“No Punc” Writers Find Lack of Semicolons the Way to a Woman’s Heart

NEWTON UPPER FALLS, Mass.  It’s a hot summer night in this highly-educated suburb of Boston, but Evan Dwinnel is feeling a distinct chill in the air, and not from the ancient air conditioner at the bookstore where he works, The Drowsy Dragon.

comma1
“What if we started off slowly, and I gave up exclamation points first?”

 

“Is something up with Chloe?” Dwinnel asks fellow staffer Ollie Mason, who is hauling a box of books in from the back loading dock.

“She’ll be fine once tonight’s feature attraction is gone,” Mason says grimly as he stacks copies of “Desolate West Texas Polka” on a table where the author, Colin McReedy, will be reading in a half hour.  “She’ll come back down to earth after an evening without commas.”

comma2
“A real man would never use commas he would just keep talking then maybe punch you.”

McReedy is the leading exemplar of the “no punc” school of male writers who have garnered critical acclaim, and the hearts of female readers, with their tough-guy, no-frills approach to fiction, stripping their sentences bare of quotation marks and commas.  “McReedy and others like him are hell-bent on reducing American fiction to nothing more than nouns and verbs,” says Professor Martin Hurley, an English professor at Massachusetts University who teaches a course on McReedy and other “no punc” writers such as Ty Burnham and Sam Carpenter.  “I can envision the day when one of them will do away with periods and produce a novel that’s just one big run-on sentence.”

The no punc writers first eliminated semicolons, with McReedy angrily tossing a batik pillow at an interviewer on a National Public Radio show as he shouted “Semicolons are for wusses!”  Next came quotation marks–sometimes referred to as “inverted commas” by British editors–around dialogue, and last fall commas were declared forbidden at a panel on the nascent movement at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting.  “A typical line from a no-punker would go ‘He looked at Mattie the waitress at the cantina tired from decades of serving frijoles to desperate men and said Mattie I will have the huevos rancheros that is what sounds good to me,'” according to Hurley, who is staking his hopes for tenure on a ground-breaking study of the movement.  “You’ve got fewer signposts to guide your movement down the page than a rattlesnake wriggling across the Texas panhandle, whatever that is.”

comma
James:  “For me, the comma is as essential as breathing, as inhaling, then, of course, exhaling.”

 

But all that is academic for young men like Dwinnel, a former English major biding his time at the bottom of the literary food chain while he scribbles at night who now finds his hard-earned mastery of Henry James–the writer with the highest comma-per-word ratio of all time–counts against him in the eyes of young women with artistic pretensions and dreams of the Great American Novel dancing in their heads.

“Hey Chloe,” he says as the object of his affection passes close by him between stacks of shelves holding the hopelessly over-punctuated product of past generations of writers.  “Think we’ll get a good crowd tonight?”

The young woman, a willowy brunette who has swallowed the no-punc manifesto hook, line and sinker, gives him a sideways glance dripping with contempt, then stops to check her plunging neckline in a mirror.  “Oh Evan,” she says as she strategically tugs her bodice southward, “why don’t you go stick a comma in it.”

My Cat, Unregistered Investment Advisor

               An orange tabby cat beat professionals in a stock-picking competition.  He made his selections by throwing his favorite toy mouse on a grid of numbers allocated to different companies.

                                                         The Guardian

 

It was Sunday and I was taking the second of my two scheduled naps when I woke to the sight of Rocco, our tuxedo male cat, standing with his paws on my computer keyboard.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Just checking a few stocks in European markets,” he said.  He’s always been a bright cat, but I had no idea he’d opened up an on-line brokerage account.


“Sell Amalgamated Wolfram!”

 

“You’re not fooling around with my money, are you?”

“You?  Please.  Gimme a break.  Don’t they call security when you walk into Charles Schwab?”

I’m not a high-roller like some of our friends, who like to brag about how much money they make day-trading.  Nope, I’m the tortoise to their hare; diversification of risk, buy mutual funds and stay away from individual stocks, walk slowly and always wear your cartilaginous shell when you go outside.  Still, I know a little about investing.

