Tuesday, June 24, 2008


It’s the traffic light in conversations and good books. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the Information Superhighway, in an argument, at a business meeting, or telling a story to your two-year-old. Dashes and dots are here to stay, long after Morse Code and the telegram have become antiquated and replaced by far more sophisticated messaging systems. Commas, periods, semicolons … ellipses (those three dots I love) … exclamation points! Without them, life would be one big run-on sentence we’d live in a boring monotone. Punctuation helps give meaning to our lives.

Once I had a very dramatic example of how punctuation can change everything. My boyfriend lived on the East Coast, and he was trying to get a transfer to my California city. I had this dream in which someone said to me, “There’s no way he won’t get it.” I couldn’t wait to share this good omen with him.

To our mutual disappointment, he did not get the job here. I was stunned. That’s when I realized I had “heard” the sentence in my sleep without the proper punctuation. It must have been, “There’s no way. He won’t get it.”

What’s your favorite punctuation mark? Most people would guess I’m an exclamation point kind of a gal. They always comment on my enthusiasm and animation, and I admit, I overdid them as a teenager. (I could barely write or say a sentence without ending it with one! And –blush—I also dotted my i’s with circles and hearts.

But the dash is my true love, that pregnant pause I’m always running too fast to take in my own life. The dash is my deep breath—my stop to smell the flowers—my one-second meditation in the middle of my constant barrage of words.

Although I like the colon, I vote for a colonoscopy followed by a colonectomy and getting rid of the damned thing all together. No one knows how to use it correctly, and even when you do, because they don’t, they accuse you of improper punctuation … or they want to change it to a period. It’s just too confusing and too contentious.

Semicolons are OK, but if you really want to have fun with this stuff, read The Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. She also wrote The Transitive Vampire, no doubt with tongue in cheek. Vampire is a grammar book. Like The Well Tempered Sentence, it uses hilarious examples and serious, old-fashioned woodcut type artwork. The juxtaposition of humorous sample sentences with heavy illustrations creates an ongoing irony in a grandiose attempt to make a boring subject palatable.

English is the strangest language on earth; so, it is a mystery to me why it has become the international language. I said to a friend recently, who is just starting to teach her son how to read, “So, what do you tell him? These are the rules—and these are the thousands of ways we break them everyday. And it’s OK.”

English is a maverick. It is the language of queens and scientists, who seem too straight-laced for a language so haphazard. English is even unconventional in its many dialects and regional variations throughout the world. I love that it has proliferated like ellipses out of control …

… and I bless the common ground it has given me to have friends all over the globe, whose various colloquialisms I adore, even while often wondering if we’re speaking the same mother tongue … whose speakers have become my friends that I {hug} using punctuation to convey feelings and expressions :) in an email or instant message. I am still charmed to learn from my Aussie friend that my cat winges (whines). My Canadian friend doesn’t live in the country; she lives in the bush. And I have learned to be very careful in the UK not to talk about my fanny pack (it’s a bum bag), because there, fanny means the female orifice. How does a mother explain that to her kid, even when he’s old enough for Sex Ed? (That bum rap is bound to lead to discussions with a whole lot of exclamation points!!!) And, finally, how quaint that a euphemism for swearing is a pile of haphazard punctuation marks @#$%^&*()!

Let’s face it. Punctuation orchestrates three things that are really important to me: words, feelings, and meaning. I just have to love that—period.

PS – What does your favorite punctuation mark tell you about yourself? My favorite bumper sticker belongs to the question mark: To question is the answer

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Loss & Love

When your heart is hurting, it’s difficult to imagine that, eventually, the pain will give way to expansion and more love. After all, the heart is a muscle. Use it or lose it. The more you love, the more you develop your capacity for love. If we’re smart, we will love aerobically, pumping our heart to its fullest potential.

In the past eight months, I have lost five beloved people and pets: a cousin, a cat, a dog, a nephew, and just this week, my sister Lori. When it rains, it pours. If that’s true, I am overdue for a lot of sunny days to compensate. We are promised that after sorrow comes joy.

But the truth is, the longer we live, the more we will have to let go of people we love. The older we get, the older our relatives—the more people run out of sand in their hourglass.

Loss is the flip side of love. Even if a relationship endures, one person will normally die first. (Perhaps it is a real blessing to go together.) Would I give up one second of a relationship for the pain of loss? No way. I hope you feel the same.

My sister and I were closer as children than we were as adults. We grew up to be who we really are, which is quite different from one other. My first husband used to say we were like salt and pepper. (I probably don’t have to tell you who was pepper.) Until I reached a more mature understanding, I used to mourn the fact that we didn’t have the ideal best-friend relationship some sisters enjoy.

It stands to reason. We are not related by biology and the first ten years of our lives were as different as day and night. Everyone in my crazy quilt family was adopted or a long-term foster child. My sisters are foster to me (informally adopted, really), but biological to each other. Still, my sisters, even with their genes in common, were totally unique. The ways in which they were alike—physical resemblance, gestures, tone of voice, the way they moved—was a kick to observe.

Never did our differences mean that we didn’t love each other. We were always there for one another, and the time we spent together, even if it wasn’t frequent, was treasured. It honored our shared history and being reared by two of the most one-of-a-kind parents on the planet. The ones who took in stray cats, dogs, and children.

As the shock wears off, the grief is sharper, but it is buffered by my incredible network of family and friends. In two days, I have had nearly 70 e-mails, cards, and phone calls. I am both comforted down to my toes and a bit embarrassed—embarrassed that I often don’t “feel the love” in everyday life. Often I actually feel unplugged from people, a feeling that is clearly “my problem” when you consider the shower of support and expressions of love in my time of need. The last time I felt this much support was during a serious health crisis in 1992. I hate to think that I only allow myself to feel my powerful connection with people when I’m in high drama.

While I understand the psychology of this sense of alienation in myself to a large degree, what I’d like to understand better is how to feel that link more strongly on an everyday basis. I think it has something to do with opening my eyes in a new way and simply learning better how to let love in. This often has to do with our own sense of worthiness and our right to be here, that wonderful line from the

The unexpected loss of someone you love is a blaring reminder that we should live life to the fullest, all the way to the finish line—the message of Hot Flashbacks, Cool Insights—both the book and blog. Or as I say in the Foreword:

Let’s create a web of seasoned citizens who tell our tales like wise grandmothers and grandfathers we are and play like children till we drop.

May you feel the love every moment of every day.


Photo: My sister Lori, October 2007