It takes a nation of millions not to read them.

In Which Maow Throws Up on Some of the Things but Not All of the Things

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gak \ˈgak\ v. to whork up a hairball or other vomitus, as a cat does; also, n. the substance thereof
gakked; gak•king; gak•ker

I’m a fairly heavy sleeper. As such, I long fretted fatherhood, certain that I would most likely sleep through the wailing of my child and later face the wrath and recriminations of my sleep-deprived wife.

Then cats entered my life.

At which point I learned that the clutching, gulping, premonitory sound of a cat in the throes of gakking up a hairball — though much subtler and more subdued than a baby’s shrill cries — is enough to pierce my veil of sleep and catapult me into action.

Of course, Maow used to sleep with us, right there on the bed, so we were more likely to hear her when she went into her prelaunch countdown. But as we fumbled out of our slumber, from zero to 60 in mere seconds, we still faced two immediate challenges:

1. Could we get the lights on quickly enough?
2. Could we find a magazine quickly enough?

The latter of these, of course, is the critical element. The availability and proximity of a magazine or newspaper — long since read and kept on hand only to be sacrificed so that our carpet or comforter might be stain-free — is paramount, particularly the part about proximity. Because every second counts, and the fewer seconds devoted to a panicked search, the more time available to give one’s cat an approved target.

Because periodicals tend to be filed away neatly, tossed aside indiscriminately, or relegated to the recycling bin, I had suggested that perhaps we should buy a dustpan and hang it from a nail or hook on the wall. A solution dedicated to a singular problem, situated in a place where we’d always be able to find it when time was of the essence. One for the bedroom, one for the TV room — the two rooms in which we passed the most time — should do the trick.

We never executed this plan. We fumbled for light switches and darted across rooms and back again, sometimes more successfully than others. But we never followed through on any kind of emergency gak protocol.

And so it occurred last April or thereabout that the Spring 2016 issue of my alma mater’s magazine, The Jayhawk Journalist, arrived in the mail. After I had paged through it and read at length about the retirement of a favorite professor of mine, I set it aside and didn’t think much about it … until the next time Maow started to gak.

There it was. Right place. Right time. That time and, well, every time thereafter.

Because after the magazine caught the first of Maow’s gaks, I just rinsed it off at the bathroom sink, let it dry, then returned it to a discreet but convenient location until such time as it was again needed. For the next eight or nine months I did this, and over time the magazine became warped with repeated usage, rinsing and drying.

The spring issue’s cover subject was a fellow KU alumna who is now associated in some capacity with a vineyard and winery in Oregon. More than once I entertained the notion that I might someday cross paths with this woman and pause — “Excuse me. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” — until it occurs to me that, “Oh, yeah, you’re the woman my cat throws up on,” at which juncture I must sheepishly remove myself from the conversation.

Finally, a month or so ago, I sojourned to Bed Bath & Beyond to pick up a few items, and at long last I procured a new plastic dustpan. It’s a little bigger than the task requires — I had only the one to choose from, as, oddly enough, Bed Bath & Beyond doesn’t offer a selection of dustpans that aren’t attached to brooms — but it is an exemplar of its form, a damn fine American-made dustpan.

Except that Maow is terrified of the thing.

The drill has always been, whenever she begins expelling something from her esophagus, I’ll kneel beside her and put a hand softly on her back — partly to calm her, partly to keep her in one place — then slide the magazine in front of her until she defaces it. There are usually two or three stages to this, so I may have to follow her a few steps while she works up her next expulsion, but she’s always been pretty cooperative.

Until now.

Now when I slide the dustpan in front of her, she bolts from it, wide-eyed with terror, as though I’m the feline Grim Reaper bidding her to gaze upon her reflection in the blade of my scythe. Which, in the absence of a readily available alternative, is how I ended up with puke in three places on the TV room carpet today.

It may also explain her historical disdain of our kitchen lineoleum, which has always been right there, just a few steps away. Slick surfaces. Who knew?

