Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dinner, Daleks, and Disdain: Confessions of a Recovering Grammar Nazi

Some friends of mine and I recently got to talking about grammar.

Now, then, the backstory, because you didn't react with shock and horror like you should have.

The people in this friend group are all young writers to one degree or another--that is to say, we've all been published somewhere, we all love putting words together, and we're all pretty capable when it comes to stringing sentences on a page. Put more efficiently, for most of us, English was our standout subject in high school and, in general, we're pretty peacockish about that. So, when I say we "talked" about grammar, what I mean is that we argued (eloquently) about grammar. If not for the fact that it was on Facebook, there would probably have been shouting, angry words, misunderstandings, walkouts, and hurt feelings.

However, because it was on Facebook, there was no shouting. So that's kind of a victory, I guess.

To an extent, the whole thing was a little silly. It started out with a funny post about how one of us wanted to graduate from Grammar Nazi to Grammar Dalek (Daleks are robots, as far as I understand, with no understanding of pity or remorse. Wiki it). It was frivolous and entertaining and not really intended to spark a debate about the purpose of grammar and language.

But, well, it did.

In general we landed on two sides of the debate, which I will stoop to naming the Purist view and the Pragmatist view.

The Purist stands by the Law of Grammar as it is; we have rules for a reason, after all, and even the ones that seem arbitrary exist for a purpose. They're often proponents of "perfect grammar," as it were, sometimes at the expense of smooth communication. Pros: often experts in the Law of Grammar, or at least believe themselves to be. Cons: will occasionally sacrifice communication and/or reputation for the sake of being right.

The Pragmatist acknowledges that the Law of Grammar exists but doesn't care as much about it as the Purist does. If he thinks he can communicate better by splitting an infinitive, gosh darn it, that infinitive had better prepare to be split. Pros: communication serves as his highest goal, and the Law of Grammar is something to understand and know but not necessarily bow to. Cons: human judgment is fallible, and what seems clear to the Pragmatist writer can often be unclear to a reader.

(To the initiated, a Purist is Lawful Good; a Pragmatist is Chaotic Good. Geek out.)

If I have to pick one, I'm a Pragmatist. That's a pretty drastic change, in fact, because for most of my high school career I was profoundly Purist. Anyone unlucky enough to share an English class with me in high school can testify that I knew the rules, I knew them well, and I was proud of it. That's been the case for a long, long time; my mom quickly grew to watch everything she said around me, lest she slip up and be corrected. (Fun fact: my most often-used word growing up was "actually.")

That is to say, folks, that while growing up I was an unabashed Grammar Nazi (sort of like this. Beware egregious gore in the last five seconds). I called out people in real life, in papers, and on the Internet. I could recite to you a number of the most common errors and misconceptions propagated in the common folk by lazy speakers and writers. (Still can, probably.) I learned everything I could about the snares and pitfalls of the English language, and learned them well enough to argue them with far more qualified, far more intelligent people.

In short, though I was not yet the best, I was determined to become it.

The consequences were not profound enough for me to care, although in hindsight they loom larger. I would take potshots at people for nearly-perfect (but not quite) sentences. Friends learned to glance at me while they spoke, knowing that if they slipped my face would visibly twitch. I deleted a number of Facebook statuses and comments because I was terrified someone would notice that I'd transgressed against a finicky rule, or forgotten a comma, and that with that failure I would lose my credibility--my pedestal, my high horse, my unassailable mountain of impeccability.

I took great pride in my ability to snipe the pettiest of errors.

Run-on sentence? Guess you're not good enough for my friendship. Malapropism? You're just not cutting it, sweetheart. Semicolons in dialogue? Too bad, you're a failure. Split an infinitive? DIE FOUL HEATHEN.

It wasn't just pride. My grammar sharpshooting became my worth. It was my identity. Whatever else I might have been--friend, son, writer, musician--I produced clean copy. I could self-edit. I was awesome.

Long story short...the times, they are a'changin'.

Because writing, you see, is like serving a dinner. The host, the writer, wants the guests/readers to be able to enjoy the food/writing in the best way possible. For that purpose, mankind devised grammar rules--etiquette to govern the dinner, so that no one's toes are stepped upon and no one's honor impugned. And as time went on, more and more rules developed--rules that, in most cases, were necessary.

But the struggle came when some of those rules became, inexplicably, immortal. An unfortunate necessity in one age became an arbitrary requirement in the next, and on and on until, if we're not careful, we can't see the food for all the forks in the way.

