I have always been sensitive to punctuation. It sets the pace for the prose and tells it when to gallop or stop or just pull up slightly and peer over the fence. I'm very deliberate about where I put my punctuation marks. People might disagree with me over some of it but there's nothing haphazard about it. I have preferences. For instance, sometimes, I use fewer commas than my English teachers would have liked, because, sometimes, I want to charge ahead. I even use comma splices, where a semi-colon is usually called for, because I want the prose to just pop a little shrug, and not actually pause with its chin in its hand.
My father, who was a fine slinger of verbiage, was a huge fan of the semi-colon. He could not not use it. I picked that up from him, initially, but now I really try to fend it off. Instead I use a long dash--it has the same effect, but it feels different. The dash is a gentle hand on your arm. The semi-colon is dusting off its tweed sleeve and puffing at its pipe before it continues. Dad used to use so many semi-colons that his paragraphs developed a predictable, hypnotic rhythm. He'd send me a typewritten letter once a week and by the end of it my eyelids were sliding shut.
Punctuation shouldn't have the ability to make me sleepy, but I'm delicately wired that way. I don't read very fast, and I follow directions. I gallop and whoa when I'm told to. You present me with a name like "U'Neek" or "La'Shawna" and I will read a hiccup into it. I have a few friends who use ellipses. A lot. They're just in there as spacers for their thoughts. It makes all their thoughts equally important, or unimportant. "Hi...saw June the other day at the market...she says hi...doing pretty well since that monkey ate off her face...don't know if you heard about that...maybe we can get together sometime soon...okay gotta run..." When I read something like this, I actually feel myself nodding off at every ellipse. And in my mind's ear, I hear it in the same annoying intonation that is so prevalent these days: a sort of lazy, I-don't-care dip at the end of every phrase in which the vocal cords just sort of give up, and speech crumbles into rubble at the back of the throat. The speaker sounds bored as hell. Even NPR commentators do it. I want to poke at them with a sharp stick. It's possible I'm too delicately wired about some things.
So when I first saw text messaging, as practiced by the younger set, I read it the same way. There was no punctuation. No capital letters. Everything just drifted off into some neutral, apathetic space. The message felt like just one "what-ever" after another. Act like you care! I thought. Give it some voice! And sometimes, if I was feeling especially peevish, get a damn job!
Naturally, when I first started texting, I capitalized where I was supposed to and went to the trouble of inserting punctuation. I had to. It was a pain in the ass, but I didn't want it to seem like I didn't care. I still do it. But right away I could see why people didn't bother. It's a lot to ask of the thumbs. It's not necessary. It isn't a novel. It's a whole new way of communicating.
And as such, it's made its own rules. For one thing, you really shouldn't use periods at all. Instead you just start a new line. If you use a period, which requires a whole new thumb-stroke, people have to assume you went to the trouble because you were done with the conversation, and maybe not too pleased with their end of it. If you text someone "are you going to the party tonight" and she writes back "no" you have your information. If she writes back "No." you know she's definitely not going, and she's irritated about something. And it might be you. It could be that thing you did at the last party that you hoped everyone had forgotten about. Why else would she put such a final note on the conversation? If you leave off the period, everyone knows you're still available to chat.
So I get it. Text messaging has its own punctuation. It's either none, or it's a whole bunch of exclamation points or question marks to indicate sincerity or incredulity, which are not otherwise obvious in microcommunication. I'm fine with it, I really am [rogue comma splice]. I'm still going to have to capitalize and put in punctuation. I'm retired--I've got all day. And I know that my contemporaries won't be put off, and younger folk will smile indulgently and say "it's just Murr. She can't help it." Consider my text message punctuation the wistful, charming freight from a bygone era. It's the lilac scent wafting from an elderly aunt's stationery.
Just a warning. I keep a pretty decent pace when I'm hiking up a mountain, but any time we pass a nice boulder field, I'm going to pull up short and go meeeep. There's nothing you need to do about it. I'm just sending out a little hey-there to one of my favorite critters. Sometimes one meeeeps back.
