Friday, February 29, 2008

Hooray! Serial Commas for Kids!

I am delighted, thrilled, and proud to share with you the exact contents of a vitally important and courageous e-mail I received yesterday from someone named Bill Gram-Reefer (Bill, if that is your real name, I won't comment further on your appellation without securing legal counsel first).

Anyway, here's the wonderful, excellent, and necessary news I am excited about exclusively passing on to my loyal, deserving, and intelligent readers (yeah, I might've used a semicolon in the headline that follows):

Punctuation Man Breaks with Associated Press, Endorses Serial Comma

In support of the National Education Association's "Read Across America" program on March 3, the nation's leading authority on helping school children, teachers, and parents learn proper punctuation skills declares that the "serial comma" should be taught, used, and accepted universally.

Pinole, CA (PRWEB) February 28, 2008 -- Punctuation Man, a leading authority on punctuation and teaching punctuation to elementary school children, today announced his decision to fully support the use of the serial comma.

Shunned by the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, the serial comma is still widely accepted by educators, grammarians, and literary circles, including Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, and the Chicago Manual of Style. The announcement coincides with the National Education Association's (NEA) "Read Across America" child literacy program, to be held nationwide on Monday, March 3.

There is no small debate about the serial comma (also known as the Oxford Comma). It is a comma used before a coordinating conjunction (such as "and") before the last item in a series of three or more. For example: The flag is red, white, and blue.

Enter Jeff Rubin -- aka Punctuation Man -- a former newspaper reporter turned newsletter publisher, public speaker, and founder of National Punctuation Day, which will celebrate its fifth anniversary on September 24. Jeff and his wife, Norma, travel the nation to teach children the basics of punctuation with Punctuation Playtime, a live assembly program that is also offered to teachers, schools, and school districts as an instructional DVD.

"I am inundated with questions from people across the United States about punctuation, and many involve the serial comma," says Rubin. "Speaking as Punctuation Man, I hope to resolve one of punctuation's nagging issues and provide clarity. I recommend the use of the serial comma because it helps make clear the meaning of a sentence."

For example, according to AP style, how many horses in the following sentence were in the race -- three or four?

"The horses thundered toward the finish: black and gold, red and white, blue and teal and yellow."

When punctuated using a serial comma, the meaning is clear. Four horses raced neck and neck: black and gold, red and white, blue and teal, and yellow.

Here's another example from a book dedication: "To my parents, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II."

"Punctuation counts," says Rubin. "A misplaced comma can alter the meaning of a sentence.

"Style should never get in the way of clear communication. The proper use of the serial comma should be taught, used, and accepted universally."

About Punctuation Playtime:
While performing Punctuation Playtime, based in Pinole, CA, Jeff Rubin and Norma Martinez-Rubin have energized thousands of children on a subject routinely regarded as boring and duller than dirt. Jeff, a veteran newspaper reporter and newsletter publisher, founded National Punctuation Day (September 24) in 2004 to draw attention to the importance of proper punctuation. He is a member of the National Speakers Association and speaks frequently on writing, marketing, and integrity for small-business owners.

For more information about Punctuation Playtime, visit For more information about how your school or company can participate in National Punctuation Day, please visit


Jeff Rubin
Punctuation Playtime
jeff @

Bill Gram-Reefer
reefer @


Thanks, guys. Love it!

Pawlie Kokonuts

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Remembering Buckley, and Me

Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. (which is how he wrote it), the patron saint of American conservatism,
has died at 82.

For starters, I learned my favorite word, cited in the banner of this blog, and blogged about frequently, from him: I had read the words solipsist or solipsistic in his columns.

When I was in high school, in 1965, I wrote an admiring letter to Mr. Buckley, asking to meet him. I grew up and lived in Stamford, Connecticut, where he had a home (and where he died today), not far from my parish church. I got a return letter from him, typed in blue, as I recall, with a short note (long since lost), saying he was busy running for mayor of New York; here's my home phone number; call after the election. I did.

