Watch Your #*$%+#@~ Language

Thoughts on National Grammar Day

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National Grammar Day is upon us.

I learned this from my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Kevin Fisher-Paulson, who opines and entertains every Wednesday (print edition for me). Fisher-Paulson was arguing (gently, but well within his rights) with a reader who complained about his overuse of So’s and Ands.

If you’re as fine a writer as Fisher-Paulson — who doubles as a cop, gay dad and all-around Good Person — you have grammatical-leeway rights.

Grammatical rights — “Conforming to the rules of grammar,” thanks, Merriam-Webster — were around centuries before Grammarly. I should get this off my chest right away: A pox on Grammarly. Whatever happened to old-fashioned dictionaries? Strunk and White? I may be showing my age here.

Mrs. Vaughan would have a hissy fit.

Mrs. Vaughan, may she rest in correctly spelled and properly punctuated peace, was my fourth-grade teacher, back before your grandmother was born. She taught Old School in the olden days, with a little help from the ruler she was wont to crack your knuckles with if you went astray. (Corporal punishment was allowed in the olden days, in the form of a sturdy wooden ruler for cracking over small knuckles.)

Certain useful words and phrases — such as having a hissy fit — may not even exist in my Strunk & White; I don’t have time to look them all up, so you’ll have to trust me. In my Virginia upbringing, however, we only hoped never to cross Mrs. Vaughan, whatever it was we were fixin’ to do. Such as knock each other upside the head.

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My Michigander husband, a writer and editor who could quote Strunk & White by the page, once told me our romance was almost over before it began the first time he heard me fixin’ to do something. But pretty soon he was fixin’ to ask me to marry him.

So. We write what the Ghost of Fourth Grade Past allows.

It is the grammar of today, however, that creates pain. I mean, like, could we, like, get through a sentence without, like, interrupting ourselves every four seconds?

And. I have pretty much given up on the lay/lie thing. “Hens lay, people lie,” Mrs. Vaughan would declare, long before people began to lie so blatantly; but I have lain that issue to rest, grammatically at least.

The forces of evil declared themselves victorious the day I had a bunch of teenagers in the back of the car when one of them said she was going to lay out in the sun. Another immediately said, “Lie,” in an aside to me, the driver, adding, “I know it’s right, Mom, but it sounds funny.”

Irregardless. If somebody wants their grammar allright they better watch with bated breath what their doing. I could care less. Mrs. Vaughan’s husband cared, but he died of prostrate cancer.

What can I say? Celebrate the Day.

Natasha Trethewey’s “Memorial Drive”


I picked up a copy of Natasha Trethewey’s memoir Memorial Drive at JFK, starting a cross-country flight home just as Black History Month was drawing to a close. Somewhere over Kansas I finished it, wishing for a sequel.

Trethewey spells out immediately, in this brave and beautiful little book, that she is writing about her mother’s murder. So we know it’s not a happy story. But in that same introduction — a dream recalled — her lyrical prose assures us we will be uplifted, rather than weighted down by the tragedy.

Memorial Drive the thoroughfare is a major artery of suburban Atlanta and was the address of Trethewey’s last home with her mother. It’s also a pathway for the reader’s travel.

Memorial Drive the memoir is an eloquent coming-of-age story that explores the complexities of being Black and especially of being bi-racial in the U.S. Trethewey’s early childhood, living in Mississsippi with her educated parents — Black mother, White father — and surrounded by her mother’s extended family, is a happy one. But even in those early days there are foreshadowings of trouble. Trethewey sought to smooth the waters by excelling in all things — specifically school work; the gifts that would prove out in her adult success as a poet and writer are evident from almost the beginning of her life.

When her parents’ marriage falls apart it spells the end of Trethewey’s happy security. She tells the story of how childhood superstitions and obsessions guide her through these years in languid, masterful prose. Moving to Atlanta with her mother when that city and its suburbs were gripped by social and political change, she sees those 1970s days through the lens of a bright but struggling child, wondering always where she might fit in.

Less than halfway into Memorial Drive we meet the man who will become her mother’s second husband — and murderer. We know he’s trouble from the moment he walks in the door. Trethewey knows it almost at that same time. Her helplessness to forestall tragedy or to protect her mother from this monstrous new lover would be unbearable to read about were it not for the author’s skillful, haunting prose.

