Saturday, June 25, 2011

Righting Eras Eye Halve Scene

Now that I've decided to be a professional writer when I grow up, I'm more terrified than ever of publishing stupid mistakes of spelling, grammar and syntax (whatever that is).  I proofread my blog posts so often that I almost hate them by the time I click the "publish" button.  I dread the day when someone I don't know posts a comment about one of my errors.

Why should that be?  We're all human, anyone can make a mistake or overlook an error.  Why am I so sensitive to the idea of having my writing critiqued or corrected?

Well, it's because no one laughs louder, longer or harder than I do at the spelling and writing errors of others.  I'm brutal - just ask any friend who has sent me a message on their IPhone, only to have their "auto-correct" function override their own writing skill and good sense.  I love to exploit the errors of others.   But it seems that I'm opening myself up to the same treatment from total strangers by trying to write for a living.  There's a good chance that The Golden Rule is about to kick in for me  That could be disastrous for my self-confidence.

But, I'm going to have to get thick-skinned and just get on with writing, knowing that I'll probably get caught making a few mistakes.  I just hope they aren't as pathetic as this one:

From a street in Kalamazoo, MI

As sad as that very public typo is, this next one, advertising a spelling contest, truly cracks me up:

It seems that the job of putting announcements on a large, lighted sign in front of a school would be assigned to someone who is known for attention to detail, as well as spelling accuracy.  Maybe that Sand Creek employee was on vacation that week in January.

Speaking of attention to detail, one website where I was trolling for funny errors had these sentences taken from actual resumes:

13. “I am a perfectionist and rarely if if ever forget details.”

19. “Strong Work Ethic, Attention to Detail, Team Player,  Attention to Detail

I don't know about you, but if I was preparing a document aimed at promoting my accuracy, I might let someone else look it over for these kind of minor errors. (If you like these, go here for more of the same.)

It's easy to search out the errors of strangers.  But some of the mistakes I've seen have been so memorable, they have stayed with me for decades. In 5th grade, I tattled on a girl who shoved another girl down in the bathroom.  I told on the bully, even though I knew she might shove me too, or flush my lunch or beat me up on the playground.  But you know how she exacted her revenge?  She wrote me a note.  I didn't save it, but I remember the text like it was yesterday:


You are a ball-faced lyar.

I was scared, but that sad note gave me a mental picture that took the edge off my fear:

I feel sure that her limited understanding of slang phrases and her poor spelling skills weren't major contributing factors when she went to juvie the same year rest of us started high school.  If she's still around, I hope she gets to spot one of my mistakes.

In the late 1980s, I worked in sales for a business in Mobile, AL.  I once solicited secretarial help (as we innocently called it back then) and was appalled at the spelling errors on the resumes and applications I reviewed.  Of course, back then the average job-seeker didn't have access to a word processor - an IBM Selectric with the backspace/erase key was state-of-the-art in offices at that time.  Typing mistakes were very time-consuming and troublesome to correct, especially if not found until you'd pulled the paper out of the carriage.  Still, I was critical of mistakes and wouldn't even call an applicant if I caught any errors in spelling or grammar.  One resume was very memorable; there were too many errors to recall, but I've never forgotten the applicant's sign-off on her cover letter:

Last but not list, I am a not afraid of hand work.

Sinserally and truly,

Betty A. Applicant (not her real name).

I realize that if I wanted to write a book or column about notable misspellings or poor English usage, I'm about 20 years too late for the mass market.  Google the term "spelling errors" and you may spend the next hour choking on your Cheetos and snorting beer through your nostrils.  There is no shortage of compilations of hilarious and unfortunate spelling mistakes.  Besides, sometimes it's not the spelling that's the problem, it's the word choice or missing punctuation that turns an innocent comment into a funny or misunderstood one.  One need only peruse Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss to get hours of entertainment and a light dose of education about proper sentence structure and punctuation (click here to find it on

So I probably won't attempt to write a compilation of the world's funniest misspellings, since that has been done many times over.  Maybe one day I'll locate my missing list of repetitive redundancies that I started in the 1980s and added to religiously for years, before I lost it. Until I find it, here is an example:

“Along with your exciting guided tour of “Condominiums of Dead Possum Hollow, Phase III”  you are guaranteed at least one extra bonus free surprise gift!”

Wow, when a gift is not only free, but is also an extra bonus, you know it will be good, once it's no longer a surprise.

I'd also love to compile some of the all-time worst phrases from radio and TV ads of my youth, such as:

Save up to 50%, or more!

Get your Venn diagrams ready: as you all remember, the set that includes "up to" a number and "more" than that number is empty!  You cannot have it both ways!  If you get to save 50% on something, like a $5 shirt, you save half the cost, right?  That's $2.50.  If you save in excess of $2.50, then you exceed the "up to" part of the statement.  Here is what I mean:

Where A = "up to 50%" and B = "more than 50%," you cannot use the conjunction "and" and be accurate.  Set AB is an empty set!  You cannot have it both ways!  Did I already say that?

