Kittie Howard

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pronouns and Verbs and Dialogue

Before today's post swirls in verbs and pronouns, I'd like to send prayers to the good people of New Zealand.  The horrific earthquake so sucked the breath out of Christchurch my heart cries.  I know the strong and resolute people of New Zealand will bury their dead wrapped in tears, rebuild at whatever sacrifice, and carry on with their lives, however painful.  A visit to Gallipoli several years ago defined and honored the national character of the New Zealanders and Australians (for they have suffered much from natural disasters.)  Each year, Anzac Day commemorates a spirit that neither retreats nor runs from adversity.  Sadly, this April 25th will be especially poignant.

I'd like to give a warm welcome to my new followers and a hug to older followers who've hung in there with me.  My eyes pop when I see the number, over 300!  Who, me? I think.  When I began blogging, I honestly didn't know where the experience would lead.  I thank you for the richness you've brought to my life, for all that I've learned from you, and for allowing me to be me.  Another day we'll celebrate the 300th Follower milestone. 

In the meantime, a conversation with sixteen-year-old Michelle, a neighbor's lovely daughter, triggered today's post.  When Michelle complained the YA book on their coffee table had made her "feel stupid", I asked to take a look.  The next day I returned the book, eyebrows raised.  Michele had spoken the truth.  If, however, the author (and, presumably, the editor) had paid attention to basic English grammar, an age-appropriate book with a strong plot and interesting setting would have elicited a different reaction.  Here's why:

Excessive pronoun usage caused the reader, yours truly, to flip pages to determine who was who in much of the dialogue, why a vague who said what to another vague who, and, by the way, this it referred back to . . . more flipped pages.  Without help from the author, I thought I'd fallen into Albert and Costello's Who's on First?  However, slapstick doesn't work in a non-comedic read.  The constant annoyance at flipping pages faded the plot and characterizations into a reader's survival blur, certainly not the author's intent.

The second dialogue problem I encountered involved the past progressive tense (was going, was looking, was thinking and so on.)  I knew, from teaching seventh through twelfth grades, that ninth graders (usually about 14 years old) live in the past progressive tense.  However, because all of the older characters in Michelle's book lived in this awkward tense, characterizations came across as forced and unbelievable. The past progressive tense (was going, was looking, was thinking and so on) can be an evasive tense which allows time to bridge a threatening why asked in the present progressive tense or to evade what's anticipated and so on.  Some real examples, with the teacher's thoughts, from classroom days:

Why are you standing near the window?
(When you should be seated at your desk. Hmmm.)
 I was looking to see if it was raining.        
(It's a bright sunny day. Hmm)

Why are you talking to X?
(While you're taking a test.  Hmmm.)                  
I was telling X my mother wants to talk to h/h mother. 
(While you're taking a test!  HMMM.)

Why don't you have your homework?       
(Again!  Hmmm.)
 I was cooking breakfast and an egg fell on it. 
(Really?  Hmmm.)   

The book I borrowed from Michelle, a book more for an eighteen-year-old, lived in the past progressive tense.  By the age of 18, a student's verb usage has evolved into more mature choices:

Ninth-grader:  I was going to see that movie, but my friend said it sucked.

Eighteen-year-old:  I heard that movie sucked.  Or, I've heard that movie sucked.

Michelle's book so frustrated, I thought I'd never escape that read.  I did, however, keep in mind what had irritated and made a point to listen intently to dialogues of all ages, both in real live and on television.  I found the past progressive tense common with young teens in real life turned into strong verbs on television.  Otherwise, I rarely heard the past progressive tense. . . except for one itty bitty observation:  I was just going is popular with everyone.

Hmmm, I was just going to Home Depot when the phone rang.  Honest!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How Now, Brown Cow?

(Today's Louisiana story lacks a plot or complex characters.  Today's story is about the mundane, the ordinary, that evolves into a larger picture, life.  I have warm memories of childhood games that led to much for me, but know others who carry different memories.  For too many, the Good Ole Days were anything but that.)

* * * * *

The house felt empty in the morning quiet.  Like a rabbit afraid to move, nervous eyes scanned the bedroom's celery green walls, rested upon the framed crayon drawing of a yellow clown, and blinked a smile.

