For Want of a Comma

In a recent celebrated court case, the judge wrote “For want of a comma, we have this case.” The suit was between some Maine dairy drivers and their company, and the court sided with the drivers based on the absence of the beloved Oxford comma. While it’s not headline news, it’s an interesting win for the side that uses commas correctly. Read about it here.

Ever since I’ve cared about writing, I’ve seen the logic and wisdom of the Oxford (or serial) comma used in a sentence’s list of items to CLEARLY signal the writer’s intent. Yet, among grammar nerds, this little curly cousin to the period continues to instill polarized opinions.

At work, I am required to go by AP Style for externally shared content, which states (in must cases) don’t use an Oxford comma, although their rule explanation does allow it in complex lists. I think by then you’ve reached independent clause territory in many cases where Mr. Semicolon needs to make an appearance. Internal documents I put the comma back in, corporate rebel that I am! No, not really an anarchist, just want my meaning and intent to be clear.

I have tried to explore the reason and logic (assuming there is some) behind the Oxford comma’s absence, but the answers do not fully make sense to me. Here’s the current explanation from AP Stylebook:

“Commas in a series are for clarity and prevention of ambiguities. In a simple series, a comma before the last item isn’t essential for clarity, so AP Style doesn’t use a comma in that instance. In series with more complexity, a comma may be needed for clarity, so AP Style allows a comma before the last item in such cases.”

I love their simple series excuse. I now offer these simple list examples which show a lot of ambiguity not to mention confusion when the Oxford comma is MIA:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

“She took a photograph of her parents, the president and the vice president.”

To be fair, it all comes down to clear meaning and a little rewriting can often clear up confusion and avoid the comma issue. An Oxford comma isn’t always needed, but I prefer it in most cases. Why confuse the reader when it’s easily avoidable?


Here I Go Again

The coming of spring brings anticipation for more pleasant activities than those of the frigid winter: gardening, green things, walking without 10 lbs of clothing…and time for the annual list of things to fix up in the old house!

I bought my 1920s bungalow six years ago with the naive thought “I’ll have this place fixed up six months…one year tops.” Six YEARS later and I’m…close!

As with all old house remodeling, and those who have done this before know this well (while those who haven’t should pay attention), you can plan all you want but the house goes by its own plans. Serendipity and surprise go hand in hand when thinking “I’ll just tear out this wall and put in a bigger closet door!” The simple notion of “tearing out” doesn’t really do justice to discovery, adaptation, and the ensuing requisite six trips to the local hardware/building store during said tear out. But, with patience (and a healthy stock of band-aids), things do get accomplished, even if not exactly as planned.

This year’s much-anticipated remodel falls to that holy grail of comfort for an old house: removing the old hot water heating boiler and installing central air and heat. Life after this year’s effort will be far more comfortable, although nothing beats the heat of the old boiler systems: constant, simple, quiet (excluding the comforting creaks and groans of pipe expansions). But time and toil wears everything down and this old boiler is now below 40% efficiency, so time to move it to the old boiler’s rest home down the street.

As always when remodeling an old house, one action causes two, which in turn causes four, which– you get the idea. The new HVAC will, in order of fun, result in 1) moving a LOT of furniture in the house to gain access to remove the baseboard radiators and install grilles, 2) moving all sorts of crap around in the basement to make room for the new furnace, 3) require wall and baseboard repairs and paint where the old baseboard strips were, 4) domino into new flooring in the two rooms with carpet and linoleum (you think the original flooring installers neatly installed those all the way to the walls under the baseboard radiators?), and 5) an unknown delight. There’s always an unknown delight when working on an old house. Always.

When it’s all done (by end of May!) the summer should be far more pleasant and the utility bills far lower. Definite win-win, but I’m running out of house remodel projects after this big one. Not that that’s a bad thing, I just won’t know how to act if something major’s not in flux each year in this old house.


Green With Envy No More

At last fall’s Columbus Pen Show I visited the Franklin-Cristoph booth, my first time handling and playing with their fountain pens. I lusted after the emerald-green P66 and thought “someday.” Although the temptation was strong that day, especially after spending some time with their test pens, most notably the Masuyama fine cursive italic nib, I resisted committing.

Someday, as we all know, eventually shows up. Last week I ordered and received my long-anticipated emerald-green P66 with, you guessed it, the Masuyama fine cursive italic nib (despite the photos, I opted for the steel, not the gold, nib; the reputation of these steel nibs is pretty strong). The pen came with a small, leather zip case which I really like using. I’m not usually one for a case, preferring to drop the pen in a shirt or pants pocket and go about things. But this time the case is really speaking to me. For starters, it’s fairly small, so not a burden to carry. For another, and by purpose, the P66 has no clip, so the case is a useful protector.

This pen is a writer for me, as in, long sessions of journaling or free writing. To that end, I wanted a lighter, smaller than usual pen and the P66 is both of those. Additionally, I’ve always dislike feeling cap threads where my fingers rest above the nib, and the Franklin-Cristoph’s have an ingenious wide-thread capping system that puts these threads out of fingertips. The P66 is a very good feel and heft, posted or not posted.

