Monday, October 22, 2012


I went back to Cincinnati this past weekend to help my Uncle Wayne sort through Lois's things. The experience was cathartic rather than raw. I spent most of it on the couch, sorting jewelry while Wayne talked about his memories and feelings, and there was the unspoken acceptance of any moment either of us wanted to cry. There was no sobbing, though. Mostly, our talk was of fondness and missing her. And the one thing that struck us both was how most Lois was associated with joy. I'd never seen her cry, and my uncle had seen it less than a handful of times. She never had a harsh word for me. She never raised her voice in anger. She'd argued with Wayne maybe three times in their whole marriage. Was it because she was repressed? Quite the opposite. She just didn't hold onto grudges. She encouraged Wayne to communicate with his estranged sister. She kept in touch with friends who had drifted away from her. She never stopped trying to mend strained relationships around her. Is it any wonder talking to her was a joy?

Sitting in Lois's rocking chair beside her urn and pictures, I fingered the things she had left behind. A blue folding fan, dark chocolate M&Ms, scribbled notes on torn paper. Close to her left hand was the Bible with her initials. Jane Austen in leather sat just behind her head. Within easy reach were several dozen books of humor, well-worn.  

I spent most of the time threading through her jewelry chest. In a way, this was one of the ways to be closest to Lois. She never felt dressed without jewelry, and had such eclectic taste that the full fiber of her kookiness came through best with them. The bright blue TARDIS necklace. Her wacky cowboy cactus earrings. I talked to Wayne about the significance of some of the pieces. She had kept a few rusty tools at the bottom of her jewelry chest, precious to her: these had belonged to her father, who died when she was a baby. I found an unexpected expression of love: she had kept every little childish ring or bauble I had ever given her, like a slender little turquoise ring I had brought back from New Mexico. It had probably been too small for even her slender fingers, but she kept it, polished, in her case. One ring with its tiny sailing ship unlocked a memory from my childhood: Lois used to come home to eat lunch while grandma was watching me, and I remember watching her pick up a coffee cup with that ring on her hand. I couldn't have been more than six. I found an amethyst necklace she'd worn so often that it looked forlorn and out of place in a box.

Tucked into one of the corners was a series of photographs and the strap to her old camera case, full of Dr. Who pins. Pictures of me as a gangly youth, pictures of family dogs, or children she'd watched in the nursery. Pictures of flowers, or butterflies. Beach pictures with her sister. My personal prize: an image of Lois in her full Doctor Six getup, complete with spats. Wayne let me keep that one.

We found funny things, like the enormous Dr. Who scarf she'd knitted and huge Earth globe earrings. Mice riding on witches' brooms--how did those huge things fit on her earlobes? A more emotional find was a jewelry box, which played Für Elise, and which she'd used to put me to sleep. It had been the reason I wanted to play piano. We also looked at her teacups, the ones we had displayed at her funeral, and I told Wayne that she had let me drink from them as a child, now and then. I had felt like a princess.

Once all was done and packed into the van, Wayne mused that we barely touched the surface of all the things Lois had collected. He admitted she was a bit of a hoarder, but all things have their blessings. Lois's stuff will eventually rot, but for me and for the rest of the family, those things are all tiny little reminders of Lois's presence. They have given me an avenue by which I can describe her to you. I can understand, now, why some religious keep icons. That physical presence is something we soon miss from our departed loved ones. And if a piece of wire or stone is enough to bring back a forgotten moment, then it truly is a relic of worth.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Zen of Editing

The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller, is a book after my own heart--and why wouldn't it be? It's a book on the copyediting life, with some excellent advice and clever analogies. Nice and concise--what else would you expect from a copyeditor? A lot of it will be familiar to any editor, from acquisitions to DEs, with the one problem of being so familiar as to harbor a few truisms and skim-the-obvious moments. I hope every writer purchases a copy of this book: it humanizes editors and gives a clearer idea of what goes on in the publishing process.

My favorite part (I've already used it a half dozen times):
"You know what it's like to come back to a hotel room in the afternoon and find that housekeeping has been there and everything is all fresh and put to rights? That's how a copy editor would like you to feel when you see the editing. If you can view extra-duty editing as the mint on the pillow, all the better. What we don't want is for you to feel insulted that we saw the need for cleaning."
Editors are the cleaning staff. It's so very true. How much I wish authors would stop and think about that before sending an abusive letter. We don't grade your papers; you didn't get an F. You can choose to keep or remove every edit you get, especially if the editor is freelance. Saller notes that editors, despite their admittedly compulsive natures, are very much aware of the collaborative nature of editing, and do their best to work with author objections.