 Okay, I'm not only ranting, but I'm getting way off topic.  This rant is about writing, not math.  But I'll bet you are silently saying to yourself, "Thanks, Michele, for the lesson on set theory - I'd almost forgotten how fun that is."  You are very welcome.  

One last spelling mistake, then it's time to start the painful task of proofreading my own writing.

You may have seen this excerpt from a thank you note that circulated a few years ago:

 ‘Dear Sir. Thank you for your kind hospitality at Wimbledon last week. My friend and I had such a fantastic time and it was great to be able to enjoy the day knowing that we could have a little peace and quite if things got a little too hectic.'

You or I could probably recover from such a small error, but when it's made by the future Duchess of Cambridge (nee Kate Middleton), it's front page news.

Last but not least, I'll never know who to ridicule (or thank) for the punctuation-less sign I saw at a local restaurant, which inspired me to compose this rambling installment:


Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Fire Pit that Wasn't Meant To Be

As a person who considers herself extremely blessed, I try not to covet the possessions or experiences of others.  Compared to 95% of the inhabitants of this planet, I've got it pretty good.  But because I'm just a empty-headed consumer who can be made to feel envy by the most innocent-looking advertisement, I found something totally impractical that I long for with every fiber of my being, mostly because I know I can't have one.

Allow me to explain by going back to the beginning, if there is such a thing in these stories.

We have a fire bowl.  A dear friend who knew I wanted one gave it to my husband for his 50th birthday.  Neat trick, eh?  It looks pretty much like this:
except that it's not clean or new and rarely had fires in it.

Of course, we've used it for parties, sleepovers and special outdoor evening events, but not nearly as often as we should have.  It takes planning to remember to have dry wood, fresh marshmallows and graham crackers on hand, to say nothing of the effort involved in keeping Hershey bars in the house for any length of time.  So when the night is right for a fire, we usually have wet logs or no s'more ingredients on hand, meaning the fire bowl sits leaned against the house, cold and dry, passed over instead for family movie night with popcorn and Snuggies.  Sad, isn't it?

Last year, a friend undertook a complete backyard remodel.  It was amazing to watch the progress as her deck was removed and a whole new patio and walkway, complete with multiple sunning and conversation areas, were added to her lovely pool area.  But the addition that captured my fancy was the propane fire pit.  Edged with a tile tabletop and surrounded by extremely comfortable furniture, to me this represented the ultimate in family comfort and decadence.  Here's the kind of cozy scene I'm talking about:

Does anyone know how to Photoshop a picture of me curled up on that loveseat with a cup of coffee?  Because this picture just has "property of Michele Arnett" written all over it.

Instead I just contented myself with hanging out at my friend's pool all summer.  Better to mooch than to covet, right?

Then, about a month ago, I was garage-sale-hopping with a friend, when I stumbled on a barely used propane fire pit for sale for $50.  I was a passenger in my friend's van, which gave her first dibs on trunk space, so after she bought a fabulous overstuffed chair and ottoman, there was no room left.  Also, clinging to my many years of training, I'd called to consult with Eric on the advisability of purchasing such an item.  The price tag was unquestionably not the problem, (although I usually let him know if I'm planning to spend $50 in unbudgeted funds), but the fact that it was large and would need manly attention, like maintenance, refills, storage, valves, etc. made me hesitate to buy it on the spot.  Eric, however, didn't answer his phone, so we left to drop off the chair and ottoman.  I was sure he'd return my call soon, then I could go back, pay for it and let him pick it up later in his SUV.

Eric didn't call back until quite a bit later, and though he gave the green-light to the fire pit purchase, the people having the sale had already closed for the day.  I rode back the next morning, but there was no activity and no one answered the door.  Same story that afternoon as well as Sunday morning.  Boy, was I feeling like an idiot for passing up that deal.

Sunday afternoon I made one more trip, and this time I found the owners at home.  It seems that late that Friday afternoon, their 2 year-old slipped on the wet garage floor and broke his collarbone.  Poor baby!  This accident occurred only minutes after some fast-acting, decisive man with a pickup truck and extra help bought that fire pit and begrudgingly won my title of "Best Deal of the Day Not Made by Me."

For several days after, that missed opportunity was like an itch in the back of my mind - I couldn't get past the idea that I'd hesitated and lost such an excellent bargain.  When I look back, I'm not sure what bothered me most:  the fact that I missed out on something I didn't need and wasn't even shopping for, at a ridiculously low price; or that someone else benefited from my hesitation.  But I'd almost gotten over it, until...