The good news? It’s March. The Spring 2017 Jayhawk Journalist should show up in the mail before too long.


Written by Shepcat

March 8, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Life

Tagged with

The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.

I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.

Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel

Jon Polito 1950-2016

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Allow me to share with you again one of my top three all-time L.A. memories:

On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, I attended the New Beverly Cinema’s 9:25 p.m. screening of Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen’s essential 1990 entry in the gangster genre.

I had scouted out my closest-as-possible-to-dead-center seat and was slumped down, settling in, waiting for the movie to start. And who should walk in and sit down in the next row, directly in front of me? Jon Polito, who plays Johnny Caspar, the Italian mob boss and foil to Irish mobsters Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the movie I am there to see.

By the standards of the New Beverly — which at that time and for some time afterward was rundown and a little seedy, with squeaky, rattily upholstered seats and dim lighting that hid any number of other flaws and scars — Polito was impossibly elegant. He wore pressed trousers and a blazer with an open-collar shirt and looked as though he may have come over from a party, although it was such a comfortable look on him that — who knows? — probably he was just that casually elegant in everyday life.

I was a fan, not just of his work with the Coens but also his role as Det. Steve Crosetti on Homicide. And yet I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything to him — even though he was right there. But a braver audience member approached to say hello and give voice to the question burning in all our minds: “What are you doing here?”

Polito replied that hadn’t seen the movie in years and noticed it was playing at the New Beverly, so he came down to check it out. Just that simple.

And so it was that I, who love character actors, had my most meta experience in a lifetime at the movies, sitting behind one of the best, who laughed loudest at some of his own lines, as if he had forgotten what a great part the Coens had written for him.

We lost Jon Polito yesterday. And thus endeth our lesson in — hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — ethics.


Written by Shepcat

September 2, 2016 at 10:59 am

(Blurry) Pictures at an Exhibition

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Date: Sunday, October 18, 2015
Time: 5:20 p.m. screening
Film: Crimson Peak in 2D
Location: Theater 11, AMC Kent Station, Kent, WA

I would imagine that the average moviegoer either doesn’t notice or simply doesn’t complain as often as they should when the movie they have paid to see on the big screen is less vivid than what they’d see at home on their own TV.

I am not the average moviegoer. I used to be in pictures, as they say, and this technological trend toward projection compromised by the “advancements” made in 3D exhibition troubles me on behalf of both the audience, who pays its hard-earned money for a cinematic experience they can’t get at home, and the artists, who spend thousands of hours poring over every aspect of their films to make that experience meaningful.

Some evenings you gamble and are pleasantly surprised. Other evenings you just know, the moment you sit down, that the projection is going to be less than stellar.

This particular evening fell into the latter category. We could tell during the trailers that the Sony 4K projection was too dim by half, and sure enough, when I looked over my shoulder at the projection booth, I saw two projected images on the glass, one stacked atop the other. Meaning that the 2D movie we paid to see was being projected on a 3D-equipped system that had not had — or, more likely, could not have — its polarization deactivated for the advertised 2D screening.

This was all too evident during an early master shot in Crimson Peak, a daytime exterior of Victorian-era Buffalo, New York. Simply stated, a scene shot in broad daylight should be vivid with detail, but when even a scene such as this looks dingy and gray, the problem lies in the projection, and it’s only going to get worse when the action moves indoors.1

Just because Crimson Peak is a gothic romance in the Hammer Films tradition doesn’t mean everything in it is meant to be dark. Guillermo Del Toro is a craftsman who has thoughtfully and meticulously layered exquisite details into this film. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen lighted every shot in the film very specifically so that certain of those details stand out and others recede at the right moments, so that the faces of the actors can be seen, so that the work of production designers and set dressers and costumers and FX artists is spotlighted, as it were, for optimal effect from one moment to the next. All of that is lost in a badly projected screening.

