October 14, 2019

What, you do use your middle name?

By John Guy LaPlante

Hey, don’t you know that’s un-American?! Taboo! You’re supposed to use just a middle initial.

Oh, sure, you were given, yes, given a middle name. That’s normal and expected. But I’ll bet you’ve never used it. Timothy or Susan or Andrew or whatever. You made do with just a middle initial. Thought that was just fine. And that’s the proper American thing to do. Our culture insists on that. Will not tolerate a full, spelled out middle name.

How many folks do you know who use their middle name day in and day out?

Well, I have a middle name. It’s Guy. You saw it up top in my byline. And I’d feel naked without it. But boy, what a price I’ve paid!

The reason we all get a middle name is simple.  John Charles Smith sets you apart from John Richard Smith or John Theodore Smith. That’s the obvious reason. But maybe you were given the middle name of Charles or Richard or Theodore by your Mom to honor her dad, who had that name. Or by your Dad, reasoning the same way.

But from their earliest days—at the latest when they got signed up for kindergarten—John Charles Smith became John C. Smith and John Richard Smith became John R. Smith and John Theodore Smith became John T. Smith. Wonderful! Bravo! That was the thing to do.  Same is true of our sisters and female friends..

And they never looked back. That’s the name they’ve used—and for everything! — ever since. When they hit 30 or 40, they may have to think for a couple of minutes — might not even remember what their middle name was! I’ve seen that happen.

Can you imagine the teasing and bullying and finger-wagging they would have suffered as kids if  they had insisted on using their middle name?!

Well, I’ve gone through it.  My checks are imprinted up top with John Guy LaPlante. If I pay a bill with a check, for sure any receipt or thank you will get mailed back to me as John G. LaPlante. That’s how I’m known by IRS and Medicare, by City Hall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Utility Company. By everybody and anybody.  I’ve even gotten mail from relatives as John G. LaPlante. Hey, come on!

My books say John Guy LaPlante on the cover. As you know, that’s the byline on anything I write.  But guess how I’ll be addressed in a letter from a reader?  You are correct! With Guy reduced to  a mere G.!  Sure, that used to irritate me. But now I shrug it off. Well, sort of.

If you want to go through life with just a middle initial, no flack from me! But just think why you’ve been doing that and why you think it’s okay.

How did this cultural must come to pass? Well, let me speculate.  Maybe somebody had a long name, say Archibald Alexander Worthington. He was a lawyer and signed lots of documents. One day to speed things up he signed as Archibald A. Worthington. Others noticed and thought, Good idea! And that fed a fad that became the must which we live with today.

I’ve spent serious time in other countries.  In France, for instance, and Mexico and Ukraine. Having a middle name seems universal.  I can’t recall anyone among friends speaking French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Russian (which lots of Ukrainians use as their first language) using a middle initial. That’s why I call it an American phenomenon.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking, What the heck is wrong with this LaPlante? Is he wacko? Well, surprise, I did it for good reason.

Some of you know I’m French by way of Quebec. My parents came down from there and became Americans. I was born here. Their first child. I was baptized Jean-Guy. Up there, using a hyphenated name like mine is a popular way of naming sons. Also daughters.

Maman and Papa never spoke to me or about me as just Jean or Guy. Always Jean-Guy.

When I started newspapering and earned a byline for a good story, it became Jean G.  Then when I landed a job at the big Worcester Telegram & Gazette, my byline continued to be Jean G. LaPlante. I put up with it. But several times I got letters from readers addressed to Miss Jean LaPlante. I didn’t like that. Then the paper started using John G. Yes, better but it still didn’t sound right to me.

One day in a huff, I decided, enough! I went to a lawyer. He filled out a form, I signed it, he took it to court and I became John Guy LaPlante. It was done in a day. The cost? Just $25.

(If I had asked for a change in my surname, which did not interest me, I would have had to explain why in detail and the process would have had to be advertised so people could have protested. With legitimate reason.)

But oh, the folly of youth! I was no longer living close to my dear father and mother, and I made that enormous change without ever talking it over or explaining to them. Awful! Deep down I still feel it a betrayal of my heritage.

Know what? If I could turn the clock back, I would not change my name. I would have insisted my name is Jean-Guy and certainly my friends and associates would have accepted that. Might even have liked the French uniqueness of it. I think if I had explained to my editor, he would have made my byline Jean-Guy. Oh, well…..

By the way, at the T & G I had a colleague with a French name, meaning from France.  Sanche de Gramont. He didn’t like it. Know what? He got his surname changed to Ted Morgan. Notice that “de Gramont” has nine characters and so does Ted Morgan, and they’re the same nine letters re-arranged. How about that?!  But we continued to call him Sanche and he seemed to consider that totally natural.