The following weekend found me mysteriously out at another neighborhood garage sale - who keeps making me go to those things? - and I stopped at a sale at the home of a friend.  I purchased several small items from her, and as I was paying for these, I noticed a poster on the wall behind her.  This poster was a simple white board, covered with photos of quite a few high-end pieces of furniture, and I realized that I recognized a few of the pieces.

Turns out, a neighbor who was having a moving sale several weeks before had not sold everything, and took advantage of this other big neighborhood sale to advertise the items she had left.  I stopped by when she was having her sale several weeks prior, and she showed me her antique pieces, since that was all I was really interested in.  I recognized those pieces on the poster, as well as several others I saw in her house and garage that day.  One item on the poster that I hadn't seen at her home guessed it...a propane fire pit!

I called the phone number on the poster and reached the lady who was moving and trying to sell all her remaining stuff.  She remembered me and our antique discussion, so I launched into questions about her fire pit.  She had to interrupt me to break the news that it had sold earlier that very afternoon.   ARRGGHH!

How could that happen?  How could I let something I had absolutely no need for slip through my fingers a second time?  And she wouldn't say what she sold it for, just that she took less than $100.  What a travesty!  That highway robbery should have been committed by ME!

People who were witness to the great injustice I suffered - not once, but twice - shook their heads sympathetically and said completely unhelpful things, like, "It obviously just wasn't meant to be."  Well, chocolate-covered cockroaches aren't mean to be, but they exist...where's the logic in the "meant to be" statement?  But I gave little thought to the well-meaning comments of friends; I was busy stalking propane fire pits online.

Yes, after checking locally and finding that the moderately-priced propane fire pits look like something from a daycare playground, I became a little bit preoccupied with locating anonymous fire pit owners who were just trying to unload their high-end, mint-condition, in-the-way fire pit on ebay or craigslist.  For cheap.  It became a bit of an obsession.

I actually sat up very late one night reading every customer review of every moderately-priced fire pit on BizRate and Nextag.  Not technical specs, mind you - that would be useless.  I just wanted to know what others thought about theirs.  When Eric asked me how many BTUs I thought we needed on our small deck, I didn't have an informed answer for him.  But I knew I didn't want fake brick sides or an all-black unit.   Those were poorly reviewed.

Not too long after, I received a nice chunk of birthday money from a couple of people (you know who you are).  My first thought was that I was going to run right out and get a gas fire pit from the local DIY store.  No more chasing used crap on Internet classifieds - I'd just go get a brand-new one and commence sitting next to a cozy fire, sipping Bailey's and coffee, reading and napping, looking for all the world like a photo shoot from "House Beautiful."  That's how these things work, right?

But then my small, normally dormant rational side emerged from wherever it usually hides, and I was forced to think about the purchase logically.  My rational side sounds a lot like Eric, and my immature side doesn't appreciate the questions that my rational side asks.  My inner conversation went something like this:

Rational Me: Why do you want to buy a propane fire pit?

Immature Me:  I just want it.  I will use it.  I have the money. You're not the boss of me.

RM: Why do you want it?

IM:  It's pretty; it's trendy; my friend has one; I could have the coolest marshmallow roasts on the block with it.   

RM:  Do you often roast marshmallows?

IM:  Not very often...

RM:  But you would if you had a fire pit -?

IM:  I already have a fire pit, but if I had an automatic fire pit, I'd use it more.

RM:  To roast marshmallows?

IM:  No, silly!  I don't even like roasted marshmallows, unless they are disguised between two graham crackers and an oversized chunk of a Hershey bar.  My kids would have marshmallow roasts, though.  And I'd use it on cool nights to stay warm while I sit on the deck reading.

RM:  Do you often sit on the deck reading?

IM:  No, but I sit on the screened porch reading all the time.

RM:  But you can't use a fire pit on the screened porch.  Will you stop using your screened porch when you have a beautiful new fire pit?

IM:  Unthinkable!  I would never give up falling asleep at 11pm in my wicker chair, with a cold cup of decaf and Baileys and an open book on my chest for all the fire pits on the Internet!  How dare you suggest such a thing!

RM:  So, are you still planning to spend all that money on a propane fire pit?

IM:  Oh, go crawl under a fat roll and leave me alone.

So I didn't get a propane fire pit.  Once I had time to think it over, I don't even know where we'd put one.  Our small deck has two grills, a dining table and 6 chairs; there's no extra space. We'd have to cultivate a new area out in the yard somewhere, and put down stone or pour concrete, then we'd have to plant a couple of trees and shrubs for some privacy and do some other landscaping, plus we'd need a walkway and some edging to make it easy to mow around...


Yoo-hoo, Eric!  Grab some graph paper and come here, please, my sweet, brilliant, creative husband...I have a design challenge for you!

