Oh, that’s rich.

February 16th, 2012

I worked at a feminist bookstore for several years. It was teensy, and meticulously organized. On separate, carefully labeled shelves, you’d find the books on women’s history, feminist theory, and feminist literary criticism. Here were books by and about black women — fiction and nonfiction. Here was lesbian fiction, and here was lesbian nonfiction. Here were books for women who were pregnant. Here were books for women who very specifically didn’t want to get pregnant.

This meticulous classifying of titles was important, because the whole point of being in a feminist bookstore was that you were tired of the mainstream point-of-view, tired of being the weirdo, and wanted to escape for a while to a literary landscape where, for instance, you could be Latina and a main character, rather than a wacky best friend. You could be a woman and not a love interest. You could be a woman and have a love interest who was also a woman. Just find the right shelf, and find yourself. (An actual shelf. Made of wood. This was way before the Internet.)

One thing we did not have was a special shelf for rich people. No bookstores ever seem to have that.

This strikes me as odd, because wealth is a huge dividing factor. We all talk about that when it comes to The Rich and The Poor — but that’s because nobody ever admits to belonging to either of those classes.

The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with being rich unless you’re a jerk about it. But there’s something wrong with being rich and not admitting it. And there’s something very wrong with being rich and not admitting it because you haven’t noticed that you’re rich.

An example: A few years ago, my son and I desperately wanted to visit some friends of ours who live in Washington state. We live in California. Driving would be expensive, because aside from the gas involved it’s just far enough that we’d have to overnight somewhere. So far as I could see, we were talking about at least a few hundred dollars, and I just plain didn’t have it.

I don’t mean I couldn’t afford it. I never say that any more. That phrase has to be ripped out of our language until people stop misusing it. Back when I used it, I meant that I didn’t have the money for such-and-such. Then I learned that people say they “can’t afford” something when they really mean they don’t feel like spending the money. Which is bogus. If that’s not where you feel like putting your cash, fine, but don’t imply you don’t have the cash in the first place.

I just plain didn’t have the cash for this trip. We’re broke. My husband has been laid off twice in the past decade. After the second time, he was lucky enough to find very secure work with people he likes — at two-thirds the pay of his previous job. Thank goodness we’re the on-site managers of the apartment building we live in, so our rent stays pretty low. Still, I’m always doing what I can to cut expenses. I bake our bread. I buy tea leaves in bulk — much cheaper than coffee or even tea bags. I go to the library like some people go to the mall, and enjoy the luxury of one card I can max out without guilt. The closest I come to going out to eat is saving up for and splurging on convenience food. (I really lived it up the other day and bought a box of macaroni and cheese — a selfish indulgence, since I’m the only one in the house who likes it. I got three lunches out of that dollar.) I hang some of our clothes to dry, which makes our little apartment even more crowded on laundry days. When I get my hair cut, I barter with a friend (my baked goods for her skill with the scissors) or go to Supercuts. I touch up my own gray. I exercise to free online videos at home or go for a run or a walk. I’m a little alarmed that the two pairs of jeans I alternate between are developing holes that will soon be past the point of decency.

Getting back to the hoped-for trip to Washington. The friends we wanted to visit suggested I look into taking the train. I mentioned this to a relative of mine, and he laughed and shook his head.

“I would never take a train,” he said. “You should just fly up.”

Because not having money in America is still associated with being a slacker no matter how crap the economy gets, it’s always lots and lots of fun to have to explain that, for instance, flying somewhere just plain isn’t an option. Through gritted teeth, I pointed out that quite literally the only way I could “just fly” anywhere short of sprouting wings would be to apply for a credit card, hope I qualified for it, and then hope that it had a high enough limit for me to put to round-trip plane tickets on it. Then of course I’d be left with a nice big debt for our already staggering finances to deal with — but at least I’d have gone to Washington.

What really bothered me about this conversation was the stunned look on the man’s face when I said this. He and his wife both have very good jobs. They shop at the really expensive trendy grocery stores. When a new gadget comes out, this couple has it that day. They have a multi-bedroom house in a wealthy neighborhood in a well-to-do town. They have several cars, terrific clothes, and travel all the time.

