

I wish to be taken out to the ball game
I wish to be taken out to the crowd
I would like to be bought some peanuts and Cracker Jack
I don’t care if anyone ever gets me back….

Not very powerful, is it? To mark our office's foray to Nationals Park today to see pitching phenomenon Stephen Strasburg lead our home team to certain victory, let’s vow today to use active verbs in all our writing.

Bad: The curveball was missed by the batter.
Good: Strasburg smoked a 103-mph fastball past the dazed batter, dazzling the capacity crowd.

Go, Nats!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Writing Tip #1

I've been sending these out to the staff here at work to help them address some of the more vexing problems they have with putting together their reports. I thought I'd share them with a much narrower audience by posting them here. This first tip is dated June 16.

In honor of Bloomsday (June 16, the day James Joyce’s epic—and ponderous—novel Ulysses takes place), the Publications staff is offering the following tip on making your writing more succinct:

Writing Tip #1

Avoid overusing prepositional phrases. They weigh a sentence down and lead the reader through a syntactic maze, when all you really want is to make your point.

Example: The report of the Committee stressed the points of view of several of the measure stewards in attendance at the meeting.

Wow. How about:

The Committee’s report stressed the attending measure stewards’ point of view.
In its report, the Committee stressed the opinions of the measure stewards attending the meeting.

Happy Bloomsday!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Deep End

A week or two before Max died, I joined an online support group, at the suggestion of a colleague, for people who have dogs with cancer. I'm not normally a support group kind of gal, but Max's prognosis was terrible, and I just wanted to know what others were doing to help their doggies--and themselves--through a confusing and emotional time.

When Max died nearly two weeks ago, I "graduated," as it were, to the board for people whose dogs have died from cancer, and I admit, it was comforting to know that others were crying over their babies and I wasn't totally nuts. Being on these boards, however, pretty much made me feel worse rather than better, hearing all the terrible stories of heartbreak and canine courage and knowing that it soon would be my turn. Ask not for whom the bell tolls--it tolls for thee.

I've more or less weaned myself off the support groups now, but my time there has led me to some odd observations. For example, our society has absolutely no grip on the idea of death. We fear it mightily. Once upon a time, we were all familiar with it, even in our human children, and we accepted it to some degree. The Victorians actually gloried in it, raising mourning to a creepy, historic high. No one knew how to get mileage out of a loss more than a Victorian.

But now we not only can't handle the death of our fellow humans with any kind of acceptance apart from a grudging resignation, but we no longer can accept the fact that our pets move on. Don't get me wrong: I love my pets as much as, if not more than, anyone I know. I'm utterly devoted to them, and I did all I could to help Max and fight his cancer in the limited way I could. But we all must know, when we adopt any pet other than perhaps a parrot or a Galapagos turtle, that we will outlive them. Max was 10 1/2; I'm 45. He was an old man; after loving him for 10 years, I'm still just middle-aged.

While the people on the boards were unceasingly kind and patient, I encountered a tremendous amount of denial and breast beating. I'm not against anything we humans do to ease our pain, so long as it harms no one else, but I felt a bit perplexed by some of the attitudes, particularly the rallying cry of, "It's not fair!"

Of course it's not fair. As my mom always told me, life isn't fair. And she should know, because the way she died was so grossly unfair that it just proved her point. If euthanasia for humans were legal, we would have gladly helped Mom over the "Rainbow Bridge." Fortunately for our furry friends, we can give them the peaceful passing my mom was denied. That's not fair at all. But I'm glad we could do it for Max.

What's odd to me is that the ones who seem to have the hardest time letting go are the ones with strong faith. This makes no sense to me. I'm not a person of faith, but I was raised that way; in the faith of my childhood, Jesus was there to take us when we die. There is no more pain or suffering, just union with God. Why, then, are people so afraid of it, even for their pets? In Christianity, what could be better than being with Jesus? Why, then, are we willing to put our human and animal loved ones through appalling physical torture just to keep them from Jesus?

Godless though I am, I don't see death as the enemy. It's an enemy for those of us left behind, but it's peace for those who must leave us. Of course we don't want them to leave too soon. My mom and dad both died too soon. My sister definitely died too soon. But we just don't get to choose, and we have to find a way to accept that without clinging to mythology just because it makes us feel better. And I don't mean by that Christianity. I mean the myth that anyone with a 13-year-old collie can "beat" cancer. You can make it go away, perhaps, depending on the type of cancer, but something is going to mow that dog down soon enough, and that something might not be so gentle and accommodating as cancer can be.