(What’s remarkable is that Sanche de Gramont / Ted Morgan went on to the New York Herald Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize for on-deadline local reporting. Then morphed into a prolific author of distinguished biographies and histories.  Google / Bing him.)

By now I realize that having merely a middle initial has become so ingrained as an Americanism that it will always be so. I can protest it, but it won’t change a thing. So be it.

I’m been getting along in years, as some of you know, and I’ve given thought to some big thoughts, such as what would I like chiseled on my gravestone.  And I’ve decided, sort of, that it would be Jean-Guy LaPlante aka (for also known as) John Guy LaPlante. But I’m not sure I want a gravestone, so not a big problem. But yes, I’d like it in my obituary.

Sure, Jean-Guy / John Guy would be a fifty-fifty compromise. But a compromise is often a sign of wisdom. And wisdom is just common sense put into practice. You agree? Or you don’t?

 ~ ~ ~ ~

Thanksgiving Day? Or really Turkey Day?

By John Guy LaPlante

It is both. Thanksgiving Day is what President Lincoln intended when he made it a national holiday to be observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

And Turkey Day it also is, though no president ever got that passed. The facts say so. We’ll sit down to some 42 million turkeys this Thursday.That’s close to one third of all turkeys we’ll buy this year. [Read more…]

The Interrobang–that’s for me!

By John Guy LaPlante

And maybe for you!

The interro….. what?

The interrobang! Yes, you read right. What’s the interrobang? You see it at the left, but greatly enlarged. It’s a brand-new punctuation mark. You know, in addition to the period, comma, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, and so on.  Which all go back a long, long time. Well, the interrobang truly would be useful to me as an active writer / blogger.

What is so interesting about it to me is that I have been doing exactly what the interrobang does. How? By using two standard punctuation marks together. I repeat, together. You’ve probably never seen that, have you?

Here’s an example. In my most recent blog about a Seed Library, I wrote “Yes, from our library here, you  can check out seeds, and free, mind you–vegetable seeds,  fruit seeds, berry seeds, seeds of other kinds, would you believe?!”

Notice how I used a question mark and an exclamation mark together? Deliberately. Because I wasn’t only asking a question but telling you I was astonished. And I believe it worked. I’m sure you got it.

I didn’t pick up this trick of two punctuation marks slapped together from somebody else.  The idea came to me because I felt that together they did the job I believed was needed. I’ve never seen anyone else do it.

How did I hear about the interrobang? I happened to pick up a recent issue of the Reader’s Digest–September, this year. At the public library, by the way. The magazine kicked off with a section called “Genius Issue–Words of the Mind.” The issue had a lode of articles about words and writing. Delightful! On Page 82 I discovered the interrobang punctuation mark that I showed you up top. There was one paragraph about it. It said what I’ve just told you.

Right away I looked up interrobang on Wikipedia. It said interrobang is “a non-standard punctuation mark indicating a question in an exclamation manner, as in ‘What are you doing?’!” It said it was invented by advertising man Martin K. Speckter back in 1962. Yes, in 1962. What?!

See, I just used this powerful duo of mine again! Because I’m curious about the date, 1962, which is 55 years ago…yet I am just hearing about it now!  And I’ll bet so are you! Again, a linked  question and exclamation.

Curious me, I looked up interrobang on Merriam-Webster, our leading dictionary publisher. It defined it the same way.

I read that Mr. Speckter as an advertising pro saw a need for it in many ads by the very nature of advertising. Well, I saw a need for my duo in the explanatory writing that is my forte. I am so, so happy now to have the interrobang in my writer’s toolbox, along with all the conventional punctuation marks. The interrobang will come in handy.

You know, at one time punctuation marks did not exist. When we speak, of course, they are unnecessary. The tone of our voice says it all, well, along with the expression on our face. Periods and commas and question marks came into use one by one because thoughtful writers saw their necessity.

All that said, I’ve run into a problem. When I write with pad and pen, it’s easy for me to put in a real interrobang. I just write an exclamation mark right over my question mark. But I do 99 percent of my writing on a keyboard. The interrobang ain’t on the keyboard!

So, I’ll just have to keep getting along with my own little combo, my home-made interrobang. How about that?!

P.S. if you’re intrigued by writing and words, do look up that September issue of the Reader’s Digest. Its piece on the interrobang includes 11 other punctuation marks that are hardly known. Yes, 11!

Another I loved was “Confessions by a Word Nerd (Kay Stamper): Inside the secret, silent work lives of dictionary writers.” Plus a delightful humor piece, “Sleuthing for Cliches: A tongue-in-cheek guide to government-speak run amok.”

And other juicy pieces on this word / writing theme, along with other good stuff. Plus two word delights that have been included in the magazine months after month since its dawn, it seems to me.  The “Word Power” game and “Quotable Quotes” from people in the news.