We loved pikas even before we spent a delightful few minutes in Glacier Park watching one totally punk our dog. Boomer was an optimistic mutt by nature and was much energized by the prospect of nailing a rodent even though she went seventeen years without ever getting close. Bless her fuzzy little heart, she's always thought today was the day. We could all use an attitude like that, and it's not like there was ever a chance she'd do any lasting harm. We didn't even bother explaining to her that pikas were lagomorphs and not rodents--she was not a detail dog. Meeeep! went the pika, and Boomer scampered after it, and it ducked into a hidey hole in the rocks followed by Boomer's head. The pika would reappear a few feet away, turn to the dog's avid, quivering tail, go meeeep again, Boomer would snap her head up so fast she beaned herself on the rock, and tear after the pika again. The pika had things to do so we didn't let this go on too long, but I can't help but think it was enjoying itself. I think it had a little grin.
So when Dave and I had the opportunity to go to a lecture on pikas downtown, we did. That's when we learned that if it was a grin on the pika, it was a shit-eating one. Pikas are among the animals that are big on eating leftovers, after running the original meal through the system once. It's one way to contend with a vegetarian diet, because plant cellulose is hard to digest; chewing the cud is another. Eating one's own shit works fine for the bunny family because, conveniently enough, they are incapable of throwing up. Still, the whole business is another mark in the plus column for being a baconivore.
The pika spends most of its time in higher-altitude rock piles. He eats plants (twice) and gathers more to make hay for the winter. By the time it gets really cold the pika should have a pretty good hay pile going from which he will eat all winter. He does not hibernate. He'd rather eat dried-up old flowers (twice) than take a nice nap. Tastes differ. However it is a remarkable thing that he knows to make his hay pile. Personally, I don't anticipate anything vividly enough to be that prepared. If I'm warm when I leave the house, I won't take a sweater with me even if the temperature is sure to drop, because I can't imagine being cold. (I have evolved to accompany a man who will give me his jacket.) But I'm not a pika. Also, I eat bacon.
They're particular about their location. They like things cool. If for some reason the world should be getting warmer, they don't have a ton of options. They can go higher up the mountain, but they're not really set up to migrate. As a result the pika appears to be in decline. People who study them are looking carefully at the margins of their habitat. The edges of their range represent the conditions that are just tolerable for them, so if they begin to disappear along the margins, it's pretty clear their habitable range is shrinking.
No one's gotten anywhere with trying to get the pika listed as endangered. Because then we'd be legally obligated to protect them, and the only thing we could do for them is try to halt climate change, and that means we have to start doing a lot of things differently, so--it's sayonara, pika.
Meanwhile, the same techniques can be applied to humans to see if we're in trouble: check conditions along the margins. Not those poor saps in the little island nations that are being submerged--we consider them marginal people to begin with. Trouble is, we don't recognize our own margins anymore. We blast the air conditioner. We jack up the thermostat. We think water comes in bottles from Nestle. By the time we figure out there's no more mountain to climb up, it's too late. There'll be nothing left to do but eat shit and die.
Dave and I are just about at the end of our first two years as owners of them new Mobile Cellular Telephones, and there's a lot we like about them, but we learned we are not heavy users. For some people, their cell phone is like their right arm. For us, they're more like skin tags. And $106 a month seemed like a lot to pay to shoot a couple little texts a day through the air. My contract's up in a couple days. I put it to the collective Facebook mind: who's your phone service provider?
It was a wildly successful gambit from the point of view of collecting a bewildering clusterfiddle of opinions. The advice that appealed to me the most was to go to Best Buy where someone could walk us through all the available plans and give us sound advice, because he wouldn't care who you went with.
So we did. We took a number and got in line for a consultation with a bright young person, and they all looked friendly enough, except for that one guy Jason, and then it was by-God Jason that sure-enough whistled us over to Big-Ass TVs and started punching on a computer and spitting out instructions. What's your phone number? Done. What's your pin number? I don't know.
Jason sighed audibly and stared at the ceiling and said I am NOT paid enough money to talk to one more old fart, I swear to God. Possibly not out loud.