For example, our other dog is at least 11, has diabetes, is blind and arthritic. He spends most of his life sleeping. His quality of life? Hard to say, but I don't see how it can be great. If he needed heroic measures, we wouldn't take them. He deserves better than that. He will die, I will die, we all will die, and if imaging a Rainbow Bridge makes you feel better about your doggy leaving this world, then fine, just don't tell yourself you have to keep him from crossing that bridge. You can't. You can delay it. You can tease out a few more years, and maybe that's what you should do. But you can't beat death.

Sorry for my miserable ramblings. I miss Max terribly. But lamented as his passing is, and too soon in that he was a very vigorous, happy dog up until the last minute, his leaving us behind has made room for another dog who had a rough start to have a spoiled rotten life with us. We pick her up tomorrow. Her name is Buttercup, although we're probably going to change it. She spent her first 9 months chained in a yard, and now she's going to live on Easy Street with us. And none of this would be possible if nature hadn't taken its inescapable course.

The dog is dead. Long live the dog!

Max, b. 1/99, d. 8/4/09, of hemangiosarcoma

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Comedy or Tragedy

I stumbled out of the Metro this morning at Metro Center just as the bells of the Church of the Epiphany were ringing in 8 o'clock--time for me to be in the office and not just outside it. At the top of the escalator a youngish man in dreads serenaded commuters with a keyboard and a mediocre voice: "What a Wonderful World."

Is it? I suppose so. But at 8 in the morning after nearly two weeks of not getting enough sleep, it's a question worth asking.

I began to wonder if the dreadlocked musician was my own personal Greek chorus, commenting on the action of my day. (It figures my private Greek chorus would have a mediocre voice.) I almost began to laugh, although as yet uncaffeinated and thus insensate, at the thought of Mr. Dreadlock following me around all day, singing pertinent pop songs as my day unfolds. I have a feeling this sensation is not original--in fact, it smells suspiciously of sitcom. But there it is.

I can still hear waves of his music wafting up at my 5th floor office, past the Caribou Coffee. I'm not sure what song he's playing, as the sound is just far enough away to be heard but indisctinct. So I'm not sure what's coming up for me later. But he told me earlier it's a wonderful world, and it's possible he's right.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Hello, Goodbye

It seems like I just came to the Association, and now I'm leaving. I've spent three short years there, but the place grew on me like kudzu--it's beautiful, but it's invasive.

I gave a bigger chunk of my life to the Association than I was expecting to. I gained experience, grew frustrated, lost my mind, gave up my weekends--but I worked with some of the best people I've ever known. Leaving was necessary, but it was painful.

It's funny how you often don't know what people think of you until you leave a place and they think they won't see you anymore. I always felt I was the fortunate one to get to know and work with these people, but I was surprised by their generous goodbye. Two of my favorite comments (and I'm blushing to repeat them, but I must write them down so I never forget):

"You were a breath of fresh air this place really needed."
"I can't believe the one positive person around here is leaving."

I'm not sure what it is about me that felt fresh, but I loved hearing that. And as for positive, well, I've been anything but positive lately, or I wouldn't have considered leaving. I've been weighed down, and I've felt burdened. And I'm not one to suffer in silence, so often I've moaned to my staff about The Man and The Association Establishment and the Idiotic Things They Do. I felt that I was dragging them down and that it would be my leaving that would give them the fresh air they needed. It never once occurred to me that I might have brought a draft when I came in.

Leaving is beyond a doubt what I need to do--for my sanity, my family, and my waistline. But I didn't want to have to do it. I wanted to want to stay there forever. But maybe when I shut the door behind me this afternoon, a fresh breeze wafted in that will invigorate the ones I left behind.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Little Town on the Beltway--Town Meeting Edition

I firmly believe that the answer to my midlife crisis is to get involved in my world in more diverse ways. Right now I'm all work or all mom, with little room for crossover or in between. So this year I decided to participate in a couple of small-town activities.