Memorial Drive is a tale of deep-rooted racial divisions, of family secrets and intrigues and the terrible waste of a tragedy that could easily have been prevented. Bravely and beautifully told, it is a book not to miss.

Survival in the Friendly Skies


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Airline passengers fall into two groups: those who can handle turbulence, and those who cannot.

I cannot.

So when we started bouncing around somewhere over Kansas I went into full freak: teeth clenched, hands gripping arm rests, eyes squeezed shut, feet applying brakes via the seat in front of me.

A flight attendant voice came over the speaker: “Garblegarblegarble Emergency garblegarblegarble Emergency.” The seat-belt sign shone a desperate white. Again: “Garblegarble Emergency . . . garblegarblegarble Emergency. Garblegarble.”

I prepared to die. Mainly, I was running through the list of things I hadn’t finished, stuff I had planned to leave beautifully organized for my mourning children, the dead flowers and moldy coffee cup from my departure a week ago. Then I started thinking: my laptop will go down with me; how can posterity survive without my laptop?

The couple next to me kept right on scrolling through their devices. Eating pretzels, for heaven’s sake. Who eats pretzels on their way into the hereafter?

I stole glances at other passengers. You’d think they were relaxing in a stretch limo.

We bounced more vigorously. I opened a conversation with God, who definitively told me She had other things to worry about so that didn’t help much.

After about five minutes, which seemed a small eternity to me, we leveled off. Just like that, the airplane remained in the skies, with me safely buckled into seat 24F. My laptop still connected to

Glory be.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

When the seatbelt sign went off I made a trip to the restroom. Before returning to my seat I could not resist asking the flight attendant what she had been saying, in those announcements that were totally unintelligible other than the Emergency! Emergency! Business.

“Oh,” she said with a smile. “Someone had pushed their call button. We were just asking them to push it twice if it were a true emergency, as we were buckled in and could only respond if it were an emergency.”

I was happy when the non-garbled announcement came: “Welcome to San Francisco . . .”

Book Banning and Other Nightmares

We have done this in the bleak, dark past

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Today’s education wars are giving me a déjà vu headache.

Ron DeSantis would have Florida’s children believe there’s really no significance to African American history, literature or culture — or any history, literature or culture other than that of Euro-centric white America. (Here’s just one list of a few currently banned books. Read it and weep.)

I was jogged to write this piece by a recent Medium post by Deb C, a writer who knows what she’s writing about. She is hardly a newcomer to injustice. In an earlier opinion piece for a small Florida newspaper Deb C had written, “Why is it not as important to everyone as it is to African Americans that our history be equally shared, as an opportunity for all Americans to better understand and coexist in this country?” That was written in 2003.

Why, today, is it unimportant to Ron DeSantis for Floridians to know the history of other cultures, African American in particular? Deb C calls him ‘Roger B Taney DeSantis,’ just in case you’d forgotten the name of the Dred Scott decision judge. (Now we can all remember.) It is all of a piece, but at this point in time it’s education that we should worry about.

We have been here before.

I grew up (white, relatively privileged) in the segregated south — admittedly a very long time ago, the 1940s and 50s. The textbooks I read, many of them still in use well past Brown v Board of Education, taught that the “War Between the States” (we did not use the term “Civil War”) was solely about “states’rights.” Those evil northerners seeking to dictate to us genteel southerners. Gone With the Wind was in our school libraries, but nothing by Frederick Douglas or Richard Wright or the Black writers who would inspire the likes of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and other great African American voices that began to be heard from the 1950s on.

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The big literary event of my elementary school was the semi-annual UDC essay contest. As in, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There would be an assigned title, usually something relating to a Confederate general or other hero, and the essay was part of our Civics assignment. Even had it not been required schoolwork, everybody wanted to submit a winning essay; prizes were awarded at Assembly by the local UDC chapter president, a dowager of local renown. I may have won, occasionally; I would like to think not.

Just to be clear: the mission of the UDC is to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.” If this sounds familiar, it should. It’s woven into the fabric of every white supremacist group in the U.S.