Do I sound defensive? Abrasive? Bitter?

Damned right I am. But not for the reasons you think. Which are as follows.

Have you heard of Amy Chua? Sure you have. Author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which I read after waiting behind more than 30 people in the holds list to get my hands on our public library’s copy.

Have you read her book? If so, what do you think about when you think about her?

You think about the parenting issues her book brings up, of course. Is Chua too strict? Too strict but makes some interesting points? Too strict and should be arrested for child abuse? Too strict and her kids need to go into therapy to undo the Stockholm Syndrome their mom has inflicted on them?

Here’s what I think about when I think about Amy Chua:

This is a woman who talks all about the differences between “Western” parents and “Chinese” ones. She talks about the fact that in this context, “Western” doesn’t have to mean white and “Chinese” doesn’t have to mean Chinese. Chua talks about this as if it’s purely a matter of priorities.

She doesn’t once mention the fact that she’s not talking about just-plain parenting. She’s talking about rich-people parenting.

My mother-in-law, who has significantly more money than my family does, pays for my son’s music lessons. He has one piano and one violin lesson a week. His violin teacher is putting me under a lot of pressure to enroll him in an orchestra group; but we can’t afford it, and my m-i-l is already giving as much as she can.

Chua describes her daughter getting ready to audition for a really important music school. She has three weeks to prepare, and in those three weeks, she sometimes has two or three music lessons a day.

Apparently the reader is meant to marvel at the intensity of it all. I sat there stunned at the thought of how much cash that must take. Chua does mention that her husband raised an eyebrow when the bills started coming in, and Chua said that, fine, they wouldn’t take their winter vacation trip this year. (Not to be mistaken for their summer trip, of course.)

I’ll say it again: This isn’t parenting we’re talking about. This is rich-people parenting.

Which brings us, finally, to why this rant-essay is about homeschooling.

Because although Chua is never even one time called rich by any of the reviewers I’ve seen, I am regularly accused of rolling in dough. Because by virtue of being a homeschooler, I’m “rich.”

Example one: several months ago, someone sent me a nice note about The Bitter Homeschooler’s Wish List, which they excerpted and linked to on their own site. I went to take a look — and, because I’m a masochist, I read some of the comments.

A nice comment. Another nice comment. And — ooh, I should have stopped reading after two.

It was all the usual stuff: homeschoolers are wrong, wrong, evil, and wrong. We’re ruining our kids. They’re ruining our society. And we’re…really? Rich?

Excerpt from the comment in question:

“Homeschooling is DISASTROUS if done by anyone who isn’t rich enough to raise children on one income.”


Raising my sonny boy on one income is rich now?

Apparently that’s a stereotype homeschoolers can’t get away from.

Jesse Scaccia mentions it in his top ten reasons why homeschoolers are mad, bad, and dangerous to know. “Students who get homeschooled are increasingly from wealthy and well-educated families. To take these (I’m assuming) high achieving students out of our schools is a disservice to our less fortunate public school kids.” (This is from reason #8: “Homeschoolers are selfish.” Apparently, paying the same taxes as everyone else and then letting other people’s kids use them instead is as selfish as it gets.)

And here’s a comment on an article about the “Homeschool to Harvard” family: “For the 99% of us that don’t have the luxury to homeschool our kids, I guess we’ll have to stick with crappy ‘ol regular schools. Or I guess I could quit my job and live in poverty so I can homeschool my kids. That should teach them good work ethic [sic], right? Seriously, the only people who homeschool their kids are either independently wealthy or religious fanatics. Don’t judge us for being normal.” (And they call me bitter.)

Late last autumn there was a CNN story about homeschooling. A commenter posted (and there aren’t enough sics in the world to do this one justice, so bear in mind that I copied this verbatim): “If anything this is proof that the economy is doing just fine for some folks. Let’s face it, this is a luxury. I’m glad these people have that but the rest of us just could never afford it. Also I understand that people are worried about crime in schools, overcrowding, not having the facilities or the teach staff that they would like. But it bothers me that these economically well to do people instead of getting involved with their local school board and trying to work out these problems decide it’s better to abandon their neighborhood schools leaving the situation to just get worse.”