“No they do not,” I said defensively.

“I know, that was unfair,” Rocco said as he tapped in the Euroclear symbol for General Electric.  “They ask you to go around back to the service entrance.”


“I’m overweighted in large caps.  Also in my hindquarters.”

 

“Har-de-har-har, so funny I forgot to laugh,” I said.  “Whose money are you playing with, by the way?”

“My own,” he said.

“And where did you get it?”

“If you ever read anything besides The Boston Herald, the comics in the Boston Globe . . .”

“Made famous by Andy Rooney on 60 Minutes when he said ‘What kind of newspaper puts the funnies on the front page?’”

“On the nosey.  And the New York Times Book Review, you would have noticed that I’ve been winning stock-picking contests with impressive regularity.”


“My cat’s smarter than your broker.”

 

“You mean you’re beating the self-promoting do-bees who expose themselves to public ridicule . . .”

“And the obloquy of all right-thinking men . . .”

” . . . by entering Future Brokers competitions?”

“You got it.  I’ve attracted quite a following in our sleepy little burb.”

I should have known.  Everybody wants to beat the market, and with interest rates at historic lows bragging rights for best-performing portfolio–and try saying that five times fast–are highly coveted in playgrounds of the idle rich.


“You can have the Business Section when I’m through.”

 

“So what do you look for in a stock these days?” I asked, not that I was going to switch to active management of my portfolio anytime soon.

“Well,” Rocco said, stepping away from the computer for a moment and gazing out the window to literally take the long view while he figuratively did so.  “I try to toss my mouse up high–that way it can land on a larger number of publicly-traded companies.”

I was silent for a moment, waiting to see if he was pulling my leg.  When he turned back to the screen, I knew he wasn’t kidding.  “You’re taking money from our friends and neighbors . . .”

“They’re all accredited investors . . .”

“. . . and picking stocks based on where your stupid felt mouse lands?”

“You got a better system?”

I had to admit I didn’t.  Because of my innate cheapness–“Chapman” is derived from the Middle English “cheapman,” an itinerant salesman–I try to pick stocks whose price is unfairly deflated by trivial events of passing significance, such as natural disasters, bankruptcy and massive internal fraud.  This strategy–known as “catching a falling knife”–has caused me massive bleeding in my portfolio.

“Well, no,” I said.  “Still–throwing a mouse?”

“Hey–I use the best and most recent information available.  The print edition of The Wall Street Journal.”

“Those are yesterday’s papers, you dingbat.”


“P/E ratios are totally out of whack!”

 

“You need to take the long view,” he said, turning back to check the Hang Seng Index.

“I agree, but my attention span is slightly longer than a common housecat’s.”

He whirled his head around as if he’d heard a coyote.  “Who you callin’ common?” he snapped.

“Oh please.  You don’t seriously expect me to believe that you’re beating the Dow Jones and the Russell 2000 merely by your skill at throwing a stuffed felt toy, are you?”

“Of course not,” he said blandly.  “I use performance-enhancing drugs as well.”

“Adderall?”

“No, dubo.  That mouse is full of catnip.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Pigeons Have Copied Our Brains

In a summer of my misspent youth long past I worked as an intern in Washington, D.C. and would frequently walk past the White House on my lunch hour. There I would encounter, as you may today, protestors of various persuasions, all of whom blamed a predictable cast of characters–the President, the CIA, the FBI–for the ills of the world.


Anti-pigeon demonstrators.

 

After a while, it became part of the summer atmosphere of the District, like the humidity, the hordes of other interns and the Japanese tourists. But then on one such noontime excursion, out of the blur of figures that had become as familiar as a wallpaper pattern, a lone man with a display of instant photographs caught my eye. “PIGEONS HAVE COPIED OUR BRAINS!” the legend above his pictures read, and I stopped. To say that my life changed with that chance encounter would be an overstatement, but I remember him to this day.


Pigeons: They’re smarter than you think.

