Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner on April 24th left me with much to think about and  a lot of residual emotions, the greatest of which was anger.

It has not been that long ago that we ridiculed and tried to humiliate gay men in our society, leering oafs affecting a lisp and limping their wrists to imitate "queers," and all of this done publicly without shame. In 1990, when I first began teaching high school, teen boys regularly used the term "faggot" to jokingly refer to their friends—or anyone they wanted to bully.

In recent times, watching how the tabloids and late night comedians have treated Jenner, as if he is some kind of freak of nature, has reminded me of those benighted times when it was ok to be anti-gay. Part of me knows that, with time, we will get to a place where those who are transgender are welcomed and supported, as gay men and women are now. But we're not there yet, and as we slowly inch toward progress, I'm wondering how we can educate non-transgender members of the community to be sensitive in their speech. (If only I had a dollar for every time I said, "Actually, gay people prefer to be called 'gay'" in the '90s.) It's ok to be confused about gender identification, but let's try not to be cruel as we become educated about it.  Here, let me see if I can help with that a bit.

1. As Bruce Jenner said, being transgender is not a mental illness, and it certainly isn't a choice someone decides to make.

2. Yes, transgender people are born that way; from a very early age, they identify with the gender that is the opposite of their genetic determination, often thinking of themselves in the pronoun (he/she) that fits their identity, rather than the one that fits their DNA.

3.  Being transgender has to do with who you are, not who you want to sleep with. [Please, grammarians, cut me some slack or give me poetic license there; I'm trying to be consistent.] If it makes it easier, "Gender is not about genitals" has become somewhat of a rallying cry lately (although I have yet to see it on a sign). Thus, Bruce Jenner could say, "I am not a homosexual man. I'm a heterosexual man." How can this be, you ask, if his "soul" is that of a "woman," as he claimed in the interview? Because the same DNA that created his hangy down part and all those beautiful, rippling muscles we couldn't stop staring at in the glory days of the 1976 Olympics also determines which hormones compel him to act on instinctive urges, and for now, his testosterone tells him to bed with women.

Aren't we just "fearfully and wonderfully made," as Dr. Paul Brand says in his book by the same title?

I know that some of my evangelical Christian friends may be doing that "We love everyone, but..." stutter step they did when the ten percent of our population that is gay began to emerge from closets all around the country a while back. I expect to hear decrees against the so-called "sin" of body mutilation (if, in fact, a transgender person decides to do reassignment surgery). Christians will say, "You are in the body God gave you." I wouldn't disagree. But I would gently suggest that this is true of a baby born with a cleft palate or a heart defect. He, too, is in 'the body God gave him,' but we're not going to use that as a rationale to leave him that way, are we? No. Doctors will surgically construct a palate or replace a malfunctioning heart valve, and the infant will grow up to be a "normal," healthy individual. And for a transgender individual? Same. The earlier we allow transgender kids to follow the gender they feel instead of the gender we see, the healthier they are in terms of social adjustment.

Why is that last critically important? Because the suicide rate for our transgender folks is twenty-five times that of the general population.

Which is why Bruce Jenner said, "We're going to change the world." Absolutely. By going public—by opening his door and ushering everyone into his life to watch him transition, as he will be doing over the coming months, he is making a courageous statement. He is standing tall in the face of ignorance and criticism to say, as did (purportedly) Joseph Merrick, "I am not an animal." Jenner is willing to allow the most private aspects of his life to become public so that others will see he is not someone to be feared, but another soul to be embraced. 
This is what the Dalai Lama tweeted today:

"Deep down we must have a real affection for each other, a clear recognition of our shared status as human beings." Indeed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Earth Day! Got ice?

So there I was in the grocery store check-out line this morning, gathering up my two reusable bags (which I had, on my way in, forgotten, as I often do, and returned to the truck for, because that's just extra steps on my journey to be fitter and healthier, right?), and as I stepped away I heard the checker's helper ask the lady behind me, "Plastic ok?" Her response: "Can I have extra plastic bags, please? Like, a lot? We're running low on plastic bags at home."

Seriously?!? On Earth Day?!?



Which reminded me that I just wanted to mention a couple of things today:

1.  Here in Southern California, where water is scarce, the spring weather has been quite lovely (and mostly without precipitation). Folks can be seen everywhere carrying iced drinks—tea, soda, fancy coffee, fancy water. But ask yourself: Where do all those ice cubes go? I mean, if you think of ice as the water it is, and you imagine how many times a day someone throws a take-out cup in the trash with ice in it, that's a significant amount of water.

I keep an old pitcher out on the back patio that I use to water the potted plants. Now every morning when I give Sgt. Thomas Tibbs fresh water, I dump his day-old water into the pitcher. If I make iced tea (or happen to pick up a lovely tall unsweetened black tea from that one popular place because yet another student has given me yet another gift card), I dump the ice in there as well. And if it is a take-out cup, I rinse out the paper cup and the plastic lid (plastic straw still attached) and toss them in the recycle bin. Yes, I love Mother Earth that much.