Just be aware: it's impossible for an editor to look at a document and pronounce it "perfect." Some would even try to edit Hemingway's six-word story. Fair warning!

Back to the book: Saller covers editing business more than editing practice (no proofreading marks here!) She writes wittily about office politics, the juggling act of acquisitions, substantive, managing, copy, proofers, indexers, typesetters, in-house and freelancers...the whole lot. There's even a whole section just for writers, detailing the publishing process. Conflict management gets a nice chunk, as well as time management and organization (like chocolate, or tea--never enough).

What I like best about Saller's work, though, is her obvious delight about the copyediting job, which even she admits is full of over-educated, underpaid folks who aren't very appreciated in the publishing business. She offers cheery advice on how to find copyediting work, either in-house or freelance, brushing a layer of zen over all headaches. She made me smile, and I went back to my own editing with gusto.

Onward, ye semi-colons!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Eulogy for Lois

The following is the text of the eulogy I will be giving for my aunt at her service this afternoon. Lois died from complications of breast cancer, only 54 years old.


Hello. For those who don’t know me, I am Nessie. I am Nessie today because that was one of Aunt Lois’s names for me.

I am going to share some memories of Lois Richelle Ketchum Johnson. Because they are from me, they are largely through the lens of childhood. But this is fitting, perhaps, for though Lois had no biological children, many people saw Lois through the eyes of a child.

Lois was born on February 9th, 1958, the baby of four children. Perhaps it was because of this that Lois had such compassion for the youngest of us.

From an early age, she worked with children in the church. I have many memories of watching her prepare Sunday School lessons, of Lois running her fingertips over the words in her rainbow-colored Bible, of her deep alto voice beside grandma’s soprano. Of running out after the sermon and finding Lois in the nursery, or helping her carry things to her classroom with the toddlers. Generations of children had their first word of Christ through Lois.

Her love of the young never changed. In an age when women shun the trappings of age, Lois let her hair go gray. When she learned about Madeline’s conception, she gleefully went around telling people that she was going to be like her namesake, Lois, in the Bible: a grandmother. At the Law Offices where she worked, she had Madeline pictures all over her desk. Every phone call was full of the stories of the children of Wayne’s family, whom she pulled into her heart without reserve. Even when cancer broke her back, she still got up, brace and all, to toddle my young son across the floor. Sometimes when I spoke to her on the phone, she’d say something and I’d realize she was listening to my children playing in the background—something I had tuned out.

My cousins, and even some of my childhood friends, idolized Lois. She was the cool aunt. Her nails were always shining, her clothes always seemed hip to us, and she never felt dressed without a necklace and earrings. She had an eye for beautiful things. If you wore something new, she’d always notice, and was usually the one to take the photographs.

When my first son was born, and everyone was passing thoughts back and forth as to which person he resembled, my aunt said firmly, “No. He is himself.” She respected the uniqueness of each individual. And calling Lois unique is probably an understatement. What other aunt would put you in a parade, throwing jelly babies out of a TARDIS?

Lois invested time in every child she knew, and because of that, helped weave the tapestry of who we are today. How many of us remember her tickling with those long nails? The Shel Silverstein poems, or the cowboy music? With her, I learned how to make tea, to appreciate classical music and swing, that Jane Austen was worth reading, and that the silver cars on the road were secretly cybermen from Dr. Who.

Most of my memories of Lois involve being somewhere other than home. Hiking at the Cincinnati Nature Center, of which she was a member, granny smith apples in her bag. Going to the Cincinnati Art Museum, and having her point at and discuss all of the ceramics: Lois had a special passion for teacups. We took a road trip once, to St. Louis, and stared in wonder at the broad junction of the Mississippi and the Ohio. She told me old stories of Cincinnati, the city she loved.

Lois also had one foot firmly in the land of geeks. When she took me to my first movie, it was E.T., the extra-terrestrial. She loved Riders in the Sky and introduced us all to Dr. Who. When she was the only one in the family to have Star Trek 4 on tape, she didn’t mind playing it for us over and over again. Some of you may not know that Lois wrote four science-fiction novels, along with short stories, poems, song lyrics, and editorials, some of which were published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The voice of Lois as a writer was no different than the voice of Lois in life. She was thoroughly honest, saying things as she saw them with no filter or buffer. She had a vast sense of humor, childlike and unperverse. She took pleasure in funny coincidences. Once, when we were in the car, it began to rain. Huge amount--cats and dogs. Just then, 4HIM’s “Shelter in the Rain” began to play. We laughed all the way home. When she praised Wayne as her soulmate, the first thing she would mention was that he made her laugh every day.