And here it comes again: a new article at Slate, with the promising title, “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids: Why teaching children at home violates progressive values.”

Specifically, homeschooling is something snooty rich people do because they can afford to.


First off, and you know I don’t ask rhetorical questions: Are there any articles out there about how liberals shouldn’t send their kids to private schools?

Second: Dana Goldstein is writing this article in response to an article by Astra Taylor, who was homeschooled. “Taylor’s mother could afford to stay home with her kids,” Goldstein accuses. “Yet Taylor bristles against the suggestion that there was anything unique about the ability of her upper-middle class, uber-intellectual parents to effectively ‘unschool’ their children while still helping them grow into educated adults with satisfying professional lives.”

Let me get this straight: homeschooling families live on one income each, so we’re all filthy rich.

Oh. Um. Okay.

I don’t want to be as guilty as Goldstein is for assuming that it’s fine to extrapolate from one example. Maybe I really am the only broke homeschooler.

So I asked around.

Specifically, I posted about this on SHM’s Facebook page, and the responses alternated between laughter and outrage — sometimes in the same posting.

From Janet: “I’m a widow with three boys and self-employed. Go ahead, shoot that stereotype.”

“We never go out, have never hired a babysitter, travel only to places where we have family so we can crash for free in their homes (and even that stretches the budget!). Yeah, I’m totally rich.” (Tiffany)

“I had to laugh when I saw that comment. We are poorer than dirt, barely making ends meet…actually we’re not making ends meet at the moment because my husband was laid off from his job as a construction worker for seven months and we can’t catch up. However, the decision to homeschool is so important to us that we sacrifice.” (Leah)

“Currently living in a house owned by family members so we don’t have to pay rent or power or phone. Our income is less than $180 a week for me, husband and 2 kids. We have 1 car and live 10 minutes from the nearest town. We have fruit trees and a vegetable garden and there’s a fair bit of produce swapping going on in our social circles.” (Katherine)

I got a lot more responses, but you get the point.

Regardless of what else you think of homeschoolers, please keep in mind that we’re not any more likely to be rich than any other group. We just don’t mind being broke for a good cause.

I don’t know why I’m even bothering to type this. As soon as people learn that we’re not all fabulously wealthy, we’ll be told that in that case we shouldn’t be homeschooling at all, since our children will be deprived of constitutionally guaranteed luxury goods. We can’t win.

Would you please ask forty or fifty thousand of your closest friends…?

February 6th, 2012

I’m working on an ebook, despite the fact that after several grueling seconds of Googling, I’ve been unable to ascertain whether I should have spelled that “ebook,” “e-book,” or “eBook.” Each choice looks its own flavor of wrong.

But I digress. Sadly, this is the kind of book that actually requires research. Very sadly, some of the research hasn’t been done by anyone else so far as I can tell.

So I need to ask a couple of questions — and not just of you, but of as many of your adult nearest and dearest as you can harass on my behalf. Because if I just post the questions here and wait for answers from Dear Readers, that’s not a terribly wide net. Plus it’s what you’d call a self-selecting response. Whereas if I make you quiz everyone you know, I’ll be closer to what might be considered a representative cross-section. Plus I’ll have a lot more answers. Which may or may not be statistically significant, but will make me feel better.

So please ask around. If you want to win my heart forever, you’ll post about this on your Facebook page, blog, loops, and wherever else cool and groovy types hang out.

Please send me via email — deborah @ 2ds dot org — as many answers as you can gather to the following questions.

1. In high school, what was the highest math class you took? (Algebra, geometry, trig…?)

2. Did you take chemistry in high school?

Please note that both questions are referring to pre-university studies. I just want to know what you (and, if possible, everyone you’ve ever met) did in high school. At least so far as math and chemistry are concerned. And, okay, any other really entertaining stories you wish to share. And by entertaining, I mean really naughty and/or the kind of thing I can threaten to tell your kids about.

But I digress.

Many thanks, and I hope to hear from you soon.

So — Divorced Yet?

February 2nd, 2012

This is a gripe that really should have made it to the bitter wish list.


