This evening I attended the Manitoba Editors’ Association workshop entitled “Get to the Point”, where the organizer Adrianne W. led us through a fun and informative series of exercises in concise writing. The first exercise took me into familiar territory: writing concise business communication. Adrianne shared the Top 10 Tips for editing business writing, and then we got out our pens and pencils and used them like machetes to chop away at some very wordy examples. My very favourite was this one:

On the afternoon of June 12 at the most recent meeting of the ad hoc committee on workplace communication policies, each and every member of the committee was in agreement with one another that first and foremost it is imperative that all forms of workplace communications be completely accurate and perfectly clear.

People in this organization are clearly frustrated by inaccurate and unclear communication, and who can blame them, if this is what their communication committee gives them? Ho boy.

Revision: The communications committee unanimously agreed at the June 12th meeting that all workplace communication should be clear and accurate. Unfortunately, we suck at that. 

Okay, that’s not what I wrote, but it’s what everyone thought. 🙂

We moved on from there to Flash Fiction, apparently also known as postcard stories, and we were asked to choose from an array of pictures on a table and write something. I have virtually no experience in writing fiction, and, truth be told, almost as little interest. I am a great reader of fiction, but would rather leave the writing to others! So I snatched up a cartoon that appealed to me only because I saw in it a window into my own life. The cartoon depicts a messy kid’s room, and on close inspection, is likely that of a girl. But I have sons, so I framed my story accordingly.

We had 20 minutes to bleed onto the paper. I share my exsanguination below, because I was pleasantly surprised at how easily it flowed, and at how well it was received.

Thank you to the MEA for a really great event.



For the millionth time, I walk by the door of that room and my teeth clench. I cringe and writhe and agonize over what I did wrong to bring up such a slob. There’s probably stuff growing in there, waiting for its opportunity to crawl into his nose or lungs or under his skin. No wonder he can never find anything. I fight despair, and close the door.

Then something makes me pause. I open the door again, and dare to have another look. Suddenly everything looks different somehow. This is an active, living place, where an active, living boy has been catapulted into my world, for me to guide and direct but also from whom to learn. Where I saw mess, I suddenly see exploration. From the piles of disorder, possibilities emerge.

I am no longer angry. I am calm, and grateful. I remember that this amazing, living being that came out of me never has, and never will, belong to me. He is his own self, and he reminds me how to let go, because holding on too tightly would crush him. Everything in this room talks to me about him, because this is where all things happen for him: this is where he sleeps, dreams, reads, thinks, works and plays.

Maybe I can help him find the line between controlled chaos and unsanitary conditions. Maybe I can do this gently, and with a sense of humour. What I do know, is that I love him fiercely, and that is enough. I walk away, and leave the door open.

The Plurality of Pluralization

I found out today that Editors Canada members now receive an online subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. Bonus! … even if I just bought my own copy of the 17th edition, um, last week. Ah well. It’s good to have options, and I am indeed grateful for the benefits of membership I am already reaping in the short time since I joined.

In reviewing the contents of said publication today, I came across this little ditty at the beginning of Chapter 5:

In its usual sense, grammar is the set of rules governing how words are put together in sentences to communicate ideas—or the study of these rules. Native speakers of a language learn them unconsciously. (p 225, 17th ed.)

That last sentence made me giggle, because of this meme I saw on Facebook only this morning:No automatic alt text available.

Then I saw a comment that’s worth mentioning even if it’s beside the point:

“(This) is a cartoon about grammar errors that contains absolutely zero grammar errors. Spelling and punctuation are not grammar.”

I also find this funny, because my spanky new Chicago Manual tells me that there are many schools of grammatical thought, and grammarians (yes, that’s a thing!) can’t even agree. I could argue that at the very least, the use of “there” in the cartoon is indeed a grammatical error. The sign writer has not actually misspelled anything, but used the wrong word entirely, and confused a contraction of pronoun and verb (they’re) with a word that could be any of a number of parts of speech depending on the context (there). And “We got…”? Seriously, that’s not grammar?

But I digress…

Sam and the Two Marys

We may enjoy poking fun at the apparent incompetence of people in their grammar, spelling, syntax, or whatever, who apparently missed the memo that native speakers learn grammar unconsciously (or, figuratively speaking, by osmosis). However, I do recall marveling at my son’s language development in his early years, when he catapulted himself through an entire progression of sounds, words, phrases and then full sentences, with no direct instruction of any kind.