On the day of December 31, 1965, my father drove me to his house, on Long Island Sound. My older and younger brothers came along for the ride. As we drove into the driveway, I met Buckley outside his study, a garage (if I recall rightly) filled with books and papers scattered about; large horseshoe desk; old-fashioned typewriter (a Smith-Corona or Underwood or Remington). His son, Christopher, whom he called Christo, came up on a bicycle and WFB told him to tend to something or other. When I got inside the study, Buckley asked how I got there. My father. My father and brothers were waiting in the car; he insisted they come in.

He wore a sweater with his shirttail hanging out in back. ("Sloppy genius" was my father's stereotyped characterization.) I remember him casually smoking a cigar. He had had a reputation, among liberals (or more accurately among those who did not know him), as being condescending and churlish. The total opposite was true. He was gracious and charming. He made us feel relaxed and comfortable. Here we were, residents of a housing project, hanging out at Bill Buckley's on (early) New Year's Eve, for crying out loud.

I don't remember all of the conversation. At one point I said something, perhaps about the newly approved use of English in the Mass, and Buckley was on the phone, speaking Spanish to a secretary mentioning a magazine article, and Buckley, um, pontificating, stark blue eyes twinkling, eyebrows dancing: "The Church is never more glorious than when she resists the zeitgeist." The maid brought coffee. We drank it, even my younger brother, not quite 9 years old. (My brothers and I were brought up as tea drinkers; Mom's influence.)

My father, a lifelong Democrat, told stories of World War II. Leyte. The Philippines. My younger brother made a pun about Leyte and lady. My father mentioned something about Joe McCarthy (and not something all that positive), and WFB reached to a bookshelf and pulled out a copy of his "McCarthy and His Enemies," inscribed and autographed it (in red, no less!), and handed it to my delighted dad. (To tell you the truth, I never did read the book, which sits in my bookcase a few feet away. I really did not have an open mind about the snarling McCarthy, then or now. My father, not particularly a book reader, did read it.)
Was my father stealing the show? (Only now do I ask: was Buckley teaching me a lesson in filial piety, one later ignored in The Rebellion Years?)

I, a seminarian and liberal-in-waiting, engaged in a playful debate about the use of English in the Roman Catholic liturgy (Buckley wanted to keep Latin in the Mass, of course). He said his "mind was slowly cringing shut" on the issue (as I was reminded by my older brother tonight), and he challenged me to write a book in defense of my position. (I never did.) (Buckley was a lector, in English by the way, at nearby Saint Mary's Church, in Stamford.)

We went home, and were late for dinner. I felt bad for my Mom. Here we were, waltzing in all high and mighty. Dinner was probably cold.

It wasn't how I planned it.

Several years later, I saw Mr. Buckley in Bloomingdale's and managed to chat with him. He seemed to remember me.

I remember him.

Requiescat in pacem.

In Latin. Or English.

Or the language of the heart.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Doctors use the term "watchful waiting" to describe a form of treatment for cancer patients. The prescription handed to me by the Unseen Hand ordains watchful waiting for me at this post-termination jobless Job-ish-feeling time (okay; I admit to just a teaspoon of melodramatic self-pity). Waiting is hard for me (and for most Americans), never mind adding an Advent-riddled watchfulness to it. So, what am I waiting for? Good question. I am waiting for that one call, e-mail, inquiry, letter, offer to make all things right. And as I write that, I see the fallacy of it. Or should I say the fallacy of IT (uppercase bold oblique underscore 48 point)?

In Haruki Murakami's
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the unemployed narrator, Toru Okada, spends long silent stretches of time in a deep, dark, dry well. He spends days down there, waiting. And the waiting (sometimes watching the ever more blazing stars from the well) wasn't all that bad, was it? He did it on purpose (or was compelled to do so.) He went down to the well, to sit, to wait, to listen, . . . to be.

I am in the well.


