Habits are costly

The title of this post could mean at least two things, depending on whether your perspective is from before or after the habit is formed.

From the after perspective, the title infers a bad habit and an undesirable consequence. But what about good habits? Are they costly too?

I am a Habitican. This means I have an account in the online RPG called Habitica, which is an adorable community full of people of all ages from all over the world who have gamified their lives by turning daily tasks and to-do lists into quests, complete with camaraderie and rewards. This is my avatar, @CrankyWombat, flying high on cloud nine in the winter night sky on my Hopeful Hippogriff and accompanied by my newly-hatched Cheetah, whom I will feed until I can ride him too.

Silly and amusing fluff aside, this game really is useful for forming good habits if you use it right and particularly if you find yourself in good company on your quests. A very wise fellow member of my Party posted this one day in the chat room:

So… I’m noticing a cool and unsettling pattern with habit formation. Consistently, there are a nasty few days when I’ve been keeping up with a new habit for a while (haven’t tracked the time period – should) and all of a sudden the effort required goes WAY up. Narrative content varies (too busy, too sick, shouldn’t have to, don’t need to, stupid anyway, who do you think you are?, don’t they know who I am?, etc.) but the sensation is the same. I keep going though the unpleasantness for a few days, and then – poof! – the unpleasantness vanishes. Now the habit is completely entrenched and effortless (other than the inherent effort of the task). It seems to have nothing to do with how difficult or even trivial the habit is, so I’m guessing it’s my brain saying “Hey! Rewiring is expensive! Are you sure this is absolutely necessary?”

Now, I am no neuroscientist, but I’m pretty sure my friend is onto something, and a quick Google search for “brain scan in habit formation” pulled up two results on Science Daily.

The first describes a research study by O’Hare et al. (2017) out of Duke University where a group of neuroscientists found evidence, in experiments with mice, of “fast-spiking interneurons” (FSIs) buried deep in the striatum of the brain that can be considered “master controllers” of habit formation. These relatively rare cells are intricately connected to both “go” and “stop” pathways made up of far more abundant types of neurons. These pathways incite and inhibit action, respectively, and both become stronger when a habit is formed. The FSIs were found to control the whole kit and kaboodle, meaning an entire habitual behaviour could be disrupted by inhibiting this single cell.

A more recent study by Martiros et al. (2018) out of MIT, also featured in Science Daily, explores the idea of “chunking” in habitual behaviour. As it turns out, when we are forming a new habit, the whole sequence of behaviour is governed by hard-working neurons that fire as you perform each step in a series of tasks – for example, washing your hands before you eat, locking the door when you leave the house, or reaching for a glass of water instead of the bottle of cola in the fridge. As the habit is formed, the firing activity becomes focussed at the beginning and end of the series of tasks, leaving the intermediate steps to be carried out on autopilot.

I think both of these studies fit the intuitive conclusion of my fellow Habitican rather nicely. Rewiring IS expensive, because there is a lot of energy invested in both breaking an old habit and forming a new one, and whether the habit is action (doing the right thing) or inaction (not doing the wrong thing), the neural rewiring required is essentially the same, and it is indeed costly. In fact, you might say that you can’t break a habit without forming a new one, and conversely, you can’t form a new habit without breaking an old one.

Even if you don’t geek out at the science like I do, the take-home message is this: there’s a reason it’s hard, and there’s a reason we rebel against our best efforts to take care of ourselves and do the right thing. The reason is both biological and evolutionary: rewiring is expensive, and we have evolved to be frugal with our use of energy.

I don’t know about you, but I find that this kind of information helps me through the tough bits. Knowing it’s supposed to be hard makes me less inclined to give up, and it helps me to be compassionate with myself during the rebellious “I don’t wanna” phases of personal development. Rewiring is expensive. Thanks, @Pseudoscorpion, for pointing that out. Onwards, Habiticans!