I did pause in ordering the emerald green over the ice models, whose rough inside clear barrels make for dazzling effects interacting with the wondrous ink colors. I read one review where the author admitted he’s spent about as much time the first two weeks with his F-C ice just staring at and rolling the ink around to see the effect! I have enough distractions when I write, thank you, so decided that was not (yet) a good idea for me. Not saying whether my next F-C won’t be an ice model, but for this primary writer my love for the emerald-green color won over.


Just .5k a Day

GVWP-HabitEvery habit has, at its root, an obsessive need to ingrain itself into our days and lives. Some habits are needed for health and longevity, like stop smoking or eating healthy, while others are more like wearing comfy clothes: we don’t know we need those, but we really do!

Inspired by one of the few podcasts I listen to (Portfolio Life by Jeff Goins), I’m working on embedding a new daily writing habit: writing 500 words a day, every day, all months, all year long. Always.

Why just 500 words? Surprisingly, part of the magic is it’s not a threatening goal to reach, and for those time-challenged not difficult to work in 10–20 minutes to hit the daily goal.

What I’m finding with this approach is I’m dumping less garbage on the page knowing there’s that limit and I need to tell a complete story each time. Part of the modern writer’s bane is how easy it is to fast-type-like-crazy thinking quantity will distill down to quality like properly ground coffee into your cup of anticipated delight.

Writers should know (and if they don’t, they do now!) that improvement only comes through practice. Waiting for inspiration to appear or a beloved block of free time to open up, or even waiting for that isolated cabin with the roaring fire to seriously write something good are all a fool’s game. The only path to writing better is through writing frequently and consistently, without fail.

I’m only in a few weeks for this new practice (which I’m dubbing .5kd) but I’m seeing a couple of some interesting insights. First, 500 words for a fast typist is about 10+ minutes of work, a duration that does not exact scream “practicing writer.” Knowing that I have that ceiling to hit, I’ve found I slow down and think between lines and paragraphs. My mind seems to be organizing and structuring my 500 word piece as I’m working, a practice that wasn’t formerlly there in the old get-down-as-much-as-you-can first effort. Second, I feel more purposeful in telling a story than merely racing to the end of a first draft so I can begin the real task of weaving thoughts and words coherently together in the requisite second draft.

I’m sensing that the overal result of this approach is going to put me at least one draft (maybe two!) ahead of the old ways, and increase my skills faster and better through this process. It’s too early to tell if all that is true, but it feels like the trend.

At 500 words, one can fit this in even the busiest of days without too much effort. For those of us (raising my hand high) who have found their best creative flow occurs early in the morning, achieving a 15–20 minute goal each day versus the old one hour or more commitment is much easier. And if it’s easier, the habit will stick.




Place. Home. Location. Are these synonymous? As I give more thinking weight to where I’ll live once I’ve completed the traditional job cycle, retire, and proceed down the path labeled retirement (not in the stereotypical sense, but shift from being controlled to controlling what I do), I’m pondering all that it means to choose (versus by default) where to live.

Place, in this wide sense, is both the physical structure defining one’s domicile, and the civilized structure where it’s located. Call it town, village, city, woods, or whatever, where ones home physically sits takes on more significance when one realizes this could be it: this could be the last home to live in before it’s time for senile, bed-pan days.

My parents controlled their place pretty far into their human spans, with my father passing while they lived in their choice, and my mother a blessed short time in assisted living (more like an apartment than nursing home). That is, for many, the optimal path: control the where throughout the when and rely on elderly societal systems as little as possible when the end draws near.

While health, capabilities, and mental faculties all play pivotal roles in these choices, for my parents their third variable in their equation was their stuff. Lots of stuff. Said stuff had veto power on which dwelling to ensure no stuff was left behind. Said stuff dictated the need for big rooms, big closets, and big dusting chores. I remember one of the early Florida high-rise apartments they lived in was barely large enough for their stuff. My father, being the progenitor of my ability to spatial see things fitting, used his determination like a bridge-building engineer would, to get everything to fit. This apartment, however, more resembled a furniture store with its labyrinth-like foot paths through the wood and fabric filling each room seemingly to the max, yet allowing these secondary human residents to move about the maze. Did I mention lots of stuff?

I tell that story to emphasize why I’ll be more prepared than they for my next, since I’ve begun a healthy pursuit of stuff minimalism. Oh, not the true, sterile twig-and-a-cushion approach magazines love to visually offer, but a minimalism that fits my credo: I keep what I will honestly use, gives me joy, or provides a functional service for my life and its pursuits. Some of that definition is too broad, but in reality I am tight with the rules.

Embracing minimalism has some interesting benefits, from less space to more time and fewer responsibilities. All my stuff is used frequently (or, on my rules, it moves on to another to enjoy). I do have keepsakes, but only a few. And I have no parental urge to drag a bunch of spawn-destined stuff through my remaining years just so my boys can stare at it and think “Why did Dad think we’d want this?” Or worse: “Hey bro, can you believe Dad had this??” They already have what they need and like for the most part. Sure, there’s a few family hand-me-downs, but emphasis on the few. I remember my grandmother passing and none of her kids or grandkids or great-grandkids by then, could use anything. Everything ended up filling my parent’s garage for later donation, and that timeless cycle repeated itself after my parent’s passing.