Sam was two and a half when we were wandering through a mall sometime after Christmas. During the season he had been rather taken with the Nativity and the players in it. Passing by a shop window, he spied a pair of female manikins and stopped dead. He pondered a moment, then pointed at them and said, “Two Marys.” I swear I never told him to add an s to the end of a noun to make it plural, and I am pretty sure I had never used Mary in the plural myself. I was amused, and in awe of the human brain and its development.

Now nearly 18, Sam is neither amused nor impressed by his linguistic achievement on that day. In his usual deadpan, ultra-pragmatic approach to life, his response to hearing this story was “Well yeah – doesn’t everybody figure that out?” Yes Sam, they do – but that’s exactly what makes it awesome. Everybody figures it out, and I got to witness it happen, with my own eyes, to my own progeny.

I don’t know why it struck me that day – perhaps because my mom brain was easily amused, or steeped in oxytocin. But what the Chicago Manual of Style lays out in several pages of rules and their exceptions, my two-year-old just knew: add s to a word and you get two of them. Most of the time, anyway.

The Data Obsession

Of course, Sam had to figure out much later that pluralizing a proper noun isn’t always considered appropriate, and that there are multitudes of ways to make nouns plural beyond the appended s.

The Manual holds up the word data as an example of a so-called mass noun that is plural in form but may be used grammatically as plural or singular. The latter is a more modern usage, and in a surprisingly familiar tone, the Manual asserts you pick one:

But make your play and be consistent – vacillating will not win the admiration of readers and listeners. (p 229)

Apparently, also, data is always plural when used in the sciences (p 229). This makes me happy, because I am a scientist, and the thing that James Harbeck calls “the language crank” in me does not like it when people confuse data and datum. I confess, though, that I may have a purely sentimental reason for this.

My graduate supervisor was an Englishman who could rival John Cleese in a rant. A hard-working, demanding boss, his favourite routine of the day was to walk into the lab and pick on someone with the pointed question: “Any data, [name of person in hot seat]?” We, his minions, er, I mean, students, grew to dread that question the way the child dreads hearing “Is your room clean?” from a parent. We knew what we were supposed to be doing, but the way biomedical research goes, you can work for days and not have any data to show for it. Still, he had a point, just like parents do, and we worked hard.

One afternoon, in a manner perhaps even more jovial than usual, Dr. Lover-of-Results wanders into the lab and this time asks no one in particular, “Any data?”

Silence. Our heads are down. We are working. Feverishly.

“Any datUM?”

Crickets. Or the laboratory equivalent, at least.

“Erm… anyone have a DATE tonight?”

Nothing. We are very, very busy. One last try:

“Anyone know what DAY it is??”

I’m pretty sure it was Friday, and that we had a good laugh. But what I do remember clearly is this: the data were (not was) central to lab life, and still represent (not represents) the sometimes all too elusive Holy Grail to graduate students around the world.

It’s what we do with the data once we get it, er, I mean them (consistency!), that completes the process, and, in my opinion, defines the relationship between science and the public. But that’s a topic for another post…

We Are Not Alone

We humans are at a critical place in our journey as a species with respect to our relationship with the world around us. In my life I have seen numerous examples where human existence is reduced to just that – human existence, with the underlying belief that our survival is the most important thing at the expense of pretty much everything else.

Asgard is a people, not a place…?

I confess to being a Marvel Studios junkie. I have seen all the Marvel movies produced over the last decade or more, and love all of them. The other night I saw Thor Ragnarock for the third time (junkie, remember?), and was suddenly struck by the assertion that Asgard is not a place, it’s a people, so buggering off with your humanoid population in a stolen spaceship while the rest of your home planet dissolves in flame is a perfectly acceptable solution to an Armageddon equivalent. It suddenly occurred to me to ask myself (and remember, this is the third time I see this film) how the Asgardians survived on their home planet, if not through a symbiotic relationship with other living things? They ate grapes, for example. Someone had to grow or find them, somewhere. I assume they ate meat (I can’t imagine Thor being vegan, but who knows?), and meat comes from some other living thing. Is the food source any less Asgardian than the humanoid? So I bring this up to my family, and my husband says “Well, what can you expect from a bunch of flat-earthers?” He’s a funny man, bless him.

