Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Also sprach Doug, parts I - IX

[Alert to the reader: This post is really long. It may behoove you to print it out if you're not one for reading on the screen.]

I have long been aware of my own personal level of how much I am full of crap. It's not so much an aspiration toward that but the inevitable consequence of having an underdeveloped sense of inspiration; given how much effort I actually exert toward most tasks they turn out relatively well, but that's not to say they turn out great. At best, the results can be construed as a bit better than one might expect from the average person exerting the same level of effort.

That, for example, is not a particularly apt introduction for today's topic, but it is nonetheless my perception of the situation.


Another perception I have, based on feedback I have received (or not received, as it were): What readership the site has achieved over the years tends to be not particularly critical of what I post. I'm not suggesting that's surprising, all things considered; most of the readers are people who are acquainted with me in some way, and it stands to reason that they would be more forgiving of the areas wherein my being-full-of-crap are evidenced in what is posted. They're accustomed to it.

I get very few comments left on the posts, but I understand that what I post is not such that it would inspire much in the way of fist-pumping agreement or argumentative vitriol; people are not as likely to make the effort to comment on a rambling essay that leaves them slightly amused but ultimately ambivalent.

I don't get many comments from complete strangers that aren't ostensibly spam (if not out-and-out spam). The legitimate comments (and by that I mean ones where the person clearly read the post) left by strangers are always a delight, even though they rarely equate to gaining a new member of the audience.

[Wow. Could this intro drag on any more? Let's get to our topic, what say?]

Last month, on March 4, I got a comment from a stranger. I don't know who the person was, or even the gender, because the comment was attributed to Anonymous (and nothing in the text gave any indication of the writer's sex). The commenter noted only that he or she was an English teacher.

This comment proved different from those I have received from strangers in the past in two key ways:
1) It analyzed the punctuation I used from a critical standpoint, and (more important)
2) it was left in response to something I posted last September.

Yes, nearly six months prior to when the comment was made.

The post in question hadn't appeared on the main page (which shows about the last two month's worth) in quite some time. To scroll to it from there, one would have to click the link to show older posts twice. Suffice it to say that it's highly unusual for anyone, even an acquaintance, to read something that old.

I was intrigued.

The comments were in response to this post where I'd composed a glib and wry essay about a pop song where the singer used "lay" when grammatically he should have used "lie" (because he had no object). While the commenter expressed token agreement with that content, he/she took me to task over an improper use of "thus" in the middle of a compound sentence; I used it after a comma, when it should have followed a semicolon.

The thing is: I more or less knew that. Obviously it didn't occur to me at the time I composed it, nor did I review it that closely afterward to catch the faux pas. 1


The commenter segued from a tepid compliment of the "breakdown of the misuse of 'lie'/'lay'" to a statement about how, by virtue of having touched on a grammatical topic (although I think technically it would be more a question of word choice than of agreement of tense, but hey, let's not nitpick), I had opened myself to criticism.

My reaction: Every word I have ever written has left me open to criticism. Obviously he/she hadn't read the rest of the posts (at least not that closely). I imagine someone inclined to rip the pieces to shreds could have the proverbial field day.

In short: I was more surprised it took this long for someone to identify one of the myriad flaws to be found in the posts than I was that someone found one. 2


The commenter pointed out a mistake of mine, and he/she was fully justified in that. I had not abided all the rules of conventional usage while on the topic of not abiding one of the rules of conventional usage; that touched on a hint of hypocrisy, and that I would seek to eschew whenever possible.

Hypocrisy I thought I had eschewed with my wry conclusion (punchline) about how if I had a decent singing voice I wouldn't give a crap about grammar. I didn't think I was alleging the song was bad or somehow unworthy because the lyricist used "lay" when "lie" would have better followed the rules applied to term papers.

He wasn't writing a term paper.

I didn't think I was writing a term paper either. I'm not suggesting I would have been any more thorough in proofreading had I been writing a term paper, but I suspect I would have been more cautious about using the conjunctive adverb "thus" (and thereby avoided the likelihood of misusing it).

There's no point in trying to assuage the shame of having typed a comma when it should have been a semicolon. I'm not going to go back and change the post now.

The lesson is clear: Only those who are beyond reproach should even allude to how others may not have been beyond reproach. 3


Still, how freaking cool is it that someone read one of my posts six months after I put it out? I like to think that because many posts are not particularly concerned with current events they have the potential to remain of interest down the road, and perhaps this incident proves that.