We left the screening about 10 minutes into the picture, and our money was courteously refunded to us by the friendly, if not apparently knowledgeable, AMC theater staff.2 In point of fact, AMC lost money on us twice Sunday, as we had originally intended to take in a double feature of Crimson Peak and Ridley Scott’s The Martian. However, our experience with the former discouraged us from sticking around for the latter.

Instead we drove across town for a 7:40 p.m. screening of Crimson Peak at the Century Federal Way — a Cinemark theater that operates Barco projection systems and which has never failed me from a projection standpoint. The difference was as apparent as dusk versus day or, in this instance, the difference between a young girl in a dimly lit room being accosted by an indistinct black mass and that same young girl in a candlelit room being accosted by an enrobed black figure with defined facial features and clearly articulated fingers. (Incidentally, the Cinemark promo that now runs before the feature presentation literally ends with the phrase, “Illumination by Barco,” indicating that they know they are not in the business of merely projecting a moving image.)

Because of my previous experiences — now reinforced by this most recent experience — my modus operandi has long been to avoid AMC and Regal Cinemas theaters (both of which employ Sony 4K systems) until a film I want to see has been in release for at least three weeks. By that point, a film has typically been pushed out of the larger screening rooms by incoming new releases and moved “down the hall,” as it were, into a screening room more likely to have dedicated 2D projection uncomplicated by 3D polarization.

I advise everyone whose options are necessarily limited by the predominance of one of these two theater chains in their town to follow this rule of thumb. And if a Cinemark theater, with its superior Barco projection system, is within reasonable driving distance, I highly recommend going out of one’s way to patronize it, particularly on the opening weekend of a new release, if one is so inclined.

I can appreciate the business model that dictates how exhibitors must operate in this new digital world. It’s just that sometimes I wish they seemed to appreciate more the business model that dictates our choices as moviegoers.
UPDATE, 10/19/15: Not 40 minutes after I tweeted my post to the three theater chains I name-check above, I received a nice tweet from AMC Guest Services (@AMCHelps) informing me that they’d follow up with the Kent theater about their filters and settings.

I sent a follow-up tweet thanking AMC and asking whether Sony has provided theaters with a workaround for retracting the polarizers on their 4K projectors. (When I last investigated this issue, Sony projectors had polarizers that were locked in place and required Sony’s intervention to remove or retract. Whether newer models are more accessible and theater staff–friendly is kind of irrelevant if exhibitors aren’t required to upgrade their equipment every few years.) AMC responded that they’d try to find out. I don’t honestly anticipate that AMC would throw a business partner under the bus by supplying that intel to some random schmuck with a blog and a Twitter account, but I’ll keep you apprised just the same.
UPDATE, 10/21/15: @AMCHelps followed up to tell me that Sony has provided no workaround that they’re aware of, but “this issue is definitely on the radar of our sight and sound teams.” As well it should be.

Ultimately, I have a bigger beef with Sony here than I do with the theater chains, because it’s Sony that developed and mass-manufactured a projector system on which only its representatives can make adjustments and corrections.

This forces Sony-equipped theater chains and their individual theater management teams to make a one-time prediction regarding how many dedicated 3D and 2D screening rooms, respectively, they require to satisfy market demands. Opt for too few 3D screens, and a multiplex might have to choose between blockbusters on particularly big release weekends; opt for too many 3D screens, and multiplexes by necessity will end up showing some of its patrons dimly projected 2D films because they can’t afford to just let a screening room sit empty and unused during one or more time slots.