Lois also saw God in many things. When she got panic attacks after multiple car accidents, she said she figured she had them so she’d understand my panic disorder. She never failed to notice the changing of the seasons: the divine artist’s hand in all of the beautiful things she loved. Her intellect and her faith were never at odds, and I think it was in part because God gave her a wonderful imagination and capacity for empathy.

Among Lois’s favorite flowers were violets. In the Victorian flower language she taught me, violets stand for faithfulness. And Lois was faithful. She was faithful to her husband and best friend, Wayne. She was faithful to her mother, to her family. To friends. She was faithful to the children. And she was faithful to herself, never acting in any way that was a lie to who Lois was. Most importantly, she was a steadfast and devoted follower of Jesus Christ, to whom she has gone.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The God Pronoun

Word choice can be the most nitpicky and profound part of editing. I've had writers completely exasperated by it, and others with jaw drops of clarity. Both responses make sense.Word choice gets into the fuzzy world of implications and connotations. That's a very reader-oriented sort of editing, and sometimes you don't want to sacrifice your darlings to the drooling masses.

A single wrong word choice throws off the entire understanding of an audience. We see it all the time in politics: I surmise it's one reason political speeches have gone the route of vagueness. We see it in the the he-said-she-said arguments of wedded bliss--heaven knows the nuances in those fights would make an editor's head spin.

We also see word choice issues in translations. The Bible causes these more than any book I can think of. While I admire the populism which eventually saw it translated from its parent languages, translators make mistakes. This is a problem when the church tends toward bibliolatry (worship of a book). A healthy injection of Greek and Hebrew outside of seminary would be useful, but that's my other axe to grind.

In my personal worship, I often struggle with word choice. What did Paul mean by arsenokoitai? Was speaking in tongues xenoglossy or glossolalia? I got so tired of dragging my Classicist spouse over for New Testament insight that I began learning ancient Greek myself.

This morning, I was wondering about the most critical pronoun of all. Can God be a she?

I can’t imagine God having a problem with it. While many words and metaphors for God are masculine, most of the writers of the Bible were masculine. The Hebrew word for God’s presence, Shekinah, is feminine, and God is called a mother in several places (Luke 13:34, Deut 32:11-12, etc.), and even Jesus has been portrayed as mother in the spirituality of the Middle Ages. I know Jewish philosophy does not ascribe a gender to God. Madeline L’Engle thought God above gender, and so used “el” as a pronoun. I too think God is above gender, but I also think God is a personal God. If God is in me, should that mean God is my gender in my mind? Or should I just call God “God,” and avoid the problem entirely?

Why ask this? Isn't the masculine form also neuter? Technically, yes, though many in the writing industry are making the decision to alternate gender by chapter (e.g., using "he" in chapter 1 and "she" in chapter 2). Beyond the proper choice, however, is the matter of gendered understanding. When you think of God as father, what's your mental image?

What about God as mother?

See what I mean? I wonder if, by opening my inner mentality about a gendered God to the historically persecuted gender, I'd form a broader understanding of God, unfettered by rigid masculinity. God is, after all, a vast entity. I want to know more about her.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Balitmore Storms

When you move a fair distance, there are some things you expect to miss, like local restaurants, your mail carrier, your shortcuts on the back roads. The knick on the tree you made ten years ago while trying to catch a flyaway frisbee. Stuff like that.

Sometimes, though, you find yourself pining for lunacy.

In Indiana, the last three to four months of the year are overcast. Dismal gray. Within a year of moving to Maryland, my brother expressed my thoughts when he complained at the lack of gray days. Lunacy!

Another rabid lunacy is the number of Midwesterners I've met who miss storms. Not the paltry little booms people in Baltimore mistake for storms, but the regular, seasonal tornado warnings with all of the associated happy memories of hanging out in the bathtub or basement with a candle and a radio.

It gets worse when you realize your lunacy is a nightmare in disguise. Like the time I slept through an F3 in College Park because I assumed all advanced civilizations had tornado sirens. Or living on the top floor of an apartment with no accessible windowless rooms on the ground floor (let alone a basement). Or that lightning causes fires, like the one that burned out 24 apartment units nearby. Or that it can surge and fry computers. Leave people without power for weeks. Lunacy.

But come every storm, the moment I hear a smattering of thunder, I gleefully clip on my weather radio and watch the radar online, hoping this one will be a nice rumbler with a bit of hail. You can take the gal out of the midwest, but you can't take the midwest out of the gal.

It eventually got so bad that I actually baited the Baltimore sky on Facebook last night:

Enough random thunder, already! Everyone knows you're all bark and no bite. Stop whetting my anticipation and then failing to properly storm.