Grammar still matters, of course. Many of the rules are still relevant today--it's equally poor manners to punch your dinner guest these days as it was when polite dinners were invented. (Although an argument could be made that it was more acceptable back then.) But even though it's necessary to know the rules, it is not imperative that we always follow them. This is one of my favorite Chestertonian paradoxes: once you have learned a thing, you must unlearn it. The rules become, eventually, a crutch, or worse, if all we can do is follow them blindly. That is not their function.

Rules exist so we may see the shape of the purpose; they're training wheels, bone splints, guiders for the ship at sea. And eventually, they must be removed--but not so we can break them needlessly. The purpose, once freed, retains its shape. But, with the laws removed--as our lodestar but no longer our rudder--the world is open to us. We can do anything. We're free to move about on the wide, wide sea, knowing all we do in the profound and intimate way of a sailor on the open tide.

We're no longer bound. What once we called a wall, we see now for a doorway into worlds untold.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Lovelorn Letter to OSX Lion

For those of you who may not know, I'm a pretty big fan of Apple hard- and software, and I have been for several years, ever since I spent a week working with a Mac because there was nothing else around to get the job done. I'll admit, the first few days were rough, but like any true-forged romance, this love would not be denied. Apple won me over with all the things Windows folk decry--petty prettiness, meaningless aesthetics, etc.--but mostly with the fact that OSX was simply easier to get along with.

In simple terms, I worked with Windows for sixteen years and was moderately good at it. I spent one week with a Mac and I knew it like an old friend.

Since then, I've been a devoted follower. I've tried to be as objective as I can; I have, in fact, even admitted that there is at least one situation in which it's better to have Windows than OSX. (It's if you're a CompSci major. There are two levels of Windows user: novice and expert. There's no stopover in the middle; either you're a genius or a n00b, and there ain't nothing you can do about it.)

All that, however, is mere backstory. The current story has to do with the fact that I've been a member of MobileMe for about a year--ever since I switched from OSX Snow Leopard (my first love) to OSX Lion (her newer, ostensibly more sophisticated sister).

(For those to whom that statement was nonsense, an "OS" is what makes your computer do things like access the internet and play music. It's the brains of the operation. "OSX" is the model that Apple software uses, and they name them after big cats. It's a little silly, as this comic illustrates.)

With MobileMe comes all sorts of benefits. The most obvious is iCloud, which is Dropbox but somewhat more innovative, for reasons that I've heard explained but don't perfectly understand. Basically, iCloud houses all your important data in a magical safe place in the sky. As an aspiring writer, my primary fear is that someday my computer will crash and years' worth of effort will burn away like so much paper, so iCloud and Dropbox (which, remember, save all your important stuff in a safe place that you can access from anywhere, even if your computer is attacked by evil Luddite ninjas who want to destroy all technology everywhere) are basically miracles.


I recently tried to change a few things about my MobileMe account. And you know what happened?

All bad things.

My dearly beloved computer struggled to respond to me. My iPod refused to cooperate with my negotiations. My online data became, temporarily, unreachable.

During that time of trial and tribulation, I wrote this letter.

* * *

Dear OSX Lion,

I think you're great. You know that. We both know that, in my heart of hearts, there will always be room for you; you and your family will always be welcome in my computer. We have shared so much in such a short time.

But, darling, I write this letter to you now because...sometimes...there are days.

Days when you just aren't the software that I fell in love with. Days when you're temperamental, or difficult to work with, or just plain weird. Days I hate.

Days when, frankly, you act like...Windows.

I'm not saying that to harm you. It's just to bring it to your attention, because I know that you don't want to turn into something like that. You're beautiful the way you are. And if you turn into something like Windows, well...we're over.

See, I've been down that road before, OSX. I'm not with Windows anymore for a dozen reasons; she was hard to get along with, and not very nice, and after she contracted Weatherbug, things were just never the same. I stuck with her longer than I should have, and I regret it now. I wasted years that I could have spent with you.

But the longer I know you, the more I worry that I've made a mistake. That I've erred in judgment. That I've traded in an unabashedly moody lover for one who just acts a little classier in public.

Prove me wrong, OSX. Prove to me that you're not just another gussied-up gold digger like the rest.

I want to believe in you, OSX. I really do. If it turns out that I was wrong, all this time, to have believed in you, then there will be no place for me but Linux...and I am not strong enough for Linux.

There is still hope for you, OSX. Be the software I committed to in the days of my wild youth.

Always devoted,

P.S. Please avoid naming any forthcoming iterations "Cougar." That would just make things uncomfortable.