Nuné Martiros, Alexandra A. Burgess, Ann M. Graybiel. Inversely active striatal projection neurons and interneurons selectively delimit useful behavioral sequences. Current Biology, 2018; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.031

Justin K O’Hare, Haofang Li, Namsoo Kim, Erin Gaidis, Kristen Ade, Jeff Beck, Henry Yin, Nicole Calakos. Striatal fast-spiking interneurons selectively modulate circuit output and are required for habitual behavior. eLife, 2017; 6 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.26231

Scary “Scare Quotes”

It seems a topic only too appropriate for today: I ran across scare quotes today in a page proof. They were used inconsistently, so I dug into my trusty Chicago manual to see the scoop and what rules might apply. As usual, I never open that book without learning something. 

“Scare quotes,” according to CMOS 17 (7.57), are used to alert a reader that some term is being used in a nonstandard way: to be ironic, as slang, etc. The manual cautions against overuse, warning that the device (much like the F-bomb, actually), loses its force and becomes irritating when overused. 

In my real-like example, a footnote in an accounting article refers to “big bath” accounting. The term “big bath” (which, by the way, is a sketchy if not fraudulent behaviour, in case you are interested) is used four times in just as many lines of text. It is encased in scare quotes three of those times.

Adding quotes to the fourth “big bath” did reek like overuse to me, but my consistency antenna was blinking, so what to do? A couple of paragraphs down from the don’t-overuse-it advice, I read that “a word or phrase preceded by so-called need not be encased in quotation marks” (CMOS 17, 7.59). That seemed like a workable solution: add so-called before the first occurrence of big bath, and establish the term without using quotes. 

BUT (because exceptions are the rule), CMOS goes on to say that quotes can (and maybe should) be added if only a part of the phrase is highlighted: so-called “running” shoes,

In the case of “big bath”, in this context it is indeed used as a modifier of not less than three nouns that are related but not identical: big bath charges, big bath accounting, big bath reporting behaviour. So, the exception to the rule may apply: so-called “big bath” charges sets off the modifier as being the ironic or nonstandard part of the phrase. 

Thus, as with many elements of style, there is more than one right way to do things, and as a proofreader, my only job is to check against the author copy. In this case, the proof matches the copy, so I choose the least invasive approach and add quotes to the fourth occurrence. Consistency trumps overuse for the lowly proofreader.

However, as a copy editor, I might flag this whole footnote to the author, and suggest introducing the term using so-called “big bath” charges,

Happy Hallowe’en!

Serious Serial Comma Silliness

I am a fan of the Oxford comma (also called the series or serial comma): parsley, sage, rosemary[,?] and thyme. Or at least I thought I was. Recent conversations and reading have led me to think again about where I place my comma allegiances, and why.

My go-to example in favour of the series comma has always been this one:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.

One might question who my parents are, exactly. Add the Oxford comma and the fog clears:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

However, the fog clears only because “parents” is plural and Bono, bless him, is just one person. Consider this:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Now we can’t tell the difference between the series comma and the pair of commas used to set off what’s called a non-restrictive appositive. A what now? This is just a fancy name for an optional descriptive word or phrase for the noun next to it. If Bono were my father, his name in this sentence would be an optional modifier of “father”. But since he is not, leaving out the series comma may actually be more clear:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Or not. As you may have noticed, we have come full circle to a sentence constructed exactly like the first example. So an interesting side note might be that if Bono and Lady Gaga were indeed my parents, a second comma would be required in the first example above to delineate that sneaky non-restrictive appositive. Bonus points if you can place it. 🙂

In the end, and in my opinion, the best option is to change the order of the list in question:

I’d like to thank Bono, Lady Gaga[,] and my father [or parents] for their inspiration. 

Now it really doesn’t matter if the series comma is there or not.

In her book The Subversive Copy EditorCarol Fisher Saller uses similar examples to caution against what she calls “witless, raging allegiance to one style or the other.” She acknowledges the importance of rules to establish standards for consistency. The rules are there for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary distraction for a reader. When following the rule itself becomes a distraction, then suddenly we editors have defeated our own purpose. 

