Brutalist Birthing Center

Or: How I learned to stop looking to live with reusable project pieces

For a time, my daughter issued an edict: I could no longer say “mid-century modern” or any permutation thereof, including but not limited to MidCentury, MCM, or the diminutive “mid-mod.” She had grown tired of hearing me gush about this warehouse find or that junk shop purchase.

Growing up in my grandparents’ house on Forsythe Avenue was a mid-century fan’s dream. My grandfather was a designer by trade, and like pretty much everyone else drawing house plans or designing office parks from 1955-1970, he favored the clean, simple lines, the low-slung roofs, and the high, thin windows made so famous by designers with  names like Neutra, Saarinen, and Niemeyer. A good friend calls them “Brady Bunch Houses.”

I’m an unabashed fan of all things MidCentury, from coffee tables (I have a Dutch-teak with pencil legs and gull wing edges) to art. (A recent prized find is a 40-year-old knock off of a Rothko I found at Goodwill for $15. It’s hanging in the dining room.) Even the cars get my motor running, and I’d consider killing for a 1967 Lincoln Continental — the one with suicide doors. I spent seven years rescuing credenzas from dumpsters and refinishing a Red Lion table, and I was forever sending everything on the back seat — and more than a few times an unwittingly unbuckled passenger in the front — sailing to the floorboard for an emergency breaking after seeing a Pearsal lamp or George Nelson chair in a junk shop window. One of the biggest mistakes of my life came when I sold everything to move to Nashville.

Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the strange temporal anomaly that allowed Nashville to escape pretty much all design choices from c.1950-1970. In other words: there is precious little of my beloved Mid-Mod. One curious exclusion to this Whovianesque escapement of bright colors and roman brick seems to be Nashville’s West End neighborhood–where row after row of massive concrete hulks sit nestled in a city park.

The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer's offices lie.
The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer’s offices lie.

The particular school of architecture — brutalism — relies greatly on clean lines, poured concrete and, well, a brutal adherence to a design motif. My day job takes me to one such brutalist masterpiece (pictured LEFT) each day. Cool, subterranean parking beneath a five-story mass of poured concrete, complete with the signature, exposed anchor bolt holes and tell-tale 4×8 squares of the old plywood forms greet me each morning as I wheel my car into a parking spot.

Interestingly, this building has been the home to a number of businesses over the years–from lawyers to music industry professionals. These days, there’s a dentist, another ad agency and a record label on our floor. One of the stranger tenants, though, is the birthing center on the ground floor.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that I’ve witnessed the miracle of childbirth twice. It’s an amazing, albeit somewhat messy, experience, watching a new life enter this world. Childbirth is a beautiful occurrence, and it in no way gives me the willies. On the other hand, knowing that the McHipster Family is downstairs in suite three of a decidedly not medical facility squeezing out Sporty McHipster Jr. is just a little much for me, and so usually, I ignore the birth center’s presence, and it only registers on my radar on those rare occasions when I happen through the lobby to walk to Dose or Tzaziki’s for lunch.

My biggest problem isn’t the birthing center per se, but where the birthing center is in relation to my beautiful, brutalist haven. More precisely, how the birthing center’s location itself came to be–and what it used to be before it was what it was before the birthing center.

When the building opened in the 1960s, the entryway over the parking deck was a wide terrace, railed and, presumably decked with tables and chairs and ashtrays. This is, after all, the era of Donald Draper we’re talking about. But as West End became more dual-use (apartments and houses edged up to the busy business district), restaurants came in. Sometime in the early 1990s, this happened:

The terrace was built out into a copper-roofed, large windowed and–most inexplicably–a clapboard sided restaurant location for an Outback Steakhouse. Overlooking for a moment the somewhat disturbing notion that a birthing center exists in a steakhouse, this architectural aberration infuriates the purist in me, and occasionally when I do notice the place, I find myself wondering if the architect lived long enough to see this abomination explode from the side of his masterpiece of brutalist form. What did he think when he saw “Outback Steakhouse” emblazoned upon the sleek lines he spent so much time and effort perfecting and unifying?