Let's start over. What's the last four on your Social Security? Whose?
Whoever's on the account. I don't know which of us that is. Listen. I just want to know if there's a cheaper way to get phone service. Verizon is offering us a free iPhone but maybe we could buy a different phone and get a different service. Like...you sell other phones, right?
Jason was a multi-tasker. He could operate a keyboard, sigh, roll his eyes, and shrug all at the same time. We left. Our tipster was correct: Jason was a disinterested third party. Specifically, he did not give one rat's ass about us.
"Let's go to Verizon," I said to Dave. "Maybe they've got some kind of deal."
Jason's older and more sullen brother worked at Verizon. "We were just trying to get our phone bill down a bit," we whimpered.
Were you thinking of getting the free iPhones? That'll get you up to $180 a month.
I grabbed Dave by the elbow. Run! I hissed in his ear. They're charging us more just to THINK about it!
We were dejected. And then we noticed the Facebook thread had had several recommendations for Consumer Cellular. And that it is the outfit recommended by the AARP. The AARP! My people!
We're going with them. I checked their website. My word! HUGE font, some of it in Palmer-method
cursive. Their phone comes with an optional two feet of curly cord so you'll have something to twirl as you lie on your bed with your feet in the air and admire your toenail polish. It has a protective Bakelite case with a Dr. Scholl's lining. Customer service answers on one ringy-dingy--land sakes!--and in the background you can hear Mabel pulling the cords on the switchboard and patching you through to people clear across town. The mailman has to put a tie on to deliver the bill and they only take personal checks. There's a good choice of ringtones.
It's tax time. I stand before my computer with an expensive plastic disc and inhale deeply, composing myself. The computer rips the disc from my hand and stares at me as though it were King Arthur and I was just an old stone with a hole in it.
The tax software is designed to be soothing. It's chatty. Hey there! We're just going to ask you a few questions. Let's get started!
All righty then.
First we need to know a little about your living arrangements. Did Mary and David live together?
I don't know that it's any of your business, but yes.
Do you have any straddles to report?
Now you're getting personal.
Oh, I've seen this movie before. The prosecutor approaches the lady on the witness stand and smiles:
"Hello there, Mrs. Crabtree. Are you comfortable? Would you like a pillow? A little tea, perhaps?"
Mrs. Crabtree says some tea would be nice. Tea is provided.
"Mrs. Crabtree, tell me--if you had it to do over, do you think you could beat your previous time for rendering Mr. Crabtree through the garbage disposal using only Drano and a lemon zester?"
Same dude works for TurboTax. He starts out cheerful. Let's talk a little about your investment income!
Okay. We can try that.
Do you have any unearned capital-loss carryover limitations dividend consolidation peremptories as reported to you on a form 5129-C, AK-47, or PA 6-5000? Do not include passive debt spackling from any foreign source.
I have no freaking idea what the answers to some of the questions are. At first I try real hard to answer them correctly. After a while I choose whichever answer doesn't lead me down a rabbit hole. If I say "yes," I get a bunch more questions I can't answer. If I say "no," we magically move onto a different topic. I begin saying "no" a lot.
It's not the paying of taxes that I mind. My government does a lot of things with our money that I'm not crazy about, but in general I'm okay with the system. I like the idea that we're all banding together to do things we couldn't accomplish as individuals. If I see a ballot measure that proposes to use public money to create an interpretive nature and history trail for underserved kids staffed by trained counselors in bunny suits and featuring a free lunch dispensary, petting zoo, and interactive educational kiosks powered by a solar array, I'm all sign me up! So it's not the taxes. I just want them to slice me open with a quick knife and take the money. I don't see why I have to get a tattoo needle and ink in all the little perforation lines and arrows on myself for the knife entry point.
I switch over to State Tax for the relief of it. State Tax is easy. With State Tax it's just me, my income, and the big knife. I squint at the form. It says:
"Line 22. Do not complete Line 22."
Whuh? Should I start Line 22 and then stop short of filling it in? If I were going to put something on Line 22, and promise to pull out at the last second, what would it be?
