Out of Humor

486 - cartoon

My caption: “Is it take your dog to war day?” (Contest #486, August 24, 2015)

478 - cartoon

My caption: “The forecast said localized showers.” (Contest #478, June 8, 2015)

In March of last year, I wrote about my discovery of—and instant obsession with—the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. I have an update: I still haven’t won. Or been a finalist. After entering 58 consecutive times. (Film critic Roger Ebert, prior to his victory, made 107 attempts; that number seemed really big 13 months ago.) A few of my efforts appear throughout this post; the winning entries have invariably been smarter and funnier than mine.

For a particular week’s contest, if your caption is among the three on which the public will vote, you are notified by e-mail—or so I’ve heard. So I was more than a little excited to receive a message from the magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, last Wednesday. But instead of congratulating me on my top-three submission, he was inviting all entrants to use a new ranking tool to help choose the finalists from among the 5,000 entries. Give it a try! It can be addicting—especially if you’re waiting for your own caption to come up, so you can “honestly” assess whether it’s “unfunny,” “somewhat funny,” or “funny.”

480 - cartoon

My caption: “He’s a notorious gagster.” (Contest #480, June 29, 2015)

Since I started entering, I don’t feel any closer to cracking the nut that is the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. In fact, based on my failure up to this point, I feel distinctly qualified to offer advice on what not to do:

  1. Don’t submit your entry early in the week, late in the week, or in the middle of the week.
  2. Don’t go with your first instinct or ponder the cartoon at length.
  3. Don’t embrace clever wordplay or avoid it.
  4. Don’t go for the obvious or the obscure.
  5. Don’t seek out the opinions of others or work in isolation.

In other words, I’ve tried everything. Of course, the best way not to win is not to enter. I won’t not be entering anytime soon.

On Purpose


My writing talisman

At least one subscriber to this blog has noticed that my posts are always published at the same time: Close to the end of the month. Very close to the end of the month. The last day. Sometimes a few minutes before midnight. Many months, I doubt I will be able to fulfill my self-assignment. Doing so requires that I place as much importance on what I wish to accomplish as on what others expect or need of me. In other words, I have to be as responsible to myself as I am to others.

menuDue to various commitments, it would be a relief to take this month’s post off my plate. Yet if I don’t cobble something together, here’s what will happen: At some point, I will search my blog’s archives, and there will be no entry for March 2016. I won’t get a failing grade, Earth won’t be sucked into a black hole, but I will know I didn’t meet my own minimum writing requirement. (Ironically, I have now completed the second paragraph of a post I didn’t have time to write. Similarly, in junior high, I wrote a poem called “If I Could Write a Poem.”)

Over the last six months, I have completed the first drafts of 2.5 short stories. (One needs an ending, and another needs a new ending—hence, the decimal number.) Next, I would like to take a novel-writing class. But my work projects are too demanding right now. I feel frustrated that I am devoting so much time and energy to activities that have nothing to do with what I perceive as my purpose in life—to share my ideas through writing.

I don’t know how many people ponder their purpose and whether or not they are living according to it. In New Age circles, this inquiry is hugely popular. Two individuals whom I respect recommended the same book to me on the subject, about creating the “great work of your life.” According to Kindle, I made it through 14 percent of it. Ultimately, I don’t believe my purpose is related to what I accomplish in the world—even if that is sharing my ideas through writing.

miami vice

“Miami Vice”: half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri

In other words, I can still fulfill my purpose if I never publish a book or write one or even edit one. I can fulfill my purpose at the grocery store, on an airplane, or walking my dogs. I do it by being an example of love. Only love is real. To become aware of love’s presence, and to let it shine out through me, I need to let go of my grievances, which attack love. No matter what I seem to be doing—or seem too busy to be doing—I can always practice my real purpose.

Of course, I have found it is easiest not to hold grievances while vacationing in a tropical paradise . . .


Does the Paranormal Have to Be Proven?

rainbow_paint daubs

Earlier this month, I accompanied my husband to Florida for an art event in which he was participating. We shared an Airbnb property (“vintage Spanish revival with pool”) with six other street painters. One morning, one of the artists and I were the last two left in the house. We got to talking at the breakfast table. I described a pair of short stories I had been working on: a ghost story about conjoined twin sisters born in Victorian England, and a science fiction tale about a physics professor who invents a device to talk to the dead.

