Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Grammarian

I am performing my yearly ritual as school starts: cleaning out my files. I happened upon a gem. The article was a Los Angeles Times obituary from February 18, 2005. Eleanor Gould Packard, grammarian for The New Yorker magazine for 54 years, was dead on that day at age 87.

In my life as a teacher, I have been deeply disturbed by my colleagues’ and students’ disrespect for grammar. Nouns, verbs, active voice, pronoun-antecedent agreement—these are the building blocks of our language. When grammatically correct, writing has a symmetry and beauty that supports meaning and nuance. Teachers disparage it—grammar is pointless when it’s taught in a vacuum, they say. Teaching whole writing is better. The bottom line is, they can’t teach it. It does not lend itself to touchy-feely writing assignments that stress putting down feelings, putting down anything, really, on paper. Corrections to grammar and spelling come later, they tell their students, if they come at all. Grades are awarded for writing something, not for a grammatically correct, logically sound argument of an idea.

Teaching grammar is hard work. There is a right and a wrong answer. The rules are concrete, and must be committed to memory or looked up when needed. And yes, the teaching of grammar must be connected to writing so students can learn the rules and then apply them as they revise their papers. Students must learn that when writing is grammatically correct, logically sound, coherently developed, the essay soars. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, to borrow from the poet John Keats.

As a writer, I strive for correctness with grammar. I actually become angry when I catch a mistake in my work. I consider it a ding to my credibility. How we speak and write indicates our level of education, as my teachers taught me.

But I wasn’t always a receptive student.

In high school, we had a separate class in grammar, and only grammar. We did no writing at all. Our assignments each day were to complete all the exercises in the Warriner’s Complete Course grammar text. I had yet to realize I was headed for a life of words and sentences. I slouched in the back of the room and either slept through class or lured flies to land on my open book so I could squash them between the pages. Later, when I made tentative forays into writing, I looked up how things were done in the books I was reading. I learned much grammar from those writers—Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, and John Knowles, among others.

As a teacher preparing my first grammar-writing classes, I realized some of those lessons from the fly-filled, drowsy days had actually seeped into my brain. Teaching made me a student of grammar, finally.

All of these memories came flooding back due to a newspaper clipping in a file. Eleanor Gould Packer “read every nonfiction article scheduled for publication. She saw the galley proof after the assigning editor, fact checker, copy editor, and lawyer went through it. She still found reasons to fill margins with questions and comments.”

The obit goes on to quote Packard: “I do grammar, I go for sensible sentences, I avoid awkwardness, avoid ambiguity, try to make a thing hang together.”

In her margin notes to writers, she was all vinegar and spice: “This clear? (not to me).” Or, in challenging an assertion: “How so?” And when catching an error, she wrote the unequivocal “NOT grammar.” She even had a sense of humor: “Have we completely lost our mind?” she wrote in response to an error in logic.

In her 54 years at the magazine, she rarely took a day off, inexplicably woke up deaf one morning, and retired in 1999 after a stroke. She was one tough contrarian grammarian. We should all be so diligent and meticulous as writers, and especially, as teachers.

Photo: Eleanor Gould Packard as photographed by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times.

Friday, August 19, 2011

New Digs, New Year

Here are some shots from my first week back on campus in my new office.  It's a small piece of real estate, but it is all mine.  Now all I need are my writing students.

By the way, anyone want to take a shot at identifying the writers and artists on the board?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Deep in the Heart of Texas

A thousand lifetimes ago, I believed with all my heart that I would be a musician. The impulse began in childhood with the accordion, and later, the piano and percussion. It took me halfway through college as a music major to realize the music life was not for me, but I was left with some indelible memories. One such memory occurred when I was nearing the end of my freshman year in high school. The year was successful, and I felt as if I had found my niche in the difficult hierarchy of secondary education—not an athlete, but I had a front row seat at all the football games, and I was part of the percussion section, the coolest subgroup within the band.

In April, the band traveled to San Antonio, Texas for the annual Battle of the Flowers Festival, an event that commemorated the much-mythologized siege of the Alamo during the Texas War of Independence in the 1830s.

We arrived in San Antonio for some sightseeing leading up to our performance on a Thursday evening at an open air stadium in front of thousands of screaming fans. In marching band lore, this kind of performance is called a field show, and consists of formations and music on a football field, similar to a halftime show. I had never performed in front of such a large crowd, and the energy of the audience was like a drug. We were singing, screaming, and cheering all the way back to the hotel.

On Friday, we were scheduled to march in the Battle of the Flowers parade through downtown San Antonio. We arrived on time at the staging area, a large empty parking lot under a curving freeway overpass one block from the start of the parade. We were to be the third group to step off, with a local band and a float ahead of us. The drumline gathered under the overpass to warm up. We played through our exercises, taking great pleasure in the sheer cacophony of the thunderous drums echoing off the concrete above us. Across the parking lot were the backs of all the shops lining the parade route. As we pounded through our warm-ups, I kept trying to see between the buildings, wondering if the first band was off and running.

I remember glancing around at the other bands watching us warm up. I remember people milling about, some in parade costumes—clown suits, matadors, Spanish dancers. When I looked back toward the buildings along the parade route, a good seventy-five yards across burning asphalt, I saw hundreds of people running toward us. The looks on their faces could only be described as panic-stricken. Mothers were clutching children and literally dragging them along. I motioned to the other drummers to stop playing. The wave of humanity advanced toward us, and I began to feel a rush of adrenaline. All I heard were their screams.

