An ode to Jane Austen

I really ought to put pen to paper and send some thoughtfully composed lines to friends. My handwriting, alas, has deteriorated significantly over the years. These days, I must concentrate to make my scrawl simply decipherable, let alone artistic, though mine never compared to the wondrous curves of one friend’s cursive or the modernist angles of another’s. The latter friend attended school in Switzerland when we were teenagers and I delighted in receiving her well-travelled letters, living vicariously through these chapters of her overseas escapades and eagerly awaiting the next instalment every few weeks. Her personality illuminated the lines on the delicate stationery, the tales coming to life as the blue ink cast a shadow through to the other side, now part of a cinematographic dream sequence in my memory.

Letter-writing has of course long been a literary and film device, with dramatic deliveries of news from afar, invitations to effervescent balls, or kiss-offs sealed dramatically with red wax, which, once broken, forever change the plot and fate of the characters. Imagine a Jane Austen novel without letters! It was the catalyst of understanding between Lizzie and Darcy, for pity’s sake! Or that heartfelt – though dreadfully late – letter of confession from Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield to Angel Clare, which stays ominously hidden, quite literally kept under the rug, and becomes a clear harbinger of doom.

There is both a literal and figurative – and certainly tactile – difference in the nature of electronic communications that is dramatically less satisfying, even with stylized fonts. And indeed, a whole generation of young people has never experienced the exquisite pining wait for a piece of personal handwritten correspondence. Nor have they enjoyed the anticipation and elation of unfolding the stationery to reveal the physical beauty of the written word and the romance of the art that someone took the time to create just for them.

The idea of waiting for anything in this world of rapid-fire discourse is perhaps what is really at issue. We’ve become addicted to the immediate gratification of the latest buzz of electronic snippets. When I’m in a cell dead zone or my battery is out of juice, I sometimes feel the adrenaline shoot through me and the fear grow in the pit of my stomach that I must be missing something important, whether relevant to my existence or not.

Eventually I succumb and put the phone away, defeated. Next time this happens, I hope that I dig out pen and paper and write a letter about it. Perhaps I’ll even do so in a park under a tree. I know of a bench that has a metal plaque with the apt quote: “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” Yes, those are indeed Jane Austen’s words. Who better to inspire a letter?

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A penny for your thoughts

We’ve been phasing out pennies for quite a while now, the pretty ones and the dull ones, ‎emptying pockets, purses and piggy banks. Cashiers no longer sheepishly hand over three or four into the hands of sighing customers. Gone are the Have a penny? Give a penny. Need a penny? Take a penny. containers where we pooled our resources with strangers to avoid inconveniencing those in queue behind us.

It’s an efficiency, for certain, ridding ourselves of those cumbersome coins that cost too much to mint. Instead, we have an abundance of bright and shiny nickels to create a more satisfying plink into tips jars, their actual consequence disguised by volume in a deep sea of bulky silver.

Our rounding up and down for cash transactions is slowly but surely influencing other areas, too. Retailers are overhauling pricing strategies, because ending with an eight or a nine to evoke the sense of a bargain is passé in our penniless society. Things are mostly rounded up, of course, and not just for cash transactions. I pay exactly $2.00 for a certain kind of coffee in a certain size of cup, regardless of whether the transaction occurs by cash, credit, debit, gift card or e-card. It used to be nifty when that happened “by surprise” at the till – when the all-in price was an even dollar amount. Now it means I’m paying more. And I’m paying more‎ attention as well.‎

On another score, math homework about counting and currency has yet to catch up. Sketches of pennies still abound in exercise hand-outs representing the ones. “Sweetheart, that’s a penny. It equals one cent. Yes, they still exist but we don’t really use them anymore. This exercise must be from an old textbook.”‎

Oh, I know, it’s just a penny, right? I admit that I’ve regarded them with disdain, too. But I miss them just a little, for their metaphorical and poetic value, if nothing else. They used to buy someone’s innermost thoughts, rained down from heaven, and brought good luck when you happened upon them. These things were worth something in terms of sensibility, if not cents ability.‎

You can still rub two Canadian pennies together if you can find them, perhaps at the back corner of the kitchen utility drawer with the rubber bands and transparent tape. Their presence, though fading, is actually less tarnished in memory because of the sentimental yearning for a time when a handful of pennies actually bought something. If I find a penny on the sidewalk now, you bet your bottom dollar that I pick it up. ‎There’s still a bit of magic in the whimsy of a wish – the copper-hued, tactile promise of a better day.