She said the subject matter appealed to her, and we shared that we both had an interest in the paranormal. We never knew this about each other, despite having been acquainted for over 10 years. I think there is a stigma associated with curiosity about phenomena that aren’t conclusively supported or explained by science, such as aliens, angels, energy healing, near-death experiences, and reincarnation. This stigma tends to keep us quiet, especially in the presence of vociferous proponents of “rational thought.”

A skeptic is someone who questions the legitimacy or genuineness of something alleged to be factual. Some skeptics automatically reject claims that do not fit their worldview or that challenge the status quo. The Skeptics Society tries to distance itself from these “cynics” and “grumpy curmudgeons.” The organization’s mission is to investigate the paranormal by “continuously and vigorously” applying the scientific method to it. “We must see compelling evidence before we believe,” the group says.

While this approach sounds reasonable, it makes a major assumption: that science can prove the truth or falsehood of everything. What if certain aspects of reality can’t be measured by the instruments of science? Albert Einstein said, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” In other words, science is too rudimentary to account for all of reality. Interestingly, there are non-paranormal occurrences and circumstances that science can’t explain satisfactorily, including ones we consider basic scientific principles, such as gravity, magnetism, and time.

Furthermore, does “compelling evidence” have to be scientific in nature—arising from a double-blind experiment conducted in a laboratory setting? Do personal experience and observation have no value? Is a mountain of anecdotal reports not persuasive? Why can’t we study and scrutinize phenomena ourselves, and then use our intuition to assess their validity? Such an approach would probably sound like sacrilege to a skeptic. But to quote Einstein again, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

I understand the appeal of science. Its systematic organization of knowledge imposes a sense of order on a world that can often seem chaotic. Its testable explanations make the universe seem predictable—and predictability is comforting. I also recognize the role of science in facilitating technological advances that improve our lives. Moreover, scientific insights and discoveries are often completely fascinating. But I am not willing to limit my inquiries about life to what science alone is capable of proving.

Fiction is a socially acceptable outlet in this regard. It lets us play with the acceptance of things that can’t be verified. What if there is an afterlife, and we can communicate with those who have passed on? What if aliens are visiting us? What if angels intervene on our behalf? What if we come back to earth in different forms, lifetime after lifetime? We can explore these “what ifs” in stories.

And then maybe the stories will open our minds, little by little, to the potential reality of the paranormal.

Yes! We Have No Banana’s*

*Superfluous apostrophe intentional—please, no angry letters.

A recording of the Broadway revue tune “Yes! We Have No Bananas” spent five weeks at number one in 1923 (which speaks to a simpler time, I think). It tells of a greengrocer who has string beans, onions, cabbages, scallions, tomatoes, potatoes, coconuts, walnuts, and two kinds of red herring but is out of bananas. An agreeable fellow, “he never bananas_cutoutanswers ‘no,’” so when customers request the tropical yellow fruit, he responds with the famous titular line. Believe it or not, there is a tenuous connection between this novelty song and superfluous apostrophes in plural words. Can you possibly imagine what it is?

The insertion of an apostrophe before the final s in a plural noun is a common pet peeve among the “apostrophe intelligent.” But did you know this contentious grammatical error has a name—a really cute one? It’s called a “greengrocer’s apostrophe,” after the misuse of apostrophes on the often handwritten signs in greengrocers’ shops: “FRESH ENGLISH PEA’S,” “SEEDLESS GRAPE’S,” “JUICY NECTARINE’S,” “LEMON’S, 25¢ EACH.” By the way, I am not insinuating that Jimmy Costas, the Long Island greengrocer who allegedly inspired the song about out-of-stock bananas made this blunder himself—he was just an interest-creating device.

