Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Pet Peeves of Word Usage and Misusage

I keep a list of examples of less than perfect writing that I come across in my reading. Unlike many other readers, however, I don’t find a lot of the apparent errors annoying because I understand that language is fluid; it is always in the process of change and development. That said, a few things do stop me when I’m reading because I have to reconstruct the sentence in my head in order to capture the intended meaning.  When the list becomes unwieldy, I select a few to comment on. Here are a three of my favorites.

First, the word unique does not take a modifier. This word refers to something that is one of a kind, in a category all its own, without any other item of the same sort to which it could be compared. It cannot be more or less unique than something else; nor can it be very or somewhat or a little unique. It is either one of a kind or it isn’t. The word means “single, sole . . . having no like or equal; unparalleled.” Some dictionaries now include the increasingly common understanding of the word to mean “highly unusual, extraordinary, rare,” with the caveat “a common usage still objected to by some.” And yes, that would be me. I object—strenuously.

Second, I feel jolted when I read a sentence like this: “George shouldn’t be upset at Ellen’s tepid response; he’d long known of her disinterest in baseball.” The word disinterest does not mean “lack of interest.” Disinterest means “lack of personal or selfish interest,” but here again disinterest has absorbed the meaning of uninterested, or “lack of interest or concern; indifference.” Two distinct views of the quality of a person’s attention to something have been conflated so that now one word is used for both, leaving the reader combing through the sentence for a context to clarify the intended meaning. With greater care, the writer could avoid frustrating the reader and have a richer vocabulary. Consider this example: “George, the defendant, hoped the judge would prove to be disinterested, and also hoped the jury wouldn’t be so uninterested as to fall asleep.”

Third, a perennial favorite, is the distinction between that and which. That is used, among other reasons, to introduce a restrictive clause. Which is used to introduce a non-restrictive clause. Consider this example: Ellen rummaged in the trunk of her car for the knife that had blood on it. (She seems to have lots of knives in the back of her car but only wants one in particular.) Or this example: After dinner, Ellen washed the bloody knife, which she left in the dish drainer. (Where Ellen left the knife doesn't matter; she could have dried it and put it away in a drawer.)

No writer is going to know every rule of English (or whatever is the native tongue), but I admire writers who are precise in their use of language while also telling a good story vividly, or explaining a scientific breakthrough in accessible language.

All definitions quoted above can be found in Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.

And now a moment of silence for George, wherever he may be, and all the words in English that have strayed from their original meaning.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

My Grandfather's Photographs

After months of tripping over boxes of photographs, moving them from one closet to another—despite the warning, “moving them is not de-cluttering”—I have at last managed to get most of my grandfather’s photographs digitized. Because my grandparents divorced in the 1920s, when my mother was still a teenager, I hardly knew my grandfather. Now I feel I’m getting to know him for the first time, through his photographs. He lived in Washington, DC, and enjoyed showing visitors the sights when he wasn’t working. His dramatic shots of a monument are among his best, each one hinting at a story and reflecting the Art Deco style he loved.

He came of age at the beginning of the twentieth century, served in World War I, and built a career in the 1930s, working in various aspects of the dairy industry, such as “electro freezer” sales and management. He rarely photographed the typical farm, preferring instead the industrial end of the business, such as large-scale kitchens. (Who wears a fedora in a kitchen? A salesman?)

 The new automobile landscape offered many opportunities, and he left a record of the popular signs outside highway restaurants. From the looks of his collection, he did a lot of driving. I’ve never heard of some of these roadside food joints, but the names fit the post World War II mindset.

 He had a sense of humor as well. He took photos of the pets in the apartment buildings where he lived, as well as portraits of a number of neighbors and friends as well as relatives. He loved the ducks on a nearby pond and also, apparently, the neighboring deer.

I’m working on his film library for two reasons. I’m curious about what kind of photographer he was, and I’m drawn to photography in my own life. He liked to explore camera techniques, and tried various composite images, including one of himself in a striped shirt arguing with his twin over a set of cameras. I haven’t found the negative for that one yet. (Yes, the photo below is of a hand holding a wrecked car.)

But I learned something else from exploring his work. His best images are modern but also hint at a story. Even the photo of an empty room in the evening, with a book lying on a footstool and a newspaper mounding on the floor, hints at more than is captured in that one image. Along with the images, I now carry the suggested story ideas.

I have used photography as a catalyst in at least one mystery. In When Krishna Calls, Anita Ray is drawn into the disappearance of a hotel employee and the death of her husband when she discovers a message wrapped around the battery in her camera. She discovers another clue on the memory card. In other Anita Ray mysteries, she filters information from the tourists who visit her photo gallery in the resort.

There are a number of ways to use a camera and photography in crime fiction. Thanks to my grandfather’s collection (and my own and those of other relatives), I have a wealth of material to work with.

To find the Anita Ray and Mellingham novels go to:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eye to Eye with Nature

I’m not sure what this post is about, but my experiences of being eye to eye with nonhuman creatures have been accumulating. Here are some of them.

From Alexas-Fotos, Pixabay
During my first visit to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala in South India, I took a walk through the city-owned zoo. I was alone, with Indian families walking in front and behind me. When I came to the gorilla enclosure, which was no more than a concrete cage with bars on three sides, the animal rested in a small niche in the center of the back wall. All of a sudden, the animal rushed to the bars and stared at me. I wasn’t alarmed because there were those bars between us. As I walked on the animal followed me, moving from bar to bar until I disappeared around the corner. His face was barely three feet from mine, and he watched me every step of the way. Perhaps I smelled different or looked different. His curiosity was palpable, and I kept wondering what he was thinking.

