Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fragment of a Thing I Wrote

Lest anyone think I don’t write from time to time, here’s a piece I am working on about anxiety (something I suffer from) given form. I think I might get back to it, eventually:

—————-

It wasn’t a malicious voice that whispered in his ear each day, but it was a compelling one. He did its bidding as sure as if it were the voice of God, though God seldom seemed interested in the mundanity of his life, such as it were.

He put on a strong façade for the world, to be sure. They couldn’t know the voice was there, commanding him, directing him. For them, he was the person they needed. A loving husband. A doting father. A hard worker. All of these faces, and more, he was adept at putting on and wearing as if they were his own, but they were not. They were the faces of others that he had observed over time and managed to mimic. If anyone had taken the time to scrutinize his faces, they would have seen the lines where the latex masks delineated between fiction and reality. No one ever looked that hard, however, and if they happened to see that something was amiss, they quickly forgot it. It was, after all, easier to ignore the possibility that their friend/father/husband/employee was smiling falsely, listening to the whispers in his ear than to the voices of the rest of the world.

It’s too much work to try, it said often—its most common refrain—slithering deep into the foundation of his subconscious, so much so that he was no longer certain if the voice was his, or something external. Perhaps, he often though, I’m losing my mind. He was right, of course, but not for the reasons that he believed he was. There was a blight upon his soul—though he didn’t believe in such things—eating away at the edges of his perception until the world was ragged at the periphery. It was a slow change, and while he’d always known it was there, always heard the voice, it acted upon him so slowly that the change was imperceptible even as it was causing catastrophic damage to his psyche.

The voice, and the Thing at the end of it, was slowly killing him.

Worse still, under all the masks that suggested otherwise, he wasn’t sure how much he cared.

 

*             *             *             *

 

He didn’t remember when he started hearing the voice. And lest you think this is some sort of metaphor, know that in time he didn’t for a moment believe that it was anything but an outside entity. His was not a delusion but a statement of fact. It is more difficult to dismiss ones senses of sight and touch than it is to accept the potential that madness might be pressing in and directing actions, no matter how banal and pointless those actions might be.

He saw it sometimes, when the natural blind spot in his vision was oriented at just the right way and at just the right times. As best as he could tell (because as soon as he looked directly where he saw it, the Thing would vanish from his sight, but he still felt its weight), it was a misshapen, pale, mostly hairless creature. He best descried it (to himself… to describe it to others would suggest that he wasn’t in his right mind, which—as stated—he most certainly was) as the pulsing, squamous, aborted fetus of an albino. Not the most elegant descriptions, but the part where it was the premature ejecta of unwanted human life was spot on. He knew, instinctively, that it was a part of him. It was something deep within his psyche given form, which was as close to the Thing being symbolic of his own failings as he would allow it to go. While it might have started as something more symbol than object, it had formed into something that he knew was its own, separate entity. It was tied to him, for certain, but it was no longer his. It was his child, birthed from his ID or his ego or some other psychological bullshit, let loose into the world. Only, it chose to stay with him. To torment him with the incessant whispers. The easy choices (watch Netflix. Play video games. Ignore the child and the wife). To remind him that he wasn’t good enough to be a father or a husband. That at any time, his boss would find out that he wasn’t, in fact, productive or qualified to do his job.

That someone would yank the masks off and reveal the truth below. Because if he was the father of a scaly pale fetus Thing, what did that say about his own true face?

His first memories of the voice happened at a young age. He didn’t remember when it started, likely because to remember the Thing being birthed from his own body (mind?) would be too traumatic. He remembered its birth no more than he remembered his own, and for much the same reasons. But he knew that it wasn’t always there. Or if it was, it took some time to begin speaking. His smiles as a child were too genuine. The masks were occasional; the normal faces he learned to put on at early ages to adjust and that he could take off when we were finished with them and the danger had passed. Before he left the masks on all the time, he was happy. This he remembered.

(Unless the Thing whispered to his memories, too, changing them. It would be insidious if it were true. Perhaps if he’d always been miserable beneath the veneer of normalcy, he would feel that there was a common baseline to life. Instead, memories of happier times served only to remind him that the Thing was there on his shoulder now.)