For those of you who don't know, I live in a small town of about 135 people in Suburban Maryland. We're 18 miles and at least an entire generation away from DC. Tuesday night was the uncontested election of two town commission members. It's hard to get anyone to run at all, so I suppose a hotly contested race is a bit much to ask, but it might have spurred my memory to show up and vote. According to the chair of the town commission, we had a pretty good turnout of 18 voters to vote for two people who probably had to have guns held to their heads to get them to run just to replace themselves.

The next night was the annual town meeting. I lasted through the first hour because we were dealing with matters of particular interest to me: the proposed bypass that should rescue our adorable, historic town from the choke of heavy traffic and the two derelict houses next to mine.

I'm torn on this last one. I'm heartsick for the middle-aged loner who didn't have fire insurance and can afford neither building up nor tearing down his properties. (Nevertheless, I can't shake the haunting comparison between this guy and the middle-aged loner killer in The Lovely Bones.) But I'm amazed that there could be two houses that make my house look good in comparison. I should be glad, but really I'm tired of the hazard next door. I'm concerned that either house might look like a great place for teenagers to hang out smoking pot and accidentally starting another fire or going through the floorboards as they explore in the dark on a dare. I want these things torn down, built up, sold to someone who cares, sealed up from teenagers, whatever. I don't care. Maybe I just want to erase the image of the day the one house burned down two years ago--I've always been simultaneously drawn to and repelled by hellish forces of nature. Whatever my motivation, I'm ready to move on. I'm sorry for the loner, but I want my neighborhood back.

And what a neighborhood! At 45 (next Friday), I'm one of the younger adults in town. I've lived here more than 10 years and am still a newcomer. I don't go to the town's Methodist church apart from Christmas Eve, so many of my fellow small-town citizens don't really know who I am. I'm a middle-aged mom. I guess I fade into the background.

But this year our state delegate recognized me (albeit I had spoken up during the meeting, giving geographic clues), so that was one small step for suburban momkind. In any meeting of this kind, I think it's customary for one citizen to hog up the majority of the time set aside for these meetings, either through comments they think are funny, questions that are irrelevant to anything anyone's talking about and certainly not on the agenda, or demands for action! They want action! You want action? Move to a big town. It's not happening here.

Nevertheless, it's sort of nice knowing that there's still a place so close to arguably the world's most powerful city that still gets obsessed over finding money to repair gravel roads and fix up the old school house where Miss Anna and Miss Flo went to school.

And speaking of Miss Anna, she finally lost her husband of more than 67 years. He wasn't sick for long, but at 89 I think his passing can't have been unexpected. So we all gathered at the Methodist church to say goodbye, the overflow crowd watching the service from a Web cam in the parish hall. I listened to the well-meaning but misguided language of bigotry in a eulogy that claimed the deceased was such a great guy because he loved Jesus. I guess everyone else can go to hell. Oh, wait a minute....

Then we all crossed the street to watch the American Legion lower the flag at the town hall. There was an awkward moment when the string holding the flag broke, and all the poor WWII vets had to maintain their salutes while their hapless octogenarian Legion buddies tried to fix it in an operation that seemed to take forever. The reception to wish the dearly departed was held at a cozy inn we could all walk to, and we ate white bread sandwiches and talked about how much the town has changed--when it really hasn't.

I'm not sure why I'm celebrating all this. It's infuriating sometimes but beautiful. It's democracy in action and family and friends writ large. I should get more involved. Maybe in another 10 years, when they think I've been here long enough, I can run for the town commission and pore over proposals for a new propane heater for the town hall. It sounds kind of nice, really. So long as I can run unopposed.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pick My New Career!

Maybe it's a midlife crisis, or maybe I'm just having a crisis of confidence, but I'm just not the editor I used to be. Quite frankly, I don't even think I'm the writer I used to be, and I always thought I could count on that.

So I need a change. But what can I do? Honestly, nothing. I have a bachelor's degree in English. I'm lucky to be able to afford groceries. So what does an executive editor/director of news and information (yes, that's my unwieldy title) with more than 20 years' experience in publishing do when midlife hits and the same old same old is just...old?

You can be part of the solution! Send in your ideas of a new career for me (more schooling not a good idea at this point), and you will get in return--my undying gratitude! Does it get any better than that? I don't think so.