In case it’s news to you that apostrophes have no place in plurals, or you are a greengrocer, let’s review the rule for creating standard plural forms (from The Chicago Manual of Style):

Most nouns form their plural by adding s or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding esFor example:

  • boy/boys
  • apple/apples
  • watch/watches
  • dish/dishes
  • tax/taxes

But what would a rule be without exceptions? For some words, you just have to learn the correct plural form or (as a last resort) consult a dictionary:

Words ending in y that changes to ies

  • ruby/rubies
  • family/families

Certain words ending in o

  • tomato/tomatoes
  • hero/heroes

Certain words of Latin or Greek origin

  • bacterium/bacteria
  • crisis/crises

All words with irregular plurals

  • child/children
  • ox/oxen

Of course, there are additional nuances—we are talking about the English language. For example, Chicago recommends using the singular form for the plural for names ending in an unpronounced s or x, as in “the seventeen Louis of France.” There is also one instance in which an apostrophe should be used to indicate a plural, to aid in comprehension: for lowercase letters used as words, such as “x’s and y’s.” On a related note, capital letters used as words, numerals used as nouns, and abbreviations form the plural by simply adding s: “two As and three Bs,” “the 1970s,” “PCs.” There are exceptions to this rule, as well, but we won’t get into those here.

Today’s takeaway: don’t be possessive about plurals!

Winky Face: Rebirth of the Semicolon

mixed signalWhile walking in Manhattan, I encountered a literal mixed signal: a traffic light showing an orange hand and a white walking figure, both illuminated. Should I stop? Go? Of course, in New York City, pedestrians cross at a (reasonably) safe opportunity, regardless of the indicated right of way. Punctuation marks are like traffic lights for written words, directing and controlling their flow. A period says, “Stop.” A comma says, “Pause.” A semicolon, the mixed signal of the punctuation world, says, “Pause slightly longer than you would for a comma, but don’t stop like you would for a period. Thank you, and have a nice day.” (I imagine the semicolon to be civilized and well-mannered.)

sun_orangeAuthor Kurt Vonnegut was not an admirer of semicolons. He said, “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” I tend to align more with Abraham Lincoln, who stated, “I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” (See what he did there? He used a semicolon to illustrate his point.) Still, when I pondered the idea of devoting an entire post to this period-comma hybrid, I was concerned that no one would be able to relate. I mean, who uses semicolons aside from making winky faces? Over 90 percent of my Facebook friends, based on a sample of 35. If the vast majority of us are using semicolons, we should probably make sure we’re doing it right.

Here are some basic guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style, accompanied by examples. If you are already a semicolon savant, skip ahead to the quiz that follows.

A semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would. (Recall from seventh grade that an independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and can stand on its own.)

  • Example: “The sun was setting; Timmy wouldn’t make it home before dark.”
  • Example: “Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets; my favorite is 30.”
  • Example: “Carmen pondered becoming a chef; she would have to go to culinary school.”

Certain adverbs, when they are used to join two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon rather than a comma. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then.

  • Example: “Lisa couldn’t be late for the hearing; therefore, she allowed ample time to get to the courthouse.”
  • Example: “I wanted the trout; however, the restaurant was out of it.” (This is a real-life example.)
  • Example: “The cat seemed hungry; indeed, he devoured the can of tuna we gave him.”

When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity. If ambiguity seems unlikely, commas may be used instead.

  • Example: “In 2016, Colin Hay will perform in Clearwater, Florida; Franklin, Tennessee; and Bristol, New Hampshire.” (Check out his tour schedule. If he is playing in your area, go! Incredible show.)
  • Example: “The votes received by the candidates for class president were as follows: Jessica, 457; Emilio, 398; and Logan, 272.”
  • Example: “I visited the Tower of London, where I attended the Ceremony of the Keys; Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer; and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone.”

Want to test your semicolon skills? Determine whether each item below is punctuated correctly. (The answers appear at the end of this post.)

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style is my bible; it is full of important information.
  2. Danny disrupted the class; accordingly, he was sent to the principal’s office.
  3. The fireworks were loud; but the dog didn’t seem frightened.
  4. The bride’s bouquet consisted of three types of flowers; namely, roses, tulips, and dahlias.
  5. The car’s last three oil changes took place February 3, 2015; August 21, 2014; and December 14, 2013.

Thanks for reading!😉

Answers: 1. Correct. 2. Correct. 3. Incorrect. 4. Incorrect. 5. Correct.