By the way, I just Googled “Reader’s Digest Confessions of a Word Nerd.” And I found it. I also scored with “Reader’s Digest Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should be Doing.” Isn’t that something?!

All this said, I do  feel a twinge of guilt about showing you how to enjoy these articles online for free. I should be pushing you to buy the Reader’s Digest to enjoy these delights. It would be pocket money well spent. But the paper September issue is probably unavailable (unless you find it at your public library). And enjoying these pieces through Google may get you to subscribe! Gosh, aren’t I good at rationalizing?!

~ ~ ~ ~

 

I am not a poet but ….

By John Guy LaPlante

What I am is a wordsmith. Wordsmith is the right word. I cobble and hammer and shape words into sentences and paragraphs and pages to create something worth reading by others. I have indeed been called a wordsmith.

Plainly put, I’m a writer – at one time or another writing as a reporter, columnist, feature writer, essayist, author, or PR practitioner. And for some years now, as a blogger. So I’ve been wordsmithing for 65 years or so.

But of late I’ve been poetizing. Writing poetry, yes, strange as that may sound. I began dabbling at this just two or three years ago. It started as a lark, for fun and as a brain exercise. As a senior senior (yes, I’m getting darn old), I need all the help I can get, body-wise and brain-wise. I’m so glad I took it up

But I really am not a poet. I don’t do it for profit or publication. I’m not gifted enough. Few get to see my scribbles. But I write real poetry, yes, real poetry. But, you’re asking, isn’t all poetry real poetry?

Some say yes, of course it is. But I say no.  I think a lot of today’s poetry is crap. Here’s why. For too many “poets” nowadays, there is zero respect for the very basics of poetry. They just don’t bother. Why? Because that would be too hard for them, too challenging..

These basics are meter, rhythm, and rhyme. They are essential.

What they write is “free verse.” Free, meaning undisciplined verse – quick and easy.  They put down nice-sounding thoughts, set them up in staggered lines … and call it a poem.  It may have a nice rhythm, but no meter, no rhymes. To me it’s a joke.

Robert Frost put it beautifully. Writing that kind of free verse, he said, “is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Amen, say I.

What I find especially offensive is that read a “poem” like that and right off you wonder, what the heck does this mean? You read it again and too often come up with a blank. Because what it means is anybody’s guess. You may think, this poem is too brainy, too intellectual for me. Baloney, I say!

Carl Sandburg, I think it was Sandburg, said, “Modern poetry is a spot about half-way between where you read and where you wonder what it was your read.” I had to read that a couple of times but then I got it.

I have a simpler way of putting it. Real poetry says something. Free verse leaves you scratching your head.

The great Goethe 250 years ago opined, “Modern poets add a lot of water to their ink.” And how!

Again, I’m an amateur poet. But, to show you what I play at, I’ll give you a few examples. Truth is I’ve written dozens. I’ve enjoyed it so much.

I write two genres.  Quatrains and limericks. A quatrain is a four-line poem. All four lines to me must have the same number of syllables.

Two lines must rhyme, and so must the other two, though all four can have the same rhyme.

What about the rhythm? That’s more subjective. It’s up to the reader to decide if it’s good or not so good. You!

It must say something clearly. If I succeed, you won’t have to scratch your head to get it.

Again, I’ve set these rules to give my brain a strong workout.

Here’s a short quatrain of mine.

Today is blue and sunny.

And I am up and about.

Much to do so I’m busy.

So happy I want to shout.

             Have you checked each line’s syllable count?  Yep, seven. Make sense?

Another a bit longer.

Passwords—oh how they make me cry.

I cuss and cuss but hard do try.

They mess me up so very much.

I can’t find such and such!

 Line count?  Eight. Make sense?

And here’s a quatrain I wrote just for this blog.

A poet who plain ignores rhyme and meter     

Is, though he may not know it, just a cheater.

What makes poetry stand out as an art form

Is when to its rigid norms we do conform.

Syllables? It’s 11 in all four lines. And I felt my brain had to do 11 push-ups for each line.

Did it make sense to you? If it did not, I was a failure.

I was pleased with its rhythm. If you disagree, I won’t argue.

Here’s another, more ambitious.

It’s March 13th and time to spring one hour forward. 

How I do like that – in the eve the longer light.

But this morning, I feel very pooped.  My, oh my! 2

Much to do.  I hope I’ll feel better by and by.

The count? Fourteen. Rhymes okay? Make sense?

Here’s one about chess puzzles, which I also enjoy doing.

I ponder the chess board. Where, what’s the solution?  

I look. Ponder this move then that one. Oh, what woe!

Will I fail … have to give up in great frustration?

Then I find the key move and gosh, how I do glow!

  Syllables? Fourteen.  The rhyming okay?  Make sense?