Here are AMC Kent Station’s showtimes for today, Wednesday, October 21:

Bridge of Spies   1:00 4:10 7:20 10:30
Crimson Peak: The IMAX Experience   1:20 4:15 7:15 10:10
Crimson Peak * 10:45   2:30 5:20 8:10
Goosebumps 3D 12:30 3:00 5:30 8:00 10:40
Goosebumps 11:15 1:50 4:30 7:00 9:40
Pan 3D **   1:30 4:10    
Pan 11:30 2:20 5:00 7:40 10:10
The Martian 3D 11:20 12:20 3:30 6:50 10:00
The Martian   1:15 4:25 7:45  
The Walk 3D **** 11:10   4:50   10:30
The Walk ****   2:00   7:40  
Hotel Transylvania 2 12:35 2:50 5:10 7:25 9:50
The Intern 10:50 1:40 4:40 7:10 10:20
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials **       7:30 10:35
Sicario 11:00 1:45 4:45 7:50 10:45
The Visit ***   1:10      
Back to the Future I, II and III marathon ***     4:30 7:00 9:30

So by all appearances, AMC Kent Station’s 14 screens break down as: one IMAX, five 3D and eight 2D.

* Clearly this is Theater 11, the 3D screening room where we saw Crimson Peak in 2D.

** Pan screens twice in 3D in the afternoon, then apparently cedes its screening room to two evening showings of Maze Runner in 2D.

*** It is reasonable to assume that because The Visit is screening only once on this day, it is making room for the Back to the Future marathon to take up the subsequent three showings on that screen.

**** That leaves The Walk, which by all appearances is alternating 3D and 2D showings on the same screen.

So if we set aside the IMAX screening room as its own separate enterprise, that leaves a total of 65 possible daily showtimes spread across 13 screens, and in eight of those screenings — four of Crimson Peak and two each of The Walk and Maze Runner, or 12 percent of the theater’s exhibition day — they’re going to be giving customers an inferior 2D experience, all because they have no means of manually retracting the polarization on their own projectors.

Worst of all, unless a moviegoer can read a schedule of theater showtimes the way Rain Man can count cards in Vegas, he doesn’t know he’s getting an inferior experience until he’s already driven across town, hunted for a parking space, paid for his ticket and taken his seat. In a Sony-equipped theater, this amounts to cinematic Russian roulette.
1 This is, coincidentally, the second time I’ve experienced bad projection of a period drama co-starring Mia Wasikowska, the previous occasion being a screening of Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre at a theater in Sacramento. That theater was screening in 35 mm, though, and either couldn’t afford to regularly replace its Xenon bulbs or, worse, was operating under the delusion that it was saving money and extending bulb life by dimming its projectors.

2 Look, I get it: These are most likely the kids who are given the keys to lock up at the end of the night — I didn’t see anyone in the front of the house who looked particularly managerial to me — and I don’t know to what extent their employers have briefed or educated them about projection, because in the new digital world, an entire week of exhibition can be scheduled on and operated by computer software, and entire days probably pass without a single human soul ever setting foot in a projection booth.

I once had a kid from the concession stand at a Regal Cinemas theater assure me that there was nothing wrong with the projection of the extremely dark screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo I was enduring there. It was a repeat screening for me; I had seen Hugo once before, properly illuminated, and knew how the film was supposed to look, so I had clearly been sold a 2D screening on a 3D projector. That kid is the primary reason I’m now emboldened to leave any screening I’m dissatisfied with and just ask for my money back, because there’s likely no one in-house who can just dash up to the projection booth and remove the polarizer from the projector — if it’s even a system with retractable polarization to begin with.

Written by Shepcat

October 19, 2015 at 11:58 am

Posted in Movies

You Want Me on That Wall: The Case for Copyeditors

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“God is in the details.”

— Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

I’m not like you. The great majority of you, anyway.

I can never truly read for leisure or pleasure alone.

By which I don’t mean that I’m incapable of enjoying what I read or of selecting something purely frivolous or escapist instead of Serious, Important Literature. Rather, I don’t merely read anything I read.

I proofread. Everything I read.

Everything. From first-edition books to takeout menus.

I wasn’t always like this. Not even as a journalism major at the University of Kansas, though certainly the seed was planted there. Little did I know when I purchased my first Associated Press Stylebook sometime around 1987 that it would become one of the most important books in my life, alongside Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. I recall finding it ridiculous that we were assigned to memorize sections of the Stylebook for class — until some years later, when it occurred to me that, through repeated use, I was absorbing whole entries and sections of the Stylebook into my everyday usage.