Dear Civilians,
When you greet a homeschooling friend you haven’t seen for a while, please cut the phrase “So — still homeschooling?” from your working vocabulary.
The Bitter One

Not everyone understands. There are even some homeschoolers who aren’t quite sold on the point, so let me explain. Fair warning: there are several things wrong with this question, so grab some chocolate and settle down.

Yes, it’s technically true that if you haven’t seen someone for a while, they might not be homeschooling now, even though they used to be. And if you’re catching up with an old friend, you want to cover the basics. And homeschooling is an important part of the life of those who engage in it. Naturally, it’s going to come up in conversation.

Great. Fine. Lovely, so far.

It’s also absolutely true that there are some people who homeschool and who then decide, for whatever reason, not to do so any longer.

Okay. Hold it RIGHT THERE.

Stop and think about the major aspects of your life. And then think about how many of these are things that plenty of people start to do and then, for whatever reason, stop doing.

The fact is, things that are socially acceptable never get asked after, no matter what the statistics say about them. If I haven’t seen you in over a year, and the last time I saw you, you were half of a married couple, there’s a perfectly good chance that you’re no longer living in wedded bliss. Or even wedded just okayness. So is it all right to ask about that? Even if I took the comparatively optimistic route and asked, “So — still married?” rather than jumping to the far more evilly gleeful-sounding, “So — divorced yet?”

Actually, some people do get asked if they’re divorced yet. Specifically, they get asked by people who have strong opinions about That Person You Insisted On Marrying.

People who homeschool never ask other homeschoolers, even those they haven’t seen for a while, if they’re “still” homeschooling.

All of this leads me to the inevitable conclusion that you’re asking because you disapprove of my decision.

Still think this question is peachy? Okay. Please just tell me how exactly it differs from any of the following:

“So — do your kids still go to public school? Really? Huh.”

“I was watching the news last night and I thought of you. Has the bank repossessed your house?”

“How’s your job? You still have one, right?”

Hey — I’m just asking.

How to ruin my evening (and any hope for a better world)

January 13th, 2012

1. Work for an organization dedicated to forwarding the rights of a misunderstood minority group — a group about which there are many unfortunate and unfair stereotypes, making it necessary for an organization such as yours to fight for the social and legal equality of this group’s members.

2. Manage to reach me on the phone. (This may be the most difficult step.)

3. Ask me to donate $200 to your cause.

4. When I explain that it would be impossible for me to go along with this request, mention that a donation of time is also quite valuable. Ask about my schedule.

5. Register the fact that I homeschool.

6. Explain that this is fine with you.

7. Explain that, as a matter of fact, you know someone who was homeschooled.

8. Add that this wasn’t a good experience for your acquaintance — that frankly, it “messed up her life” — but that you’re sure I’ll do a much better job than your friend’s parents did.

9. Remain oblivious to the scientific and ethical problems inherent in judging an entire group on the basis of a vanishingly small sample.

10. Remain oblivious to the insult inherent in telling someone that while you haven’t been impressed with her group in the past, you’re willing to believe that she could be okay. If she works at it.

11. No matter how difficult it becomes, don’t give in to the temptation to acknowledge how this idea of positive exceptionality may have held back the rights of the very group you’re working to support.

12. Instead, explain to me what I ought to be doing in order not to fit the stereotypes generally associated with my group.

13. Taking my child outside, for instance, is a good idea.

14. Meeting other people? Also excellent.

15. Continue to advise me on the life I’m currently leading. This advice should be based entirely on the broadest possible stereotypes.

16. Insistently fail to see any irony here.

17. Convince me that there is no hope at all that even those impacted by prejudice can learn the critical thinking processes necessary to make a truly egalitarian world.

18. Finally hang up and allow me to spend the rest of the evening muttering under my breath.

Conversations (I’m tired of having) before the recital.

December 18th, 2011

1. An hour before we’re supposed to leave, my son wanders into my room.

“I just remembered I wore my dress pants yesterday,” he announces.

Well, that’s understandable. He was a judge at a Lego competition yesterday. Why wouldn’t he wear his only pair of non-jeans for such an august occasion? Especially when today he’s just going to be playing violin in front of dozens of people — and his performance will be filmed, so make that more like hundreds.