 As you see in all the above, the rhyming can be line 1 with line 2, then 3 with 4 … or line 1 with line 3 and line 2 with 4.   I think the pattern of 1 with 2, then 3 with 4 is more dramatic, more powerful..

I’ve been known to write two quatrains, one after the other as a single poem. Why? It gives me twice as many syllables to say what I want to say.

Here’s a sextet that I wrote because I needed two extra lines. It’s addressed to my daughter Monique.

October 15th! How, how could I overlook a date so blessed?

I little foresaw what a gift you, Monique, would turn out to be!

So yes, I am blushing. No, no excuse can cover my distress.

You deserve great thanks and praise for all you do – this we all do see.

I most of all. I am grateful, my daughter dear, and here express

A wish for your health, success, joy, long life … may all this truly be!

Here is what happened. Her birthday is on the 15th. I forgot it—the first time ever. I realized my awful mistake the next morning and composed and sent her this. She loved it.

Reading it now I wish I had done better. Very long lines, too long, I now see – 16 syllables! It took a lot of heavy lifting on my part. I did enjoy putting it together, challenging though it was. Was so pleased that Monique was tickled.

Here’s one in a very different vein. To repeat, it’s an exercise. So I must think of a topic. Some are very mundane. Some more weighty.

Every morning I wake up to hear more bad news about Trump.

Shocked I was when he won, now every day I feel more in the dump.

I detest the sad, bad things he stands for and deplore how he acts.

So many, many things. Worse of all is how he distorts the facts.

 The count? Sixteen. If you disagree with my opinion of Trump, please do not give me an argument. Write a quatrain of your own.

As you see, not every quatrain or expansion thereof has to have a predetermined count.  It can be whatever will work best.

One  time I wrote a poem made up of four quatrains. All because I had a lot to say. I wrote it to fete my dear sister Lucie’s 80th birthday. I’ll show you just the first part. It gets  too personal later on.

Ma chere petite soeur, at 80 you still amaze me

You still have your famous zip and zest as we all see

And on so many fronts – at home, with friends, everywhere:

J-C, Michael, winning gold (!), and of course Quimper,

       Antiquing, volunteering, modeling…the Tango!

Ebay, stock market, dollhouse, all keep you much on the go!

And your friends!  You keep them so precious, old ones and new.

         In our family, so spread out, you’re loved as true blue.

   Of course faced many a challenge –but don’t we all?

     Yet you’ve survived them, pushed on, truly made life a ball!

The line count is thirteen. Like the rhymes? How about the rhythm?

When I got to see her, she kissed me on both cheeks! Told me I made her day.

We grew up with French as our first language. I’m sure some parts you didn’t get so I’ll explain.

Chere petete soeur means dear little sister. Winning gold because she’s a top competitive bridge player. Quimper: she collects this fine French pottery. The tango because she is still a tango dancer. Dollhouse because for years she’s built up the nicest little dollhouse, totally furnished, you’d ever get to see.

Well, I told you I write two kinds of poems. I started with quatrains. Then added limericks.  Who doesn’t like a good limerick? I consider limericks easier because they have a much looser structure.

Limericks have five lines. And the rhyming is very specific—line 1 rhymes with 2, line 3 with 4, and line 5 with 1 and 2. But the meter varies.  All 5 lines will have different counts. Line 1 is the longest. The second a bit shorter. 3 and 4 even shorter, and 5 about as long as line 1.

So the limerick winds up more natural, easier to read.  Still, there are many push-ups involved.

And a limerick’s topic can be much lighter.  It’s all about getting you to smile.  Even laugh…and laugh. As I’ll bet you know, limericks are often naughty, which can be fun. But often out-and-out obscene.

Here’s one. I also wrote a quatrain on the same subject. That shows you much it bothers me .It’s  clean, by the way.

Trying to recall a password, how often I do sigh

I want to yell and rant and curse

I feel I’m ready for the hearse.

I try this password and that but they defy

Once I felt I might even break down and cry.

 Here’s another limerick for you. Better put, a serious poem in limerick form.

Methinks there are too few poets out there

Who work to compose with classic care   

A thought or two in fancy words suffice   

And the result, sad to say, just ain’t nice   

Try harder and we’ll call you a poet fair and square.

I’m sure this didn’t make you chuckle and in that sense I’ve failed, I suppose. But it let me do my mental calisthenics for the day.

Familiar with the great old Saturday Evening Post? And Norman Rockwell? I grew up with the Post. It came out every week. The most famous magazine of its time. Just about every issue also  gave us a few limericks.  Clean limericks. Delightful limericks. I consider its limericks a wonderful model.

Did you know that the Post has been resurrected? But as a bimonthly. Six issues a year instead of 52. But it has a digital edition that comes out every week. Still worth reading. Take a look at it. Has limericks, of course. Go to www.saturdayeveningpost/limericks. You’ll have a good time.