[A post-post-script: I've since figured out the problem. Turns out that I hadn't quite understood the mechanics behind what I was doing, and I failed to do it perfectly. Ordinarily, on a Mac, that wouldn't be a huge problem...this is cause for at least a little concern....]

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Art, Science, and Why Your Taste in Music Will Always Be Better Than Mine

Art. Science. Stupid.

I go to a liberal arts college. That doesn't mean that everybody there is studying Art (goodness, that would kill me); just that everybody is required to take a number of classes that have little to nothing to do with their chosen field of study. It also means that, on a regular basis, I interact with people who fall on both sides of the Science vs. Art spectrum, from computer engineers and mathematicians to studio artists and musicians and, God help us all, writers. To no one's shock, I've discovered that most people on one side of the spectrum think that most folks on the other side of the spectrum are functionally useless. The left-brainers think the right-brainers are too flighty ever to produce anything of value, and the right-brainers think the left-brainers are curmudgeonly old sourpusses with their heads too buried in academic textbooks to know the difference between Transformers and Les Misérables.

Here's the thing: despite the fact that the Army of Artists and the Logician Legionnaires have declared a cold war, it seems we missed the first and most important step.

What is art, what is science, and where are they different?


Bear with me. I promise, I [sort of] know what I'm doing.

(NO! We KNOW what Art is! It's PAINTINGS of HORSES!)

You, shut up. Sit down. I am the fool in this story, and no rebel shall hurl me from my throne.

In the ancient and glorious tradition of history's greatest speakers, I'm going to start with a truly audacious statement: what we call Art and what we call Science are, in fact, not different at all.


The Logic Brigade is fond of pointing out that their methods must be judged subjectively. Math, science, and even (in some cases) grammar are all pretty open-and-shut cases; either you're right or you're not. That's why those particular subjects in high school were either our favorite subjects or the bane of our existence; there's very little wiggle room. Typically there's exactly one right answer (except for some sneaky calculus functions).

Not so the Artists. The Artists operate on inspiration. They produce "craft" or sometimes "genius" or, in the majority of cases, "complete crap." The thing of it, of course, is that it's impossible to state your opinion on a piece of Art (not art as in paintings, but Art--nose-in-the-air, floating-on-the-currents-of-one's-overstated-genius Art) without someone else telling you that your opinion is wrong.

Wait. What?

Good Art: Whose Call?

Here we arrive at the main problem of Art: nobody can agree on how we're supposed to judge it. What makes one piece better than another?

People have been guessing at the answer to that one for ages. As often happens, there are two opposing perspectives: Pundit and Plebeian.

The Plebeian view favors the will of the people. Frankly speaking, the Plebeian view says that whatever Art makes the most money at the box office, or is most widely acclaimed, or is acknowledged by the greatest number of people, is clearly the best. It's the closest Art ever got to a subjective value judgment.

The Plebeian view fails for the same reason that political systems, American Idol, and prom royalty votes fail: large groups of people are dumb. Despite myriad opportunities to educate ourselves, we'll insist on praising unqualified officials, underwhelming or untalented performers, bilious-but-popular meatheads, and unremarkable art. On average (and don't think for a moment we're working with anything but an average), we're simply not smart enough to hold that sort of power. I'm not saying we haven't succeeded sometimes--We The People have picked quite a few winners. But the blatant fact is that we can't do it consistently. (Please check Exhibits A, B, and C if you don't believe me. Yes, the obvious ones are there, plus an interesting article which you are encouraged to read.)

The Pundit view, however, thinks we should be placing the judgment call in the hands of people who are (hypothetically) qualified to make it: experts of the genre, geniuses, others who have been successful in a particular field, etc. If the Plebeians produce the vote of the masses in American Idol, the Pundits are Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul (or whoever started filling those seats once they emptied). This idea, that only experts are qualified to judge Art, is responsible for a whole host of controversy.

Some of you may be familiar with Melancholia or Tree of Life, two extremely beautiful/artistic films with which the Pundits fell madly in love. (They are also, incidentally, profoundly weird movies.) Or perhaps you've heard of Arrested Development, which was well-received by critics but somehow failed ever to get off the ground.

These are examples of a thing called Critical Dissonance. The critics think certain things are pretty stupendous, whereas the public (who, let us remember, are the ones paying to view the things) think those things are boring, angsty, pretentious crap.

(They don't always disagree, though. You may have heard of Gotye, the extraordinary musician responsible for Somebody That I Used to Know, which every musician on the whole planet covered. No, seriously. Like a few other rare beasts, most of which are the masterpieces Pixar is famous for, this song is weird, and really good, and popular. Gotye is the enigmatic kid sitting in the back of class, doodling, and producing really incredible doodles, and through some stroke of fate it's not just the other doodlers noticing him. Good on you, Wally.)