My true immersion into proofreading came in my first real-world journalism job, with a national gardening magazine published in Kansas City. We were a small staff, but all four editors proofed every article in every issue, regardless of who was a piece’s primary editor. In this way, I learned from my three experienced superiors every possible way to look at a piece of writing, to notice things that others didn’t, whether as a correction or a callout. Soon I was reading everything this way, as though I was trying to catch an error or an opportunity before anyone else could.

It was an occupational hazard, then, and one from which there was no turning back. But there’s also an element of sport to it, as well as a sense that what we do has great value, even if our rapidly changing world is increasingly blind to that value.

Whether you realize it or not, I and my brothers and sisters of the red pen are teaching you to read and write better, if only by osmosis, if only for the time being. Because whatever you failed to understand or learn or pay attention to in school all those years — or, to be fair, whatever your school systems with their standardized curricula may have failed to impart — we, copyeditors and proofreaders, are teaching you on the sly every day. Provided, of course, that you’re reading something edited or proofread.

If the greater volume of printed or published material that you read in a given day — newspapers, magazines, books, even online publications — has had our eyes on it first, you are learning from us by small degrees to get the fine details right in your own writing. Proper use of an em dash or en dash? That was most likely us. You’re welcome. You know the difference between further and farther? You may have brushed up against it in eighth-grade English, but if you’re my age, you’ve spent the last 30 years or so seeing them used correctly in edited material, and if you’ve paused to think about them at all, it’s because we thought about them first.

Unfortunately the egalitarian Internet — virtually unregulated, predominantly unedited — is taking over the way we consume information. And in many ways, just plain taking over.

Because as the Internet has presented itself as a more efficient delivery mechanism, a leaner, faster alternative to print journalism, it has been eating away at the readership and circulation and, consequently, the advertising revenue of newspapers and magazines, which are increasingly called upon to adapt or die in the face of this new electronic world order. And increasingly, to the great detriment of print, the ax has fallen on copy desks as much as any other department.

Even today’s best online outlets are more blog network than journalistic endeavor1, and they give their content providers free rein to post quickly without policing the quality of the writing before it goes online to be devoured or ignored over a much more truncated lifespan. Even one last read-through by the author would benefit a lot of online content, but in the battle for relevance and exclusivity, writers seldom bother to take the time. Magazine stories live a week? Newspapers live a day? The average online post measures its timeliness by the hour, even the minute, each too precious to worry about the odd typo or bewildering placeholder copy that was never cleaned up.

Text-message abbreviations and emojis aren’t actually teaching us anything about the economy of language. Or about language, period. For all the shorthand, shortcuts and slang we create, the English language is a vast and beautiful thing that still deserves our attention in order to thrive and to challenge those who read it, write it and speak it to better do so, at least on those occasions when it matters most.

A former boss messages me occasionally — though with greater frequency of late — asking why it apparently doesn’t drive me insane when I see social media littered with grammatical errors committed by otherwise educated people who should know better. I explain that I gave up the fight on a personal level a long time ago. Those people are my audience, the ones I hope will benefit from my expertise at some point, whether they read something I wrote (and rewrote) myself or edited on behalf of another, or seek out my assistance with something they’ve written. (It happens occasionally, to my great delight.) My real beef is against those with the reach, the authority and the wherewithal, who abuse their position by cutting corners and neglecting their responsibility to their own audience. In short: anyone who should be paying me (or another capable editor) to make them look good but doesn’t.

To wit, the founder of a small publishing empire once looked me right in the eye after I showed him a copy of one of his glossy newsstand magazines that I had red-lined from cover to cover and told me that proofreading such as I had just demonstrated exhaustively upon his own publication was largely subjective and (the kicker) “not in our business model.” I find it unforgivable that a publisher would be so dismissive about the content he was publishing, that he would care more about collecting your newsstand and subscription dollars than about giving you something of actual, meaningful value in return.