I'm not very patient by nature (and after all patience comes from the Latin verb for suffer). My coltish impatience, with its unruly recklessness, sort of got me into the well to begin with. (Or did it? Was it inevitable anyway?)

But I will wait.

I am waiting.

And who isn't waiting?

p.s. I did read Waiting, by Ha Jin, several years ago. I recall that I enjoyed it, but my memory is dim at this hour.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Subterranean Semicolon Celebration

What can be more delicious than this? The most popular emailed (I prefer this form instead of the hyphenated e-mailed) article over at the New York Times website (I prefer this, rather than the almost Victorian construction Web site) is about (ta-da):

The Semicolon

exclamation point

As you can see if you click on the word semicolon above, a sign on a New York City subway uses the lovely semicolon; it uses it correctly. Beautiful.

The only thing more delicious would be an erotic, semantic, linguistic, and cosmic embrace of the serial comma by The New York Times. (But, alas, The New York Times wouldn't do that; it would be too much like The New Yorker.)

(All hail to Neil Neches of New York City Transit! [pictured above, with his all-but invisible semicolon on the subway placard in the background])

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hat Trick!

Today has been a banner day:

solid work prospects


a Washington Post Style Invitational three-peat:

Report From Week 749

in which we asked you to come up with entirely new meanings for existing words beginning with A- through H-, so that "Opus" cartoonist Berkeley Breathed wouldn't have to use our old ones anymore:

The Empress received untold zillions of entries for this contest -- so many that she's spreading the results over this week and next, with two sets of prizes. Kevin Dopart of Washington alone sent 288 entries. So when you see his name over and over below, just remember that the vast majority of Kevin's entries were blithely tossed into the trash, just as yours were.

Some of the results play a little hard to get, as it were: You have to pronounce the vowels in the word differently or break the syllables differently, or both. For example, "Headdress: Mister," by (who else) Kevin Dopart, is supposed to be read "he-address." Entries firmly of this type are italicized.

We also received some very clever descriptions of the words' actual meanings. Among the best of these was "Head cold: Rheum at the Top," by Chris Doyle. We'll do that contest again sometime, too.

4. Book: Ms. Derek, now that she's no longer a 10. (Alistair Beck, North Saanich, B.C., a First Offender)

3. Conning tower: A Madison Avenue skyscraper. (Mel Loftus, Holmen, Wis.)

2. the winner of the "Many Moods of Farrah" doll-head shadow box:

Cremate: Coffee-Mate's unsuccessful initial brand name. (Kevin Dopart, Washington)

And the Winner of the Inker
Arms Akimbo: The notorious Nigerian gunrunner. (Peter Metrinko, Chantilly)

Low Def: Honorable Mentions

Abjectness: The degree to which your belly protrudes. (Russell Beland, Springfield)

Adverb: Buy! (Duncan Seed, Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, England)

Accordion: The result of a Honda's collision with a Peterbilt. (Tom Witte, Montgomery Village)

Alabaster: How a lesbian couple's baby might be conceived. (Jean Lightner Norum, Charlottesville)

Algebra: Lingerie worn by mermaids. (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge)

Apostle: What a Bostonian takes to the post office. (Beverley Sharp, Washington)

Arsenal: Completely, all-inclusive. (Bird Waring, New York)

Aspiration: the trickle of sweat that runs down past your back on a hot summer day. (Morris Davis, Gainesville, a First Offender)

Ballpark: An athletic supporter. (Ross Elliffe, Picton, New Zealand)

Bandage: Instruments, amps, mikes, cocaine, etc. (Tom Witte)

Bandicoots: The Rolling Stones. (Gary Hevel, Silver Spring)

Barfly: To get airsick. (Chris Doyle, Ponder, Tex.)

Barstool: The [stuff] a lawyer tells you. (Russell Beland)

Bassoonist: An optimistic fisherman. (Russ Taylor, Vienna)

Bedpan: An unfavorable MySpace review after a hookup. (Jeff Brechlin, Eagan, Minn.)