 

I worked for the government, so I had plenty of time to examine his pictures and listen to his tale. It turned out that pigeons had been reproducing human brain waves for years–right under our noses–using nothing more sophisticated than ordinary office photocopiers. And nobody was doing anything about it!


. . . and you thought I was kidding!

I heard the man out, examined his photos, most of which depicted apparently addle-brained humans–the finished product, as it were–and never saw him again.


Pro se litigant.

 

I returned to Boston and a year later found myself the most junior legal beagle in the litigation department of a large law firm, spending hours stuck in the library doing research. The closest I came to a real-life lawsuit was when one of our clients was named as a defendant in a nuisance complaint by a crank. It became my job to draft papers to get our client dismissed from the case, but before doing so, it was suggested that I call the fellow up and ask him politely if he would consider dropping Acme Amalgamated Fasteners, or whomever, from the suit voluntarily so as to avoid unnecessary expense.

“I can’t,” came the reply. “The voices–they won’t stop–they won’t let me alone.”

“Who’s tormenting you?” I asked politely.

“The CIA, the FBI, the Pope, the . . . “

“Aren’t you forgetting somebody?” I asked brusquely, interrupting. Sometimes a forceful intervention can bring a madman back to reality. “Like–pigeons?”

“Pigeons?”

“Yes. I went to the White House and found out it’s actually the pigeons who are controlling our brain waves.”

“Really?” the plaintiff asked.

“Sure–you don’t buy that crap about the CIA and the Pope, do you? That’s exactly what they want you to believe!”


When pigeons attack!

 

“You know, I never have liked pigeons. You may be onto something.”

“Sure I’m onto something. I got it from the pigeons themselves!”

“Gee–I never knew . . .”

“That’s okay. Hey, at least I got to you before it was too late. Now about Acme Amalgamated Fasteners . . .”

I didn’t persuade the man to drop the suit, but the dialogue came back to me today as I walked down the alley between two buildings in Boston and–once again–heard the same tired complaint. A disheveled man, talking to himself, apparently incoherent, shaking his head, yelled out “It’s the CIA!”

Please–can we finally bury this base canard in the graveyard of lunatic ideas where it belongs? As between the CIA, the FBI, Pope Francis I and pigeons, which is more likely to control your brain? I submit the following to you:

1. If the CIA really controlled your brain, you’d be thinking about dossiers. You don’t even know what a dossier is.

2. The CIA has centralized headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Pigeons operate independently, sort of like franchisees, from a number of convenient locations across the country to better monitor your brain waves.


“Thanks–I got it on sale.”

 

3. The Pope is too busy shopping for clothes to control your brain.

4. In 1950, King George VI made FBI director J. Edgar Hoover an honorary knight in the Order of the British Empire. They don’t give those things out for trivial stuff like controlling your brain waves.


B.F. Skinner: “A pigeon flew into my head.”

 

5. Finally, and most importantly, noted behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner taught pigeons how to play ping-pong, a game that humans master without the assistance of a geeky-looking Harvard professor. If pigeons have so much free time they can play ping-pong, they have time for really important stuff like controlling your brain!

So there you have it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you see a pigeon as you walk through the park today, do yourself a favor.

Throw him some popcorn, or maybe a piece of your hot dog roll. You never know what he might do with the stuff he’s got on you.

My Favorite Opera Intermissions

As we age, our sleep needs remain the same, but we sleep more lightly and thus get less “deep sleep.”  It is for this reason that adults need frequent “cat naps,” for which I recommend–opera.

There is no better time nor place to catch a quick “40 winks” than the cheap seats high above the boards of a cavernous performance space where a buxom coloratura diva is strutting her fretful hour upon the stage, churning out high C’s like a typhoon.

opera

But at some point, as Willy Loman’s wife said, attention must be paid.  You’ve spent an ungodly amount of money for your tickets–you ought to get something for it besides peaceful slumber.  That’s why the greatest operatic composers came up with the musical innovation called “intermission.”  It is a period when the singing ceases and you are free, as they say on airplanes, to move about the concert hall.