2.  For those of you who love public radio as much as I do, you still have time to plant a tree today (because you're a good person and you love Mother Earth, too, and you really wanted to do something for Earth Day but you had to go to work) by donating to KPCC in Southern California. Click here, follow the clicky buttons, and when you donate—whatever you can afford—a tree will be planted. (Well, I mean, probably not at the precise moment you enter your card info. I mean, it's not instantaneous—but wouldn't that be cool?!?)

3.  Come on. Don't be like Extra-Plastic-Bags-Please lady. Break down and buy yourself a couple of reusable bags. Put them in the trunk of your car. Yes, you will forget them every single time for the first—How many repetitions does it take to "make something a habit"?—30 times or so. Make yourself walk back and get them, and you'll not only start to remember, you'll be able to shave a minute off your boring treadmill time. Over the course of a year, you'll keep hundreds of plastic bags from going into a landfill where they don't break down, they just float around. And if you guilt one other guy into doing the same, and he guilts one other guy, and so on, we could actually begin a true revolution. You know, like we used to talk about back in 1969 when the idea for Earth Day got started.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cautiously yet deliberately defending adverbs

This photo has nothing to do with today's post, I've just never been able to use it here before, so I thought I'd share. Yes, I took it. That's Boo Boo, finishing off my lunch (after the cat and I made a hasty retreat into the cabin when we saw him coming).

Sometime back a small online literary journal rejected a piece I'd written about rattlesnakes, or at least, my reflections following three all-too-close encounters with the deadly reptiles. The editors, who pride themselves on being "kind," sent the manuscript back to me "with notes," which amounted to three sentences. The first sentence questioned the veracity of the "memoir" piece. (I can actually understand this, given how much prevaricating has been going on in the interest of producing lively "true" stories. But my stubborn integrity won't allow me to embellish, so I guess I'm never going to get that big book deal about my risqué prison experiences.) The second sentence stated that the editor also passed on the story "due to the use of adverbs." The third sentence was an invitation to verify, revise and submit again.

Let's go back to that second sentence. Um... what?

So I guess this has been a thing for a while, but since I spend more time reading novels than I do perusing online sites that teach how to write them, I hadn't picked up on the current fad faux pas. Vilifying adverbs has now replaced Never use the passive voice which replaced Show, don't tell. I don't know what the fad was before Show, don't tell because I wasn't born yet. I mean, that fad predates my birth.

My friend and soon-to-be bestselling author, Michael Welker, is half my age and has his finger on the pulse of all that is current in today's publishing world, at least the independent, online aspect of it. Last year I did a quick proofread of the book he's working on, and we talked afterward about his generation's willingness to discard the awkward "his or her" pronouns and simply use "their" even when the antecedent is singular. "From what I read online, I think it's pretty much accepted practice now," he said. Like a knife in my heart....

So when this rejection came, I emailed him, and we began a conversation about those nasty adverbs, how they try to creep in [appear surreptitiously] and ruin everything in an otherwise great piece of writing. Bastards. Michael (because he considers thoughtfully—wait—delete "thoughtfully"—what I say, then goes looking for best practices) sent me an email a few days ago with a link to some chick's blog in which she completely and thoroughly nixes the use of adverbs. (See what I did there... defiantly?)


Yes, I get that a "good writer" (and just what the hell is that? Faulkner? Doctorow? Stephen King? Nicholas Sparks?) will be better served by choosing a strong verb over a "weak" one + adverb:

Kay typed forcefully as she vented.
Kay pounded the keyboard as she vented.

And I also get that dialogue will often sound tighter, more powerful, if the writer does not rely on adverbs to make her point:

"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay said wearily.
"Please stop speaking in absolutes," Kay sighed.

But in our quest to delete all adverbs, we can end up sounding amateurish. The English language only contains a finite number of verbs, and sometimes it's impossible to find one that offers a viable substitute:

"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer whispered seductively.
"Take off your clothes, gorgeous," Jennifer... What? "Cooed"? What goes there? Extremists will tell me to simply delete "seductively" and go with "whispered," insisting that the verb is enough to carry her intention. Is it? What if Jennifer is a heroin addict itching for her next fix and she is reciting the litany that has earned her quick money so many times in the past? What if she's the reincarnation of Nurse Ratched and she's being ironic as she preps another inmate for a strip search?

My point is this: As William Zinsser said, "Write tight." (And if you haven't yet read OnWriting Well, you haven't done a thorough study of your craft, in my humble opinion.) I mean, you can use the "Find" option in MSWord (type the letters "ly" in the Find box when prompted) to hunt down and kill every adverb in your manuscript (well, at least those ending in "ly"), but is doing so going to make your writing stronger? While it is important to understand why adverbs should, like salt, be used sparingly (oh snap! I did it again!), it is equally important to work toward a clear, concise flow.

If you're a staunch anti-adverbist and would like to challenge me, feel free to revise any of my sentences here in the comments below. (Be kind, please, or I'll delete you.)

If you're wondering whether I did "verify and revise"—well, of course I did. I rewrote the entire piece sans adverbs and resubmitted with an assurance that everything I said was absolutely (ok, no, I didn't really use "absolutely" in my cover email) true. Within days I received another rejection. But it was kind