Readers Wanted; Apply Within

In the past few years, I've tried several different ways to earn some income.  Staying home when the girls were young made sense, but once they were both in school all day, it seemed that I needed to be contributing to household expenses rather than just creating more costs.  I've felt as if it is my duty, as an educated, experienced adult, to add something to the bank account on a semi-regular basis.

Over the years I've been a teacher's aide, worked in special education, taught remedial writing and math to adults returning to college, tutored algebra, substituted in elementary and middle school classrooms and even had a stint as a cafeteria lady.  I've explored school-based career possibilities pretty thoroughly.

I tried my hand at having an antique booth, which mostly gave me a place to store my personal surplus of furniture and bric-a-brac.  I'm glad I gave it a shot, but I'm no businesswoman and I really can't afford the pieces I truly appreciate.  Evidently, I'm just meant to browse, not to buy and sell. 

I came to the conclusion that I needed to get a job somewhere that I already liked to go, so I applied for a position at Kohl's.  I worked there for 8 months or so, and was able to retire that "never say never..." saying about working in retail.  I've done it.  It's like waitressing to me.  It's something I can do, and am pretty good at, but I devoutly hope I'm never called upon to do it again.

Which brings me to last fall, when I took a job babysitting for a neighbor's school-aged kids.  I loved the idea of regular hours, nights, weekends and holidays off, and the chance to work one-on-one with kids on their schoolwork.  It was a great experience and I think we all got something out of it (the kids found out what a really mean nanny is like), but they needed more than I could provide and now have a young, sweet, chipper nanny to replace my tired old self.

Looking for another part-time position to make up for my babysitting income, I discovered a friend with a successful home-based Internet business was looking for clerical help.  After some discussion about the wisdom of hiring a friend, she decided to give me a try.  I was instantly captivated by her enthusiasm and vision - she has an understanding of the potential for using the Internet that surpasses anyone I've talked to before.  I figured I could probably learn a great deal from her, as well as contribute some of my own old-school experience to her one-woman futuristic enterprise.  Well, at least I was right about one thing.

One day when I was preparing to leave, my friend/employer and I somehow got on the subject of blogging.  When she discovered I enjoy writing, she mentioned that she may need some articles written for her website - was I interested?  What started as a minor question on her part ended up being a pivotal moment for me.  I eventually confessed that I'd rather be a writer than keep doing oddjobs, but that I felt obligated to contribute some income to the household, blah, blah, blah.  My friend challenged my premise:  did Eric actually expect me to work for the sake of a tiny paycheck?  Had I ever asked him point-blank about trying to write for a living?

Ouch.  For months I'd felt a void where my sense of accomplishment should be.  Just doing a job for the sake of a paycheck wasn't very fulfilling.  I mean, I would dig ditches and serve mud soup every day, if my family's well-being required that of me.  But our life is arranged such that the lost time and inconvenience of me holding down a low-wage job usually outweighs the modest financial gain.  I manage the household and get our girls almost everywhere they need to go, with everything they need with them.  Eric supports us with his salary and I try to do my job without adding to his burden.  So when he had to add hours of driving, shopping and cooking to his already full day, just so I could have a job and a paycheck, the imbalance of the situation was obvious.  But how to find fulfillment, creative or financial, without sacrificing the comforts and routines of home and family life that we'd all come to appreciate?

It seemed my inner struggle was being dragged into the open by a woman, an entrepreneur, who had already tackled these arguments in her marriage and family, and found her own path to happiness and fulfillment.  She helped me to see that I had to meet her challenge - I had to confront Eric with my desire to pursue writing as a career.  Never mind that I had no prospects, no recent body of work besides this blog.  I had to go to bat for myself and my belief in my ability to write well and write stuff that people like to read.  How and where to find an audience, a job, a writing assignment, that was a topic for another day.  My fragile ego could only handle one  life-changing question at a time.

Fast forward a few weeks and here I am, parked at the computer, working on my blog for the first time in ages.  In May I was working two part-time jobs, and since the beginning of June I've had family in town and some big events going on.  Right after our guests flew home, we left for family vacation, which is where I am now.  In the ensuing weeks I've applied for writing jobs, submitted articles to websites seeking fresh-sounding stories on pre-selected topics, and I've begun making notes for a story.  Needless to say, Eric gave me his blessing.  It turns out he has always wanted me to pursue a writing career, he just never mentioned it in my hearing.  He ascribes to the theory that if you do something you love, and do it well, you'll probably find a way to get compensated for the effort.  Who knew?

So attention job-seekers:  I'm hiring!  Readers needed for long-term assignment.  Reading opportunities provided with virtually no advance notice and on no particular schedule.  Benefits:  laughter, tears and possibly a deep thought or two.  Compensation:  This is a volunteer position.  Absolute no money will change hands.  To apply, become a follower and encourage others to do the same.  If you or someone you know likes to read, I WANT YOU!