Humans above all else is a problem

Back to the real world, this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. We humans have a seriously over-inflated collective ego. We think we’re the best, the most important, and the only relevant species on the planet. I’m coming to the realization that if we don’t want to end up like the Asgardians (and some people are already thinking of bailing to Mars), we have to get our heads out of our asses and start looking around us. We do not exist in isolation. Every single thing we do is intricately connected to some other non-human living thing. As a species, we may be at the top of the food chain, but we need everything below us if we are to survive. And besides, does being at the top really give you the right to rule with such a heavy hand? In the Marvel world, we call those kinds of people villains. Go figure.

In a recent visit to Vancouver Island to visit my parents, the subject of coexistence came up numerous times, mostly in the context of how humans suck at it. If something gets in our way, we eliminate it. But if it appeals to us for whatever reason, it serves some purpose for us so we keep it around. So one community rallies to preserve a patch of old growth forest in their neighbourhood, while a few kilometres away there is yet another mass clearing of newer forest to build homes for people to live in between their visits to the patch of 800 year old trees. We cull the Canada Geese because they are pests, but up the road at the wildlife rehabilitation centre, we nurse eagles and ravens back to health. And God forbid if you allow your dog to chase the cherished flocks of Brandt Geese arriving for their annual fuel-up of herring.

I understand and respect that there are groups of humans out there who discuss these issues with far more knowledge about them than I have. They make the best informed decisions they can. But it just strikes me that somehow the right balance of numbers of other creatures comes down to what suits us. Furthermore, no one dares look at our own numbers, or thinks about culling us. That would be – no, has been – frowned upon.

I have no answers, but I think that’s the point: we are deluding ourselves if we think we have it all figured out. We can make decisions, but we have to keep asking the hard questions, be willing to find out we were wrong, and adjust accordingly.

Survival at the cost of … survival

I recognize that not everyone sees the world this way, and many don’t want to. It’s painful to look at the absurdity of life and feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s impossible to find total solutions, because every solution presents a new problem. It’s overwhelming, and we prefer to go back to our Facebook feeds or video games. And who am I to judge? I escape to the Marvel universe all the time, at least on the big screen, where the hero always wins. But at what cost do I escape, and at what cost does the hero win?

I don’t know why our interdependent existence isn’t obvious to more people. In politics and government, we treat “the environment” as one of many issues, and give it a respective priority when we vote. When are we, as a species, going to wake up to the reality that without an environment, we are pretty much adrift in space, cold and … dead? And what is our “environment”, anyway, and why are we the only species on the planet entitled to it? Our proprietary attitude toward the planet doesn’t even make logical sense to me. The environment we live in is made up of countless other living things – things we depend on to survive.  If we don’t take care of the things that take care of us, the obvious result is annihilation, is it not? Except for the lucky few that manage to escape on a spaceship, I suppose.

We are not alone

I am not advocating for anything, really, except that maybe we stop and think a little more often. Life is unfair, death is a part of life, and species come and go. But when are we, as humans, going to start thinking of ourselves as part of something bigger than just us? From the microbial ecosystem that lives in and on each of our bodies, to the food we eat and the air we breathe, we simply do not exist in isolation. We are not alone. This does not mean we’re not important or worth preserving. On the contrary – and here I go Marvel geek again – with great power comes great responsibility. Our responsibility is not just to ourselves, but to everything that keeps us alive. It seems to me we need to find a better way to coexist with everything we depend on. It seems our survival depends on it.

Pet Therapy

A dear friend and mentor provided me with this quote just today, noting that it dates back to 1949, well before blogging was a thing:

Red Smith was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. …”Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

The past twelve months or so have been a little tumultuous. with big decisions and changes. I left behind a steady income, benefits and pension, just like that, to pursue freelance work. While I know I made the right decision for me, it was a bit of a leap off a cliff.

In many ways I am still falling through the abyss, looking back on my rather extensive experience in biomedical research, and sorting through what to keep and what to toss. This is an emotional journey, fraught with regret and self-doubt. Some days, though, I feel I am more floating than falling – floating on an invisible future that just might have good things in store. This is, I suppose, what faith looks like for me.

Part of the journey is learning to write, and while the voice in my head tells me the world does not need yet another blog, here I am. There may be many topics: some technical, some serious, some not so serious, and as much as I wanted to start off with something really, really impressive, I keep coming back to my non-human companions, likely because they are just that important to me.

My whole life, I have loved animals of all sorts. If I had not developed severe allergies in my teens, I would likely have a hobby farm by now, or be operating an animal rescue. I could list a bunch of reasons why I like animals better than people, but the best reason I know came from an Indigenous elder: Animals don’t lie. Nature doesn’t lie. It just is. People try so hard to be something, but animals, and plants, and earth and water and air, don’t try to be anything other than exactly what they are.