Dave had wisely gone out on one of his marathon walks. Three hours in I texted him that it was not yet safe to return home.
A few hours later he comes home anyway. By now I am past the anger stage that comes right after the feeling-stupid stage, and have edged past bargaining and into depression, characterized by snuffling and whimpering. "I need a beer," I say. A beer is produced on the spot. Dave monitors its disappearance over the next minute and has a second ready to go. It seems to help.
Because now, I don't care if I got the answers right. If they wanted the right answers, they'd have asked different questions. They could have asked me why leaves turn color in the fall, and I'd be all over that. I'm throwing myself on the mercy of the court. I did the best I could. Go ahead and audit me if you're so damn smart. Maybe y'all owe ME money.
So I lost weight, and have to buy new underpants. The size should be whatever my current size is, minus one. The style is a whole different issue. As with most things these days, there is a paralyzing oversufficiency of choices: thong bikini string bikini boy short hipster hi-cut brief and, Lord Love A Newt In Springtime, the C-string. My current style has been derided as Granny Panties. There's nothing wrong with them that higher-waist pants wouldn't fix, but choices in pants have shrunk. And they're not granny panties. They are French Cut. Yes, they stick up two inches above my pants, which is supposed to be a good look, if you're not my sex or age, and have way different taste in music. There are too many rules. Who can keep track?
Anyone who thinks my French Cut underpants are voluminous should have seen my mother's underpants, which, when they were hanging on the line, were visible from blocks away. We played in their shade. Mom's underpants were satiny and capacious and had no elastic at the bottom, but featured a tiny leg with a one-inch inseam. In this respect they resembled what is now called the Boy Short. Basically, they were boy shorts that had ballooned into maturity and were beginning to geeze. Current styles include some that promise "full coverage," but they don't know the meaning of the term. Mom's underpants covered the nether portions completely and went quite a ways north of nether, also. This was a garment of sufficient capacity to cause men to lose curiosity about what lay beneath. My mother was a lady.
I was a miracle baby.
You know, people didn't used to wear underpants. That's a new thing. Modern underpants began to appear in the 1930s. Men's briefs were introduced with the tag-line "restful buoyancy." Such is the power of advertising that men contrasted their previous carefree years of Swingy Floppitance with the promised Restful Buoyancy, and lined up to buy underpants.
Women also managed to make it through a million years of evolution without underpants until the 1930s, when commercial forces collectively said, Depression? I'll give you something to be depressed about. To be fair, there is a certain point to underpants for women who insist on wearing pants. The underpants are a zone of protection against fabric incursions that delicate tissues cannot tolerate and laundry detergent cannot expunge. The solution is to go back to dresses. Women seeking warmth wore crotchless underwear at one point, with two unjoined pants legs held up by garters, and what we now consider the important part left out altogether. It was quite enough trouble to haul up all the skirts and petticoats every time you needed to tinkle without having to negotiate panty removal also.
Knickers were widely worn by women, and worn widely by some women. But even on them, they
were loose. We could learn from them. The day we women began wearing underpants, we had created a slippery slope. Sooner or later, we will hit the bottom.
The Russians are up to no good again. Yes, I'm talking about that fuss over the U.S. Olympic speed skaters and their new special suits. An outfit called Under Armour developed them in order to give our skaters an edge and themselves a publicity boost, and it didn't work out. An American failed to capture any of the places reserved for them on the podium. It's marginally possible our athletes were outskated by athletes of an entirely different nationality, but what are the odds of that, really? The only logical possibilities are sabotage by the Russians, and faulty skating suits. The athletes themselves, mindful of being surrounded by Russians, blamed the suits.
It's all about aerodynamics. Under Armour developed the suit with Lockheed Martin. Perhaps they took a stealth-bomber approach so that the skater could get a head start without anyone noticing. The new suit also features strategic bumps that affect air flow in positive ways. It should have worked: we all know how speedy people are when they wear tweed and corduroy. I do know there are miracle fabrics being made all the time. There was a big to-do about the swimming competition in 2008 and Speedo was deemed to have given us an unfair advantage. It's hard to believe it was the fabric. There isn't that much to a Speedo. And if there is, that's a whole different aerodynamic problem.