Punctuation is not a crime

Why, suddenly, do people hate the comma? Did one go astray, leaving someone candidly exposed? Did an em-dash make someone choke on an appositive? Did an apostrophe try to possess the wrong thing?

Fear not, punctuation marks, I will defend you. You are full of character. You accentuate. You applaud! You provide context.

Where would we be without you? ‎Lost, confused, disorganized, and a bit troubled, I suspect. Let’s take a look, shall we?

“I like eating, the smell of summer rain, and my pets.”

Without the commas: “I like eating the smell of summer rain and my pets.”

I beg your pardon?

The semi-colon need not perplex; rather, it gives pause. It aids contemplation. We don’t pause enough in our rapid world. Thank you, semicolon, for reminding us to breathe.

Colons create drama and suspense: they are the orchestra leaders of the English language. When you see one, you know something big is coming next, like a crescendo of fact or a list of reasons.

And there’s the em-dash, that lively and vibrant storyteller, giving us hints and peeks, like an actor turning to the camera and winking. Some people dislike them—thinking them vain or disruptive, perhaps—but I think they’re dandy, like a conspiratorial sideways glance.

Exclamation marks have never been more popular, often used in an attempt to be heard over the din of voluminous content that saturates our existence. But even they are losing their spark due to overuse. We might as well just go back to the period.

People. Like. To. Use. Periods. Like. This. For. Emphasis. Such a method works well on occasion, particularly for irony. Periods cut to the chase and draw conclusions. They pace our words and clarify meaning.

It’s the lowly comma, sadly, that appears to be most at risk of an untimely death. I, for one, still love what it can do.

A few words about poetry

The words of ancient poets danced and droned as they spun tales of delight and dread about gods and goddesses; fight, flight and plight. Legends were borne brilliantly through metaphors, dreamscapes and visions, illuminated by wit and wonder.

Language was precious then and remains precious now, but for different reasons. In this day of short attention spans and information overload, what place has poetry?

In our glut of words, we need to find a new efficiency; an essential epiphany. Those lines that stay with you – that provide the visceral, evocative, poignant and resonant meaning to create a lasting impression – are the essential epiphanies. This is how poetry can help us cut through the clutter in an art of language that creates understanding and connection.

Here, too, less is often more. It’s not about absence, but intensity; where themes and ideas are expressed through the eloquence of essential meaning. Here are a few reminders from 100, 200 and 450 years ago…

dickinson

auden

keats

shakespeare

 

And one from me: Demarcation: A Riddle.

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Six More Little Communication Pet Peeves

Fulsome. It is not a spiffy way of saying “thorough” as some believe (i.e. “We will conduct a fulsome review of this issue”). It actually means “flattering/excessive/lavish” (likely not the intention of any review). Sometimes people substitute “wholesome” for “fulsome” which adds something healthy to the discussion.

Irregardless. Use “regardless” and save yourself two characters.

Very unique. “Unique” requires no modifiers; if it’s truly so, it is.

Compliment/complement. If you talk about your “staffing compliment” you’re not talking about the number of your staff.

Gambit/gamut. One means “strategy” and the other means “range.” You can say “the full gamut of our gambit” but the reverse borders on nonsensical.

Tortuous/torturous. If using them to describe a process, keep in mind that one means “full of twists and turns” and the other denotes something a bit more painful.

Six Little Communication Pet Peeves

Decisions, decisions. If I had my druthers, everyone would make decisions rather than take them. While I reluctantly concede that either use is acceptable, every time I hear someone say they are “taking a decision” I want to ask: “Where are you taking it? Out for lunch?”

Impact. Impact is far better as a noun than a verb. “We experienced a significant impact because of this decision.” vs. “This decision impacts us in a significant way.” Also, please leave “impacted” for discussions about wisdom tooth extraction.

Embedded. Embedding should stay behind the scenes. When using this term, keep it to strategy discussions as an outcome of what you hope to accomplish (i.e. “Through this initiative, these concepts will become embedded in our policies.”).

Engagement. Like embedding, engagement should be an outcome and stay behind the scenes. It should inform strategy, but not be part of final communications. You shouldn’t have to tell people you’re engaging them; just engage them!

Passive vs. Active Voice. Passive voice, despite what you hear, still has its uses. Trying to morph everything into active voice sounds odd and contrived. Modern written communications should reflect a balance of the spoken language and reasonable grammar. (It is also okay, on occasion, to end a sentence with a preposition, particularly for informal conversational narratives.)

Acronyms. Introduce acronyms for projects or initiatives at the earliest opportunity in a text and then stick with the acronym the rest of the way. But OMG, please leave text-message acronyms for text messages.