It's never too late to discover how full of crap I was in the past.


Beating the dead horse a bit more: The commenter mentioned also how he/she found the "rampant" over-usage of commas to be more offensive than the misuse of lay/lie. I couldn't be sure whether he/she meant that as a dig against me (in light of misusing "thus" after a comma) or whether he/she was merely throwing out an example of a personal pet peeve. 4

When the proverbial push comes to the proverbial shove, my true error was not so much the failure to precede "thus" with a semicolon. That grammatical rule seems obscure enough that only the highly erudite (who are paying close attention) would even notice the mistake. Where I went awry in the pseudo-essay5 in question was alluding to having been an English major. While it is an accurate statement about my background, the connotation it draws in the mind of the reader (at least in the mind of the reader in question) is not one I would consider accurate when applied to me. The admission implies I wish to be identified as one who studied the language closely during his years at university. While I can say many things about my academic experience, I would not say that about my time on campus.

I may not have been the worse English major ever, I was far from the best. I didn't so much gain an extensive familiarity with the peculiarities of the language as I picked up what I needed to get through classes, and some of it stuck (for reasons that defy any explanation).

Frankly, calling myself "an English major" is merely shorthand for what I really am: a dilettante who got a degree from the English department of a state university. By no means would I ever claim to be an authority on English. I know what I know; I know what I had cause to know that has not slipped from mind.

That was, more or less, the thesis I intended6 for the pseudo-essay in question. I wasn't taking to task the artistic license of the songwriter but lamenting that the aspects of my education I hadn't forgotten affected my response to the artistic license of the songwriter, getting in the way of appreciating the emotional component of the lyric in a way that presumably wouldn't affect others.

To the extent I had a thesis, it would be something along the lines of: Egad, here's another way I am unlike regular people. Look how I cannot escape my own brain and just enjoy art for itself.

Knowledge may be power but intelligence is pain.


If anyone wonders why I compose these pseudo-essays and don't do much in the way of revision (or even proofreading), I present Exhibit A: parts I - V. Those were composed during two days (three train trips) worth of commuting to work, meandering around a topic that at the onset seemed to have a reasonably strong inspiration behind it--this commenter's nitpicking-- but that at the time I felt unusable for the site here (without serious revision, which we've established was unlikely). It was not that I was above exerting the effort; I lost interest in achieving what the effort might give. 7

Now, I have decided to be abjectly self-indulgent, and here we have this a quaint little tribute to my inadequacies to be read by a group of people probably not including the person who inspired the original idea.

The only potential enjoyment I'm likely to get from the act is from the composition. Revision and proofreading (you know, the sort of things an editor would spur) bring no pleasure, so once the pleasure of composition has expired what motivation have I to continue? The fear of regret later? Ha. That hurdle I overcame long ago. Were some reward coming later, that would be another thing, but after years of doing this I know the reward is in the now.

People who have been convinced that doing a good job is its own reward would dismiss my immediate gratification credo. I'm not trying to get their approval anyway.

By this point, the question of whether it was worthwhile to spend the time blathering on in a paltry justification of my inadequacies that the world doesn't see (in something that is utterly unfit for sharing), rather than putting effort into trying to revise the above into something that is sharp and trenchant and a delight to be admired through the ages?

I had no choice. Blathering on in this way is certainly pathetic, but it is what puts my mind at some modicum of ease when it is dismayed over how other efforts have not gone well.

In other words: Absolutely it was worth it. The enjoyment was not great, but it was better than frustration.


Revisiting the commenter: I have long believed that everyone's kneejerk reaction to anything written is whatever their individual insecurities inspire, not what their loftier mental capacities allow. In short, it matters little what I say; the reader will interpret the words primarily by whether the topic (or the word selection) touches upon any issue he/she has. Only when required to do so can the reader be expected to analyze the structure and the overall thesis and consider whether what was written was intended to elicit any such reaction.

Sometimes the insecurity manifests itself in the form of what the post in question ultimately discussed: the inability to overcome one's neuroses that color one's way of looking at the world. I was not "preaching" about the use of "lay" when proper grammar would dictate use of "lie"; I was lamenting how I couldn't help but notice the misuse, despite myself, and merely enjoy a pleasant little pop song.