Please note also that even if there were time to muck about with throwing a load of laundry on, we don’t own a washer or a dryer and the building’s laundry room is very busy on weekends. Plus I’ve still got this miserable cold and am barely upright.

“Where are the pants?”

“In the hamper.”

I love how he stares at me so expectantly after saying this, waiting for me to work some kind of magic. No, wait — I don’t love that at all.

“Take. Them. Out.”


Thankfully, they didn’t end up under anything soggy. And they’re corduroy and he actually remembered to turn them inside out.

He’s still looking at me expectantly.



2. Sonny again, twenty minutes before he’s supposed to leave: “I really need a pair of dress shoes.”

“Didn’t you just go shoe shopping two months ago with Grandma?”


“And when you got home, didn’t I ask if you’d gotten any dress shoes?”


“And didn’t you say that you didn’t because you only need them once a year so why bother?”


Before my head can explode, my husband interjects that they’d actually looked for dress shoes on that trip, but couldn’t find any that weren’t made of leather, which my son has ethical objections to.

“Okay,” I said. “Fine. But then you do one of two things. You go online or out shopping some more and look for ethical dress shoes and buy them and have dress shoes. Or you don’t buy dress shoes and just fake it on special occasions. But you don’t specifically decide not to buy dress shoes since after all you don’t need them that often and then complain on the morning you do need them that you don’t have any.”





3. Ten minutes before liftoff: “I really need some Chapstick. I keep thinking I have some, but I’m actually out.”

“How many times have we done some kind of shopping this week?”

“I don’t know.”

“At least two. How many times could Dad have stopped by the store on the way home from work?”

“I don’t know.”

“At least four. How many times before this morning when there is NO time to run an extra errand did you mention that you need Chapstick?”


4. Me: “Did you wash your face?”

“Was I supposed to?”

&*$#%. “Are you out of your cleanser?”

“Um, almost.”

“And you were going to mention this when, exactly?”


5. “Mom, will you help me comb my hair?”

“Yes, but you’re supposed to ask me to do that before you put your dress shirt on, so I don’t have to worry about getting water on it. We’ve talked about this.”


“And you really should comb your hair after you wash it, so it doesn’t look so crazy in the morning. You washed your hair last night, and you knew you’d have a special event today.”


After copious quantities of water and product have been worked in to little effect:

“Look, you have to start taking more care of your hair. I’m not that good with hair anyway. I can barely manage my own. I can’t work miracles, here.”

He smiles seraphically. “I’m sure you can.”



6. My son won a small, high-quality video camera a few years ago. He’s very proud of it, especially since it’s the only one we have.

Dad: “Should we bring extra batteries for the video camera?”

Son: “I don’t know. Should we?”

“Did you put in new batteries this morning?”

“Um, no.”

Expectant silence. My husband is an eternal optimist. Finally:

“So do you think we should bring extra batteries?”

“I don’t know. Should we?”

[sound of me heaving a dramatic sigh as my eyes roll clear into the next room and I collapse into a chair]

Son: “Are you okay?”

“Just get the extra batteries and go. And if you ask me where we keep batteries, I will commit entirely justifiable homicide!”

“Make it quick. If we don’t leave now, we’ll be late.”

That last one was my husband. There’s a reason we’re still married. And I’m sure there’s a reason I’m not a charter member of Childless By Choice. Now that I have a minute to myself, I’ll try to remember it.

Too much bitter for one blog to hold.

December 17th, 2011

Well, it happened and we all saw it coming: The Bitter Homeschooler needs to be able to bitter about stuff that isn’t even remotely connected to homeschooling. (By the way: if you know anyone with the right kind of connections, I want credit in the OED for making “bitter” a verb.) I’ve been faking it with that whole “Well, I’m a homeschooler and I’m writing about it, so it must be about homeschooling, sort of” line for too long. I’d like this site to be relatively family-friendly, which means I need one where I can really cut loose with the bitter.

I was hoping to be able to call the new blog “The Bitter,” but that was taken. “Rage On Tap” was my next choice, but I wanted to keep the continuity of bitterness.