So am I still a fan of the Oxford comma? Perhaps, but hopefully not to the point of being witless and raging. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 6.19) maintains that the series comma solves more problems than it creates, and I tend to agree. However, I am rather charmed by the cheeky footnote at the beginning of Matthew Stevens’s book The Subtleties of Scientific Style, which sets a certain tone:

I am not a fervent proponent of the “serial” or “Oxford” comma, so you will find here instances of where I haven’t inserted a comma where you might have. Without our getting into an argument about “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, this usage reflects schooling and not logic. I can find examples of where the serial comma creates ambiguity, not solves it. But feel free to insert your own commas. Here are some spares: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Stevens, The Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. viii

I am grateful for the reminder to avoid the tar pits of style rules, but what is life without a bit of serious silliness?

The Asthma Adversary

I have asthma.

When you learn this about me, what assumptions do you make? That I am fragile? Weak? That my parents and doctors failed me somehow? That I don’t (or didn’t) take good care of myself? That I can’t (or won’t) do the things healthy people do? That it can’t really be that bad, and I’m just a needy attention-seeker?

Stigma, in my experience, is all about assumptions applied in a negative way. The result of stigma ranges from mild discomfort and passive avoidance to severe judgement and active opposition or oppression. No matter where it falls on this spectrum, stigma discourages conversation and encourages further assumptions.

CLA Stigma Report 2018 Cover

The Canadian Lung Association released its Stigma Report (2018) this month. I was privileged to be part of a small group of people chosen to contribute to this project  by  representing and advocating for Canadians who have lung disease. During this process, I was a little ashamed to learn that I’m as guilty as anyone of making assumptions that cast those with lung disease in a negative light. More surprising is that the primary target in my cross hairs has been… me. 

In this first of a series of #breakstigma posts about stigma and lung disease, I will unpack three assumptions about my own asthma that have contributed to stigma against myself. In naming them, I seek a path to overcoming them and living more peacefully with my circumstances.

Assumption #1: “It’s not that bad.”

In the survey the Lung Association conducted (and in which, by the way, I did not participate), over half of respondents who had asthma said it had been directly or indirectly suggested to them that asthma is not a serious disease. Furthermore, nearly one-quarter of (non-asthmatic) respondents reported hearing that asthma can be overcome with a good attitude. As an asthmatic, I confess to buying in to both those ideas.

The hard truth is that asthma is still so poorly understood that it misses diagnosis all too often. The symptoms of my disease have been so elusive in my 33 years of living with it that it was only just in the last few years that any doctor even used the word “asthma” to describe it. Growing up, I heard lots of talk about allergy and wheezing, but not asthma. It was never “that bad.”

I am living proof that if you don’t take asthma seriously, it can come back to bite you, hard. The result of decades of living in denial is that while most of my allergies seem to have disappeared, I now have moderate obstructive lung disease. In everyday language, this means I have half the airflow I should at my age. Worse, the go-to rescue medication for asthmatics (Ventolin) no longer works on my airways. Some doctors are incredulous when I tell them this. I have learned to take my lung function test results with me to the office as proof.

In reality, asthma is a serious lung disease − regardless of the type, severity and triggers of one’s asthma.

Canadian Lung Association, Stigma Report (2018)

Assumption #2: “Asthma is preventable if you avoid your triggers.”

I didn’t see this particular assertion come up in the survey report, but the idea of stigma against a so-called “self-inflicted” disease played rather prominently. I’ll deal with the idea of “getting what we deserve” in another post. In the meantime, I will say that, as someone affected by mental illness and thoughts of self-harm, I find the whole idea of “self-inflicted” to be unnecessarily harsh and rather unhelpful when it comes to lung disease. However, I see the point, because the truth is our actions have consequences, intended or not. But no one starts smoking with the intent of harming themselves, do they? Maybe they do, but that seems extraordinarily… inefficient. I’ve never smoked, and I’m rabidly against it, but I understand why people do it (which is largely why I’m so rabidly against it). I don’t think smokers should have to pay for their health care – I think Big Tobacco should. But I digress…

More than 1 in 15 (7%) [of Canadians surveyed] believe that all lung diseases are self-inflicted. In fact, lung diseases can affect anyone. Some have genetic predisposition, while in other cases it is behavioural or environmental factors that cause a lung disease.