(By the way, it recently profiled me.  The piece about me appeared in its digital  edition. If you’re curious, go to its website. On its home page look up to the top right corner. You’ll see its search window. It’s a tiny rectangle. Type in “LaPlante.”  The article will pop up. Hope you enjoy it.)

Why don’t you try your hand at one? And send it to me.  I’d love to think I might have inspired you to have fun while giving your noggin a workout.

Got to tell you I have a special tool for this versifying of mine. It’s a rhyming dictionary. I use it all the time. It’s “The Scholastic Rhyming Dictionary – over 15,000 words” by Sue Young.  I’d be helpless without it.  There are others.   Shakespeare certainly didn’t have a rhyming dictionary.  Neither did Sandburg or Frost, as far as I know. That’s what made them the great artists they were. I’m not in that league.  Far, far from it.But I’m having fun.  Hope it’s helping me upstairs between my ears.

So free verse? Forget it. Free verse just doesn’t cut it.

Oh, one more delicious quote for you. It’s from true poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939:)

An anonymous reader of his says, How are you?

And Yeats replies, Not very well. I can only write prose today.

Yes, I chuckled. But to be honest, I resented it, too. I’d like to say to Mr. Yeats, “Sir, prose is damn tougher than you make it out to be! It has rigorous demands all  its own.”

Now a P.S. for you, my friends. It’s a couplet I just cobbled for you.

On all I write I welcome your praise or even flack

Do know I work hard not to come off as just a hack.

The count? Thirteen. Make sense?  Rhythm okay? I hope so. Now it’s your turn. Try your hand at a quatrain or a limerick. Email it to me—johnguylaplante@gmail.com. I’d be delighted. But no free verse, please.

~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

Remember the good old Palmer Method? Spelling bees?

By John Guy LaPlante

Probably not if you’re sixtyish or less.I do though I have not thought about those wondrous two for years and years.

The Palmer Method taught me how to handwrite the way I have all my life – cursive writing, it’s called. A blessing.

And I loved spelling bees. I couldn’t even sing Happy Birthday but I was great at spelling.

All this flashed back to me on Mother’s Day. We were all together at our festive dinner. Little Ruby had a cute card for her Memere, my daughter Monique. Memere is French for Grandma. Monique joyfully passed it around.

It was my turn. Yes, very cute. Ruby had added a little note, very touching. First I noticed her signature. So distinctive! Then I read her a note. Her spelling was excellent, which was not a surprise. And I liked her message to her Grammy, so far as I could tell. I had to guess at it a bit.

It was her writing. I frowned. Some of her words bumped into one another.  She didn’t write the way her Grammy does. Or I do. What she had done was print all her letters and words.

“Ruby,” I said. “Didn’t you study the Palmer Method back in the second and third grade?”

She thought a minute. “No,” drawing out the word very long. I could see she had no idea what the Palmer Method is. Chris and Kim, her dad and mom, were listening carefully.

Well, I studied Palmer Method. And I’m sure her Memere did, too.

Chris jumped in. “Yes, she did. But the teachers have the kids print, so she lost it. And now they all use computers. Now they’re isn’t much need to write anything down.”

And then Kim said, “Yes, John. And that’s what happened with all her classmates. They just plain forgot.”

That was all news to me.

Ruby was listening also, of course.

She likes to play games. “Ruby, would you like to play a little game?”

She nodded quickly. I asked her to get a sheet of paper and a pencil or ballpoint and put them on the table. “Now I will say some words and I want you to write them down. As neatly as possible.”

She was ready in a minute. I composed a sentence in my mind and dictated it clearly. Then another. And another. And so on. Using words she’d be comfortable with. “Now may I see it please, Ruby?”

I looked at it. I frowned. She had printed it just like on her card to her Memere. I couldn’t make out any misspelled words. But again her letters were all printed. So not connected to one another. And she had labored in put all the words down. It had taken a lot longer than using cursive.

And when she came to the word “write,” she had looked up and asked her Mom, “Is it right or write?’ Kim had said “‘write.” If that had happened to Ruby while on her iPad, it would have made the correction, I believe.

And if Ruby had taken part in a few spelling bees, I believe she’d know the difference between right and write.

I took a photo of her work and here it is. Please look it over.

Ruby's handwriting photo

See what I mean? Every letter stands alone. See how some words nearly touch? Her spelling is excellent. Isn’t her signature terrific?!

Ruby is in the sixth grade now. A big year, I was told. Because in sixth every child gets an iPad. They do all their work on it in class and at home.  They must bring it to school every day. All the lessons come to them on the iPad. There are no real textbooks. No need for paper and pencils and ballpoints.

Monique and I have discussed this and she made a point.  “Dad, Ruby does use a pad and pencil.  I’ve seen her using them when she comes and visits.” That made me feel better.