Then, I remember that I use a gutted 1959 Saba cabinet to house my media center and a 1960 Philco Television cabinet is the wet bar, and I wonder about reuse and how we become so comfortable with certain forms of reuse but other upcycling efforts irk us. Sure it’s okay that I stripped the innards out of a T.V. set for a place to keep the bourbon. But the outside remained unchanged. Slap a coat of paint on that sucker, though, and now it’s fighting time. This touch of internal inconsistency bothers me, and it makes me consider the other things we repurpose in life.

Think about our kids. From the beginning, we pour ourselves literally and figuratively into making these little facsimiles of ourselves. We raise them up by staking them to a pole with discipline and instruction, guiding them, we hope, into fully realized humans. In essence, we’re designing the idealized versions of ourselves. Then, sometime in their teenaged years, they discover hormones and sexual attraction, their brains shrink by half, and they start globbing on new bits to the lovely façade of civil perfection we parents have created. Roof-top Rock-n-Roll delivered courtesy of Dr. Dre’s multi-colored plastic bits and a too-tight teeshirt showing off this muscle group or that set of curves we may kind of prefer not be there at all. Girls slap on a new coat of paint, coloring their eyes and lips, and boys move away from seersucker shorts and cute bib-shirts with Pokemon characters on it to shirts featuring what you hope is the name of a band but secretly suspect might be the name of a new terrorist cell instead.

Organic growth drives modifications to our handiwork, and in the end, we’re little more than that architect, driving down West End and trying to ignore the scores of people filing in and out of the post-modern Outback Birthhouse.

At least we have grandkids to look forward to.

Mojo Binders

Or: Fetish and the Art of Writing

I remember reading, where I don’t know, that Hemingway used pencils to write in his notebooks. It must have been in A Moveable Feast, because I remember it was in his own voice, so strong, authoritative, and direct. The comment was almost a throwaway, the kind of detail a writer uses to bridge the space between two competing actions. Yet it stood out, because he described sharpening the pencil with a penknife and jotting a few notes in a Parisienne café.

The humble pencil, two slivers of wood glued around a slender needle of graphite, a little metal cap — it’s called the ferrule — a little tin bridge between the commission of the act and its reversal. You see, I’m one of a rare breed of individuals who, in dark corners of coffee shops and commiserate about  lead viscosity, body weight and heft, and rubber densities. Yes, I’m a pencil worshipper.

My pencil of preference, in fact the only pencil I’ll use, is the Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2.

Absent my trusty Ticonderogas, I default to a pen, sometimes a fountain pen or a ballpoint, and in each instance I have preferred models. I write longhand on AmPad’s Dual-Pad evidence model, because I enjoy the weight of the paper and the way in which it soaks the words in so effortlessly while the tip of the instrument floats across the surface nearly free of friction, providing just enough resistance to make me pause and think about the next word, but not so long as to break my concentration.

I’m hardly the first writer to fetishize the pencil, much less any other of a few hundred other, equally ridiculous aspects of committing words to the page. Poet Nikky Finney uses Blackfeet Indian pencils in her writings, which presents a special challenge as the Blackfeet Indians ceased making pencils in 1992. Yet, devoted is she to those pencils, and who can blame her? How the poet justifies her obsession, too! A YouTube video (below) highlights her love of this particular anachronism, and before you judge any fetishization of a tool offered up by writers, remember this: Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for Poetry–three years after this video was made.