Canadian Lung Association, Stigma Report (2018)

Can asthma be construed as a self-inflicted disease? I certainly have thought so. But here are some things I learned along the way:

Triggers aren’t actually that easy to avoid.

I love animals, especially ones with lots of fur, and I spent most of my childhood surrounded by cats, dogs, horses, and hamsters, sneezing all the while. I suffered pretty severe heartbreak in my teens when I had to give up riding horses because being on the farm made me wheeze.

Then, in my twenties, I landed in medical research as a graduate student and was assigned a project that involved working with mice and rats. I would emerge from the animal house gasping and sneezing and wheezing and thinking I had no choice but to persevere.

In my thirties, I left most of the allergens in my life far enough behind to fall under the radar of a proper diagnosis. This wasn’t asthma, because no one had told me it was, and my own prejudice didn’t want to admit to such weakness (see Assumption #1). Besides, I wasn’t using Ventolin at all anymore – in fact, I was “cured”! Fit, fast and fabulous, my resting heart rate was 60 beats per minute and my FEV1 was 100%.

Avoiding triggers is not a cure.

One day in my early forties I was singing in a folk circle, and suddenly it felt as though my lungs were filled with concrete. It took me totally by surprise, as none of my normal “triggers” were involved. This feeling of oppression in my chest built over several months until I became really quite alarmed. Back to doctor, where I navigated my way through two respiratory specialists and an allergist. I ended up on not less than six different medications, both inhaled and oral, with no real improvement.

The silver lining was that I finally got a full pulmonary function test which gave me the diagnosis of “moderate obstructive lung disease”, and a doctor finally said to me “I think this is asthma, but it’s a weird asthma.” Weird, apparently, because the allergy that started it all seems to have disappeared.

Things pile up.

The word “intersectionality” appears to be a hotly debated term in psychosocial circles, but it resonates with me. Intersectionality describes the interaction of multiple circumstances and/or social vulnerabilities in an individual or group with resulting effects (usually in the form of discrimination or disadvantage) where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For me, the intersection lies between asthma, a herniated disc in my lumbar spine, and chronic depression and anxiety.

My “fit, fast and fabulous” days were brought up short by acute and severe back pain in 2013 that left me in a wheelchair for several months. The pain left me immobilized and depressed, and I ate and drank to salve my wounded soul, losing my physical fitness and lean body.

Never having recovered the level of fitness I had, it has always haunted me to wonder that if I had not lost my active lifestyle, would I have avoided the “weird asthma” I have now? More than that, if I wasn’t already fighting the heavy dragon-breath of despair and hopelessness, would I have had the energy to get active again? Bottom line: is there anything I could have done to prevent my current circumstances?

And here’s where I get to with that: what on earth does it matter now? I’m here, aren’t I? Larger, heavier, with a resting heart rate well over 70, and an FEV1 of 50%, no amount of wishing, regret, or self-abuse will bring back the supposed “glory days”.

What you can do to help reduce stigma: Look to the present, not the past.

Canadian Lung Association, Stigma Report (2018)

Get moving, you lazy butt, and shed those pounds! Having railed on myself in this manner, this leads perfectly to my third assumption.

Assumption #3: “Asthmatics are inactive by choice.”

Sixteen percent of non-asthmatic respondents to the survey indicate they believe that asthmatics are “inactive by choice.” Presumably this means people think we can be active, we just choose not to be. The inference is that we are lazy.

I believe with the essence of my being that moving is better than not moving. There is no end of medical evidence for this, and yet couch-potato-hood is still an epidemic for us in Canada, with dire consequences to our health and health care system. I refuse to believe that sitting still is a good option for anyone, even an asthmatic. 

But, exercise as a trigger for asthma is real. I even had a doctor say, “I’m never going to tell you not to exercise, but watch your triggers.” I thought, so what I am supposed to do? Give up? If I did that, I would die from despair (and I mean that literally). 

Don’t assume … that those with asthma cannot do certain things, [just] because of [your] perceived notions of what might trigger them.