Naturally, this was followed by two tornado warnings. Last night, I loved Maryland and wanted the Midwest to stay far, far away. Anything is preferable to waking up your babies out of a sound sleep.

Friday, August 10, 2012

"Sorry about my grammar."

In face-to-face conversations, on the phone, and smattered all over the web, I keep hearing the same words. It must be a conspiracy. Aliens abducted my friends and clients and put a little doodad inside that goes off when triggered by an editor.

“Sorry—my grammar sucks.”

Grammar is the catch-all for writing mistakes. It isn't technically correct, but everyone understands what it means. When you say grammar, you might be meaning your spelling, your syntax, your usage, etc. Just like you might say “music” and mean pitch, tone, or beat.

“The grammar was off. Must really bug you, dude.”

It doesn’t.

Now let me qualify that statement: I will notice English mistakes if you’re paying me. I may even notice if you’re not paying me, but chances are, I’ll keep my mouth shut. This, as far as I have been able to discern, is profession-wide, for two reasons:

1) Why work for free? (Alternatively, I’ve heard,“It’s too much like work.”)
2) Editors have worked with people long enough to know that everyone makes mistakes. You do, we do—errare humanum est.

I won’t bring up that nonsense that the language is changing—of course it is, but that doesn’t mean we don’t conform to a style now—but language is about communication. If you understand, half the work is done. The rest is about getting it to be pretty. Editors are glorified interior designers. How could we possibly take ourselves seriously?

If you know someone who constantly corrects your English, he or she is probably not an editor. You’ve discovered a member of the vast underground of grammar police, or grammar nazis, so-named because they approach English like a fascist government. I usually don’t like to use “grammar nazi” to denote people who care about English, but some—especially people operating on the Internet—think correcting language is the trump card of argument. Like this gem of reasoning:


Ouch. To be candid, I have had my ugly moments as a grammar nazi. Back when I was a stupid teenager, I used to correct everyone, and my favorite? Adverbs. Shouting LY! at everyone, and not in the goofy Richard Henry Lee way. My poor mom got the brunt of my newfound grammar powers. Honest-LY! Glad-LY! Patient-LY! Mom eventually gave up and said everything was goodly.

Becoming an editor changed me. No matter how good you are at editing, something will slip through. Now there’s a cold dash of water to the ego! I just wish I could give that experience to the Internet grammar police, so they’d stop holding my friends and clients hostage over “grammar.” Take heed out there! You don’t want to end up like this guy. I spotted him while lurking in an English help forum. He was so utterly assured of his rightness:

Dumbass its Latin the plural of penis is peni.

(The plural is penises, if you’re curious. That'll be two cents, please.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

How Can I Help NASA?

The checkout lady looked up while swiping packages of quinoa. She smiled, first at my youngest son, who had taken off his hat and was trying to give it to her, and then at my oldest, who was standing politely beside my cart (grabbing at the bags, candy, and his little brother). 

"Oh, a NASA hat. Is anyone in your family working there? They must be so proud."

I said yes, my father worked in the space industry, and yes, we were all excited about Curiosity.  I put back a Three Musketeers bar.

"So maybe you'll be astronauts!" she exclaimed happily to my sons. "With rockets and spaceships wizzing around--what an exciting time you'll live in."

If only. My parents used to think I'd live in that age. NASA is under serious pressure, I said, especially its manned program.

Checkout lady: "But if their funding keeps getting cut, something will blow up!"

I began to admire the intelligence of this woman. So many people look at Curiosity's billion-dollar pricetag and think NASA is getting too much, if anything. But as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said, the US bank bailout exceeded the half-century lifetime budget of NASA.

"What can I do?"

The words actually felt like they echoed. And I, with two fidgeting boys, said the most expedient thing: Spread awareness.

Now this is good, and true, and helpful: letting people know, for instance, the vast number of technologies we owe to NASA, is usually an eye-opener for them. Or expounding upon the inspirational cultural power of space exploration. Or noting imperatives for the continued functioning of Earth: colonization as a valve for population pressure; monitoring climate and potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

But spreading awareness isn't the only thing, and it isn't even the most effective thing, unless you're a celebrity.

Here are things I wish I had said:

*     Congress controls NASA's budget. Write to your Senators and Representatives.

*     Refuse to vote for politicians who spout nonsense like, "NASA does less for us than (insert government agency)" or "Manned space exploration is less important than robotic exploration."

*     Join a political action group so that your voice can be pooled with others. The Planetary Society is perhaps the best-known. I am a member of the Mars Society. There's also the  National Space Society and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). 

