Waiterspeak

I was a waiter once, back in the day.  I feel a certain kinship with waiters, and always give them the benefit of the doubt.

But when I’m by myself in a restaurant, please . . . just leave me alone to read my book and eat my dinner in peace.

Sure, it might just be the milk of human kindness– or it might be a desire for a tip.  But every time I eat alone these days, the wait staff annoyingly gloms on to me, asking what I’m reading and making irritating chitchat when I ‘m just trying to read and eat my dinner.  It makes the dinner intensely irksome.  I don’t want to hear what waiter  X has to say — I just want to read my book.

Here’s a tip for the wait staff.  Sometimes, at least, the solitary diner with a book isn’t lonely and craving your company.  They just want to read.  Leave us alone, already!

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Comma Trauma

Look, I admit it.  I care about the Oxford comma.  In fact, I care enough to call it the “Oxford comma” rather than the “serial comma.”  Oxford comma makes the comma sound sophisticated and worldly, whereas serial comma makes it sound like the poor comma is getting ready to join the ranks of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.

For those who don’t care passionately about this important topic, the Oxford comma is the comma that should come before the conjunction when you list three or more words or phrases.  So, if you’re talking about greatness, LeBron James, and how Cleveland bashers can go pound sand, the Oxford comma is the little guy that follows LeBron James.

the-oxford-comma_52c855ed979ed_w1500Some style guides, like the AP style guide that most American newspapers follow, say that when the sentence involves just a simple series, you should get rid of that comma and go directly to the conjunction.  I think the AP’s reckless and inexplicable decision in that regard is almost certainly solely responsible for the general decline of newspaper circulation in the United States over the past 50 years.

Why do I care about the Oxford comma?  It has nothing to do with dueling grammarians, punctuation prissiness, or trying to trace commas back to the English of Chaucer.  Instead, I think the Oxford comma is essential because writing and reading is all about cadence and the little voice in my head.  When I’m really reading something, and not just scanning a sign or an internet pop-up ad, a little voice in my head is reading the words along with me.  When I write something, that little voice is there, too, writing along with me.  The little voice cares about punctuation, and flow.  And when I write about sadism, Ramsay Bolton, and starving dogs, the little voice wants to pause for a moment after Ramsay Bolton, to savor his richly deserved demise, before moving on to the agents of his destruction.  The alternative is an unseemly headlong rush to the end of the sentence.

The Oxford comma is the literary difference between a cool walk on a spring morning, where you’ve got time to admire the tulips, the budding greenery, and the sun’s warming rays, and driving by in a stuffy car.  That’s why I’m a proponent of the Oxford comma.

The Uncomfortable Verticality Principle

It’s kind of pathetic, really.  It’s gotten to the point that, if I want to do some reading after dinner on a week night, I have to sit in the most uncomfortable, upright, hard-on-the-behind chair in the house.

IMG_1003My search for the optimal week night reading seat is based on the principle of uncomfortable verticality.  Expressed it in the form of a mathematical equation, the amount of uncomfortable verticality in my reading posture is inversely proportionate to the likelihood that I will nod off after a few pages.  The converse also is true.  We’ve got lots of inviting chairs and plumply pillowed sofas in the house, just begging for seating, but if I plop down into one of them with a book, forget it.  After a few minutes I’ll put my feet up — hey, it is the end of a long work day, after all — and then a few moments later I’ll make a small adjustment to assume a more horizontal attitude, and the next thing I know it’s 11 p.m. and I’ve got a sore neck and Kish is gently shaking my shoulder and telling me its time to stumble upstairs.

Fortunately, we’ve inherited some furniture that is well suited to the uncomfortable verticality principle.  Our stern Midwestern forebears knew how to design fundamentally incommodious seating, let me tell you.  And don’t be deceived by the modest needlepoint padding on the seat either.  Wooden, narrow, and creaky, this chair inevitably forces you into a stiff-backed, non-fidgeting, feet-planted-firmly-on-the-ground posture that would get an approving nod from Emily Post or any other paragon of deportment.  Indeed, even a slight attempt to shift into a more natural position, or for that matter the first slumbering nod, would produce a cascade of creaks and send you tumbling to the ground.  In short, this is a chair designed to create a perpetual state of maximum reading alertness.

So, it’s my new reading chair of choice.  I’ll finish the night’s reading with a numb behind, to be sure, but at least I’ll get a few chapters done before it’s time to really hit the hay.

2016 Ohioana Book Festival

This Saturday will be the 10th anniversary Ohioana Book Festival. It will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbus and, as always, it’s free and open to everyone.

I went to the first Ohioana Book Festival, and it’s amazing how the event has grown over the past ten years.  This year, more than 120 authors and illustrators will participate, Ohioana is expecting more than 4,000 attendees.  The scope of the book festival has grown, too, with outreach activities, library visits, live readings and media appearances that start today.  You can find the schedule of outreach events and the order of panel discussions and roundtables at the Ohioana Book Festival itself here.