I had a girlfriend who tried to convert me to her religion of opera worship, and as a result I am a connoisseur, an aficionado, of opera intermissions.  While I love them all, here are the ones that have meant the most to me:

Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle”: This is the grandaddy of them all, the Barry Bonds of grand opera.  Intended to be performed over three days, it is a veritable Sahara desert of opera in which each intermission is like an oasis, to be savored.  Drink of this respite from overwrought Rhinemaidens and Nibelungs until you’re full, like a sand-weary Bedouin, because you have many miles to travel until the next one.  Set your cell phone alarm to go off just before intermission to beat the line at the gift shop for souvenir Viking helmets.

Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten’s “Billy Budd”: This opera has everything going for it; story by Herman Melville, music by Britten, stuttering, half-price buckets of chicken wings and $1 Bud Light long necks until closing time.  I made up those last two, but you get the picture.  Still, this opera dulls the senses with the best of them, making intermission seem like you’ve died and gone to heaven.  Don’t be a piker–get an extra pack of Twizzler’s Red Licorice for your date!

Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”: I studied this one in college, and I used to have the album.  There’s a subplot about the Masons which I’ve never completely understood.  I thought those were the guys who rode around on little motor scooters in parades.  Maybe I have them mixed up with al Qaeda.

Shriners

Verdi’s “Rigoletto”:   I would be remiss if I didn’t include a work by Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest of the Italians.  Based on a play by Victor Hugo titled “Le roi s’amuse” (Translation: “Restrooms for patrons ONLY”), this opera gave us “La donna e mobile” (Translation: “Donna’s gone”), the canzone of the Duke of Mantua.

If you hurry down to the refreshment stand, you should be able to get a canzone for yourself and your date before they’re all gone.

Teen Musicians Hone Skills at Summer Blues Camp

ITTA BENNA, Mississippi. Here in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, you can’t throw a frisbee without hitting a legend of the blues such as A.C. “Red Dog” Johnson, who’s played bottleneck-style on the solid-body guitar he calls “Maybelle” for four decades.


“Red Dog” Johnson

 

“I don’t mind if they hit me with them frisbees, but I gets mad if they hits Maybelle,” he says with a look of mock-anger on his face.


Evan Winstead, Oak Park, Illinois

 

Frisbees used to be an uncommon sight in this poverty-stricken area where people are so poor Christmas comes only once every four years, like the Olympics, but that changed this summer when BluesTime, a camp for aspiring blues musicians, opened up, creating jobs and bringing in free-spending teenagers who seek the authenticity that only a summer on the Delta can provide an aspiring blues musician.

“A lot of my friends spent their summers getting wasted every night and chasing girls,” says Evan Winstead of Oak Park, Illinois. “I really suffered, which is gonna help at the Battle of the Bands the first week of school,” where his band, Crawlin’ Kingsnake, hopes to take home first prize.

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Slopping hogs: “What does this have to do with a G7 chord?”

 

For Evan and kids like him, a typical day in camp begins at sunrise as they are trucked out to local farms and businesses such as slaughter houses to experience the sort of hard labor that has traditionally inspired blues musicians to write the twelve-bar laments that made the Delta famous around the world.

“I drop a couple kids off at my uncle’s farm and don’t come back ’til they’s picked cotton all day,” says Red Dog. “After twelve hours in the hot sun, you find out who’s serious about the blues.”


Howlin’ Wolf: “I eat mo’ chicken any man ever seen!”

 

Other campers, such as Jeremy Fishbein of Needham, Massachusetts, are trucked to the Hi-Line Poultry Processing Plant along the railroad track to work with Red Dog’s 74 year-old father, Morgan “Icepick” Johnson, so-called because of his skill at breaking up the 300 pound blocks of ice that are used to cool the chickens slaughtered here.

“It’s hard, dirty, disgusting work,” says Icepick, who is himself an accomplished blues harmonica or “harp” player. “Makes you hate your life, go home beat your woman–it’s basic blues fertilizer, just like chicken” [excrement].


Umm–scrapple!