It may have been the first year he didn’t make a B or higher on his report card and he’d felt certain that he had unforgivably failed his parents.

 

Arbitrary Semantic Choices in Writing

You like that title? It almost sounds academic, when in reality, this post comes about because I’m in the middle of a major project at work and this idea of arbitrary semantic choices has been a minor frustration for me.

Arbitrary decisions in language are nothing new. In the book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words (oh my, no Oxford comma in that title…), Robert Green pointed out that much of the “rules” in Elements of Style, that near-Bible from which most future writers establish their hard-and-fast grammatical rules at an early stage, are arbitrary decisions that William Strunk codified due to personal taste, and E. B. White enshrined as rules forever flung in the faces of High School students, everywhere. Now to be sure, I follow quite a few of those rules as obsessively as any other writer. Much of what is found in the pages of Elements is common enough and accepted enough that we may as well call them “rules,” but they are, in fact largely not rules, as opposed to personal preferences given the gravity of rules due to time and repetition. Some of these rules — and not just the rules in Elements, which is a fairly simple and non-expansive tome — are not necessary to follow in order to accurately convey meaning. Very rarely does a split infinitive confuse a reader. Ending sentences with a preposition is a throwback to Latin, where sentences could not end with prepositions. I still have trouble letting this one go, but (deep breath) it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition (Hell, half the time when I try to rewrite a sentence to not end in a preposition, the linguistic gymnastics required makes its construction highly awkward).

Am I here to have an academic discussion about grammar rules versus guidelines? Well, no. Not really.

I’m here because of the word “if.”

“If,” as you may or may not know, indicates a conditional statement. “When” does, too, and both are very similar in their usages, but there is a key difference. The difference is that when the outcome of the conditional statement is not guaranteed — for example, whether proper paperwork has been submitted with a formal request — “if” is the proper choice. “When” only applies when the outcome is pretty much guaranteed. There is a difference between “if the appropriate paperwork is included with the request” and “when the appropriate paperwork is included with the request.” That difference is, namely, people regularly do not include the appropriate paperwork in the goddamn request!

So, “if,” am I right?

Apparently not.

The coordinators of this particular project that is giving me some amount of grief have declared war on the word “if.” Their policy is to always replace “if” with “when,” regardless of the proper usage. Now it’s their project, and ultimately, I’ll do whatever they want. If they want “when,” then they’ll just replace it after I submit the documents. I can’t stop that, and other than raising a bit of a grammatically ideological stink, I will let it it go. But it’s wrong. It’s an odd arbitrary choice they are making because, I believe, they feel that corporate-slash-executive types don’t want to see “if.” Because reasons.

Similarly, “should” and “must” are forbidden. Now, these are process documents, and “should” is pretty wishy-washy when outlining a series of steps that one is expected to follow, but “must” has pretty important usages, here. There are more than a few steps that, if not followed, shit will break in very ugly ways. “Must,” usually italicized for emphasis, makes a bit of a point in a stale list of steps. “You must do this because if you don’t, you will destroy sensitive data, wipe out the backups, and kick start the zombie apocalypse.” Yes, if you are following these procedures, you do the steps. But sometimes, it’s well worth throwing in a little extra imperative language. No one is going to be confused by using “must.” Or “if” versus “when.” And in fact, “if/then” is a staple of IT, so I’m more inclined to use that construction.

And that’s what this is about: these arbitrary requirements do little or nothing to improve understanding, and sometimes make it harder to understand. “When the proper paperwork is provided” is great and all, but what if it isn’t?

Which leads back to my original point about the arbitrary nature of some grammar rules (not all of them are arbitrary… if your subject/verb agreement is wrong, you are wrong, and I will cut you). Yes, we writers and editors and language junkies like to be right. We really like to cling to old rules that, in practice, do not hinder understanding. In some instances, the old rules cause misunderstanding because no one uses them anymore. If you’re confused by the sentence “that information is what I based my decision on” because it ends with a preposition, and don’t find “that is the information upon which I based my decision” to be a bit stumbling and awkward… well, you’re probably a grammar nerd (for the record, I like the latter construction… there’s a gravitas about it). But I’m betting that there isn’t a lot of confusion around the first statement.

I eagerly await angry replies from my grammar nerd friends. Bring ’em on!