There are other fetishes we writers fall into, at varying degrees over the long process of beginning, working on, and completing any particular book.  Sometime after I begin to fill pages of an AmPad with character sketches, outlines of scenes, or notes about the semiotics of rhythm, and right before I begin the second or third chapter, I go on a hunt for the Mojo Binder. This is the implement in which I will compile those pages of notes, printed Wikipedia entries on some historical figure or obscure arcania of music, and the news stories that inspire me to plod onward. There is nothing outwardly special about the Mojo Binder, and this binder looks (and in fact is) just like any other binder. It might be plucked off the shelf at Staples or rescued from a trash box at the school. I’ve even found a Mojo Binder at Goodwill on occasion.

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Photo Credit: Frances Micklow/The Star Ledger

The act of finding the Mojo Binder takes me on a journey. Once, as I stood in an Office Depot, a helpful clerk circled around three times to find out if I needed help as I stood in front of a 12′-tall display filled with 1 1/2″ binders.

“Are you looking for something?” he asked helpfully.

“Yes, a binder.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” he said on the first pass. A few minutes later, he circled back again. “Is there something in particular you’re looking for?”

“Yep. I need a particular binder.”

He glanced at the wall and then back at me, wandering off. A couple of minutes later, and now quite concerned, he returned a third time. “Maybe I can help you. What features are you looking for?”

“Couldn’t tell you,” I said. He began, helpfully, attempting to demonstrate the angled rings of one binder and the subtle double-click of another.  This binder had a window on the spine for helpful filing later, and that one has the sheet lifters. There’s even one over here that has specially shaped rings with ribbing to deter paper tearing and pulling.

I eventually bought a binder at a garage sale the next Saturday.

The book that particular implement assisted in producing went on to be the first runner up for a Faulkner Medal. Once “The End” was committed to the final page, the hundreds of sheets of canary paper, the countless magazine ads, and more than a few beer napkins, were removed, unceremoniously shoved into a large manilla envelope, and filed away. The Mojo Binder, its job done, was retired to the pile, ready to be given to some student or other when they need one, sent off to college with my daughter, or left to collect dust in the box in the back of the closet.

I can’t tell you which of the dozen or so binders I still own helped me produce The Patriot Joe Morton, but I know one of them did. That’s the nature of writing, though. It’s not just a craft. It’s a ritual. And in that rite of committing the words to the page, we hope we find something worth reading. Otherwise, we’re wasting binders with Mojo and Blackfeet Indian pencils.

The Apple Tree and the Gazebo

An Allegory

So this farmer has a section of low-lying land that is perpetually flooded with water, land that came as part of his family’s original grant more than a century ago. Right in the middle of it, miles away from anything, is a hill that rises up above the swamp. Getting to the hill requires mucking through the swamp, and chances are you’ll die in the process. So difficult is getting to this hill that no one in the farmer’s family has ever visited the hill. As far as the farmer knows, no man has set foot on this earth.

One day, his neighbor realizes he can see this hill from the breakfast nook of his own home. He believes the hilltop would make a suitable place for a picturesque stone gazebo and, say, an apple tree. Understanding that the land is neither accessible nor useful to the farmer, and knowing he will only ever visit it this one time, the neighbor approaches the farmer and arranges to purchase the hill for a small sum, leaving to the farmer the swamps, which are somewhat valuable as a backup source of irrigation water.

To build his gazebo, the neighbor charters a helicopter and flies out the crew, the materials, and a seedling. They work through the morning and into the night to build the stone gazebo and plant the small seedling. Then, their work done, they leave on the same helicopter that delivered them.

Years pass. The apple tree grows. The gazebo weathers, and sure enough, the neighbor possesses a completely private view of this hilltop. He has attained his goal.

One day, the sheriff realizes that the appearance of the gazebo coincided with the disappearance of a load of stone from the quarry. He believes the neighbor stole the stone and used it to install the gazebo. This is a grave sin, and the sheriff approaches the judge. The judge agrees it’s likely that the gazebo and the stone theft are related, and he grants the sheriff’s request to search the hilltop.