Canadian Lung Association, Stigma Report (2018)

So, what are my choices? I may not be able to run, but I can walk. I may not be able to haul two big speakers at once, but I can carry one at a time. I may have had to adjust my breath control, but I can still sing. I may get tired faster, but I can rest and then keep going. I am not “inactive by choice,” I am active within the parameters of my disease. And I will push through the discomfort and keep going.

Moving forward: Do what you can, and life is good.

A friend of mine from high school died when he was in his mid-thirties of bone cancer that spread to his lungs. He lost his lower leg in his twenties, but he played hockey and lived life to the fullest right up to the end. My memory of him is defined by his focus on the present and the good. At his memorial, there was a video of an interview with him, where he basically said you have two choices: you can focus on what you can do or focus on what you can’t. When you focus on what you can do, then life is good.

With a heart full of gratitude for Mike, I choose to focus on what I can do. I can walk my dog. I can ride a horse. I can clean my house. I can sing. I can paddle a canoe, swim in the lake, and hike in the woods. I may not be able to go as far or as fast as I used to, or think I ought to, but within my limitations, I do what I can. And, life is good.

I have asthma. This affects my life, but it does not have to define it. Knowing now how I have stigmatized even myself, I can do my own work to #breakstigma

Note: the views expressed here are my own. For more information about the Canadian Lung Association, visit https://www.lung.ca

Nit-picking Numbers

How a day spent grappling with “2” and “two” taught me something about numbers, numerals, and life

Sometimes I appreciate the technical side of editing. I don’t mean editing technical documents, necessarily – I mean the technical aspects of grammar and style that give me the illusion that I can tell right from wrong. As my previous post relates, sometimes there are good reasons for making certain changes to the copy even without the author’s permission. Even so, these are sometimes rather pompous reasons like because it’s the right way to do things or because the style guide says so.

And yet, if I learned anything today, that sort of fundamentalism can start me off on a slippery slope. Because I have a past life (emphasis on past) where I could quote chapter and verse of the Good Book with the best of them, I am all too familiar with the perils and pitfalls of dogma, no matter what the context. 

The thing I am learning to appreciate about the Chicago Manual of Style is that it makes no claims to have all the answers, and in the end, it is consistency and flexibility that truly matter. How do these things even coexist? Today’s lesson is brought to you by the number two (2). Not Number Two, silly – the number two!

The house style of the academic journal I am working for instructs authors to spell out the numbers zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and up. The exceptions are measurements (8 percent, 6 degrees) and references to specific parts of the paper (Table 1, section 5). Seems simple enough, right? Trucking along through a page proof, I come across the following:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is two (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is two (642) days. 

As an aside, this particular writing style has the peculiarity of displaying two options using parentheses: in the example above, the minimum is two days and the maximum is 538 days (or 642 days in the second clause). Two for the price of one!

This sentence struck me as odd because of the use of words and numerals in juxtaposition like this. Certainly, I thought, the copy editor was just obeying the rules… unless of course “days” is a measurement. What to do? Consult the manual, of course!

And down the rabbit hole I went, wading through several principles and their exceptions, until I came to section 9.7, so appropriately called “Consistency and flexibility”:

Where numbers occur within a paragraph or series of paragraphs, maintain consistency in the immediate context. If according to a given rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers in a given category, use them for all in that category. 

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., section 9.7

Aha, I thought. Regardless of whether “days” is considered a unit of measurement, “consistency in the immediate context” directs me to change “two” to “2” in this sentence:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is 2 (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is 2 (642) days. 

Not that I enjoy stetting any copy editing decision, but this at least made me feel a tad more confident in doing so. Resting on my little laurels, then, I press on until I encounter this gem:

both measured over the last 2 years of [term A]. … we also calculate the average return on assets, ROA, over the two fiscal years preceding [event B]. The [variable of interest] is the excess of each [firm]’s 2-year ROA over the mean of…

Consistency is out of vogue, apparently. As a proofreader, technically my only job is to compare the proof to the author copy. And lo and behold, the author copy uses “two” in all three cases in this excerpt! Why then, would a copy editor change two two’s to 2, and leave one alone? (Are you dizzy yet?)