And while his categorizing proofreading as subjective is arguably true on a microscopic level, in the grander, big-picture scheme, his statement is utter bollocks. Good copyediting and proofreading is about thoughtful attention to every detail, applied consistently throughout the larger body of work.2 Because language and grammar are casually butchered every day — in print and online — by well-meaning people who don’t know any better, who don’t have the time, who don’t have an eye for minute or even obvious detail, and their butchery is broadcast to the public at large because there is no goalie in place to stop the puck.

Spell-check, like a condom, is only 98 percent effective. (I’ve disabled it on my own devices; my margin of error is lower.)

Prepositions aren’t interchangeable.

Neither are:

  • and and &;
  • affect and effect;
  • that and which;
  • that and who;
  • who and whom;
  • the aforementioned further (conceptual distance) and farther (physical distance);
  • lay and lie (which no one gets right, ever);
  • fewer than and less than;
  • more than (quantities or populations) and over (time or amounts);
  • like and as;
  • where (location), when (time) and in which (context);
  • to, too and two (yes, really);
  • its and it’s;
  • your and you’re; and
  • there, their and they’re.

Subject-verb agreement misses the mark.

Participles dangle with abandon.

Content may lack the appropriate context.

There’s typesetting minutiae — like correcting the habit of people trained on typewriters to put two spaces after a period, or adding a space where one is missing, or ensuring that an apostrophe that replaces characters (e.g., ’87 for 1987 or rock ’n’ roll for rock and roll) is a “9” and not a “6.” (Yes, that’s absolutely a thing. Look closer.)

And correct punctuation — for which I profess an almost unseemly passion — has everything to do with the meaning of what you’re reading. (First and foremost: apostrophes, motherf***ers.)

All of which only scratches the surface.

These are things I care about. Deeply. All because once upon a time, someone paid me — and not exorbitantly — to care about them, and today almost no one does. This is not elitism; language and grammar belong to the masses, not the classes. I and my compatriots of the red pen toil at a craft, as mathematically precise as diamond cutting and as basic as masonry, and we toil for all. At the end of the day, don’t you want us to be the ones teaching your children — by tiny increments, in nanoseconds that leave valuable data imprinted on their gray matter — to master, or at least better appreciate, the language that is their birthright? Or would you rather entrust that duty to whomever or whatever’s on the transmitting end of their smartphones?

Whether you know it or not, you want me on that wall.
1 Worse still are the aggregators. Consider a site like The Huffington Post, which began as a source of rigorous journalism and insightful political commentary but has since mutated into an uncontainable Hydra of global content aggregation, posting everything from world-news stories to celebrity nip-slip photos from across the World Wide Web. HuffPo still generates original content, but these days its bread is buttered by redirecting users to articles and features by other content providers that seldom exercise the same editorial standards, hence cheapening the brand of the aggregator.

2 And here, especially for those outside the journalism and publishing worlds, I cannot stress enough the importance of an internal style sheet, particularly if your company or organization is in a business or industry that speaks its own specific language or jargon that requires proper usage or throws around a lot of acronyms that require definition. Perhaps most importantly, though, an internal style sheet should be explicit about the small stuff — such minute details as whether your company prefers “US” to “U.S.” and “UK” to “U.K.,” whether or when certain proprietary words should be capitalized, or whether there should be a space on either side of an em dash.

Written by Shepcat

July 20, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Posted in Work, Writing

A Profile in Courage, Whether You Like It or Not

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ESPN, whose ‘S’ stands for “Sports” and which incessantly touts itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” while making us all pay through the nose for sports in our cable bills, whether we watch televised sports or not — that ESPN announced last week that this year’s ESPY Awards would honor Caitlyn Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Instantaneously, voices rang out throughout social media to dismiss the notion of Ms. Jenner as courageous and to assert instead that the measure of true courage is that which is displayed by soldiers in battle, and how dare ESPN attempt to redefine courage in such a brazen and presumptuous fashion. One such individual — who, to his credit, was quite good-natured when confronted by the ironic true story behind his Google Images selection — went viral with a Facebook post whose grainy, dramatic “wartime photo” actually depicted action figures posed in an elaborate diorama. A bogus report circulated that Iraq war veteran and double amputee Noah Galloway was a runner-up for the Ashe award, though no actual vote was conducted.