John ScalziI think this year’s Festival lineup is one of the best yet.  I’ve always liked to listen to writers talk about writing, and this year I get a special treat:  one of the writers I’ve discovered and enjoyed during the past year, John Scalzi, is on the program.  I first became aware of him in December, when I felt the urge to read some science fiction, and I so enjoyed Old Man’s War that since then I’ve compulsively and greedily read through every book he’s written and even wrote a blog post about the hilarious Redshirts.  His stuff is just terrific, and it will be fun to get a sense of what he’s like in person.  (I’m also hoping, incidentally, that he’ll say a new installment in the Old Man’s War series is at the printer.)

The doors open at 10 a.m. on April 23, with the first break-out discussions beginning at 10:15.  It’s a fun event, and a great place to buy books, too.  I hope to see you there!

Selling Reading

IMG_0854Schools are always trying to come up with things to make kids want to read.  I’m not sure any of it works — kids either pick up the love of reading or they don’t, and the summer reading clubs or painted signs or gold stars don’t seem to make much difference one way or the other — but I had to hand it to the unknown artists at the school down the block who came up with a flying saucer, a space shuttle and boosters and representations of all of the planet in the solar system.

One question:  does anybody use the phrase “out of this world” anymore?

“Read It Again, Daddy!”

When your children are long grown and out of the house, as ours are, you tend to cherish the memories of the days when the entire family was together and under one roof.  One of my favorite recollections from those days was of reading to the kids when they were toddlers, right before their bedtime.

Of course, the child-rearing experts will tell you that reading aloud to your children is an important method of establishing a strong connection with your kids, as you spend time on a common activity, sitting close together on a sofa, with no TV noise in the background or other distractions.  And the educational experts would tell you that, by reading aloud, the parent was directly showing the importance of reading and incentivizing the child to learn for himself how to decipher those words on the page.  All of those are no doubt true, but in reality we did it because . . . well, it was fun, and it became a family ritual, and human beings of all ages tend to like rituals that are enjoyable, besides.

slobodkina_caps_for_saleIn our household, as I suspect is true in every household, there were perennial favorites as the kids grew up.  Goodnight Moon.  The Runaway Bunny.  Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Corduroy.  Caps for Sale.  Green Eggs and Ham.  Stone Soup.  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  And, when the holidays came, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol.  We sat side by side and slowly turned the pages, looked at the beautiful pictures, and heard, once again, the familiar stories.  And as we read, and reread, these books that are written to be read aloud, our inner thespians emerged, and Moms and Dads would give the characters different voices and act out the stories, too.

I’m confident that you could hand me a copy of Caps for Sale — one of my favorites — and I would immediately fall back into reading it with the same rhythm and cadence and voices that I did 25 years ago, with the brown caps, and the blue caps, and the red caps on the very top.  There was a lot opportunity for a Dad to ham it up, too, with the angry, foot-stomping, fist-shaking cap seller saying, “You monkeys, you!  You must give me back my caps!”  And the naughty monkeys high up in the tree that went “tsst, tsst, tsst.”  The actors among us got immediate gratification when the audience inevitably said, “Read it again, Daddy!”  Of course, whether that enthusiastic response was due to the quality of my performance or a desire to avoid going to bed for just a while longer was never entirely clear.

A Book At A Bar

Last night I got to my hotel at about 9:30 p.m. after a terrible travel day.  I hadn’t had dinner and it was raining cats and dogs outside, so I decided to just take my book and stick to the hotel bar for a bite to eat before turning in.

At this point, alarm bells should have been sounding.  Normally I won’t eat a late meal at a hotel bar because it almost always is unpleasant.  People go to hotel bars to drink.  They don’t need to drive home, and they often rationalize an extra drink as helping them to sleep in a strange room.  So if you get there late, you’re likely to encounter people who have been overserved.

IMG_20151029_075612Taking a book to a hotel bar is also a mistake.  Hotel bars aren’t well suited to quiet reading.  And there is something about a solo traveler with a book that seems to provoke other bar patrons to unwanted interaction.  Whether they feel sorry for you and think you are crying out for human companionship, or are liquored up and believe their conversation with you will be the highlight of your evening, they’re inevitably going to pester you.

Sure enough, when I arrived last night and sat at the bar where the light was best, it didn’t take long.  I read my book, and then a boozy woman nearby became intrigued.  She was one of those types who seemed to laugh at everything and whose braying howls had already intruded on my mental space.  “Hey, how can you read when the World Series is on?  Whatcha reading?”  Curiously, I didn’t feel like having a deep discussion about my book with a braying stranger, so I said I wasn’t much interested in the Series this year.  Fortunately, the conversation petered out quickly and ended when my food arrived, and I gratefully went back to my book.

With the Mets getting pounded, the couple went reeling back to their room soon after, to be replaced by another couple — who asked exactly the same questions.  That discussion also was blessedly brief and ended when the woman had an incredibly loud cell phone conversation, apparently heedless of normal tenets of civilized behavior that suggest that a personal phone call shouldn’t occur a few feet from strangers who simply want to be left alone.

So here’s a tip for hotel bar patrons everywhere.  The readers among us are perfectly content to enjoy our books.  We’re not sad or lonely or pining for human interaction — we just think our books are likely to be more interesting than a conversation with someone who’s had a few belts too many.