Cherished Annoyances

A pet peeve is a source of irritation that is almost fun to complain about. Maybe grumbling about the little things in life is a way to release frustration over the bigger issues. Following are some common pet peeves, according to the Internet:

  • Loud cell phone conversations in public
  • Open-mouthed chewing
  • Poor driving etiquette
  • Talking during a movie
  • Cutting in line
  • Snapping gum
  • Double-dipping
  • Dishes in the sink
  • Nail biting
  • Tardiness

Do any of these behaviors or circumstances excite you to impatience or anger? (Or are you, perhaps, a perpetrator?) Judging by my friends’ posts on my Facebook Timeline, I am a person with a lot of pet peeves—all surrounding the improper use of English. Here is a sampling of the items others have shared with me:

ancient grammar police_300  jane_300

dog_250  fruits and vegetables_350

I don’t believe I’m as critical of word-related errors as others assume I am. But I admit to bristling at the occasional linguistic blunder. Over the last few weeks, I paid attention to the verbal gaffes that raised my blood pressure. Here are a few:

Pet peeve: Using “phenomena” as a singular noun.
Incorrect: “The phenomena of global warming is a divisive political issue.”
Correct: “The phenomenon of global warming is a divisive political issue.”

Pet peeve: Not using commas to set off nouns of direct address, especially in conjunction with the word hi. (Even editors I know get this one wrong.)
Incorrect: “Hi Rachel.”
Correct: “Hi, Rachel.”

Pet peeve: Using “track” when “tract” is correct.
Incorrect: “The gastrointestinal track consists of the stomach and the intestines.”
Correct: “The gastrointestinal tract consists of the stomach and the intestines.”

Pet peeve: Using the superlative form of an adjective when comparing two things.
Incorrect: “Between Adele and Rihanna, who is the best singer?”
Correct: “Between Adele and Rihanna, who is the better singer?”

Pet peeve: Using “I” instead of “me” because it sounds correct (but isn’t).
Incorrect: “The waiter was very attentive to Caitlin and I.”
Correct: “The waiter was very attentive to Caitlin and me.”

It can be satisfying to lose our s#*t over an issue of minor importance. We briefly get to play the victim, which confirms our personal innocence. I know I enjoy it.

The Short of It


A street in Dublin

Last month, my husband and I flew 5,200 miles to Dublin and spent three nights there. Then we came home. We didn’t tool around the continent, the British Isles, or even nearby towns. A 72-hour trip to Europe sounds crazier as I write about it here than it seemed at the time, although a woman at the hotel bar pronounced us “fantastic” for making such a whirlwind visit to her country. We were in Ireland’s capital long enough to have afternoon tea, take a selfie by the River Liffey, walk the city, catch a cold, and test the medicinal properties of Guinness.

When we returned, I felt a surge in creativity—to a degree I hadn’t experienced in years. Traveling to a far-flung destination had interrupted my routine, and my routine ways of thinking. I hoped to capitalize on this sense of inspiration by enrolling in an online short-story-writing course I had wanted to take for several months. It started on a Thursday, which was the same day I considered getting my money back. After reading the lecture materials, I discovered that the first assignment—the beginning of a short story—was due in just three days! I didn’t even have a topic.

reviewsOver the next four weeks, I met my deadlines and produced a 3,200-word first draft. Waiting for my instructor’s feedback was almost as agonizing as reading it. (I discovered that I would much rather be the person with the red pen.) According to my custom, I focused on the negative aspects of the critique and disregarded the positive. As I proceed to fix the issues with the piece (namely, its lack of an ending that works “in dramatic terms”), I will try to remember and be encouraged by my instructor’s favorable comments.

In the process of penning my first short story since I was a teenager, I made a number of observations:

  1. Writing is tedious; having written is thrilling.
  2. Writing is challenging. It makes you appreciate your day job. (“What I wouldn’t give to be proofreading an index . . .”)
  3. Adding your byline under the title is a heady moment.
  4. The instant you have a creative breakthrough, the dog needs to go out.
  5. I can still pull an all-nighter if necessary.
  6. I understand why writers go on retreats, because writing comes (at best) sixth or seventh, after work, chores, errands, exercise, spiritual practice, meeting the needs of others, etc.
  7. When you’re writing, every word is a decision.
  8. It’s good to have a plan, but you have no idea what might come to you in the moment.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne was right: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
  10. I don’t know why I waited so long.

The question is, will I continue to write creatively outside the construct of a class, without the threat of humiliation for failing to turn in an assignment? I think I have a shot, because I am so good at humiliating myself.