The reason I even care is that part of my role is to follow the style guide and correct style errors in the proof, because things do get missed. Plus, for me the inconsistency is like an itch that won’t go away. The question of the day seems to be whether “years”, like “days” in the first example, is considered a unit of measure, and if it is, then why is “fiscal year” exempt?

[Note: Because this particular realm of academia walks a fine line between the humanities and mathematics, it’s not always clear whether strict scientific style applies here. And incidentally, Scientific Style and Format basically says use numerals, (almost) always, because it’s just easier that way.]

A quick email to the client reveals that no, units of time in the magnitude of days, months and years do not count as units of measure and we should spell out zero through nine in this context. Okay, I say. This is flexibility. Flexibility within a principle of style, combined with consistent application at all levels of editing (including proofreading), is a recipe for peace of mind for editors, authors, and publishers. 

More than that, I think the principle of “consistency and flexibility” could go a long way in helping me find peace of mind in other parts of my life too: relationships, parenting, hobbies, and working with animals. Being consistent and flexible helps others know what to expect, but allows for change and growth along the way. 

After all, like everything in life, language and style are constantly evolving, so we’re always reaching for a moving target. What better reason do you need to cut yourself some slack?

Comma Confusion: To Include or Not to Include?

Recently, in reviewing an academic article, I came across the following sentence in the notes to a table:

“Industry and year-specific intercepts are not included for brevity.”

At first glance, the meaning might seem obvious, but let’s look again. Are you including the intercepts or not? Because this could mean two things: that the intercepts are there not for brevity but for completeness, OR that in an effort to be brief, the intercepts have been left out. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) addresses this in section 6.31:

A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. For instance, in the first example below, it is not necessarily true that “we will agree to the proposal”; it is, however, true that “we will agree” to it “if you accept our conditions.”

We will agree to the proposal if you accept our conditions.

Paul was astonished when he heard the terms.

He wasn’t running because he was afraid; he was running because he was late.

If the dependent clause is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. Such distinctions are occasionally tenuous. In fact, as the third example below makes clear, the meaning in such cases can depend entirely on the presence or absence of a comma (compare with the third example above). If in doubt, rephrase.

I’d like the tom yum, if you don’t mind.

At last she arrived, when the food was cold.

He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.


Because he was afraid to move, he didn’t run.

CMOS 17, 6.31 “Comma following main clause”

Bottom line: we include the comma for clarity. For clarity, we include the comma. We do not include the comma for frivolity, we include it for clarity. 

Do you see what I did there? 

While we’re on the topic of clarity, let’s look at the hyphen. “[Y]ear-specific intercepts” is clear enough, but are we talking about industry intercepts or industry-specific intercepts? An expert in the field may find this laughable and the answer obvious, but for the sake of clarity, if we are talking about industry-specific intercepts, we would need what Chicago 17 calls the “suspended hyphen” (section 7.88): “industry- and year-specific intercepts”. 

Put that all together, and the diamond-clear sentence looks like this:

For brevity, industry- and year-specific intercepts are not included. 

As a proofreader, it would technically be my job to only flag this to the publisher, but not to mark it for correction. As a copy editor, I would fix it because the assigned style guide backs me up in both cases. Depending on the publication process and my relationship with the managing editor, as a proofreader I may have room to make a judgement call. 

But yes, I am one of those rare breeds who thinks this stuff is fun, and fascinating. And sometimes, a missing comma can have big consequences, so it’s worth it to have someone around who notices these things. 

Barrel Racing, Family Style

The grandpa has a chestnut gelding named Cody with whom he competes on the rodeo circuit. Today he has fitted Cody’s saddle with a set of mini-stirrups so his preschool-aged grandson can climb aboard. They are headed to the arena to do some barrel racing. The preschool kind, anyway.

Grandpa has the reins, on the ground, and jogs across to the first barrel. Cody breaks into a smart trot and the little boy is positively gleeful.Mom and the other grandparents are watching, and so are the ranch staff. We cheer as they round the last barrel in record time.