*     Help NASA work by volunteering in scientific endeavors, like MAPPER.

At the end of our conversation, the checkout lady invited me back. "Working with groceries can be boring," she said.  "Please come back and talk to me about space."

And that's the point, isn't it? Life can be boring, or frightening, or sad. Think about what was happening when we walked on the moon. The Vietnam War, violent student protests, the Stonewall riots, Hurricane Camille, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the explosion on the USS Enterprise and the collision of the USS Frank E Evans, the Manson murders, and the first person dying of AIDS.

Sometimes, we have to look up for inspiration.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Curiosity Lives!

Curiosity's outline on the Martian surface.

For those who went to sleep at a decent hour last night: the Curiosity rover has landed on Mars! The landing was a complete success, and the first pictures are flying in. Space exploration enthusiasts are hopeful that this landing will put more positive focus on NASA, which is under unprecedented pressure. As the world gleefully cheers for the Olympics, it's clear that in space, the U.S. still takes gold. It's a primacy I hope we aren't willing to relinquish. Beyond mere patriotism, space exploration has done so much for the human race in general--creating technologies we use every day without thinking, inspiring generations of scientists (and writers), and providing crucial, life-saving information about our planet and its neighborhood.

+ Curiosity's chief scientist: "Everything just went so smoothly."'s article.
+ The Curiosity landed in seven minutes. Here's how it happened.

+ A Space News article on the political (and budgetary) impact of the Curiosity mission.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Curiosity Lands on Mars

The Curiosity rover will be landing on Mars, this evening at 10:30pm ET. NASA will stream it live, and you can see it right here.

Dare I hope? In the future, will we see an even cooler than Olympics in London? Olympics on Olympus Mons! What a high jump that would be.

Stealth Books

Do you find that some years, you just keep reading the same sorts of books?

In 2008, for instance, it was fantasy. I didn’t plan for it, and I didn’t follow a particular author: people just kept suggesting books, and I found them on the back of my bed, waiting. Books are sneaky like that. You’ll pile up a few to start the queue, and one of them will manage to stealth to the top just at the moment you’re groping for your glasses. No one can convince me it was an accident. They were words about wizards, after all.

Last year it was religious philosophy. I admit I sought most of them out, being tiffed at the lackluster offerings at local churches. Still, how did two books on Buddhism end up in my bags when I went to the hospital? I had been reading them, sure, but philosophy? While gargantuan with child? I should have chosen something less gravid–or perhaps that was the point. I ended up playing Civilization IV rather than reading. But my point is this: books of a type tend to pile up on me.

This year, I’m reading memoirs, and it’s making me feel quite contrary. Normally, I prefer history of a scholarly vein–the ones you find in the basement of some university library, their pages still uncut, no dates on the covers. Never underestimate what a few gift cards, a nook, and clever advertising can do to one’s convictions! I’m now up to twelve memoirs. Some have been delicious, I admit, but I will not let 2013 be the year of memoirs–especially not when my science-fiction count is precisely zero.

Tempt me! What sci-fi should I read next? I’ll duct-tape it to the top of my book stack.

The Mushroom Ring

A new blog; a blank screen. A mushroom ring beckoning uncensored thoughts.

It has been a long time since I had a blog of my own. I used to keep a blog, back when I had nothing to do. Or rather, back when I had plenty to do but too much agoraphobia to do it. Looking back at the old posts, still garish in their monochromatic green, I wonder at how easy it seemed then. To write a blog entry and press enter, with no consideration other than spelling. With blog titles like “Emotional Stuff,” “RIBBIT,” “Broth for Dinner,” or the psychologically deep, “Have I Become a Teenie Bopper?” (Hey, now! You’re only allowed to laugh if you comment with your own old titles.)

My old blog was tied, as blogs usually were in the nineties, to a pseudonym and persona rather than a real presence–and this was for the best, as I acquired several angry stalkers from my work as a game GM. Those experiences really diminished the fun of blogging. Eventually I abandoned my old Livejournal, showing up on Blogger in joint blogs with friends, another series of pseudonyms protecting my identity. Like those annoying group projects in college, someone did all the work. It wasn’t me. Is there a name for that? Blog-coasting? Bumblogging? Navel-staring? That’s what I did.

My last partner of this sort abandoned me months ago, and it was then I found myself staring at a mushroom ring. I had a Facebook account and a few tweets, a collection of photographs and a professional page–the usual things which formed a circle of links grown up around my Internet presence. But there was no longer a center. The gauntlet fell: how could I call myself a wordsmith without a blog?

Time to step into the ring.