Benchmark: Telltale sign on the rear end of a third-string player. (David Kleinbard, Jersey City)

Biceps: Half of a forceps. (Brendan Beary, Great Mills)

Binary: This is another thing that's true of Iran. -- M. Ahmadinejad (Kevin Dopart)

Blunderbuss: To French-kiss your boss's wife at the office Christmas party. (Roy Ashley, Washington)

Bombard: A battlefield poet. (Mae Scanlan, Washington)

Boron: A chem major at a party. (Kevin Dopart)

Braid: The part of the male consciousness that drives him to look at a women's chest. (Russell Beland)

Bristling: A newly circumcised baby. (Phyllis Reinhard, East Fallowfield, Pa.)

Bumpkin: A hit man from the Family. (Beverley Sharp)

Buttonhole: What Asians call a Western toilet. (Dan Ramish, Vienna)

Camel toe: The toe of a camel. (Peter Metrinko)

Cardamom: A bar's policy to flatter middle-aged women by always asking for ID. (Ellen Raphaeli, Falls Church)

Catapult: A hairball. (J. Larry Schott, Gainesville, Fla.)

Charmed: Burn ointment. (Warren Tanabe, Annapolis)

Cherish: Describing many a drag queen. (Jay Shuck, Minneapolis)

Coliseum: Lassie finds Timmy. (Ellen Raphaeli)

Crayfish: Not nearly as impressive as IBM chess. (Kevin Dopart)

Cryptic: The Triple-A Driving Tour of Famous Cemeteries. (Mel Loftus)

Cupola: Breast enhancement scams. (Pawlie Kokonuts, Syracuse, N.Y.)

Danger: Someone who uses only the mildest swear words. (Horace LaBadie, Dunnellon, Fla.)

Davenport: A safe place for Jews to pray. (Ira Allen, Bethesda)

Distribute: A nasty eulogy. (Christopher Lamora, Arlington)

Dowager: To bet on the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (Phyllis Reinhard)

Eggs Benedict: The pope's edict on fertility treatments. (Pawlie Kokonuts)

Effrontery: The missionary position. (Tom Witte)

Electrocute: Use a Hello Kitty taser. (Kevin Dopart)

Electrons: Supporter of Rep. Paul -- highly charged, with an eccentric orbit. (Ben Aronin, Washington)

Empty-handed: Punished by a Saudi court. (Chris Doyle)

Exorbitant: A former astronaut. (Phyllis Reinhard)

Fahrenheit: Moderately tall. (John Glenn, Tyler, Tex.)

Fan letter: K. (Chris Doyle)

Flaccid: Lousy LSD. (Randy Lee, Burke)

Flatus: The region between the Appalachians and the Rockies. (Randy Lee)

Foliage: A class of congressional pages. (Dan Ramish)

Gamma ray: Norma's nana. (Phyllis Reinhard)

G-spot: A mild reproach to a dog. (Duncan Seed)

Halitosis: The disease your computer gets when it refuses to do what you want it to do. (Bill Spencer, Baltimore)

Harlot: Someone who'll laugh on and on at any stupid joke the boss makes. (Pawlie Kokonuts)

Hispanic: What Lou Dobbs demonstrates every time he opens his mouth about immigration. (Christopher Lamora)

Hoaxer: Jack the Ripper. (Phyllis Reinhard)

Hootenannies : A restaurant where all the waitresses are grandmas in tight T-shirts. (Mel Loftus)

Hungarian: Someone who's always on a diet. (Marty McCullen, Gettysburg, Pa.)

Next Week: More of the Same, or The Language Gone to H

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fragment From The Book of Uncommon Prayer

Theological anthropologistical historians/herstorians report finding this fragment from The Book of Uncommon Prayer:

63. For a Person Afflicted with Woozy Wordsmithery:

O merciful Father Mother Creator, vouchsafe to guide and safeguard all logorrheic wanderers wiggling their winding way through wordly thickets of Joycean or Proustian prose posing as ponderous Pelagianism (but is in reality pontificating piffle) so that such would-be wordsmiths may find solace in your eternal Silence. Amen.

