Saturday, July 14, 2018

I'm gonna sit here eating this cheese platter until I get it right

To be honest with you, I’ll have to admit: I don’t think cheese really seems like a high-brow type of food, you know? I mean it’s kind of rancid, spoiled milk squeezed from the teats of various hooved animals like cows and goats. It’s all goopy and congealed and stinky. But somehow it tastes wonderful to us. And in spite of — or maybe because of — this fact, we’ve decided to make cheese-eating an art. An art that I’m determined to master, by the way. Because cheese.

Yes, cheese-eating is an art, and I frickin’ love art as much as I love cheese! But I have yet to master this particular one, which means that I have to be willing to put in a lot of hard work to learn how to appreciate cheese correctly. And therefore, with every bite of cheese that I vow to take, I need to make a note of whether I’m chewing it long enough, getting the right amount on my palette at any one time, finding the best-sized and best-shaped bite, all while refraining from swallowing too quickly, lest I miss some minor yet significant nuance in flavor.

Now please don’t mistake my intentions. I’m not merely sitting here slathering my insides with fat. I'm conducting detailed research into food science. This seemingly gluttonous practice is not a testament to my own sloth or gluttony, no. While I’m stuffing my face with mouthfuls of creamy salted goo, I’m taking note of every sensation and flavor, becoming thoughtful and more seasoned, like the cheese itself does when aged. Seasoned like these crunchy sesame crackers that I’m slathering with Brie.

Wait, no. I swallowed that last mouthful too fast. I hadn’t fully appreciated the creamy mouth-feel of the Brie. Plus, I didn’t even bite all the grapes open like I was supposed to. I’m going to need some more cheese. Just a few more bites. I can do this for the sake of culture. But it looks like I’m going to need to find another platter. Damn it, does anyone have any more cheese? This is important. I’m trying to do science over here!

There is no one named 70

Apostrophes can denote omissions... but only when placed correctly.

Missing characters are not just for detective novels. That’s because characters aren’t always people. Sometimes they’re the letters and numbers that we use when writing or speaking. And every time we shorten words in order to help a conversation flow, these types of characters can easily go missing. Which is just fine, as long as we use apostrophes to notate their disappearance, so as to avoid creating unnecessary mystery.

Apostrophes, those little squiggly flying things, are already famous for performing two main tricks: turning one a word into a possessive pronoun by implying that someone owns something (“Ingrid’s book”), or turning two words into a contraction by squishing those two words together (“It’s going to rain”). Apostrophes accomplish these things by hanging out toward the end of a word.

But apostrophes have a third trick up their sleeve: signaling character omission. When they do this, they usually hang out at the beginning of a word or number, helping us to say or write words like 'til, which means "until". The apostrophe here is signaling that there are some letters — namely the "u" and the "n" — left out of the word. If you forget to use the apostrophe in this example, then you're just spelling the word "till" (as in "till the soil") wrong.

A numerical example of this rule can be found way back in the '70s, which we should all recognize as a shortened version of the “1970s". The apostrophe lets us know that the "19" part has been omitted, but is still implied. When I see "70's" with the apostrophe incorrectly loitering around at the end of the numbers instead of before them, I want to scream.

That's because the apostrophe at the end changes this number’s meaning into a possessive pronoun. And this is why it's always ludicrously wrong to stick an apostrophe at the end of a year date. We all know that there is no one named 70 whose things we are discussing. We mean that the subject matter took place in the 1970s.

So all you apostrophe lovers out there, keep this in mind when sprinkling those things into your writing, because sometimes they are supposed to be in front of a word or number, rather than toward the end. At least that’s where they usually go when making confessions about missing characters. And speaking of characters, always remember: There is no one named 70!

Saying what we mean

Has anyone ever told you to just say what you mean? Sometimes that’s good advice, but often times people take that advice overboard. When I was a little kid, I announced to my teenaged cousin that her hair smelled like vomit. I was going through an ultra truthful phase. So even though I probably embarrassed her in front of our whole family, I thought that I was providing an important service.

When I was a kid, the grownups around me always seemed really excited to talk about the stuff that displeased them. So I thought that I would become involved in that process, and relay displeasing information. Since that’s how people talked, I tried helpfully providing them with more subject material. I thought I was being grown-up. Instead, I just got into trouble for blurting out shitty things.

Somehow during the process of growing up, we learn not to just open up our mouths and devastate one another with the truth as we see it. We learn over time that too much honesty can lead to hurt feelings and heartache and arguments. So we begin fibbing and lying to one another. Society teaches us not to speak the truth, because it might just be rude, inappropriate or hurt someone’s feelings.

And we don’t usually like confronting one another about shit, so we all kind of agree to fall silent about the things in our lives that we notice. But it’s surprising how far that little piece of programming can seep into our psyches. By the time we’re adults, we are woefully bad at just saying what we mean. In fact, we end up not even knowing how we feel, because we’re not used to being honest with ourselves.

This can really mess up our lives if we let it. It also makes it very hard to write. Have you ever tried to write something and found that you couldn’t even get to the point? I do this all the time. I can spend a whole page dancing around a subject that I want to scream out to the world. Why is it that when we sit down to write something, we suddenly get so goddamned vague? Why can’t we just come out and say what we mean?

Maybe it’s because we have socialized the truths out of ourselves. But the good news is that we can still go searching for our own personal truths and find them again. One trick I use to accomplish this is to ask myself two questions every time I sit down to write. They are: What am I really trying to say? and Why should anyone else give a shit? This prevents me from taking the easy way out and writing a bunch of corporate robo-speak that ultimately means nothing except that someone was paid to write it.

We all look for ourselves in a piece of writing. That’s because we are each individuals. That means we are all the stars of our own show. However, we’re still connected. So when someone’s reaching out from the world to come read our writing, then I think it’s our duty as writers to reach back out to that person and acknowledge them. One of the best ways to do this is by keeping it real.

Maybe it would help for us to think back to our childhoods. When we were young, we knew instinctively how to assert who we were and interact with others. Back then, we pretty much did nothing else but go around announcing our needs to the world. But it was so effective! So maybe it’s okay for us to be a little self-focused, especially when we’re writing and speaking to others. That way, we will truly know where we’re coming from.