The sheriff goes to the farmer, who owns the land surrounding the gazebo. “Take me to the gazebo,” the sheriff demands. The farmer informs the sheriff he has no means of accessing the hill, has in fact never been to the hill. “The neighbor is the one who put that there. He owns the gazebo and the hill. Perhaps you could speak to him?” The sheriff is incensed. He demands again that the farmer take him to the hill, to the gazebo. “It is your land that surrounds this hill, and it was your land that made this gazebo possible. Take me there.”

The farmer hangs his head. “Sheriff, I’m sorry. But we have no way to the gazebo. There is not a road across the swamp.”

“So build the road,” the sheriff says.

 

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Image credit: Naik Michel. See more amazing photos here:
https://500px.com/tripixdesigns

The 2013 Top 10 – A look back on an extraordinary year

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama places a blessed khata around my neck following a press conference held in New Orleans in May.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama places a blessed khata around my neck following a press conference held in New Orleans in May.

By almost any measure, 2013 has been a remarkable year for me.  Looking back, it’s hard not to pick the image at right as the highlight. But any other event would also be worthy of its own blog post (something I’ve not been doing regularly, anyway, but we’ll get to why) and definitely its own photo. Instead, I have decided to organize this post as a “Top 10” list.

10.) Usually, I would have written a 2013 “Year In Review” story for The Ouachita Citizen, something I’ve done most of the last eight years. But I left The Citizen in January–the first big event of 2013–to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. The thought of balancing a demanding full-time job as a newspaper editor with the rigors of a terminal graduate program scared me out of the paper–but not out of the media per se

So I stepped aside as editor of The Citizen and made way for a new crop of talent. (That means you, Mr. Parker.) I still keep up with the paper and I’m impressed by how much that little paper gets accomplished every week. And yes, I do miss the newsroom. 

9.) Coincidentally, just as I was exiting The Citizen, an old friend and former publisher Maré Brennan sent me an email asking if I would “bail her out” on a story for the February issue of BayouLife Magazine, an upstart with just a few issues under its belt. The feature was about Mardi Gras, its history and local traditions. That coincidentally timed phone call quickly becomes the first highlight of an amazing year. I just completed work on my 11th issue of BayouLife, and there is no end in sight to my work there.

8.) Kya and I experienced our first DragonCon. For her, the trip represented the first time she felt like she “fit in” as a gamer-geek-girl. For me, it was not a pleasant experience because of the crush of people and the dearth of good directions. But we got to spend plenty of time with some good friends, and I got to make good on at least half a promise to introduce Kya to Zoie Palmer and Kris Holden-Ried. (Thanks, Kris. Zoie, because you canceled DragonCon at the last minute, you’re dead to me. hehehe.) She also got to get up-close with her Nerdsbian crush, Jaime Murray, who is one of the most genuinely down to earth people imaginable. George Takei’s husband, Brad, is as charmingly shy as George is boisterous. They’re a good balance.

7.) I left the paper to start graduate school, which I did in late January. Over the course of four quarters, I studied with some amazing writers and teachers. I learned I’m really good (resentfully so) at the personal essay, thanks to Catherine Rankovic. Eve Jones taught me about poetry and introduced me to a new form, the lyric essay, which is…interesting. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it yet. Mary Anderson’s Flash Fiction class showed me that sometimes a moment is enough, while Beth Mead demonstrated the importance of forethought in organizing a literary journal, knowledge that was greatly underscored in the two major-authors classes I took from her. And what can I say about my thesis advisor, professor, and friend Tony D’Souza? Other than this: dude, I’m jealous of your life.

6.) If they’d let me, I would have hung a giant We’ve moved! banner over the rail at New Elba. In July, after almost three years in West Monroe and a year into sharing an apartment with the pseudodaughter, we moved back to Monroe, to a large apartment in River Oaks. Right around the corner, there’s a nice athletic facility, where I’ve begun working out frequently. Because the complex backs up to a vast, open area of river bottoms, it’s not uncommon for us to see deer, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, hawks, and even the occasional fox wandering through the area. For at least five months of the year, the saltwater pool is nice, too. Having that much free space has been transformative and, though the rent is higher, I feel far less stressed.