Even in building a freelance identity and constructing an online presence, I am trying, and probably lying. Marketing and branding are all about consciously projecting an image that will appeal to a target audience. That’s hard to do when you are trying to be all things to all people. My animal companions remind me that I don’t have to try so hard, that it’s okay to just be.

This is an introduction, then, to the lighter side of my life: the side that keeps me grounded in being. It might not be the only side to me, but it’s probably the side I like the best.

Meet Cranky Cat (age 13). She wishes she were an only cat, which is why she is cranky, because she is perpetually annoyed with her siblings. Her real name, Princess Leia, came from the cat shelter where I found her, where all the cats were named after Star Wars characters. She spends her time looking annoyed and claiming stuff by sitting on it, including this egg carton – but also books, papers, computer keyboards, and of course human laps. She self-medicates with tortilla chips and popcorn, when she can get them.

Next, we have Awesome Cat (age 5), who lived the first six months of his life as a half-starved, half-frozen feral kitten before he found a hole in the foundation into our crawl space and realized he was more hungry than petrified. Five years later, he is living proof that cats really can show gratitude.  He will stand up on two feet begging you to pick him up, then nuzzle under your chin in a way that melts even the hardest heart. Also known as The World’s Most Affectionate Killing Machine (I mean, check out those fangs), this one will eat an entire small rabbit, head first, in one sitting, and then lie around like a snake with a bulge and not eat for three days. His name tag says Boo, but that got changed to Mr Tumtums.  You can blame that on Sam. 
Number three is Zen Cat (age 3), seen here waiting patiently for the roast chicken he has been smelling all afternoon. He is Zen Cat because of the perpetual dreamy, almost spaced out look on his face. He is, in fact, brain damaged, which makes him slow and awkward and clumsy but all the more adorable and entertaining for being so. Believe it or not, the kind of ataxia he exhibits is not all that uncommon and is accompanied by (according to our vet) strange food preferences. This one loves salad. And pancakes, but that’s not as weird as salad. 

His real name is Creeper, but not for the reason you might think… If you know Minecraft, you will see it here:
Exhibit number four, shown above in a cat pile with her big brothers Zen Cat (top) and Awesome Cat (middle) is our very own Demon Cat (age 1). This tortoiseshell-tuxedo is officially designated Luci-fur N. Voldetort, or Luci for short. Brought to our door as a stray close to Halloween, Demon Cat’s destructive and insatiable curiosity resulted in the evolution of a name that represents pure evil, complete with intended pun. (Just in case it’s not obvious: building on JK Rowling’s villain Voldemort, vol de tort is “flight of harm” and … tortoiseshell – I know, right?). The N is for … Naughty. Mentored by her big brother, she is as damaging to small woodland creatures as she is to house plants, glass and ceramics. We try to keep the creature carnage in check with bells, but truthfully her collar probably needs a siren. And strobe lights. As for property damage, well, we didn’t need that glass-topped end table anyway. And why wouldn’t a full glass of water be the perfect thing to launch from the countertop? If I had a loonie for the number of times I have said “it’s a good thing you’re cute” to this monster while she purrs under my chin, well, let’s just say  I wouldn’t be looking for freelance work, would I?

And last, but most certainly not least, we have Schmoopy Dog, a nine-year old Norwegian Elkhound who in this photo is enjoying his most favorite thing ever: a boat ride. Officially known as Bjorn, Schmoopy Dog is an only dog, and that is a very good thing, because he thinks he’s a cat anyway. This animal coined the term all bark no bite. The biggest chicken in the whole world hides behind the loudest bark you will ever hear. (Thinking about this, I wonder if the whole “animals don’t lie” thing isn’t a pile of poop – I mean, he wants you to believe he’s fierce, and he’s putting on a show to hide his fear… I shall ponder that further. ) When he’s not trying to beat a jetliner on the Decibel meter, or cowering in the presence of any other canine, he’s actually the most cuddly of all the dogs I have ever known. Cuddly and neurotic. What’s not to like?

So there you have it: an introduction to the menagerie of cute and crazy. When I’ve had enough of the world, these non-human beings give me hope. So I’ll be writing about them for comic relief, because pet therapy is a thing that works.

I will sign off with these images of Zen Cat, who really knows how to relax. Namaste!