I just posted a little rant (in a Facebook group about linguistics) about the supremacist attitudes inherent in certain grammar “rules.” My rant ended with “In short: Split infinitives and smash the patriarchy.” This message seems to be resonating with a lot of folks, and I have a friend working on a graphic design for stickers/t-shirts/etc.
I’ll put the whole rant here soon; I just wanted to get this post up right away for intellectual property purposes.
This is not going to be an in-depth treatise on Christopher Columbus, or a history of protest, or a detailed condemnation of the ingrown injustices that have made Baltimore what it has been, and what it is. This is my personal reflection on a moment in time, in a small space that means a great deal to me.
I’ve been meaning to write this piece since July, but I’m enjoying the feeling of writing it today, a day that used to celebrate a plunderer and profiteer, but that in some places has been reclaimed to celebrate indigenous peoples.
I have worked in Baltimore since 2011. My office is in the Inner Harbor, and I park in Harbor East—two of the most moneyed and tourist-focused areas of the city. The police presence is constant and visible. Young professionals in expensive “athleisure” clothes walk their small-breed condo-friendly dogs along the waterfront promenade between the aquarium and the Whole Foods, passing the Four Seasons Hotel, the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business, the UnderArmour flagship store at the edge of the marina, the restaurants with multi-paragraph dress codes posted outside.
I don’t only see the money; I see what feeds it, and what it eats. I see the hotel workers grabbing a break in the loading dock that smells of cigarettes and bleach (the laundry vents into the loading dock). I see the panhandlers on the footbridges, taking their benevolent bridge-troll tolls, overlooking, overlooked. I see the restaurant staff, the street sweepers, the people raking up the post-storm flotsam-jam in the Jones Falls canal, feeding driftwood and garbage up the conveyor belt to Mr. Trash Wheel.
I see the Railing, a landmark I walk past so often it gets a capital letter. To me it has become a canvas not only for skateboard-colors but for complicated thoughts about Baltimore’s industrial past and creative present. I have taken photos of it almost every week since December 2015—almost every week, that is, until March of this year, when the pandemic sent me to work from home. Of all the things I miss about working in Baltimore, it’s the Railing I miss the most. I have gone back to see it twice, once in April and once in July.
In April it was a pure hunger to see what was happening, what marks were still there, what if anything had been newly-laid. (Yes. New color, and new rust, and recent scrapes peeling up fresh vinyl—the peeled-up fragments don’t stay intact for long, so they are like finding a campfire with still-live coals under the ash: Someone was here, less than a day ago.)
In July, the impetus was bigger—not more urgent, but more philosophical. Six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matter protests grew and spread, protesters in Baltimore tore down a statue of Christopher Columbus. Reports said the statue was thrown into the harbor, which I doubt; I can’t imagine the protestors carrying the statue a whole block just to get it into open water. That statue was in a little park across the canal from the Railing. For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about whether I would be able to see the Railing from the now-empty plinth where that statue had stood (a symbol of pride to some, but of shame and lies and oppression to many, many more).
Yes. I could. I can.
It feels important, this moment. It anchors me to history in a new way. I have been doing my work and making my art and walking my paths in that space for years, and now it is connected to this paroxysm, this one small landslide toward justice in these strange tectonic times. Witness.
There’s a tension in the social sector between “evidence-based” and “innovative.” Policy-makers and funders have largely gotten behind the concept that basing decisions on evidence is a good idea. At the same time, they want to see proposals and work plans full of innovative thinking. (It’s hard to get support to keep doing what we’re doing—even if what we’re doing seems to be working just fine—without some innovation in the mix.)
This has bothered me for years on a purely semantic level. If something is truly innovative, then it hasn’t been done before. If it hasn’t been done before, it can’t possibly have been studied. If it hasn’t been studied, there can’t be evidence—at least, not rigorous, gold-standard evidence. So how can something be both “evidence-based” and “innovative”?
My answer? Adaptation.
Cultural and technological advancement—the stuff that builds humanity, that moves us forward as a species—has been driven much more by adaptation than by pure inspiration or creativity. Taking solutions proven in one context and applying them in another. Hearing or reading about pieces of diverse ideas, and fitting them together into something new. Adjusting to the cultural shock when an old way of thinking proves less than useful, or even untrue.