5.) Speaking of stress, about halfway through my MFA, I started thinking about the future. Specifically, I knew I was missing a valuable part of the graduate school experience: teaching. So, I took a trip out to Delta Community College and sat down with the Dean of Liberal Arts. In August, I began there as an adjunct instructor, teaching four courses of developmental writing. It made for a wicked-busy last half of the year, but I would not trade my experiences there for anything. Also, piling on school, the magazine, and teaching all at once showed me how much free time I had and taught me how to truly value my free time. To my high school English teachers Susan Roberts and Jeanette Harris, I give my sympathy. I had to grade papers for 70 students every week.

You guys both handled twice that number–for seven hours a day. I don’t know how you do it. So, all you readers, make sure you find a high school English teacher and give him or her a great big hug. And maybe a fifth of good rum. They’ve earned it. Either way, teaching is rewarding, and I’ve enjoyed (so far) my time in the classroom while fulfilling tangentially one of the benefits of graduate school.

4.) Another major aim of graduate school is the necessity to begin publishing. For me, this was kind of disconcerting. After all, I’ve published four thousand bylines, four novels, and have been blogging intermittently on this site (and its blogspot predecessor) going on eleven years. Yet, that’s not the “kind” of publishing colleges and universities are looking for when they look for a track record of publication. Specifically, they want journals–those academically assembled, peer-reviewed publications where academics send their research and writing? Luckily, I’m a creative writer, not a researcher. So most of my “journal” requirements will consist of short stories and essays. After finishing my thesis, The Buddhist On the Beach, I submitted several of the pieces to various literary journals. Ann Bloxom Smith said “Finding Machu Picchu” was one of the better things I’ve ever written, and it ranked as her favorite of all my “stuff” that she’s read thus far. (She reads it all, for the most part.)

Apparently, she’s not the only one who liked it. Eclectica Magazine selected it for their January/February issue in 2014.

Mary McDonnell smiles as I tell her how much I loved her in pretty much every part she ever played--starting with Stands With Fists!
Mary McDonnell smiles as I tell her how much I loved her in pretty much every part she ever played–starting with Stands With Fists!

3.) When Hailey Hatcher sent me the cryptic Facebook message about Mary McDonnell joining the lineup for Galacticon III, I wasn’t clear what she was asking. “Do you want to go?” she asked, but I didn’t realize she meant it literally. Four days later, we checked into the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston, Texas. We were there less than thirty minutes before I shook hands with Edward James Olmos, Kate Vernon, and Michael Trucco. For four days, as members of the media, we got to spend time with some of our favorite T.V. stars. A few of the highlights. First, the rumors you have heard about the epic bromance between Trucco and Tahmoh Penikett are untrue. They’re simply not strongly worded enough. When those guys get together, they are like high school girls at a prom. They giggle together, eat together, sit together in the autograph rooms, and (so I’m told) go to the bathroom together. In fact, the first time I met both of them, they were getting on the elevator together on my floor. Trucco joked that his wife sometimes gets jealous. Second, Eddie Olmos is the most down-to-earth, polite, charming  person you’ll meet. He’s also tireless–spending hours more than any other actor on the walk of fame. (One day at Galacticon III, he was signing autographs for almost twelve hours straight, breaking only for a panel and a lunch with fans.) And then, there’s Mary. We bumped into each other–well, she backed into me–waiting to get into her panel with Eddie Olmos. We got to speak for a few minutes as the security staff cleared the room of previous panel stragglers. We also spoke later for a brief interview about breaking into show business.

(As an aside, probably one of my favorite people to meet ever was Kathy Coleman, best known for her portrayal of Holly on Land Of the Lost.  She is a remarkably genuine woman of deep spirit, and getting to have dinner with her was a great experience. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Tye Bourdony about it.)