So...who's right?

Good Science: Does Not Exist

Don't worry, I'll answer the question up there in a bit. Hang with me. I'm being artistic.

What I submit to you is that many folks studying the Sciences are studying something which is not Science. It's actually Art (sorta). Art, I think, is the label that belongs on anything humans have put a subjective value on, a value that can be argued and discussed and disagreed with but never, actually-factually, proven right or wrong, because it's personal.

Objectively, was that a good story? Dunno. Art.
Objectively, was that a good song? Dunno. Art.
Objectively, was that a good movie, or painting, or three-point shot, or fingerprint analysis, or critique, or ballet, or interaction with a customer, or construction of a CPU, or video game, or Python script, or use of Java, or mathematical proof, or C++ code, or cake, or sandwich, or debate, or use of Bonetti's Defense, or joke, or baseball pitch, or physics equation, or triple axel leap?

Dunno. Art.

Rote memory and recitation of facts are well and good, and those can be objective (or at least as objective as we're likely to get, ever). But any time that a human sets out to create or do something, it becomes (enigmatically, impossibly, stupidly) Art. We can cast a judgment on it. We can decide if it's good or bad. We can, almost always, recognize the potential for improvement. Even when we say "It's good if it works," and call that objective, we're lying to ourselves. No matter how efficient something is, there's almost always a way to make it more efficient. (Some would say that Science is mostly looking at things and saying, "Goodness, even I could do better than that." What is that if not Art?)

That's why "good" science doesn't exist. It's either Science, or it isn't. As soon as we start calling it good or bad, useful or useless, efficient or wasteful, perfect or nearly-there, we've stripped it of objectivity. We've put something of ourselves into it. We've humanized it and, for good or ill, we've made it into Art.

So Who's Right?

That leaves us, still, with the stupid question: who decides whether Art is good or bad, and how does the Judge decide? Fear not, friends. I have an answer.

(You're gonna hate this. Ohhhh, golly, this is the most copout answer I've written since that one time I took an art class.)

You are the judge.

The tragic thing about humans is that, whether we deserve them or not, we all have opinions. We are all given the power (if not, necessarily, the right or the qualifications) to pass judgment on what we think is good or bad. And, even worse, who's to say where we're wrong? Another person? Just another human being?

There's something to be said for the opinions of others, of course, and there's even room in the world for the opinions of experts and pundits and whiners. (Excuse my repetition.)

For instance, my best friend is an experienced musician. His standards for music are often related to how difficult the music is to create, rather than just a gut-level reaction (though those have influence, too). He's developed "taste," an elusive term which critics made up to make everyone else feel bad. For him, it means he loves music that he can admire from an artist's standpoint. And, by observing his taste, I can gather clues about how to develop "taste" for myself.

Here's the kicker, though: no matter how much someone, be he expert or artist or parent or friend, tells you to appreciate something, you cannot be made to. You can't be taught to appreciate a certain Art just because someone else tells you it's worthwhile. What's the point of learning to appreciate Art just because someone else does? The appreciation is a lie. You've been made into an automaton.

In the end, your subjective judgment ought to be your subjective judgment. Regardless of the Public and the Pundits, your tastes are your own. We can learn to be better judges--of course we can, because, after all, it's an art--but absorbing the opinions of someone else is a coward's escape.

Dare! Explore! Figure out how, in a world filled with Art demanding your attention, to stare into the face of it all, and then have the guts to speak your mind about it.

(Now the bugger of a question. Objectively, was this essay good? Dunno. Art.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Victory Is Sure

It's a bit blurry to me now, Wednesday night, but some things still stand out distinctly.

First there was silly dinnertime conversation. The usual things, of course, because it was just a Wednesday. There was something in there about races and fashions and hipsters, of course, because...just a Wednesday. Anticipation and boredom and innocuous things--Wednesday.

And then, very suddenly, it wasn't.

It started with a text, one that made the first to see it gasp and cover her mouth. She passed it to her friend as a hush fell over the table. Nobody dared speak. Somehow...somehow we all knew not to. Somehow we recognized the wrongness. The rip in the fabric of the world. The next words sealed it.

"Josh Larkin just died."

Things continue to blur from there. I remember us praying together and I remember looking up when it was done, and seeing a cafeteria full of people who didn't know yet...wondering how long their laughs would last.