There is no blackboard. Instead, the teachers use a big computer screen that’s on the front wall. Can write some words or do a math problem on their iPad. What they do will show on the big screen.

In one way, that’s fantastic. This is the Computer Age and this is the only age these kids know. The one they will live and work in.  We old folks got into it late and the price we pay is clumsiness and exasperation.

At the Worcester Telegram-Gazette where I worked, the paper scrapped all the typewriters and put in computers. We had to learn to use them and fast.

I was hitting 40 and I remember how uptight I was. Some of my older colleagues were so shaken that they chose early retirement.

Ruby and her schoolmates are at ease with it. Which is wonderful. Just about all of them have a cellphone. And they’re at ease with that too. They can send text and read text. No problem. No way can I argue with that.

Ruby attends a public school in a nice small town. It’s not a big-bucks private school. And there she is with a free iPad. I marvel at that. But maybe that’s why the town’s education budget is so high.

On the other hand maybe that expense is washed by the school not having to supply printed textbooks and writing supplies and so on. All while launching the kids in a most pleasant way into the marvels of computers. No way can I argue with that either.

And maybe in the little game she and I had, Ruby learned something else. Maybe she got to think, “Gee, am I glad I’m not going to a school like the one Pepere did!”

~ ~ ~ ~

My interview with the world’s greatest astronomer

By John Guy LaPlante

Just a few weeks seem to go by before we get to read another news story about life being possible way, way out there in the heavens.

Well, that’s not news to me.  I heard that 66 years ago.

Harlow Shapley (1885 – 1972). Familiar with him? He was our greatest astronomer. The world’s greatest. Was called the greatest since Copernicus (1473 –

 1543). Copernicus was the Polish genius who said the sun was really the center of the universe, not our earth.

Harlow Shapley made big headlines when he said there were “zillions” of planets out there but—and this was astounding — at least 100,000,000 of them that could support life as we know it, with vegetation and animals and people!

[Read more…]

The disappearing !  Aren’t you worried?

By John Guy LaPlante

Don’t recognize it?  It’s ! –our exclamation mark. If you’re not worried, I am! It seems as dead as the dodo.

My memory is pretty good. I believe nobody has ever sent me an email and used an exclamation mark in it.  They might be saying, “Happy Birthday, John,” or “Sorry about your terrible fall.” No exclamation mark. Those are exclamations. So an ! is essential!

Haven’t you experienced the same thing? I’ll bet you have.

The big question is, why is our ! so imperiled?

Back in grammar school, excuse me, the elementary school so-called now, we learned we have 12 punctuation marks.  Well, I did. They are the period (.), comma (,) question mark (?), exclamation mark (!), colon (:), semi-colon (;), apostrophe (‘), quotation mark (“), the hyphen (-), the dash (–) , parentheses (which you’ve seen me use 10 times here), and brackets [ ].

In our newspapers and magazines, you never see an exclamation any more. It’s absolutely taboo. A headline will say, “Mother Kills Her Six Children.”  No exclamation mark! That’s absurd! One exception—our awful supermarket tabloids! They sock us with them.

And of the 12, the exclamation mark is one of the four biggies.

Online I just found a perfect explanation showing why they’re important and how they’re used. It’s dramatic! It’s so good that I’m reproducing it here right now. Hope I’m not infringing on a copyright!

First, its clever but unfortunately unknown author shows us several lines of English. With zero punctuation marks.  And asks us if we make sense out of it.  Here’s it is — I’m putting it in italic for clarity.

perhaps you dont always need to use commas periods colons etc to make sentences clear when i am in a hurry tired cold lazy or angry i sometimes leave out punctuation marks grammar is stupid i can write without it and dont need it my uncle Harry once said he was not very clever and i never understood a word he wrote to me i think ill learn some punctuation not too much enough to write to Uncle Harry he needs some help

Do you make sense out of it? Of course not. Well, only after a struggle! Now the author puts in the punctuation, and does so properly. Now take a look:

Perhaps you don’t always need to use commas, periods, colons etc. to make sentences clear. When I am in a hurry, tired, cold, lazy, or angry I sometimes leave out punctuation marks. “Grammar is stupid! I can write without it and don’t need it,” my uncle Harry once said. He was not very clever, and I never understood a word he wrote to me. I think I’ll learn some punctuation – not too much, enough to write to Uncle Harry. He needs some help!

Notice the incredible improvement? Those little marks are essential! I called this a perfect example. Not so. Only half of the available marks are used. It should have included every one of them. And a couple are used wrong, well, in my opinion.

Case closed!

Whoever first used those marks did so to make anything read on paper sound as close as possible to how they would sound if spoken.

When anyone speaks, they utter something and stop. That’s why on paper they’d put in a period. When they ask us anything, by their tone of voice we instinctively know it’s a question.  So on paper they’d include a question mark. If they yell something good or bad, or curse, or warn us about something, we know they’re exclamations. And on paper they’d include the marks invented to show that.