So: As well as writing here, I’ll be ranting over at Bitter Notes. Hope you’ll spread the word and let me know what you think.

And the winner of the Extra Reading Writing Contest is…

November 29th, 2011

“Deborah Markus!”

Yes, “Deborah” won the coveted ERW prize, narrowly edging out April. April’s writing is outstanding and her name is not in quotes; but after the entries I just received from “Deborah Markus,” I’m forced to acknowledge that someone is even more skilled at imitating Josh Mason than she.

Here’s the first one, which I found in my email early this afternoon:

“Hello everyone. My name is Deborah Markus. But, I am really a lesbian and a public school activist masquerading as a home school advocate. My children are functionally retarded.

Deborah Markus

P.S. I suspect my husband is a homosexual.”

Notice how thriftily the writer saved the comma the first sentence needs in order to use it unnecessarily after the “but” in the third sentence. Note also how the entrant manages to imply that both members of a male-female couple can be gay and engage in baby-making activities with one another. Admire the reference to retardation — seriously, Josh couldn’t have done it better himself.

Here’s the second entry from “Deborah:”

“I have decided to shut down Secular Homeschooling Magazine. It is poorly written and I can no longer support homeschooling in general. Public schools are far superior and my children are basically functionally retarded because I have homeschooled them. If you have a subscription, you will not get a refund. Sorry, you’re out of luck. Love, Deborah Markus.”

Admittedly, this isn’t as brilliant as the first entry. None of the sentences begin with “so” or “but,” only to be followed by that trademark ERC incorrect comma. But at least we have the all-important reference to retardation.

Technically, I suppose I shouldn’t be referring to these as entries. They weren’t posted here, nor were they emailed to me privately. They did show up in my email, because Facebook always lets me know when and what someone posts to the Secular Homeschooling Magazine FB page. And these were posted as comments on existing threads of said page.

Perhaps from some sense of modesty, “Deborah” appears to have deleted her comments immediately on posting them. But they’re still in my email box, which is how I was able to quote them in their entirety.

“Deborah” also seems to have deleted her Facebook account. Which is taking modesty pretty far, but I’m not here to judge.

What I couldn’t get over was the coincidence that someone else named Deborah Markus would post on the SHM FB page. I mean, I know there are other people out there with that name, but still — what are the odds?

Hey, wait a minute…

You don’t think…

Could it be…?

No, of course not.

I mean, how could someone who teaches elementary school and runs Extra Reading have time for this kind of shenanigans? And how could someone with the demonstrated maturity of Josh Mason have the inclination?

Okay, okay. You’ve convinced me. It’s him.

So let’s go ahead and give the prize to April after all. And then let’s talk about a place called Worksheet Library.

Not my company. Never an advertiser with SHM. Just a site that educators, home and otherwise, might be interested in checking out.

I subscribed to Worksheet Library a few years ago, when along with homeschooling, I was doing some tutoring. For $29.95 a year, I had access to K-8 worksheets for math, language arts, Spanish, French, science, and social studies. There were thousands of worksheets available in each category.

I was happy to find that the price and the merchandise are still the same. Thirty dollars a year. No haggling. Thousands of worksheets in a range of grades and subjects, as well as just-for-fun and holiday-oriented pages.


As opposed to — who was that guy, the one whose company offered a few language arts materials for grades 3-8, and who insisted that $40 a year was an absolute bare-bones minimum how-dare-you-even-think-of-paying-less-than-this price?

Whoever he was, his site looks a lot different than it did a few weeks ago. The CEO was accused of using art he had no right to. He huffily replied that he had every right to use this art — and to prove it, he’d shut down his site for a few days just to make sure everything was kosher. And when his site came back online…hey, look! No more art! That’s telling them, Josh!

If you want to see what his materials and front page used to look like, check out this picture on Tracy’s Techy Tidbits, a site that ran an article about ERC a few months ago. Gorgeous, huh? Wonder why he didn’t keep it that way.

Anyway. Sorry to wander like that. Congratulations, April! Keep up the good work!

Moar hate mail!

November 26th, 2011

Just to drive home the point I made in the last posting: hey, look what graced my mailbox this morning!