Not long, it turned out.

In the space of an hour the news had covered campus. Everything planned for the night was cancelled. Smiles crumbled beneath the weight of knowing. Hollow-eyed students wandered aimlessly on the streets and sidewalks of Taylor University as everyone wondered a very old question.


At 10 p.m. that night we piled into the chapel to remember, to sing and pray. To gather next to each other, to share our hurts.

Perhaps...perhaps to begin to heal.

I didn't know Josh Larkin--not personally. I'd never spoken to him. I'd seen him, for Josh Larkin was a presence on campus. He had led worship before the entire student body with natural and infectious passion. He'd written opinionated articles in Taylor's newspaper. Even if you didn't know his name, you knew his face, or (more notably) his hair or (most recognizably) his big, big smile.

A friend of mine once mused that "you expect everyone to get a full story." Our natural expectation is that every born human deserves a real storyline, one with confrontation and growth and climax. To an extent, I think that we closet romantics believe that all lives operate like stories, and that Death doesn't come to us until our story has reached a natural conclusion--that, in fact, old Azrael waits for the most dramatic moment to take us away from the world.

This thought, apparently, is wrong.

Death does not abide by the Rule of Drama. Death is not fair, or kind, or right; it is not merciful or gracious. Death is the enemy. Death is wrong. Death should not happen.

But it does.

A life like Josh Larkin's didn't deserve to be cut short. Josh Larkin was meant for great things; he breathed passion, he exuded joy. Josh Larkin mattered.

And yet.

While we're reeling, while we're dizzy from the loss and the abrupt, senseless absence--that gaping hole where there used to be another human being whom we acknowledged, even admired, regardless of whether we knew him--hope prevails.

Josh Larkin's life does not end here.

Josh Larkin's story is not over, because we are not measured by how long we live. Death is not our final end.

Even in the midst of senseless, stupid, achingly real tragedy, hope marches on.

Josh Larkin is gone from us, for now, but don't you dare believe his time meant nothing.

As long as we who knew him remember, Josh lives on; and as long as we who know Christ persevere, we know in full confidence that we shall see him again.

O, soul, faint not. Our battle is not over, but our victory is sure.

For the last enemy to be destroyed is Death.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Insert Reflective Thoughts

Welcome, dear readers, to Post #50.

In honor of this not-quite-exciting milestone, I've decided to break from the typical format for the week and give you something entirely different. Prepare for the infinite glory of...my homework.

The Dead and the Absent

It was nearly midnight in late winter, and Jack Keene’s old pub was the warmest place to be found, short of a real home.

Two men sat at the bar. Both wore dark suits and sable ties, though that was all they had in common. The young man on the left was blond, clean-shaven, and had already drained five or six glasses of the strongest stuff he could buy—though he avoided, somehow, spilling on his Armani suit. The other man, older and dark-eyed and bearded, wore a raggedy, secondhand ensemble. He had sipped his bottle of Heineken once, plaintively, before idly contemplating the grain of the wood.

“Where’ve you come from, mate?” asked the first, in a bleary, tired voice. “Why the penguin suit?” He tapped his glass with a significant glance at the bartender.

“A funeral,” replied the other. “My wife’s.”

The young one lifted his near-empty glass. “To the dead and the absent.” He drank; then, in a musing tone, answered his own question. “I was at a wedding. My best friend and…and….” He couldn’t finish. The bartender slid him a new, full glass.

“‘The heart wants what the heart wants,’” sneered the young man, in a voice like sour milk. “They say that. They, whoever they are. They forgot something."

"What might that be?" asked the elder, running a finger lightly over the rim of his bottle. He didn't sound interested, but the other was too drunk to care. His thoughts had taken on the quality of an overfull dam; with the barrier broken once, nothing could stop the tide.

"We assume. We’re so damn smart, and we assume that the heart wants love. Love and peace and, and, goodwill toward men. All that crap.” He gulped another swallow, almost desperately. “The heart doesn’t want love. Never did."

His voice was rising now, inexorably, as his eyes grew wide and a vein throbbed in his neck. "I’ll tell you what it wants. The heart wants to feel. Potency, piquancy. Our hearts wanna ache. And how should we go about getting that? Only one way! Only the narrow path! Misery. Misery, misery, misery, to make our hearts feel. It’s all we want and God help us, it’s all we’ll ever get.” 

Halt; breathe. 

And then, in a final, desperate, helpless voice: “Why else would I fall in love with her? Tell me that, eh?” He crushed the glass in his hand, drenching his fist with blood. “I wish them a short and miserable life together.”