That’s for the main four punctuation marks. To make written messages crystal clear, the other eight were introduced, one by one. They have subsidiary roles, albeit consequential.

I for one would love to read the history of our punctuation marks. The inventor of each one. What year. And so on. Fascinating. I’m not sure a history exists. But hey,  one does exist! I went looking and found David Crystal’s wonderful  Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. I quote him here about the exclamation mark. This is just one highlight.

Here’s a short selection of contexts where the [exclamation] mark would be routinely used these days, says he.

interjections – Oh!
expletives – Damn!
greetings – Happy Xmas!
calls – Johnny!
commands – Stop!
expressions of surprise – What a mess!
emphatic statements – I want to see you now!
attention-getters – Listen carefully!
loud speech in dialogue – I’m in the garden!
ironic comments – He paid, for a change! or . . . for a change (!)
strong mental attitudes – ‘Hardly!’ he thought

A complete list of situations would be impossibly long, as it would need to identify all the emotions that could motivate the use of the mark.”

Thank you, Mr. Crystal!

Well, I  said “Case closed!” Not quite.

What is still open is why, yes, why, the exclamation mark seems to have gone out of fashion. It seems so contrary to the intent of whoever’s the writer. Maybe the writer is a boring, cold-blooded, impassionate person.  Though I’ll bet that’s not so. I think it’s the fear of appearing emotional, or not wanting to run against the tide. Or plain lack of appreciation, meaning ignorance.

In our good newspapers, there’s a different reason. I believe they do so to maintain the “objectivity” that is the hallowed and important prime principle that backs up all their reporting. Which is totally lacking in many other countries where the press is just an arm of the ruling government. China. Russia. And so on.

I mentioned in their reporting.  But it’s different on their editorial page. That’s where they’re telling us their official, on-the-record opinion. True also of their columnists and op-ed writers and letter writers. It’s wrong here for them not to show their strong feelings by abstaining from the exclamation mark! They’re delinquent! That ! would add the needed emphasis!

I use exclamation marks a lot, and I’m sure you’ve noticed.  Though far more than usual in this piece just to dramatize my message. But hey, I’ve even been known to use two, yes, two !! together. Such as, “About this matter, I am damned, in fact, gxd-dammed upset!!”  See?

I can even imagine a situation when I might use three. Such as four years from now, “Trump gets re-elected!!!” See? And that wouldn’t be to show my amazement. No, no!  To show my utter shock!!! God forbid that does happen in 2020!

I’ve even been known to use two different punctuation marks together. Such as, “What did you think of that terrific editorial?!”  See? I’m sure you can tell I intend it as a combination question and exclamation.

Enough said!

But do you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m too passionate and should calm down? Please let me know!

Do you think I’m fighting a losing battle? Please let me know!

If you agree with me, well, use the  ! more. Please, please!!

I’m on an Un-Invent Spree!

By John Guy LaPlante

This is 2,306 words long. Only fair to tell you what I’ve written about for you. Seven “inventions,” in no way connected except one. What’s that? I think they should no longer exist. We should get rid of them.  Should un-invent them!

Here are the seven. The penny * College majors * What I call the 9-cents nuisance. * Women taking on their husband’s name *  Gay “marriages” *  Eating animal flesh * And number 7,  auto headlights.

How did I get on this spree?

Well, The New Yorker has been publishing now and then a hotly- argued  essay, each labeled “Uninvent This.” They’re fascinating.  Make you think—in fact, make you re-think things you’ve long taken for granted.

Our world is rich with millions of inventions. Make that zillions. Each was …. is….intended to make life better in some way, sometimes for a few people, sometimes millions. A newfangled type of wine bottle opener will be a delight to thousands maybe.  Imagine the millions the ultra high-speed dental drill has helped (I remember the agony of the old style).

We’re not talking just about inventions of physical things.  So many other things get invented – formulas, laws, theories, ways of doing things, cultural habits, traditions, techniques, religions, jobs and professions, philosophies, countries, types of government, on and on. All the result of people coming up with fresh ideas.

Well, some people develop great peeves about one or another of  these inventions, and with reason, mind you, and they disagree. And sound off, saying exactly why. “Un-invent This!” they insist.

[Read more…]

Do you say “ain’t” a lot? A little? Never?

By John Guy LaPlante

It used to depend on where you ranked yourself in society. Well, it “ain’t” that way anymore .Times are a-changing. But language, any language anywhere, is always changing, of course, and that’s what this is about today.

I used to abhor that word. And imagine, I just used it.  For the very first time, by the way.

For years “ain’t” was used by the unschooled, the uneducated.  No

This was Philip Gove's bombshell. He expected protests, but not a hornet's nest of them.