(More to come on this, some day. I just wanted to get the core of the thought articulated.)
This is a cautionary tale about the perils of chairs, trackpads, and root vegetables. I got a spiral vegetable cutter last Christmas. At the time, I made the (remarkably prescient) statement that readers should expect exclamations along the lines of “Hells yeah, spiralized celeriac!” Little did I know that spiralized celeriac would be the last straw for my right arm. Six months later, I have recovered enough to write about it without risking an aftermath of incapacity and icepacks.
Minor rant: If I were Queen of the Universe, #12 on my list of proclamations would be this: We stop saying/writing/reporting things like “Market fails to meet analysts’ projections”, or “The 3rd quarter figures were lower than predicted.” All such utterances should place the blame where it goes: On the economists, not on the figures.
“Analysts fail to predict market. Again. So far this year, they’re doing only slightly better than chance. Could you remind me why we’re paying them?”
“For the 23rd quarter in a row, the economists are wrong. This time they only missed the answer by 3%, which is pretty good, for them.”
I used to think that economics wasn’t a science, but I’m broadening my definitions. I think macroeconomics is an interesting way of looking at the world. I find the Freakonomics podcast fascinating, for example. But that doesn’t make economics a good way of predicting the likelihood of a specific event–certainly not to the degree you can rely on in chemistry or physics.
It’s kind of like weather forecasting for my neighborhood vs. meteorology for the planet. You can still call it science, if you’re using “science” to mean a “way of knowing”. It just falls apart a little when you get to the “replicability” standard for scientific merit. I’m OK with that–I don’t require that level of rigor from everything I believe. Love isn’t predictably replicable. Nor is poetry, or faith. But economics is pretending to be chemistry, when it’s arguably more like astrology, and that pretense bothers me.
The artist Sara Steele was clearing out old copies of her desk calendars, in celebration of her 35th calendar, and decided to run a little contest, which Jeanne thought looked like fun. Jeanne and I are often looking for excuses to make art together, and I’ve admired Sara Steele’s work since my sister Michelle started using her desk calendars in the 1980s, so this was a lovely bit of serendipity.
I’m posting my collage here so I can pin it on Pinterest. (I’m not a very practiced Pinterest user, and didn’t figure out a way to upload something directly until I had already written this post.)
It’s called “Purple Steele Landscape.” I made it on Saturday (November 22, 2014) from pieces of Sara Steele’s 2005 Desk Calendar (crediting her here for use of her copyrighted work).
The shape of the landscape–and the idea of doing a layered landscape at all–came from the undulating line of the text of the index of the calendar. This might become a diptych, as the index was in two columns. I’m also wishing that I had textured up the purple background-paper more before I started gluing–crumpled it, or painted it. Maybe it’ll grown on me. We’ll see.
Seems to me we’re at a fairly high angst-level, globally. The Weltschmerz is getting schmerzier, all over the Welt. This was keeping me up last night, so I started thinking about Guanyin. She is the bodhisattva of compassion, She who hears the cries of the world. Wikipedia says “Guanyin is also seen as the champion of the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble.” One of her epithets is “the Iron Goddess of Mercy.” She also has her own tea. (It’s an oolong. It’s lovely.)
Seeking her image was the root of my most-magical Internet moment to date. I was looking for images of Guanyin to help me work through the psychic overload of Grand Jury duty (two to four dozen snapshots of crime, from the eye-rollingly banal to the most hideous evil, weekly for three months). I found this one.
Kwan Yin, Green Gulch Farm, California | Sculptura (17) | Robert V. Moody
Because this image is on the Internet, I was able to find the photographer, and ask if he would make me a print. I sent him a postal money order, and he sent me two prints and a very gracious letter.
I’m looking for the consolations in the Weltschmertz, and the jewel in the lotus. I have a beautiful artwork from a Canadian photographer (and mathematics professor), of a statue of a Chinese bodhisattva, taken at a Northern California retreat center. Not something a person would have been able to acquire until this day and age.
It was a gift from a friend, and an empty house, and a departed soul. At this writing, in January 2014, I have had it for just over a year. It is old, with tiny hinges and half a lid (broken edge, worn splinter-free) and the number “21” on two of its sides.
Inside are four compartments, each carefully filled with carefully-rolled dry leaves. I can’t tell what kind of leaves they are. Something sturdy, like red oak.