Now grandpa gives the boy the reins, and jogs away for another race. Cody doesn’t need to be led; his nose is right at grandpa’s shoulder, and the mini-racer is reining him around those barrels like a pro.

Meanwhile, dad is giving little sister a ride on a pinto pony named Roo. The toddler catches wind of what’s happening and wants to join the fun. Mom takes the lead rope and sets out to the first barrel. Roo is not a barrel racer – his short legs and round stature work against him in this way. But it is his sheer strength of will against the idea that is both impressive and comical. As he is dragged around the course, he resists trotting as if such silliness it is far beneath him. “Are you kidding me?” his body language says. Mom arrives at the gate and announces that her daughter would like a faster steed. No one can blame her for that. The toddler looks significantly less gleeful than her big brother. Her time will come I’m sure, but it’s hard to be patient when you’re only two.

Now dad has taken over with Cody and the boy. I smile and turn away to attend to something, feeling somewhat like I am intruding on something rather intimate and special. This feeling is intensified when a few minutes later I catch glimpse of mom and dad leading daughter and son on their mounts, side by side, away from me, around the arena. They seem to be riding off into the sunset, even though it’s pretty much solar noon.

My heart kind of aches a little. With grandparents looking on, there are three generations of ranchers doing what they do best, and doing it together. Do they know how lucky they are? They work so hard, but do they know that people like me would give their right eye to have been able to live this life – a life free from the enemies of allergy and inflammation freaking out the immune system and shutting down a girl’s wildest dreams of a life with horses?

But then my heart aches again, this time swelling with joy. These people, this family, have given me a gift. They have allowed me into their space to reconnect with a life I thought I had lost forever. Because of them, I see now that maybe all is not lost. There may be enough space in my life, and enough air in my lungs, for horses. I take a breath, and wonder if this family will ever know what they have done for me. It feels silly, sentimental, even melodramatic, to try to express it to them. But imagine losing your arm and then thirty years later having it miraculously begin to regrow. It’s too much to ask, too good to be true.

So I’ll just work as hard as I can, and be grateful for all I have been given, today. I don’t need to know how it will all turn out. It’s enough that today happened, and that those mini-barrel racers showed me what joy really looks like and reminded me that I too, can find joy in my own way.

Horse Tails

It’s lunchtime at the ranch and I am taking a break. In the barn. The rest of the staff are elsewhere, but not I. I just can’t stay away from these animals. I am starved for their company. This is therapy.

Two rows of standing stalls are occupied by twenty horses having lunch. The barn is not quiet, but it is very peaceful. After a busy morning of trail riding, everyone is happy for a breather. My ears  – and soul – are massaged by the rhythmic sounds of munching, swishing, a little bit of stomping. The smell of fresh hay mixes with horse and manure and I love it. This is therapy.

I have developed a habit of keeping a mane and tail comb in my pocket, and with twenty bums to choose from, it’s little wonder why. I pick a tail and lean against the powerful rear quarters of an appaloosa. If I had an appaloosa, I think to myself, I might call him Captain Underpants. Just for fun. But this one is Pongo, and he munches while I lean against him just enough to let him know I’m there and go to work on the knots and clumps of mud that have built up in his tail. This is dirty work. Hair in handfuls, dirt falling to the ground if it makes it past my hands and arms and jeans. When I am finished, he swishes his tail and it flows freely, rather than flailing around a bunch of knobs on a string like a cat o’ nine tails. I am satisfied. This is therapy.

I move to another: a deep chestnut mare named Dixie. I repeat the ritual: lean in, comb out, feel the power that allows me to approach it, and enjoy. I marvel at how much I don’t hate this. Perhaps it is because I am a volunteer, and I am here only because I want to be. This is not a chore. This is therapy.

All too soon, the staff are back from lunch and everyone is run out to the corral to wind up for the afternoon. But I am refreshed. And ready. I almost feel naughty for stealing some time with these equine companions. Naughty, but not sorry. This is therapy.


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…