Speaking at the podium during the first-ever December Commencement at Lindenwood University.
Speaking at the podium during the first-ever December Commencement at Lindenwood University. (Click for video)

2.) Shortly before I started graduate school at Lindenwood University, I visited with Financial Aid and the program director. It seemed that I had a full year of eligibility for the Winter and Spring quarters before the year reset in July, offering up the 2013-2014 financial aid calendar for the Summer and Fall quarters. Since I was quitting my full-time job, Beth Mead allowed me to take a psychotic twelve hours a quarter. Back-to-back for eleven months, I managed to complete all 48 hours of my MFA–and the writing, and the thesis, and the publication requirements. If I’ve seemed a little more stressed than usual, this is the reason. But, I did it, fulfilling a promise made long ago to myself and to Sandy Halperin that I would get a terminal degree. (At least one, I think was the promise…but we’re breathing right now.) Meanwhile, I think I made a bit of a good impression on the folks at Lindenwood, where I was selected as one of three speakers at the first-ever December Commencement. If you don’t wanna watch the whole 9-minute video (sorry about that extra two minutes, President Evans), the speech was about using one’s smarts to persevere through failure and ridicule until you find the formula for success. There are a couple of funnies in there–including a joke about facial hair. (Copyright Russ Minton, 2013.) While in St. Louis, Kya and I got to visit the Gateway Arch, Cahokia Mounds, and even a few (quite nice) shopping areas. Not bad for a mini-vaycay in between the semesters. 

 

His Holiness shares a laugh with a reporter following a May press junket in New Orleans
His Holiness shares a laugh with a reporter following a May press junket in New Orleans.

1.) Early in February, I got word that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was coming to New Orleans for a three-day conference on Strength Through Compassion and Resilience. The conference was coordinated by Tulane University and coincided with their Spring commencement. The magazine sent me down for what would prove a transformative experience. A lot went on that weekend, and I even wrote an essay about it. (But if you wan to read it, you can either email me or wait until I find out if it’s been picked up by the literary journal to which it has been submitted.)

So yeah. That’s my Top Ten of 2013. I’ll follow up on New Year’s Day with a post of resolutions, wishes, and hopes for a great 2014.

See you in the pages.

The Vegans and the Carnivore: a parable

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This started out as a note to all my Christian friends. But the message is something bigger and I think it bears sharing. Then again, I’m a novelist, an English major and a reporter. So I usually think every thought in my head is worth sharing, even when it’s not.)

Post-election, it’s important to note as we realize that the Earth still travels its path around the Sun, the tides still roll, and fire and brimstone have not rained down from the heavens, that Jesus, Paul and a fleet of prophets all said things go just as the were ordered ‘before in the beginning.’ That does not mean that “God has turned his back on America,” “America has run away from God,” “We are being punished for gays/drugs/drinking/fornicating,” and any permutation of that argument. It simply means that, from a “God” standpoint, everything is as it was always intended to be.

To put it as my atheist and determinist friends would understand: Obama won because unknowable subatomic particles bumped together during the Big Bang, setting off a causal chain leading, inexorably, to the victory of President Barack Obama over Gov. Mitt Romney. If you’re one of my free-will Christian friends, well…I believe “free will” and “Christian” are mutually exclusive terms. Free Will appears no where in the Bible where it is not directly countermanded by the word of God. If you’re among my “free will” atheist friends, then there’s just no helping you. Go read Edward Lorenz and hope for the best.

I wanted to preface what I’m about to say with all of that to say this:

If you are a Christian American, believe in Jesus Christ, and in the immutable power of God, trust that immutable power, would you?! Just because someone next door is gay/lesbian/killing baby sea lions does NOT mean that *you* will be gay/lesbian/killing baby sea lions. As proof, I offer up the parable of the Vegans and the Carnivore.

