Contemplating the Past, Anticipating the Future

The two-faced, Roman god JanusIt’s the ancient, two-faced Roman god Janus’s time. It’s time for me to look at what has happened during the past year and to look ahead to what can happen in the New Year.

A Look Back

This past year, I have followed some exciting writing and editing paths. By completing my master’s degree in professional writing, I immersed myself in different ways of writing, investigated the nuances of rhetoric, and created written products. Like a kid in a candy store, I got to stretch my skills and think about how changing media alters written communication.

One of the best things I did in 2014 was to start this blog. For many years after I left the newspapers, I didn’t have the opportunity to write as often, in such volume, or about such a variety of things. I forgot how much fun it was and didn’t realize how much I missed it. I thank everyone who follows this blog for allowing me to share my thoughts and information.

Another thing I started doing in 2014 is something I haven’t done in a long time: write fiction. I haven’t done this since I was a child. Right now, I’m not planning to try to sell it or even share it with others. I just want the pleasure of the writing.

A Look Ahead

In 2015, I have ideas and plans in my mind that I would like to make real. As always, much of this includes stretching my writing and editing skills.

One thing I am working on is helping a non-profit organization, which wants to build a community center, write grants to help get funding. We are still in the formation stage determining exactly who will be served and how they will be served. This will help direct where to look for funding. I feel honored to be allowed to use my skills to help out.

I want to improve this blog, to give readers more and better information in a fun way.

I would like to pursue some new, effective teaching methods like flipping grammar instruction and making writing assignments more pertinent to students who will enter trades or non-academic professions.

I want to play with new computer programs, like the Adobe Creative Suite and game generators, to help make some of these ideas possible.

I resolve to remember that not everyone is as wrapped up in good writing and proper grammar as I. I need to tone down my fanaticism a bit.

Most of all, I want to take the talent I have with words and writing to help make my corner of the world a better place.

To everyone out there, may you shake off the dust of the bad things from the past year, build upon the good things, and enter a new year excited about the possibilities.


My Parents’ Learning Legacy

I love to learn.

My brothers, although not as bookish as I, still have the same curiosity. How did that happen?

Mom reading the newspapers.

I can only attribute it to our parents, especially Mom. It is easy to forget that even the smallest action by our parents can influence our learning for the rest of our lives.

Although he worked long hours (sometimes three jobs at a time!), my father still was influential in developing our learning habits. We got three daily newspapers — the local paper and two New York City papers. It was not unusual to watch Dad, when he got home from work, sitting in his chair in the living room reading the paper while watching the news on television. Mom usually got to the papers after dinner.

Children will copy what they see their parents do. We still are newspaper readers (although I do most of my news reading online). My oldest brother reads the Sunday New York Times cover to cover.

Then there were the documentaries. When we were children (lo! those many years ago), television programming was limited. Yet every Sunday night started off with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We caught every Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic special we could. Mom would take us to different parks, and we’d pretend we were explorers and naturalists.

Mom took an active role reading to us and then helping us learn to read. I can honestly say that I can never remember being unable to read. I have a distinct memory of walking into my kindergarten class for the first time and being able to read “red,” “yellow,” and “green” on the giant poster of a traffic light.

Of course, there were the flash cards. Being numerically challenged, I really needed drilling on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Mom was there with those colorful cards. (I still have problems with my six times tables.)

My parents’ encouragement, and some serious studying with classmates, helped me limp through algebra, geometry, and even trigonometry. It’s not their fault it all got flushed out of my head the weekend after graduation.

I think the greatest gift my parents gave us was a responsibility to find things out on our own.

“Mom, how do you spell …?”

“Look it up in the dictionary.”

“How can I look it up if I don’t know how to spell it?”

“Sound out the letters.”

Mom didn’t have a lot of sympathy for us if we weren’t willing to make an effort for ourselves. She was willing to help us if we got stuck, but she certainly wasn’t going to do the heavy lifting.

All this might not seem like much. My parents didn’t constantly expend huge amounts of energy or money on getting us to learn. They just created an environment, set expectations, and made us accountable for ourselves. It was not much, but what a huge influence on our lives!

