An English Teacher’s Latest Pet Peeves

When did published writers (and their copy editors) stop recognizing the difference between verses and versus? Here’s an example from Salon on 10/14/15:  “[Rubio called the debate among Democratic candidates] basically a liberal verses liberal debate about who was going to give away the most free stuff.”  (The fault may be Salon’s, not Rubio’s, who may have spoken, not written, the line.)

When did fraught, which the dictionary tells us means literally “freighted” (like an ocean liner or garbage scow), come to mean “heavy” or “complicated” or “burdened”? In other words, when did people eliminate “with” from the idiom—as in “fraught with difficulty” or “fraught with polarizing feelings”? Now folks simply write of “fraught situations.” What?!

And here’s the big one!
When did there’s stop meaning “there is” and start meaning “there are,” making it possible for absolutely everyone, no matter how formal or respected the forum, to say things like this: “There’s several reasons to hate this trend”; “There’s three storms threatening the mid-Atlantic states”?


He hoped for delightful memories, something joyous                                                                    or, if it wasn’t asking too much, something soothing.

Not the odious plates in the drying rack the morning after Elaine                                        stormed out, gone where? Not those plates agleam with emptiness.

Not the memory of trimming Mother’s toenails in the home,                                                when he nipped her skin and felt awful, as if he were the one bleeding,                        until she whined like a brat, old face contorting.

Last summer had been too hot. Now winter wouldn’t end.

He found himself staring at the shoes lined up at the back door,                                              a first layer of bricks in a wall he could feel himself building.                                             Even their laces were orderly, pulled tight in their eyelets.

He believed he had been playful as a boy. He found old toys                                                      in Mother’s attic and tossed away the ragged terrier with marble eyes,                          the book of verse illustrated with victorian imps at play.                                                    Well-groomed children engaged in harmless mischief.

When he couldn’t sleep, he’d walk beneath the street lamps talking                                          to wraiths in the maples, vaprous and slightly thrilling, like mists                                 touching the sea, he thought, fit for strange-gilled monsters, silent mermen.

In the morning, he drove to the store, lifted the grillwork shutters,                                        prepared himself for sliding change across the linoleum counter.

Note that this has been added to the list of “Poems.”

An Encounter

First posted on Facebook, May 13, 2015

I was in line at CVS, waiting to pick up my prescription, and in addition to the woman standing peacefully in line in front of me there was a thin, old woman, pacing a bit, either nervously or energetically. She moved back and forth before us and occasionally pestered the young man at the register who at one point told her “Your order is nearly ready. We’re getting it together now.”

When I say she was old, I mean relative to me, who at 64 tends to embrace “late middle age” as a fitting label for my place in the order of things. But she was agile and slim, darting about on skinny legs, their tight but mottled skin exposed by below-knee yoga pants worn beneath her baggy windbreaker. Her thinning grey hair was mussed and upthrust in a ragged crown that made her even more bird-like, more alert and twitchy.

When the woman ahead of me in line was called to the counter, the old woman’s look lit suddenly on me. I smiled and, even as she smiled back, she suddenly said, “My! You’re tall.” I think I responded with a new smile and a bit of a shrug, and to this she asked, “How tall are you?” I said, “About six feet. A little less.”

In response, she stepped up next to me, very close, and rested her head against my chest, just below my shoulder, and laughed a quiet, delightful laugh. I laughed too and said, “I was six foot but have shrunk a bit,” which made her light up with a greater smile, and her wrinkled face looked up at me as she said, “That’s right! That’s OK, too.”

As I was telling her that I was also at peace with the rising diminshment of my stature, she was called to the cashier. He’s a young man I’ve known for months now, and I saw his aloofness, his detached professionalism, suddenly dissolve as he smiled at me over her approaching shoulder, not at all to share a joke at her expense but to share a real pleasure in the snap-thin presence of her delights.

As he asks of all of us at the pharmacist’s counter, he asked her birthdate, and she said “3/12/21,” and I, with third-grade skills still intact, realized that she is 94 years old. Thin and funny and quick to talk and happy to put her cheek against my chest and smile, she is 94 years old.

What does this tell me about my need to call myself “late middle-aged”? What do I make of this sudden presence who seems to bear a message as I approach my retirement from teaching in June? How will I find my way to new wisdom, new energy, new fun over the next (if I am truly blessed) thirty years?

Why Blog?

I have a talent for laziness. I’ve known this for a long time, but retirement is making it clearer. I can pass whole days, day after day, with books, TV, and crossword puzzles. And I take long walks. This is very pleasant but not very creative. Thus this blog.

Several years ago I had a conversation about writing with another English teacher. I was claiming that writing is hard work, partly because improvement—in clarity, concision, and voice—occurs so slowly, but also because the work never seems finished. Paul Valery famously wrote that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.” I know I can’t look at any of my old writing without making at least mental revisions. My colleague agreed with my points about the difficulties of writing, but he insisted they did not make writing hard work. Knowing that I like to spend time getting thoughts and feelings on paper, he insisted that for me it is actually a kind of play. I had to agree.

Still, as Hawthorne apparently said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” which is the unspoken but underlying principle of the teachings of Strunk & White and the editorial demands at The New Yorker, both of which I generally applaud (while also loving the damn hard reading of Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and early Cormac McCarthy). But, returning to my colleague’s point, damn hard writing doesn’t always feel like work.

What often does make it hard work, though, is the development of what Hemingway called a writer’s essential tool: a good crap detector. That’s the alarm that goes off when I read something I have written and smell the bullshit. Then the sinking feeling kicks in, leaving me certain I haven’t got a thing to say or a worthwhile thought in my head. That’s also the alarm behind the cliché of the tormented writer whose workroom floor is covered by the balled-up drafts that have sickened her. (Think Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman in the movie Julia.) She puts another blank page into the typewriter, lights another cigarette, takes a slug of bourbon, and re-enters the fight. Damn hard work.

Hemingway is also one of the innumerable writers who insist that the key to being a writer is to put your butt in your chair and just get to it, every day and for several hours a day. That’s what I’m setting out to do, at least most days. Here’s hoping the talent for laziness doesn’t get in the way. Here’s hoping the work often feels like play. And here’s hoping that enough of what I produce feels reasonably free of crap and thus worthy of a blog post.