Two young vegans moved into a new apartment building. The building was in a nice neighborhood surrounded by pleasant trees, across from a quiet park and adjacent to a community garden. There was room in the apartment for the two young vegans to start a family, to grow vegetables next door, and to share in the glory of the Universe by basking in the sun on warm Spring mornings. The first evening in their new home, in which the Vegans anticipated spending the rest of their lives, passed quietly. The following day, they arose, ate a delicious breakfast of hearty wheat toast and Marmite topped with sprouts and tomato. The couple went for a walk in the park and then staked out their spot in the community garden. But when they returned to their home, they noticed something they hadn’t smelled before. It was a thick, heavy, sweet smell and it permeated everything. Even the bathroom, which normally smelt of lilac and lavender, wreaked with this heavenly scent. Our young Vegans searched for the source of this aroma, which was quickly growing on them. “There is something pleasant about it, don’t you think,” He Vegan said. “Yes,” agreed She Vegan. “Indeed there is. But we must find it, because it is making me hungry!” Finally, the young Vegans discovered the source: the vent pipe over the stove was the source. Their neighbor next door, the Carnivore, was frying bacon.

Now…you have a choice, my dear friends. Think of it as a choose your own adventure.

Do you think a.) our young heroes rushed down to the corner Rouses and  bought bacon, which they devoured from the pack raw and with their bare hands? Or do you believe b.) they immediately packed up and moved to another country to be far away from the Carnivore? Option c.) is also a possibility: they beat on the Carnivore’s door and bombarded him with Vegan books, Vegan literature and a photo slideshow of a sausage factor. Maybe, for some, Option d.) represents the course: they lived next door and utilized will power to avoid faltering and falling off the no-meat wagon.

Think about this the next time you hear someone suggest that “neighbors doing drugs means I’ll do drugs,” in the War on Drugs or someone tells you that allowing Gays to marry will destroy Straight marriage. That, my friends, is the argument they are making and that, my friends is just as crazy as thinking our Young Vegans will begin butchering swine in their living room because the Carnivore fried bacon.

 

 

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Villain, thou name is Grammar

I’m not a grammar Nazi. I don’t wander around with a copy of Strunk & White‘s Elements of Style in my satchel, waiting to pounce on the first individual to dangle a modifier or end a sentence with a preposition. (Okay, fine. I do carry a copy of Strunk & White. But I don’t lie in wait to pounce….) And I’ll almost guarantee you that I’ll break more than a few rules of grammar in this post. (Hint: I already have. Twice. Make that three times now.)

But today, I noticed something that bothers me. It makes the little prickles on the back of my neck rise. It is the chronic misuse of the noun “graduate,” specifically in conjunction with the modifier “former.

I’ve seen it in headlines on newspapers across the country, in Facebook posts, and on at least one tee-shirt. While I don’t go as far as my old friend, Sandy Halperin, and insist that the verb “to graduate” be limited to its transitive form, I cannot abide by “former graduate” because it is not only bad writing, but it says the exact opposite of the intended.

So let’s clear this up once and for all.

Graduate is a binary state. Either you are or you are not a graduate. Once you have become a graduate, you cannot be “ungraduated” from your institution, at least not without good cause. The phrase “graduate” needs no modifier to indicate that the individual graduated years ago. If you do wish to indicate the passage of time, you’ll need to use more words. For example: Class of 2012 Graduate Joe Blow.

But if Joe has, in fact, received a diploma from the University of Biteme, he will forever be a graduate of the University of Biteme. The only — and this is the only — way he can ever become a former graduate is for the university to rescind his diploma. This very rarely happens.

What would help headline writers and copyeditors with this needlessly troublesome little word, (which is, after all, a scant three syllables long), would be to modify it appropriately in the other direction. If you wish to describe someone as a “recent” graduate, that is perfectly okay. I even encourage you to do so because it will bring a much needed bit of clarity to the word. “Graduate” is in the past–any time in the past. “Recent graduate” means it happened sometime in the relatively recent past.