P.S. Mom was a good speller. She and Dad would do the same crossword puzzles in the daily papers. Dad was a “creative” speller and always finished first. Mom would get so mad because he had most of the clues spelled wrong.

Thanks, Mr. Bradlee

Ben Bradlee at his Washington Post desk in 1971. Photo/New York Times

I can thank (or blame, depending on your perspective) Ben Bradlee, someone I never met, for my entrance into the world of newspapers.

Mr. Bradlee, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, died last week. For those too young to remember, he and Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher, took on big government and the Richard Nixon administration when they fought to publish the Pentagon Papers and pursue the Watergate scandal.

Mr. Bradlee was, in a large measure, responsible for the high regard and reputation journalists were experiencing when I was a high school senior. I was trying to figure out where I wanted to go in life and originally wanted to become a high school English teacher. My mother, a teacher’s aide, told me that I wouldn’t be able to find a job and that I should become a newspaper reporter instead. So I did.

This decision was more crucial to my life than I gave it credit for at the time. I love to share learning, but I realize, as I look back, that the raging hormones and teenage angst dripping from the halls of the average high school would have sent me screaming to the oblivion of a good bottle of rum.

I loved working for a newspaper and, when I became senior news editor then managing editor of a local weekly chain, I found myself in occupational nirvana. I had a job that let me write, design pages, edit the writing of others, manage a staff of full- and part-time reporters and photographers, interact with public officials, and talk with all kinds of people. The hours were long, the pay was low, and we worked like crazy people to put it all together each week. But the newspaper work was fun. Every day was a new adventure, and every week we put out quality work.

Barbara S. Rivette, my mentor and former executive editor, is a Syracuse University School of Journalism graduate who knew and hobnobbed with many leading journalists. She never met Mr. Bradlee, but closely watched the developments at the Post throughout the 1970s.  His ethics are her ethics.

Although we never had ethical or legal dilemmas the scope of which Mr. Bradlee and Ms. Graham faced, we still had some newsroom clashes over journalistic integrity. Ever present was the issue of the public’s right to know weighed against the right of individual privacy. Although local town, village, and school boards couldn’t hide behind “national security,” they often tried to cloak their activities in executive sessions.

As time and technology progressed, the nature and economics of print journalism have changed. Newspapers have stopped printing daily, opting for electronic editions; the need for writers and editors has diminished; typesetters, proofreaders, and page strippers have vanished; and the driving force today is how fast an organization can get the story on the web. Speed is becoming more important than accuracy; excellence is measured by hits instead of the quality of the content.

Mr. Bradlee’s brand of journalistic integrity seems to be falling prey to a world that ignores individual privacy and is more concerned with getting the story out than getting it right. An era of bright and shining journalism is fading like the tangy smell of printer’s ink.

R.I.P., Mr. Bradlee; thanks for a great run.


Books–An Impossible Addiction to Kick

Hi, my name’s Annette, and I’m a book addict. It’s been shady bookthree days since I bought a book.

It all started innocently enough. I got my books free at first. My parents pushed picture books and easy readers like the Golden Books at me. Then I got into the good stuff – Dr. Suess’s Hop on Pop, Cat in the Hat, and the “primo” Green Eggs and Ham.

There was no turning back. Dolls or toys for my birthday or Christmas? I didn’t want no stinkin’ toys! Gimme books! And they happily fed my addiction. The piles started building. Books crammed my shelves, towered on my bureau, and scattered across my floor.

The Methadone Equivalent

Oh, I tried to cut down and quit. I can still remember the rush of my first library card (restricted to the children’s room at first). It was amazing! I could bring lots of books home with me! Of course, I had to return them, but then I could get another stack to take home for a while. Brilliant! Genius!

I made my acquaintance with Beatrix Potter and Dr. Doolittle. I swam in the high of new worlds and new characters. When I got my “adult” card, I hit dizzying heights. There was just so much to read – fiction, biographies, histories, how-to books. I almost overdosed.

Every Saturday I would head out to the library. I would cruise the card catalog, pull out a drawer, and run my fingers through the cards, the scent of countless others who had gone before wafting up.