From a Mr. Charles Buchanan, whose last name is almost as hard to stop typing as “banana:”

“I am also an athiest, but the phrase ‘me and my kids’ really doesn’t drive your homeschooling argument home (you figure it out) and as a side effect it makes us all look like inbred douchebag hicks. thanks.”

This letter startled me. I am horrifyingly absentminded, so I ran to do a quick sweep of the apartment. Turns out, I do only have one kid.

So I have no idea (clearing throat in preparation for severe grammatical correctness) to which piece of my writing he could be referring.

I sent him a link to the previous posting in this blog, chided him for coming so late to the grammar snob party, and added in a postscript that it’s spelled “atheist,” not “athiest,” dearie.

Whatever he’s quoting, though, he really made his point. Because that’s the thing you always notice about people who went to public school: they never make grammatical errors. Or use revolting language in an effort to shock the grownups.

I’m going to sit around and wait for the chocolate I’m sure some adoring stalker will be sending any minute now, just to balance out all the wickedness of this world.

Grammar Snobs Really ARE Great Big Meanies

November 25th, 2011

This column is dedicated to June Casagrande, writer and goddess. My family is using her Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite
as our grammar curriculum this year. If you like happiness and joy and writing that’s the closest you can get to actual chocolate without all those pesky calories, please visit her blog and buy all her books, not necessarily in that order.

The Bitter Atheist list I wrote had a surge of visits this past week. Cool. I like knowing I’m being read.

I don’t get much hate mail, but this comment was passed along to me from the site. Please bear in mind that I’m quoting verbatim.

“Grammar is terrible in ’16 things’ article, as is the article itself. I, an atheist myself has never appreciated the snarky or militant ‘atheist’s rebuttal to Christianity’ type article — seems so petty. Let’s give it a rest, okay?”

The easy out would be to bwahahahaha about the glaring mistakes in that note. I comma an atheist myself no comma has never appreciated? Really? This man is ragging on my writing abilities? Please.

(In case no one has staked an official claim on this territory yet, let it now be known as Markus’ Rule: If you complain about a writer’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors, your letter is guaranteed to contain exactly the sort of errors about which you complained.)

The slightly-more-work path (which I’ll take — it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and I need the exercise) is to point out that there are several writing styles or voices. Highly formal is not more correct than colloquial in and of itself; context is all. Twain didn’t write Huckleberry Finn that way because he didn’t know how to write right. He shocked the lit world by writing an entire novel in a colloquial voice because his priority was sustaining an authentic voice. Or, to put it colloquially, who the heck he was writing about.

Oh, look. I wrote Huckleberry Finn when the book is actually called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (No “the” at the beginning.) And I ended a sentence with a preposition, and said “who” when the rules call for “whom.”

Guess what? That paragraph is still perfectly okay.

Point out all the mistakes you like. If you don’t understand that a piece of writing can be full of grammatical errors and still be correct, you don’t understand writing.

The only time it’s appropriate to allow grammatical correctness to be absolute monarch of your work is when you’re writing a tech manual, a grant proposal, or a speech you’ll be delivering before the Supreme Court of the United States. As soon as your writing is intended to sound as if a natural human voice had uttered (or could be imagined to utter) your words, grammar rules become the regent in a constitutional monarchy. They’re important, and you should know they’re out there; but they’re not the boss of you.

It would have been incorrectly correct of me to write out the entire title of Twain’s book a paragraph or two ago. It’s customary in everyday speech to refer to the book by the nickname of its shortened title. If I were referring to it in an essay I’d be graded on, or a book of literary history or theory, I’d use the long version. Hauling out the whole title in this setting would be announcing that I’m a pretentious twit and you should leave now, before I give you a headache.

Similarly, when I said I was going to rephrase my premise in a colloquial manner, it was correct of me not to say, “about whom he was writing.” Because that’s not how people talk. Unless they’re insufferable snits.

Obviously the guy who wrote me the note about my alleged errors doesn’t know grammar rules from Grandma Walton. He doesn’t have to. He knows that most people are intimidated by the idea that someone smarter than they are might come along and — gasp — correct their grammar.

Sorry. Pedantic terrorism holds no terror for me.