This was Philip Gove’s bombshell. He expected protests, but not a hornet’s nest of them.

longer so.  Everybody seems to have adopted it, but sometimes in a restricted sense, as I’ll explain in a minute.

In fact, “ain’t” is now in the dictionary.  Which is where it belongs, though that was a long time in coming.  That was one of the huge cultural events of 1961. And that was accomplished by Philip Gove, a very brave man. I call him brave because he realized that his doing that would send shock waves through society. And boy, was he right! [Read more…]

When Trump got trumped!

By John Guy LaPlante

As we now know for sure, Trump is going to be the Republican candidate for President.  He has stunned us by the tremendous, frenzied (!) following he has whipped up.  An amazing following.  One for the record books.

His constant bellowing, and superman boasting, and wild insults, and nasty histrionics, so appalling to many of us, have so fascinated and won over so many  that he has clinched the delegates needed to face Hillary or Bernie. This despite nearly zero experience as a politician.

He may be our next president.  God forbid!

Well, one famous headliner saw through Trump long before this campaign. I’ll tell you who he was in a minute, and what he said. I loved it. [Read more…]

Is being a citizen of TWO countries okay?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA– It’s called dual citizenship. Morley Safer of Sixty Minutes had it–in the U.S. and Canada where he was born. Thousands of Americans are also citizens of another country. Lots of folks don’t know a thing about that fantastic privilege.

It’s wonderful – well, you would think so. You can live in either country, with all the rights and privileges morley-safer-bio-pic[1]thereof, quite numerous. You can move back and forth between them with little fuss.

If there is a big crisis in the country you’re in, you can take off to be safe in your other country. Of course, you can vacation in the other country as often as you like, with much easier treatment getting through airport security.

If you are an international businessman, you can use whichever of your two passports will get you into a third country more easily, whether you’re going to China or Bolivia or Egypt or Singapore, say. And maybe no need to purchase the necessary visas, which is so time-consuming and often so expensive.

Years ago I was friends with a Greek couple, Nicolas and Maria, naturalized Americans both. They ran a pizza restaurant.  When they retired, they flew back to Greece for good. Bought a house in their home town. And became rich people—all possible by the Social Security check that Uncle Sam mailed to them every month. [Read more…]

A far-fetched letter of 25 years ago!

By John Guy LaPlanteIMG_20160517_094900-2

Written by me on Jan. 5, 1991. A quarter of a century ago! Extraordinary in its content. And I had zero memory of it! It surprised me. I believe it will surprise you, too. Here it is.

Jan. 5, 1991     To:Letters (Editor), Sunday Journal Magazine, Providence, R.I. 02992

I’ve just come upon (your) Magazine with the very worthwhile piece. “Schoolmaster Henry Barnard” (Dec. 31) on the beginnings of universal public education in Rhode Island more than a century ago.

I couldn’t help musing that in another century there may well be a parallel article—on the beginnings of universal health care.

The setting, it now seems, will be Massachusetts rather than Rhode Island. And at that time health care for everyone will seem as natural and undeniable as education for everyone is today.

And I signed it and gave my Worcester, MA address.

Imagine that. I quote myself, “… I couldn’t help musing that in another century (we may see) the beginnings of universal health care.

And here we are in a new century, in A.D. 2016. And universal health care is a hot subject. How about that?

I was thunderstruck when I uncovered the letter. I had no memory of it. I came upon it while going through a lot of my scribblings over the years in preparation for another book I’ll be publishing.

A bit more background: The Sunday Journal Magazine was a section of the Providence (RI) Journal-Bulletin, a fine paper then and now.

I had written a number of articles for the Journal as a free-lancer, so I was known to them. Plus I had deep Rhode Island roots. I was born and grew up in Rhode Island right next door to Providence, had done graduate work at Brown University, and I visited often.

Since then, of course, Obamacare was born. It was a compromise, yes, not care for one and all, but only because only such a compromise would get enough votes.

I mentioned it was likely to debut first in Massachusetts, a very blue state. And nine years later, that’s where Mitt Romney, then the governor, presided over the first big universal care law in the country.

And right now, as we so well know, presidential hopeful Bernie Sander is rallying millions of supporters by making universal health care a key part of his fight for the presidency. And who, by the way, is also pushing for universal free higher education (pioneer educator Henry Barnard must be applauding wildly!).

And the more centrist Hillary Clinton has been forced to move farther and farther left by the enormous pressure from Bernie. She’s now telling us maybe people in their ‘50s, say, might “buy in” to Medicare!

Progress advances slowly, sometimes discouragingly so. It gets nudged forward, and nudged and nudged. I am confident that a few more nudges and universal health care—already a fact in numerous advanced countries, and so long overdue for us—will become the law of our land.

Your children will see it, and so will my grandchildren.

~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

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