Look, I get it. And I respect and honor the men and women who are out there every day fighting wars on our behalf and running into burning buildings that others are running out of and walking the beat in neighborhoods that many of us wouldn’t stray into in broad daylight. And certainly the timing of this particular news cycle didn’t help, falling as it did so close to Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day. But post-9/11 America has become entirely too reactionary and fetishistic about courage and patriotism and honor — I’ve perhaps been guilty of it in the past myself — to the point at which the oxygen has already been sucked out of any possible dialogue before it can be engaged.

So yes, when cast in such stark opposition to the service and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, it’s entirely too easy to pull up our mental image of 60-something Bruce Jenner, the laughingstock, the late-night monologue punch line, the nationally televised butt of jokes, the put-upon patriarch of the most narcissistic gaggle of women our fame-obsessed culture has yet produced. And it is unfortunate that this moment will be reduced by so many to the Vanity Fair cover spread and whatever tabloid and reality-TV fodder it generates for the unstoppable Kardashian machine.

I, however, am of a generation that still remembers the 20-something Bruce Jenner who, for one shining moment in time, was the greatest all-around male athlete in the world. When America pinned its hopes on him in the summer of 1976, he represented us in every way you would associate with the Olympic ideal, and he brought home the gold. Yet even Bob Costas, who owes his entire livelihood to sports and knows damn well who Bruce Jenner was then, has fretted that ESPN is making “a crass exploitation play … a tabloid play” when “they could have found someone who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would have been deserving of what that award represents.”

Whether or not people of my generation and the ones before it — including Bob Costas — can recognize it or will deign to acknowledge it, this is a Jackie Robinson moment in terms of our acceptance of transgender people.

Note: I don’t for a minute presume to characterize what Caitlyn Jenner’s transition might or should mean to anyone within the transgender community. I am, however, pointing out to Costas and every other “ordinary” of a certain age — particularly the menfolk — that this is the first time a transgender person has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, someone we know and particularly someone whom we’ve regarded by a certain standard of masculinity.1 So by confronting and contemplating the transition of someone who holds a certain position in our collective consciousness, we might be better prepared to accept that change in our neighbor and comprehend in some small way the enormity of that decision instead of writing it off as “a lifestyle choice.”

So again: How dare a sports broadcaster recognize this former athlete for her courage?

Well, if you’ve never held on to a secret that you were afraid to share even with your own family, if you don’t think hiding your true self from a cruel and judgmental public for 60 years is brave, if you don’t understand the agony of living a lie while the entire world is watching, if you don’t think finally breaking free from that prison to become the person you’ve always believed you were constitutes an act of courage, then neither I nor ESPN can help you.
1 And I hesitate to posit another analogy that might likewise be misinterpreted, but remember when Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive? Same thing. Someone we know. And just like that, mainstream America was challenged to examine the AIDS crisis with a great deal more empathy and sensitivity than we had exhibited before in our inglorious recent past.

Written by Shepcat

June 10, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Sports, Television

Tagged with

The Likeliest Demise

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Late one summer night in 1997 I was robbed at gunpoint, in front of my own house on a tree-lined residential street in midtown Kansas City. Sometime after 4 a.m., having survived the ordeal, observed the processing of the crime scene and, eventually, ID’d one of the perps from a photo array, my racing heart and adrenalized mind slowed down just enough for me to arrive at an oddly logical conclusion and the most spontaneous but fully realized decision of my life:

“If they can get to me here, they can get to me anywhere. … Might as well move to L.A.”