My parents — my father was head of a small college that skirted racial issues in these years — negotiated life in our small town without rippling the waters, though my mother caused eyebrows to raise behind the blue veils of the town gentry by repeatedly refusing to join the UDC and by regularly, though infrequently, hosting visiting Black scholars and friends. (Who of course could not stay in the town hotel.) My sisters and I did not discuss these houseguests outside of our home. Racial injustice itself was seldom discussed in depth around our dinner table. To my parents’ credit, we had books by Douglas and Wright, Langston Hughes and others on our home library shelves, and when there were assignments on the Civil War I was handed an Encyclopedia Britannica. I was more fortunate than most of my friends.

These are the educational roots of millions of Americans: people in their 70s and 80s who studied those lessons. And many of their children and grandchildren are learning by extension. The teachings are from UDC-approved textbooks. One has to wonder who’s approving the books that will remain on the shelves of Florida schools.

Were my family and I complicit in maintaining white supremacy long after it should have been challenged? Of course. Admitting and understanding that, however, does not make me “feel bad,” as today’s anti-CRT advocates fear would befall our poor, defenseless white children. It makes me feel liberated to know truth, and even more appreciative of the countless ways African American culture continues to enrich the lives of us all.

Could someone please explain this to Ron DeSantis?

Guns & Massacres & Priorities

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We’ve had a flurry of mass shootings in recent days here in sunny California, the state with the most restrictive gun laws in the country. And it’s not yet February.

In California’s population of nearly 40 million, more than 4 million own a gun (more shotguns & rifles than pistols, but of course all of them kill people).

Nationally, we have more guns than civilians.

In Japan, where almost nobody packs heat (.03 guns per 100 civilians) there are fewer than 10 gun deaths annually. In the U.S. we have more than that every day, any day.

We’re on track for more gun deaths, more mass shootings, more carnage-by-trigger than ever in 2023. The figures generally go up every year.

And all we can talk about is background checks and mental health?

Did the Founding Fathers Miss Something?


Rep. of San Marino Postcard (Author photo)

The above postcard recently arrived from my world-traveler grandson with the opening line: “Continuing the tradition of sending you postcards from only the world’s finest microstates . . .” Microstates? Who knew?

Certainly not this grandmother. So I went straight to the internet.

What I learned led me to re-think the socio-political systems of my beloved U.S.A. Which systems, when you think about it, have invited a lot of re-thinking recently anyway.

In case you (also) didn’t know, San Marino is the world’s fifth-smallest country. Vatican City and Monaco are #1 and #2; at 23+ square miles, San Marino beats out 62-sq-mile Liechtenstein. It is officially the Most Serene Republic of San Marino — and for openers, what if we became the Most Serene United States?

As do we, San Marino has a constitution with which it has governed itself for centuries. But here’s the deal: their constitution specifies that San Marino’s democratically elected (goodbye, electoral college!) legislature must choose two heads of state every six months. These are known as captains regent. Clearly every red-blooded American would aspire to be Captain Regent so the issue of unqualified candidates would take care of itself once and for all.

Actually, the voters elect the legislature, from which the captains regent emerge. The Great and Central Council (doesn’t that beat ‘House’ and ‘Senate’?) is a unicameral legislature with 60 members. Elections are held once every five years — imagine 3 or 4 years of peace without campaigns.

There is proportional representation in all nine administrative dstricts. In other words, no district with teeny tiny population gets to tip the governmental scales. If you’re 18 in San Marino you get to vote, and your vote is precisely equal to that of every fellow citizen.

Here, though, is the icing on this political cake: The Great and Central Council chooses those two captains regent. They get to serve as heads of state for exactly six months. How much trouble can you cause in six months? Meanwhile, they share power equally, so they have to get along. Think Shumer and McCarthy — or maybe don’t.

Admittedly, this might work more easily in a country of 33 thousand than one of almost 33 million. Still, it has promise. I’m considering sending a suggestion to my own representative, who’s taken on impossible tasks before. Her name is Pelosi.