There is writing on the inside of the lid: pale pencil marks I could never read before, or only almost-read. Something about the light, or my eyes, or the box’s wishes changed tonight, and I can read it. I know it much better now.
It was a typesetter’s box.
Two compartments, before they held leaves, held dashes (which before tonight might have said “disks” or “darker” or “dishes”)—em dashes and en dashes, the E’s written in loops like backwards 3’s, which contrast sharply with the straight-line E’s above them (a different hand? a different mood?).
Dashes are charming to me, with their elegant herding abilities. I use them carefully and often, and won’t write a double hyphen when I should write an em dash.
The other two compartments held Italic capital X-tildes (X̃) and Y-tildes (Ỹ), which I have never had call to use but which apparently stand for an old statistical mean and a new one.
There are other numbers that are code to me. “10 on 10”, which might be “10 or 10” and on first reading said “IomiD”. “Ital cap” is clear now, when before it could have been “Stele crp” or “Stackage”.
The box felt relieved when it was given to me. It relaxed into my hands, after others had looked at it and shaken their heads and left it on its shelf. But it kept its history to itself, letting me love it on its present merits. I love it even more now, knowing a bit more of its past, imagining it is the twenty-first in a series of boxes that used to sit companionably together on a fitted shelf, or in a cabinet, ready to work, to spell, to indicate pauses and spans, and old things and new ones.
It misses its companions, but it sits among other small mysterious beloved things, and I think it is happy.
Here are all the characters:
10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap X̃
10 on 10 | 353E Ital cap Ỹ
6 on 7 7¼ set | Em dashes
6 on 7 7¼ set | En dashes
As a detail-oriented writer, webmaster, and knowledge worker, I notice errors. When I point them out, sometimes people are grateful. Other times, I get pushback along the lines of “Nobody cares about stuff like that except you,” or “I don’t see why you’re worried about that detail.”
Have you ever eaten steamed mussels with sand in them, or salad with grit on it? The food might be perfectly cooked, creatively seasoned, and beautifully plated. But as soon as there’s grit on your palate, you notice. If there’s one piece of grit, some people might overlook it. The more grit, the less edible the dish—no matter how good everything else is, that grit makes the dish less enjoyable, or even inedible. If you go to a restaurant twice, and there is grit in your food both times, would you go back a third time? I wouldn’t. I would think their prep work was sloppy, and that would make me worry about their hygiene practices and respect for product.
“Nobody cares except you” is a coward’s defense, and it dismisses the experience of at least part of your audience. Some people will notice the details. For example, I’m passionate about words, grammar, and usage. I notice when people use a word or phrase imprecisely or inappropriately. I notice if someone is using serial commas, or not using them, or using them inconsistently. I’m passionate, though not expert, about design; I have a strong aesthetic, and I notice when people haven’t learned the same design basics as I have—when they break a grid, or choose colors or fonts haphazardly, or don’t have real people use a product before release.
Caring about these things has earned me some ridicule, but it also has made me a valuable team member—I’ll notice the things that others on the team don’t, so when we put a product out in the world people will notice the content or usefulness of what we made, and (I hope) not be distracted by awkward design choices or grammatical errors. If we don’t pay attention to those kinds of details, some people will think less of us—and think less of our expertise.
Typos, grammatical errors, awkward usage, and inelegant or untested design are the grit in any work. Having a grit-detector on your team makes the work better, and builds your audience’s faith and trust in your expertise.
On the other hand, if the salad with grit in it is made of tough or spoiled greens, that’s a different kind of problem. Don’t bother removing the grit if the greens themselves aren’t good. Spend your energy on starting fresh.
10. Do you own or rent a property which has sidewalks that other people might have to walk or push a stroller or use a wheelchair on, ever? Has there been wintry precipitation recently? It’s your responsibility to make your walk safe. No snow. No ice. Wide enough for wheels. If you can’t do it yourself, my benign government will have a postal-code/neighborhood-searchable “Get shoveling help” app, so you can find paid or free assistance. If someone slips and falls on your property because you just didn’t bother, there will be severe consequences. (For example, making you Snow Remover For Life. for your whole block.)
11. Highway sign change: Any sign that now says “Do not pass” or “No passing zone” will become “None shall pass!!”