Pedantry, as Judith Martin points out, usually isn’t evidence of solid grammatical skills. “All you have to do is to grab one grammatical werewolf and run with it.”

That’s all most of us do. I’ve done it myself, when I’m in a mean mood. I’ll silently sneer at people who talk about gilding the lily. I’ll utter traffic-stopping screeches when someone says “irregardless.”

Okay, “irregardless” is wrong and must be stopped. But even I can’t muster up a genuine heart attack about the fact that the quote in question refers to painting the lily, not gilding it. If you can manage some genuine outrage about that one, it’s evidence that you’re evil.

The fact is, the guy who wrote me that note is a jerk. And not because he disagrees with me. If he’d stuck with his real point, which is that he thinks that drawing up this kind of list is a petty exercise in snarky superiority, he would have been worth listening to, because he’d be introducing a valid debate. Is my bitter atheist ranting small-minded, shabby, and even harmfully divisive? Or is this kind of humor a valid way for the community to let off some collective steam? Those are questions worth asking and discussing, even if a definitive answer is impossible to reach.

But this guy was only interested in being a condescending arse. If the writing in my list is so “terrible,” why are thousands of people a day reading it months after it was posted? And “Let’s give it a rest, okay?”

As Twain would say, “Bite me.”

Dear Dr. Pepper Spray:

November 22nd, 2011

I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the footage of you in action at UC Davis. I’ve seen one still shot — I’m sure you can guess which one — and that was revolting enough.

But Anonymous outed you, Mr. Pike, and someone else made wonderfully mocking art out of the only thing anyone will ever remember about you; and it made me think about history.

It’s possible that when it comes to Occupy, this too shall pass from popular memory. Other important movements have. For instance, I’ve asked several educated people if they’ve heard of the Bonus Army. None of them had. I hadn’t myself until it was described on a pod cast. It involved thousands of activists, millions of sympathetic Americans, and all the key issues of the time, not to mention many famous figures. The Bonus Army and the American Government’s response to it had direct, important consequences — social, political, and legal ones. And very few people remember it today, though 1932 isn’t all that long ago.

So you never know. Occupy could be another Bonus Army, or it could be the beginning of America’s second revolution. And this one could be even more impressive than the first, in its own way, thanks to the fact that its participants are married to the idea that lasting change does not require violence.

I happen to hope that Occupy lasts long enough to make a difference and a permanent place in our cultural memory.

You, clearly, hope for the opposite. You hoped for that even before you blasted those sitting students.

Because if you’d believed for a minute that this movement would live on in any way, self-interest alone would have stopped you from choosing such a place in history.

If this fizzles, you’ll be nothing but a nasty footnote to a footnote.

And if it doesn’t?

Abraham Zapruder wasn’t setting out to make history on November 22, 1963. He almost didn’t bring his camera with him. Circumstances colluded to make this ordinary man’s name immortal.

It can happen. You can wake up one morning and make history just by being there.

You can be going about your ordinary life and rise to terrifying heroism when all you really wanted was to live. Flight 93.

Or you can go to work and casually lash out at people you know won’t hurt you back. You can exploit the power you have because you think you can get away with it, and not realize you’ve gone too far until — how many enraged phone calls have you received now, Mr. Pike? Have you changed that number yet?

Intellectually, we all know that the smallest choices we make may lead to something dizzyingly huge. None of us expects to be the one it happens to, though. Even people who want to be famous assume that the desired fame will blossom from their brilliant work, not some YouTube video in which they attempt to eat an overstuffed sandwich on an equally overstuffed airplane with disastrous results. (I made this one up. It might be true, though.)

But temporary notoriety is the best you can hope for now, Mr. Pike. What you did will probably cost you your job. It’s already cost you your good name. And it could still get worse.

For example: How do you feel about the idea of this shot heard ’round the world having a name attached to it?

All of a sudden the idea of dying unwept, unhonored, and unsung doesn’t sound so bad, now, does it, Mr. Pike?

I’m not assuming that future history books will bother to mention Occupy, any more than most of them mention the Bonus Army.

But you never know.

My son studies history every day. So do I.

I wonder what tomorrow’s lesson will be?