 

When the boys are done for the day, they are treated to a hearty meal of red beans and rice, collard greens and chicken necks or “scrapple,” a processed meat product made from hog snouts. “If you don’t have the blues when you quit work, you sho’ will after you finish dinner,” says Red Dog.

whore
“Y’all wanna earn a merit badge?”

 

After the boys wash and put away the dishes, it is time for them to learn some of the facts of life, and Red Dog and his father load them into a pickup truck and take them to Newbill’s Sporting Club, an unlicensed after-hours joint whose jukebox is stocked with blues classics by the three Kings, B.B., Albert and Freddie, a floating craps game in the front parlor, and private rooms in the back where girls are available. “Kids go to scout camp and build fires and dumb stuff like that,” says Fishbein, whose other school activities include soccer and debate. “I got a merit badge in Female Anatomy” he says without the smirk one would expect from a boy his age.


Old Crow

 

Only after the boys have each had a mandatory shot of cheap whiskey and a beer chaser are they finally allowed to touch musical instruments, and the results are nothing short of astounding. “They say the blues is like the moan of a woman, or the lonesome whistle of the midnight train,” says Red Dog. “We tell the kids to get as close as they can to that feeling, and what they usually come up with is the sound of a suburban teenage girl crashing her Lexus.”

The two-week sessions end with a final exam on the meaning of such obscure blues terms as “mojo” and “High John the Conqueror,” a root to which magical powers are ascribed in African folklore. Boys who pass the test and successfully complete their field work and projects are assigned an official blues nickname, often derived from the pet they identified on orientation sheets filled out when they first arrived.

“Young fella, you’re a real bluesman now,” says Red Dog as he hands Winstead his diploma, which bears his new name spelled out in fancy Old English-style letters.

“Evan ‘Hamster’ Winstead,” the boy mutters softly as he reads his new monicker. “That is totally awesome!”

Records Managers Throw “File-a-Palooza” to Attract Young Blood

SKOKIE, Illinois.  Madeline Grebs is a long-time records manager at Modern Moosehead Indemnity, an insurance company in this suburb of Chicago, but she’s not the quiet, retiring type.  “Don’t call me a file clerk” she says to this reporter, and it is plain that she takes pride in her work.  “There aren’t many things in life that are worse than a lost file,” she says.  “Maybe losing your arm because you stuck it out your car window and got sideswiped, but even that’s not so bad if you already had a prosthetic device.”


File-a-Palooza

 

But Madeline despairs for the future of her profession, which attracts many young applicants just out of college only to lose them in a few years when they move on to other jobs or go back to graduate school.  “I don’t know what it is,” she says.  “America’s best and brightest are going into dicey professions like law and medicine.”


Madeline Grebs, in her prime

 

Madeline’s concern is shared by others in the records management business, who formed a consortium in 2013 to address the “greying” of America’s file clerks and attract and retain young blood.  “Being a file clerk isn’t all about stuffing papers into manila folders, then putting them on metal shelves,” says Lionel Dotson, a freight railroad records supervisor.  “There’s also putting colorful labels on tabs.”


“Do you file a crowd surfer under ‘C’ or ‘S’?”

 

What the group came up with was “File-a-Palooza,” a festival of rock music to entice young people to view their specialty as hip, even “edgy.”  “We lose too many young people for all the wrong reasons, like money and professional excitement,” says Jim Salley, who designs records management systems for dentists.  “I ask these kids ‘What’s so bad about a job that makes you fall asleep at your desk?  That’s a good thing!’”


“File” and “Fun” both start with an “F”!

 

The festival, which will run for three days this week, advertises that it will feature slightly-past-their-prime bands such as Plain White T’s and Fall Out Boy.  A few early arrivals check in at the reception area of the National Association of Records Managers, and are directed down a long hall to a windowless office lined with banks of movable files.

radio

“Are we in the right place?” asks a 22-year-old named Angela, who looks around for the bands and the crowds.  “Sure, you’re just a little early,” says Earl Masciarini, who has been maintaining the trade group’s own files since the late 1970′s.  “Let me just turn on my radio back here and we’ll see what kinda reception we get.”