From Stux, Pixabay
I often encountered goats during my visits in India and at farms here in New England. Their eyes, close up, are creepy. That’s the only word for it, from a human perspective, but the design has a purpose. The black slit in a yellow iris gives prey, like goats, a wider swath in which to spot predators but for the human the eye of a goat looks strange and weird. It’s hard to know what a goat is thinking when you’re eye to eye with it.

The eyes of parakeets don’t seem especially unusual, but I found myself eye to eye with an immature grackle when the bird managed to get inside the house through a tear in a screen window. It then somehow got between the upper sash and the half-opened lower one. And it couldn’t get out. As I tried to lower the sash to let it fly free, the bird struggled and made things worse, leaving me staring in the young bird’s black eye. Did it know I was trying to help? Somehow the bird managed to get out and found itself sitting on the windowsill before a now open window. It ruffled its feathers, and flew off into the back yard, its moment of terror forgotten.

One of the most moving encounters occurred in 2014, on my last visit to South India. On the way to a concert I stopped with friends to offer the temple elephant, Dakshini, some treats, carrots and apples. I'd done this a few times with these friends. The mahout allowed us into the enclosure, and the elephant, a female entering her senior years, is tolerant after serving in hundreds of temple festivals and rituals. I found myself next to her feeding her carrots and looking into her eye, as large as the palm of my hand. I felt both compassion for her living a life with a chain around her ankle and wondering if I should fear her. After all, I might have edibles but why would she trust me? I don’t know what she was thinking, but she watched me without blinking or lifting a foot or leg. Perhaps she sensed what I was thinking. She took the gifts from my hand with her trunk and also let me put them to her mouth.

Mahabalipuram, Tamilnad, India
I think of Dakshini often, wondering how she is and if someone else is giving her treats. I’m not one to anthropomorphize animals, but I do believe they have their own world with feelings and worries and attitudes. I won’t speculate on what she was thinking, but I will remember looking her in the eye and feeling the stillness in her as I stood only inches away, one hand on her neck and the other holding fruit. 

Throughout the centuries artists in India have depicted the elephant as a light and graceful animal. When I stood close to Dakshini, I could understand the feelings behind the art.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My 4th of July Tradition--The Family Flag

This post was originally written for July 4, 2016. I'm reposting it here. 

In honor of the Fourth of July, I offer a story about a flag and a mystery.
One of my personal rituals is flying my mother’s family flag on certain holidays. It’s moth-eaten, torn in some places, and frayed at the ends. It also has 39 badly arranged stars. There are no neat rows, and the stars in the blue field look like they were added haphazardly. Or perhaps the designer had poor spatial skills. No matter. I found the flag in a trunk when I cleaned out my mother’s house, and didn’t think any more about it.
My mother and grandmother had a habit of labeling things. My grandmother did this because she knew she was losing her memory and wanted to pass on items of family history, such as my great grandfather’s change purse or her mother’s winter muff. My mother labeled things because she was orderly and liked to save things.
The flag came with a note on my mother’s stationery used in the 1940s, and identified the maker of the flag as her maternal grandmother, Grandmother Osborne. My mother added, “I seem to remember her sewing in the last one [star].” Hmm, no. But the flag is clearly homemade, with the stars hand stitched first and then on a sewing machine.
History buffs will already have identified the problem. The United States never had an official flag with 39 stars. In 1877, a star was added for Colorado (admitted in 1876), and the official US flag thereafter had 38 stars until 1889. But flag makers had expected Congress to accept two new states and had produced flags with 39 stars in anticipation. Unfortunately, they were stuck with an inventory they couldn’t sell. Until 1889?
In 1889, Congress was poised to accept the Dakota Territory as a state, and the assumption was that it would be one state. But, surprise, it came in as two. Those who anticipated one state (commercial flag makers) once again ended up with an inventory of flags with 39 stars they couldn’t use at all. And even if they had guessed there would be two Dakotas, Congress in its perversity accepted four more states right away (Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), pushing the star count to 43 in 1890 and 44 in 1891. Anticipating the actions of Congress was a losing proposition (and not much has changed).
Hence, there has never been a year in which the US flag officially had 39 stars. If you find a flag with 39 stars, you know it was made before 1889.
My family’s flag, with its haphazard arrangement of stars and its inconsistent width of red and white stripes (from three to four inches) could date from 1876 or 1889, the only two years when people expected there to be 39 states and flag makers produced flags in anticipation. But in both years they were wrong.
Whatever the truth is, I may never know. Grandmother Osborne was born in 1864 and died in 1931. She might have made the flag at the age of 25, as a young married woman, but she could just as likely have inherited it from her mother, and added a star in 1889 in anticipation of the state of Dakota. I’ll never know if she created the flag or not unless I find more evidence. I’ve examined the stars, and two or three seem to have been sewn on by a different hand, but that could mean no more than two women in the family worked on the flag together, each one showing a distinctive style in her stitching.
The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Great grandmother Osborne inherited the flag from her mother, Great great grandmother Beckwith, and my mother remembers her repairing it, not adding a star sometime in the 1910s.  I’m tempted (only tempted) to repair it myself sometimes.

Not all mysteries have answers, but at least I can work on this one a little every year. Right now, I’m grateful for beautiful weather and a place to hang it, on the porch. But after learning more about the history of the flag, and its rarity, I no longer leave it out unless I’m at home. As someone who grew up sewing as much as reading, I treasure something made and handled by a long line of women ancestors.