That the commenter was similarly afflicted by his/her neurosis (viewing the written word in a constantly critical manner) and couldn't simply enjoy the wry little pseudo-essay, or at least acknowledge what I thought was a not-entirely-subtle tone of the tongue being in the cheek, makes him/her a sort of comrade. Not only that, he/she makes my point about the theory noted above.

To be absolutely clear: I am not criticizing him/her for being thusly afflicted; to do so would be the epitome of hypocrisy. And to be forthright I must admit that my initial reaction to the comment was more akin to defensiveness than to admiration. (I make my own point as well.) It was only after a few weeks that I could regard it with the sufficient level of emotional distance that I could recognize that even if he/she intended the comment to be snarky, he/she was putting him-/herself in the same boat.


The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca8 recommended (more or less) trying to anticipate what could go wrong so one could be mentally prepared and hence avoid frustration stemming from being caught off-guard. (I learned that from seeing part of a program on public television last month. I wish to be forthright so I am not mistaken for an intellectual later. 9)

I try to not lose sight of how half-assed these ruminations tend to be (and hence how much they suck to a lesser or greater degree). Only by taking any level of pride in the posts10 should I find any criticism of them to be worthy of defensiveness.

This particular scenario, however, was more an example of being surprised by an unprecedented act (someone reading a post from months ago without being directed to it) than being all that prideful of what I knocked out in about an hour on a Saturday afternoon (without much contemplation or deeper consideration); frankly, I'd forgotten I even bothered with attempting to use "thus" between two clauses, much less thought about whether it needed to be corrected.


I am completely full of crap. And knowing that keeps me from getting too upset about the fact that I'm completely full of crap.

Footnote-like stuff:
1 -
These are glorified first drafts. I don't highlight that fact, and I know it might be off-putting to the reader to see that admitted, but that's essentially what they are. Frankly, I would argue that the glory of the blogosphere is the immediacy of having an idea and posting it right away; it's not journalism, with editors and fact-checkers improving the result (and slowing the output).

That's not exactly what I do here, at least not all the time. I'm not so much going for immediacy but for getting out something I don't hate. (I compose more than I post, as frightening as that is to consider.) There are many times where I run out of steam to keep bashing away at the idea and for my own sanity must just let it go as is. It's not that I'm happy with the result but that I'm not so unhappy with it that I'll take it down.

For completely free entertainment, you could do worse.

2 -
The beauty of the blahg is not that it is free from typographical errors, poorly structured arguments, and humor that isn't funny; the beauty of the blahg is that all those elements are mine, not the result of an editor.

I seem to be trying to justify half-assed effort with some excuse about not having an editor, and then glorifying that half-assed effort as some sort of epitome of self-expression.

Only kind of. I'm not meaning to justify or glorify anything, but I'm not feeling what might otherwise seem the appropriate level of shame about the situation.

3 -
All that defensive posturing is the shame. It is true that no matter how well I claim to be open to criticism I am still subject to ego.

4 -
Therein lies the fun of leaving something open to interpretation. It becomes a test of how defensive I feel like getting. The initial inclination is toward taking it as a dig, but the intellect allows me to override that with dismissal of such intent, even if it serves only as ego-protecting delusion.

What good is a delusion if it isn't ego-protecting?

5 -
I know "pseudo" means "false" despite using it in this context to mean "approximate" (the common parlance for it these days); don't bother mentioning that in a comment. Unless you must.

6 -
Apparently I did a poor job of getting that into what was composed, or else I wouldn't be explaining it now. N'est pas?

7 -
You don't want to know how many trips it took to compose parts VI - IX.

It is true that virtually all o f this was originally composed on a beat-up old laptop whilst using public transportation, although knowing that aspect of its creation doesn't really enhance one's appreciation of it. Hey, by pulling back the curtain it allows you to discover most of what you didn't know is not particularly interesting.

8 -
Seneca the Elder? Seneca the Younger? I don't remember. Frankly, I'm amazed as much stuck with me as it did.

9 -
Yes, I am toying with you now, trying to elicit a reaction amongst those who would take offense at the suggestion that intellectualism is undesirable.

10 -
As noted in 1 above, posts that are ultimately first drafts of which I was not completely ashamed.


  1. Do I get a bumper sticker that says "I Read the WHOLE Thing!"? It is delightful and odd at the same time to get comments from strangers, although I didn't know they merited such verbose responses!

  2. I love that you are so meta. Also, David Foster Wallace would be proud.


So, what do you think?