Monday, January 23, 2006

In Search of Mrs. Hagel

After 15 years I can still name every teacher I had in High School. I owe much of the knowledge I rely on today to their tutelage. The memories I have of their classes range from blurry, general impressions to crystal-clear lessons that I can still recite today. One  of those lessons has shaped almost every day of my life since.

The class was journalistic writing and the teacher was Mrs. Hagel. Mrs. Hagel was younger than some of the teachers at Powell High who continued to lecture the same lessons from well-worn texts year after year. She brought a vibrancy and enthusiasm to her classes that I enjoyed. She instructed more as a mentor than as a teacher. As advisor to the school newspaper she had two classrooms, one with traditional desks and the other with large round tables that we would gather around to collaborate on group assignments, (very forward thinking in 1986 Wyoming).

I remember she was one of the first teachers to have a computer in her room. It was a Mac Plus that was used by Mrs. Hagel and her newspaper staff to layout the school newspaper with PageMaker and a LaserWriter (can you believe the LaserWriter cost $6995 back in 1985?). Although I wasn’t on the official newspaper staff, she would allow me access to her computer. I think even back then I was a bit of a geek and as such was pressed into service when the silly box with a keyboard and mouse was not behaving. I am solely responsible for installing the Moose on her computer. (That didn’t last long.)

The writing I do today is strongly influenced by her class. We discussed many usages of grammar and I call on them often. One that I remember fondly was the use of the serial comma. Only that’s not what we called it in her class; I’ve only learned that name for it recently. My memory of the lesson is vivid, for it seemed that she was giving me a nugget of grammatical truth that would set me apart from my under-achieving contemporaries. The lesson went something like this: “You know how as a freshman you were taught to separate each item in a list with a comma? Well, modern style calls for the omission of the last comma. So instead of snow, rain, and sleet, you can now just write snow, rain and sleet.” I remember thinking that Mrs. Hagel was on the cutting edge for giving us this piece of tradition altering knowledge. Because of the advent of proportional width fonts I had just unlearned the use of 2 spaces to separate sentences, so I absorbed the dropping of the comma readily. With her warning that the older style was still accepted and many would not embrace this new usage, I held my head high as other teachers marked my papers. I raised my nose and sniffed at the air as I saw my classmates stuck in the past constantly typing commas for which there was no need.

I have continued this practice unswervingly for the past 15 years. I had assumed that eventually the rest of the writing world would catch-up to us early-adopters and I would only see that final comma in the oldest of manuscripts. Except that never happened, instead [Pullout: ]  I see generous comma usage all around me. Perplexed, I went looking for an answer to this inconsistency. I found numerous discussions on the topic and they all led me down a path that I did not expect.

It appears that each comma of a list is very much required in modern writing style. The reason is quite sensible and has everything to do with clarity. Consider this, “Much thanks to my parents, Blake and Christa”, without the serial comma it could be interpreted, by those who don’t know my family, that Blake and Christa are my parents. When written like this, “Much thanks to my parents, Blake, and Christa”, it is clear that I am thankful to all 4 parties listed.

Numerous style authorities document serial comma use. The dissenters to this style are British guides and newspaper guidelines, namely the AP style guide. It seems that the space saved on a newspaper page by omitting the serial comma is enough to forego its use.

Could it be that she was teaching the AP style and I missed that part of the lesson? It was a class on journalistic writing. I don’t remember discussing many style guidelines that were reserved only for journalism, so this one should have stuck out if that was the case. Could it be that I was eager to differentiate myself from the other writers at Powell High School, so I ignored the part about its journalism only usage? My ego could be at work here. I can’t imagine that Mrs. Hagel got it wrong. (Although I think her husband was the editor for the local paper, hmm. Perhaps in her house AP style was the only one that mattered.)

Whatever the reason, I’ve been incorrectly skipping the serial comma for years. One only has to scroll back to my December, 9 post to see its misuse right on this page. I have begun using the correct style and soon it will seem natural. I doubt I will ever place a comma before a conjunction again without wondering if Mrs. Hagel is still teaching, what her students are learning about the serial comma, and whether she knows how far her lessons have reached.

Friday, January 20, 2006

One Page Essay

What I did over Christmas Vacation

I celebrated Christmas with my family. My family includes 1 wife, 3 brothers, 2 sisters-in-law, 2 parents, and 2 nephews. This Christmas was the first time we had all been together. Blake and Kim hosted in Colorado so that the kiddos wouldn’t have to travel. Not everyone could get off for the same days, but we were all there for Christmas. Mom and Dad arrived a few days early with Josh then left 2 days after the 25th. Christa and I arrived on Christmas and stayed until New Year’s. Cody and Tina live in Colorado so they were there the whole time, although now they have their own apartment.

My favorite part was meeting my new nephew Adam and checking up on his big brother Griffin. Experiencing the holiday with kids gave me a fresh perspective. I am by no means a scrooge, but I have seen it all a couple dozen times. Watching my nephews see it for their first couple of times made it new.

Adam is just a few months old so his perspective is a bit limited. I imagine for him the presents and food went mostly unnoticed. I do not, however, think he missed the lights. His big eyes caught every twinkle and color as he was passed from relative to relative. I’d guess his impression of Christmas is never wanting for someone to hold him. Parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts were all nearby to fill his holiday dance-card. Each dancer with their own rhythm, song, and technique for holding him.

Griffin is 2, so present time was not wasted him. His tiny fingers deftly released each treasure from the colorful paper. Pausing to tryout each new plaything filled the short gaps before another gift was placed in his lap. Each gift brought a new surprise and a new reason to be thankful for a large family that is mostly filled with adults.
This is a position that he takes on with gusto and he rarely moves from the center of attention. Only on occasion will his infectious spirit be overshadowed by an Uncle. I imagine for Griffin Christmas means a big audience. There was always someone to coax into a game of Rescue Rangers, share a cookie with or take a ride on his brand new trike.

It sounds a little cliché, but they reminded me that Christmas is family and getting everyone together makes it a holiday.

BTW, I highly recommend the book I Stink which follows a New York City garbage truck as it saves its citizens from Mount Trash-O-Rama. A fun read and a Griffin Favorite.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Preach On (Love is the Answer)

I came across this speech by Martin Luther King Jr. when I was researching a previously discussed topic. Many of the words make me shudder.

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing- oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered...

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept -- so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force -- has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter -- but beautiful -- struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

He's right, you know. The longer you and I wait to change, the worse things get. People are more important than things. And love is still the answer that will change the world.
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