Monday, February 11, 2008


Spotted, on a sign, at the outer gateway to Tipperary Hill:


Presumably, the employer does not discriminate against thin people.

Is one of the job qualifications a propensity on the part of the employee to eat a dozen doughnuts every morning (a propensity that becomes a fulsome reality)?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Disappeared

just a minute ago
now absence
but who will
what if
but what about
don't worry, we'll
up the stairs
down the stairs
on hold
where did
where is
what about
when will
deserved it
deserved to

The Disappeared

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Terminatee

Today, after hearing the postman's knell and signing his proffered forms and opening the Official Lawyerese Letter whose punctuation I could correct if I dared, I became the Terminal Man, opening a surprise chapter in my zigzag story, a chapter likely to unfold unto the terminus of my days and ways.

Of course, the Terminator's declaration is merely one version of events (and we know from Marcel Proust how subjective and fickle memory is), but in the corporate world (as opposed to the legal world) it is the only version that counts.

My feelings range from guilt to remorse to sadness to fear to anger, and, not least, to liberation and lightness (though you are right to say those two L words are not feelings per se; hey, I'm struggling here, okay?).

A sense of freedom is granted (yes, there's a cost I am paying) to anyone who would dare exert a modicum of dignity in the arena (the arena we spell w-o-r-k). How dare I return fire after a fusillade is launched at me! Some nerve!

I don't plead heroism or victimhood.

Besides, as you all know, Pawlie Kokonuts is a fiction.

It didn't happen; it's all a dream, in't?

I've quoted these favorite and shimmering lines of William Butler Yeats before:

"What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass."

I share these words again, dear friends and loved ones and anonymous readers. (Scroll down through the link above; cool pix.)

I've often referred in joking fashion to Mr. Soren Kierkegaard.

And now his celebrated leap of faith awaits me.

I will put my faith in the blade of grass. Or the drop of dew.

I will take the unnameable breath of this moment, and treasure its exhalation.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Red Cow Brown Rat Shite Monkey

We interrupt your Lunar New Year's celebration to report this bulletin:

From what I can discern, I am a Red Cow born in the year of the Brown Rat, or a Fire Cow.

That may explain some of my minor, unmentionable travails (French pun intended) this week.

Or not.

Prediction: Now that we are into a new lunar year, I see fewer craters and more starshine.

Let's see:

Red Cow born in year of Brown Rat exhibits these qualities, in no particular order:

insight, humor, impulsiveness, passion, tenderness, energy, impatience, nurturing, stubbornness, fierceness, cleverness, strength, foolishness, and navel lint.

Happy New Year.

All good things!

(What would Kierkegaard say?)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Unbearable Darkness of Being

Started in the dark this morning.

On my knees in the dark.

I am in the dark.

A little light, please.

Not just for me. Hardly. What about young Fiona, from Australia, mother of little Laura, husband of David, sight lost in one eye and losing it in the other fast? What about her? What about them?

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The charred smudge on the forehead in the shape of a cross.

The mortal stain.

Of now done darkness . . .
(Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Bless├Ęd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

(Thomas Stearns Eliot)

Out of the ashes

Lots of green shoots today
Lots of green shoots


Monday, February 04, 2008

LIFE, continued

I've told you before of the graffito LIFE in Burnet Park, once there, then gone, scrubbed, scoured, painted over.

I saw LIFE again yesterday.

LIFE moved (to at least two places) over on Hiawatha Boulevard, Syracuse, not far from the imagined world of Destiny USA. Emblazoned in uppercase letters amid industrial detritus, debris, and abandonment.

I was grateful to see some LIFE yesterday. It gave me some hope.

Today I imagine LIFE was there, a little elusive, shrouded in twilight, but I did not see it directly.

I was cast into twilight. I am bathed in twilight.

I am living in a zone of twilight.

But LIFE awaits. . . as a statement, a fact, not merely posed as a question.