Then I would saunter through the stacks, caressing the bindings as I went. I’d stop, pull out a book, and read the synopsis on the cover. Maybe I’d put it back to revisit another time. Maybe I’d tuck in under my arm to bring home for a an intimate snuggle.

Falling Off the Bookmobile

But then, I grew up, and trips to the library became rare. There was no time to stop in, and it was too far away. This is where I started getting into real trouble. I started buying books from bookstores. The problem was that I didn’t have a lot of extra money.

“I have to have this book! If I glue the soles back on my shoes, I can squeeze a couple of more weeks out of them,” I’d rationalize.

I couldn’t sustain that kind of spending for too long, so I ended up in the book buying “underground.” Yes, I’m talking about yard sales, estate sales, flea markets, and thrift stores. I got The Federalist Papers for a quarter, for crying out loud! Who could pass that up?

The library itself has become a book-buying source. There are fewer and fewer books on the shelves to borrow. They are being migrated to THE BOOK SALE, where you can get a bagful for $1.

“Wanna sign up to borrow e-books?” the librarian huskily whispered as I clutched my bag and plunked down my $1. I hid my face in my hands and sobbed, “Yes!”

The Book Pipeline

The Internet has proved calamitous to my addiction. Now, I don’t even have to leave my house to get used books. I can get them delivered from sites like Alibris and Thriftbooks. My fellow addicts and I rotate our books in a circle of readers. Only the Postal Service knows the volume we move.

E-books don’t help, either. If I’m not buying discount books from Amazon, I’m downloading free books from Project Gutenberg. (Although e-books are convenient, I still like the feel of a real book, with pages to turn.)

There is no hope that I’ll ever contain my addiction. Recently, my grandson visited and marveled at the number of books I owned. He looked over the books loaded into the built-in shelves in the guest room.

“Wow! Nonna,” he said. “You sure have a lot of books.”

“Which ones would you like to take home with you?”

And so it goes…

From Grammar Geek to Grammar Freak

I used to tell people that I was a grammar geek. The fact is, I’m really a grammar freak.

What’s the difference? It’s all a matter of degree. Grammar geeks follow good grammar rules. They argue among themselves about things like the Oxford comma or whether to end a sentence with a preposition. They smirk knowingly when they see an apostrophe misused. They may even try to convert the non-geek, but it is all very conscious and purposeful.

Grammar freaks, on the other hand, are compulsive when it comes to grammar. It affects our lives. Okay, I can hear you scoffing. “How can grammar affect someone’s life?”

Well, I had give up my subscription to the local, biweekly newspaper because I couldn’t stand the punctuation errors, run-ons, incomplete sentences, and misused words. Reading it drove me to distraction.

“Can’t they get a decent copy editor or even proofreader?!” I would cry.

Life’s too short to put up with such frustration and aggravation. I let my subscription lapse. I can’t watch television newscasts for the sameClip Art Graphic of a reason. I read the news online, but at least there I can close out the page or play a game of solitaire if I feel my blood pressure rising.

Do you think it’s easy being a grammar freak? It’s a curse as well as a gift, I tell you! I’m possessed by an editorial voice that I can’t ignore.

Watching television produces corrections in my head. (“Subject and verb don’t agree; should be someone goes.”) I correct restaurant menus. I turn off Grammar Check in Microsoft Word because the squiggly green lines are wrong half the time. I edited the adoption form when I picked out my new kitten. Heck, I even mark up the books I read (not library books, of course)!

I know English is a constantly evolving language. I know that grammar rules are more like strong guidelines. I’ve even come to terms with things like the verbifying of “text.” (“Verbifying” itself is a noun turned into a verb!) What I can’t stand is lazy grammar which, while it sets off a klaxon in my head, can often affect anyone’s ability to understand what is written.

I’ve come to terms that this is my talent, but it carries with it a burden. You would think that a nickname like “Comma Queen” would evoke pride. Unfortunately, my reputation causes people to unnecessarily apologize for their “poor writing.” This makes me feel terrible and judgmental! I simply can’t help myself.

If I could get that blue pen-wielding gremlin inside my head to just shut up, my life might be a lot easier.