A month and a half later, I was there.

Eight years after that, I was circling another such decision, more pensively this time.

Personally, professionally, actuarially, I could feel my luck running out. Not that I had experienced anything in Los Angeles, of all places, quite as fearful as staring down the barrel of a gun, but there had been a few close calls — many traffic-related. Because L.A.1

In any event, it felt like time to go. So I went.

Now I’m back where I started, more or less: in the suburbs, on another tree-lined residential street. And though at a glance there does not appear to be as much to fear here, my mind still goes there from time to time. Because, as the old saw goes, most accidents and tragedies happen close to home.

How good are the locks on our doors, really? And would they make any difference at all to someone who was determined to get in? How often does a squad car turn down our street on a routine patrol? How much security, actual or imagined, are our tax dollars buying us?

We’re avid readers of our local paper’s police blotter, mostly for entertainment, and yes, most of the quote-unquote criminal activity in our burg is pretty half-assed — petty theft and domestic disturbances. But yeah, one pays attention to the addresses of the reported misdemeanors, lest that element make a foray past the imaginary boundary that separates us from them and offers us no real security to speak of.

It’s also worth noting that I’m middle-aged now — some days more than others — and that I’ve endured a couple of health-related episodes in the last few years that, while not edging me any closer to mortality, have at least made me consider the vulnerabilities of this vessel that moves me around from place to place.

Despite all those considerations, however, my imagination has zeroed in on what I believe, for the time being anyway, is the shortest distance between me and my maker.

Turns out, it’s only 25 yards.

That is, the 25 yards, give or take, between the corner of our street and our mailbox just up the block.

I think about it on rainy evenings, or evenings just after the rain, when the street is wet, and night has fallen before I remember that neither of us has retrieved the mail (or the recycling, as it most often tends to be). If it’s cold or wet enough, I’ll throw on my rain jacket, which, naturally, is black and does nothing to alert passersby to my presence.

There’s a streetlamp, but it stands so close to our neighbors’ tree as to be completely camouflaged by it. It illuminates the corner directly beneath it but does little to cast any light on, say, a pedestrian on the sidewalk just a few steps away.

Just below our corner the street winds out of a curve that, combined with the heedless velocity of many a motorist, shortens the reaction time of pretty much anyone at or near the corner or entering the flow of traffic, such as it is.

Put them all together, and all that’s missing from the equation is some jackass teenager with a noisy carload of friends or some soccer mom trying to fish a smartphone out of her cavernous purse before the seventh or eighth incantation of her regrettable ringtone before I’m jellying up the sidewalk and stepping toward the light. With my back to oncoming traffic, I’m at a visual disadvantage, but on my return, I’m always thinking, Tree. Tree. Streetlamp. Signpost. These four things and my once Jedi-like reflexes are all that stand between me and the likeliest demise I can conjure.

Think of it as you would Achilles’ heel. Absent motive — and don’t think that the possibility of someone tear-assing around that curve some night with malice and intent hasn’t at least once crossed my mind — cosmic or karmic opportunity must conspire with the available means and a singular method to thread a very small needle in order to punch my ticket. On the face of it, those are pretty great odds. And yet …

Achilles had his fated archer, so are my jackass teenager or distracted soccer mom really such remote possibilities?

Anyway, that’s the grim little scenario I think about for roughly three minutes a day. Perhaps I’ll dwell on it more if that old luckless feeling ever rears its head again.

In the meantime, I’ll be right here, behind our locked doors, in the relative security of our house, on this quiet tree-lined street in this idyllic residential neighborhood, waiting for those patient conspirators bacon and cheese to carry out the hit for which they’ve been contracted.
1 On one occasion, as I enumerated the various ways my number might come up in that city that has so many ways to kill you — from malice aforethought and criminal intent to the carelessness or inattentiveness of some random motorist — my friend Chris joked that his money was on lethal injection.

Written by Shepcat

May 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Life