Speedo had indeed done some slick engineering and they had counted on people's natural reluctance to look at the Speedoed portion of a man wearing a Speedo to get away with it. The suit was equipped with a tiny propeller in the rear which would have gone unnoticed had one of the judges not observed a disturbing turbulence in the swimmers' wakes.
I'm fascinated by the idea that one's outfit can make one faster. Because I could use some help. Our old softball games always got a little more exciting when I was in the lineup. I'd get on base all right, on a fielder's choice, meaning I was safe at first and all our other runners were neatly deleted from the base paths. And then someone else would get up and slam what should have been an in-the-park home run that would bring our fans to their feet in anticipation, straining to see if I could cross home plate before the batter, which is the order they insist on in that game. I'm not sure why it matters.
But what if I had an outfit? What if I was wearing a long onesie made of engineered dolphin skin?
I fear it would be to no avail. I'm always giving it everything I've got but the fact is I'm genetically designed to be tiger chow. If I got up to the plate wearing nothing at all, the aerodynamic problem would be very evident. There's a lot of stuff on me and I can't get all of it going in the same direction. There's no telling, sometimes. Tie some marmots together with rubber bands and give them a slap on the rear and you'll get the same effect.
But penguins look really clumsy on land. They waddle side to side or hop a bit but they look ridiculous, until they hit the water, and then they're revealed to be a regular ballet troupe, all grace and zippety-doo-dah. Perhaps my only problem is I just haven't found my element. In the right sport it's possible I could be plenty zippety.
It's the Iditarod, and the sled dogs are jangly with joy. They yip and twist and yearn for the starting line. They've got a thousand proud and beautiful miles to pull.
There's no wonder Alaska is beautiful. It's tectonically rumpled and sparsely peopleated. Extremes of elevation and weather protect much of it from our schemes. The consequences of human trampling are not as evident when you have this much space. There are few enough humans here that they can boast of living on the edge of the wilderness, and not so many that the wilderness ceases to exist.
We've trampled it some. We're pulling oil out of it as fast as we can. We've threaded a big old pipeline over some geologically rambunctious landscape and right through the caribou, and that got some people upset, but proponents insisted that the thing was virtually spill-proof. Which may be as true as it is irrelevant. Some dude might dump a bucket of strychnine in our water reservoir and boast that he didn't get any on him, but we really don't care about his laundry.
The state of Alaska established a Permanent Fund made up of oil money and designed to provide for future generations once the oil runs out. They cut every citizen a check from it every year. You could dang near make a living off it if you had enough kids, and weren't particular about how well you fed them.
It's an interesting concept. It acknowledges that the resource being extracted is finite while doing nothing to slow down the extraction. The fund is an example of a certain narrow kind of prudence, but it also has the side benefit of neatly co-opting the citizenry and ensuring plenty of political will to continue the pillage. There will be no examining the prudence of that.
Alaskans do have some justification for thinking of themselves as exceptional, independent, rugged frontiersmen. This is not a group that's going to whine about an arugula shortage; this is a group standing proud, with a bear gun in one hand and a warm dividend check in the other.
Meanwhile, this year, as Alaska's winter got shipped off to Atlanta on the polar vortex, we can't help but think of the old saw about the fellow who was able to sell ice to Eskimos. It doesn't take that good a salesman anymore. The Iditarod got off to its ceremonial start in Anchorage only after quantities of snow were trucked in and parceled out in a tight lane on the city street. Spectators watched from dry pavement and people manned the intersections to shovel the snow back in place after traffic was let through.
The dogs know it's all their effort and elation that will get the sled to Nome, but as for us, we don't even use our muscles anymore and we don't remember how we're designed to work. Instead we've built ourselves a big engine and driven our sled over the mountaintop and now we're riding it straight into the sea with no brakes. We're flying behind it with every other living thing, like the tar-baby of doom. I'll be dead before we hit the ocean but I feel sorry for the kids, and the caribou.