The wave of humanity engulfed, and then passed us. Almost immediately, we became aware of another sound. Pops and deeper, more resonant explosions purpled the air, sounding at first like firecrackers, but then we heard the whacking slap of something repeatedly striking the concrete above us. I recognized the whine of a ricochet: bullets were flying. The band director yelled for us to drop our instruments and run after the crowd. We all made it around the corner of a building and down into a loading dock area between two tractor-trailers. At least a hundred people crowded and crouched in the bright sunlight. Next to me, a woman cradled her child in her arms, sobbing softly. I began hearing sirens in the distance.

The gunfire increased exponentially, and I could tell that there were now multiple shooters by the sound of the different caliber of weapons. With each sharp volley, people ducked reflexively, praying the bullets were not headed our way. Across the top of the loading dock was a sign: The Lone Star Brewery.

“He’s coming,” someone screamed.

A policeman sprinted around the corner of one of the trucks. “Gun, gun, gun,” he shouted.

In mass, the sea of people flooded under the trailer. The woman with child was caught up by the crowd like a piece of driftwood in a wave. I watched as her head slammed into the rigging under the trailer and she went down. Several people surrounded her to prevent the others from trampling her. When they pulled her to her feet on the other side of the trailer, she was bleeding profusely from a head wound.

We crossed an alley lined with police officers and entered into the walled courtyard of the brewery. The policemen shouted at us to get inside and stay near the brick walls. After the last person entered, the heavy iron doors were pulled closed. The barrage of gunfire continued less than a block away, and now helicopters hovered overhead. The band gathered around the director in one corner of the courtyard where he took a roll call to make sure no one was missing. Miraculously, we had all made it inside.

The gunfire continued, sporadically, and various rumors spread through the huge crowd of people: there were multiple gunmen; there was one gunman; he was firing from a camper in a gas station on the parade route; the first band to step off was directly in front of him and suffered casualties; and, tear gas was being used to pry him out of his hiding place. We had no choice but to sit around and wait. Someone provided water, and allowed us to be escorted individually to a bathroom inside the brewery.

The standoff lasted several hours, and culminated in a massive barrage of gunfire and explosions. Whatever was going on, it sounded like the Battle of the Bulge. As the sun started to go down, the band director moved us through the beer factory and out the other side to our buses. Most of our instruments were still back in the parking lot, but he told us they would be retrieved later.

Once back at our hotel, we were told to go to our rooms and wait to be called for a meeting. My three roommates and I sat in stunned silence, the TV and air conditioner on, watching the story we had just experienced firsthand unfold on the evening news.

The shooter was a 65 year old man named Ira Attebury. This was the third year he had attended the festival and parade, parking his camper in a paid spot outside a tire store eighteen feet from the intersection where the parade was to begin. He told neighbors that he would attend the festival and then embark on a multi-state vacation in his RV. Family members said he had become paranoid recently, fearing the police were following him. Whatever the case, at one p.m. on Friday, April 27, 1979, Attebury kicked open the door of his trailer and began firing one of six high caliber rifles at the 4000-5000 people lining the parade route in front of him. Witnesses said he shouted “Traitors, traitors, traitors,” and “What kind of a society is this,” as he fired into the crowds scrambling to take cover. Ida Long, age 26, and Amalia Castillo, 48, were killed. Thirty-two people were injured by direct gunfire, bullet or shrapnel fragments, or flying glass. Twenty were hurt in the resulting melee. Six policemen were also shot. After thirty minutes, a police officer managed to wound Attebury while he was reloading one of his weapons. Officers surrounded the now quiet camper and unloaded a barrage of bullets and tear gas into the vehicle hoping to finish the job. When the smoke cleared, Attebury was dead, possibly from a self-inflicted bullet wound in the head. Investigators said he had an arsenal of weapons and enough ammo for a war.

The following evening, we were scheduled to march in a night parade along the exact same route where the shooting occurred. Each band member would have strings of lights powered by a small battery pack attached to his or her uniform and instruments. We would all be fully outlined in lights as we marched down the boulevard. Most of us believed we would be heading home after the tragedy, but the director made a startling announcement. We would do the night parade. Police officers would line the route, and all attendees would be screened and searched before taking their seats on the street. Law enforcement, parade officials, and our teachers believed the shooting was the work of a lone, crazed gunman, and that we would be safe with all the security now deployed on the parade route. I was truly fearful, as were many of the other members. Our bodies would be outlined in lights; what better targets would a shooter have?

The next night, we arrived at the parking lot and suited up for the parade. I did not think many people would show up to watch the parade after what happened, but I was wrong. The crowds seemed larger than the day before, with people wildly cheering and screaming as we lined up at the fateful intersection to step off. As we marched the parade route, several people threw firecrackers into the street, and it took strength to fight the urge to panic and run. Cops swarmed the areas from where the fireworks were thrown. A man also ran through our ranks screaming, which unnerved all of us, but he was quickly surrounded and carted off.

At the end of the parade route, we stripped down our equipment and packed up. All of us were drenched in sweat as much from the humidity of a spring San Antonio night as well as from nerves. We boarded the bus and went for a late dinner of pizza near the hotel. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, we were screaming and cheering again. We had made it, and we were happy. The fear and trepidation vanished and we made jokes and told stories about what we saw and experienced. Death had touched us, but we had lived to tell the tale. We were invincible, as only young people believe they are.

Read more about this incident from other accounts here, here, and here.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Day In California

A Day in California from Ryan Killackey on Vimeo.

Just one more time lapse film, I promise.  This one is by Ryan Killackey with music, once again, by Cinematic Orchestra (seems they have the market cornered for time lapse music soundtracks).  Enjoy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Left Coast City of Light

LA Light from Colin Rich on Vimeo.

It took photographer Colin Rich six months to put together this montage of the lights of Los Angeles. It's a beautiful piece with haunting music by Cinematic Orchestra.