Meeting Mother Nature in Montana


Author photo

Big Sky Country! I’m a native Virginian transplanted long ago to San Francisco, and hadn’t met anything quite like Montana’s Bridger Mountains. But on a recent first-time visit I was enchanted by the ease and comfort with which the disparate members of Mother Nature’s family — flora and fauna alike — coexist. Here are a few of the fellow creatures that hang around my daughter’s new home:

For starters — brown bears. This one was investigating the indoor cat, or it might have been the other way around. Having a window in between was probably a good thing.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

The local brown bears, grizzlies by proper name, can be a curious sort. But you might not want to engage them, as they weigh an average of 290 lbs (the females) to 440 for the males. Living in bear country means being very careful to protect their habitat and never leaving garbage or food available — they make their own dietary choices, which may or may not include house cats. According to the Montana Field Guide, they have “light to medium grizzling on the head and back and a light patch behind the front legs.” Plus “varying levels of grizzled hair patches.” I now know where the grizzly bear got his name.

Author photo

And then there are rabbits. Other than the Easter bunny, a very distant kin, local rabbits are not always welcome. (But you have to admit they’re cute.) They get along just fine, insulated by all that fur and layers underneath, in Montana’s sub-zero winters, dining on tree bark, twigs and needles, but once the gardens begin to flourish, all those delicate sprouts look pretty yummy. . . .

Author photo

The resident rabbit likes to settle in daily by the back door, sunning himself (or herself, as the case may be) for a while and perhaps finding something interesting falling from the bird feeder above.

Christine Pentecost, Bridger Mountain Photo

Mule deer and white tail deer are common to the neighborhood, and they like to nibble too. My daughter’s new house is the beloved old house carefully designed and built by a noted photographer (and her husband,) who generously shared images of visiting creatures.

Montana being big game country, humans and deer coexist not always on equal terms : deer are speedy, but hunters have guns. Hunting is regulated, however, and hopefully humankind is looking to preserve these particular fellow creatures.

In the Bridger Mountain area of the state, what most strikes a newcomer is the endless display of Mother Nature’s bounty, and the possibilities for human and non-human creatures to coexist while appreciating each other. The creatures may not always appreciate the human invaders — other than the welcome availability of birdseed throughout the snowy season — but up close and personal, coexistence is pure joy.

Elections Fair & Square

When is an illegitimate winner not a winner?

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When I was a kid, Fair & Square was the rule.

“She won fair & square!” was the undisputed last word, whether it was a game of kick the can or a closely fought race for president of second grade. The winner accepted the prize, the loser scuffed his toe in the dirt but sat down — each with some degree of grace and compassion.

Admittedly, it’s been a very long time since I was a kid.

Still, pity poor Tom Suozzi. Tom Suozzi, whose name I would not have recognized before January 2023, served for six years in the U.S. Congress, representing the people of New York’s Third District. Most recently he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor of New York. But he is proud of his record representing the folks in the jaggedy-shaped congressional district (aren’t they all?) that includes a sizable area of Long Island’s North Shore. And now he is less than happy about his successor.

“It saddens me,” Suozzi wrote in a recent New York Times op ed, “that after 30 years of public service rooted in hard work and service to the people of this area, I’m being succeeded by a con man.” Yep. The district elected someone whose name by now we all know: George Santos.

Mr. Santos skipped the Fair & Square classes.

The congressman-elect is now widely renowned for lying about his education, his work history, his finances, his achievements, his mother and possibly his name. If his victory causes distress to Tom Suozzi, it cannot be easy for businessman/activist Robert Zimmerman. Mr. Zimmerman, the Democrat who opposed Mr. Santos, conceded defeat after a race that now hardly seems to have been won fair and square. Mr. Zimmerman, though, has yet to submit an op ed to the Times (as far as I know.)

“Yet, I am clinging to my sense of optimism,” Suozzi writes. “I believe that as slow and frustrating as it sometimes is, our democracy, our free press and the rule of law work.” (This reporter is always looking for notes of optimism.)

Suozzi concludes, “One of my favorite lines from the 2011 film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has always stayed with me: ‘Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.’ That’s how I feel about America right now.”

Having somehow missed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, this reporter nevertheless is going with Suozzi’s argument. “It’s not a naïve idea,” he concludes; “it’s what keeps us sane and able to keep moving forward in the age of Mr. Santos and Mr. Trump. The system works — if not right away, then ultimately. It has worked throughout our history, and it will work now.”

Well, okay. While trying to stay sane and able to move forward, let’s hear it for the Third District of New York somehow getting a legitimate Representative, fair & square.

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