My room looked the same:  red-haired Raggedy Ann sat atop the white chest of drawers near the closed door;  three green- and yellow-swirled cushioned stools waited beneath a low table painted white, a yellow lamp at the left corner, near a jacks-filled Mason jar; and to the left of me, lacy white curtains shadowed a drawn shade above a white bookcase, small books in neat rows.  A white rocker with a menagerie of stuffed animals filled the corner, between the bed and the chest of drawers. My yellow robe draped over the chair's arm.

Comforted by the familiar in the heavy, mid-January light, I pushed aside the bed covers, stepped into fuzzy slippers, and tip-toed to the rocker for my robe. The yellow slippers slapped against the hardwood floor: one, two, three, four, five, six. I stopped, took a deep breath, and named the months: January, February, March, April, May, June. In almost six months, on July 9, 1953, I would be six years old. At the happy thought, I buttoned the yellow robe Mama had made, hurried out of the bedroom, and raced down the hall toward the kitchen, slapping and counting . . . seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven . . . .  I slammed on the brakes before entering the kitchen.

Mama stood tall and slim at the edge of the white-tiled kitchen counter, near the wall clock. She had big blue eyes in a fair-complexioned oval face with high cheeks and full lips. Mama wore a chocolate-brown, long-sleeved, shirt-waist dress, stockings, and dark brown flats, the shoes she'd bought on Canal Street when we visited her mother in New Orleans weeks earlier for Christmas.

Mama didn't wear the pretty shoes outside. She fussed that the January rains had turned our South Louisiana farm into a mud puddle. This wasn't quite true, but I'd learned that adults talked indirectly, that the words I heard usually meant something else. Since it wasn't raining today, I knew Mama complained about living on a farm and not in New Orleans.  However, I didn't say anything.  Adults made things too complicated to talk about.

Mama waited with a bright, white smile.  After I completed the morning ritual and told her the time, 8:33 a.m., she kissed my forehead, poured me a glass of cold milk, then crossed to the stove. While the bacon fried, I counted the big sips of milk, twelve, wiped one white moustache with one yellow napkin, and waited five minutes for breakfast: one egg buried under grits, two strips of bacon, and one slice of unbuttered toast (which made butter a zero.)

Midway through a bite of toast, my eyes froze into blue saucers. I was minus one sister. Sarah's chair stood empty.  My three-year-old sister had disappeared.  Much to my surprise, the bumbling, knock-everything-down activity that infuriated on a normal day left a worried emptiness this morning. I pulled closer to the kitchen table and tilted my head to see through the window, across the pasture to Ma's house.

My grandparent's Big House looked empty. Scalloped shades hung low in windows, like a white house with Band-aids. Ma raised the shades every morning at 8:00. In an era when few had telephones, the ritual told passers-by in the rural community the day had begun without incident. Unable to grasp why Ma had broken the routine, I scrunched my nose into deeper thought (a habit Sarah said made me look like a freckled bass.)

Mama saw the confused look and half-smiled an apologetic explanation. Sarah had dressed and run across the pasture to sweet-talk Ma into making pancakes. Daddy, who had graduated from Louisiana State University's School of Law, had gone to his mother's to get Sarah.  He was in a hurry because he had to be at the courthouse in Baton Rouge by 10:00. However, when Ma learned about the trip, she decided to go.  She wanted to visit a niece in Baton Rouge. Sarah then cried she wanted to go. To keep the peace and with precious time fading, Daddy acquiesced.

After the explanation, Mama patted me on the head and left to tend to Dan, my baby brother. He slept in a crib in my parent's bedroom.  Alone in the kitchen, I stared at grits and bacon that now looked yucky.  I felt left out. Everybody had something exciting to do except me. Tick! Tick! Tick! The clock sounded like a canon in the too-quiet room.

Dan's sudden cry snapped me back to reality. I hid the bacon I didn't like on the window sill, behind the yellow curtain panel, to dispose of later, and swirled the yellow egg yolk I didn't like into grits divided into two mounds. After I ate the white mound, I flattened the smaller yellow mound, just as Mama entered the kitchen.  She smiled at the almost-empty plate.

That morning ritual accomplished, I dressed, helped Mama make my bed, and selected a book to read. While we sat on the living room sofa, as we did most weekday mornings, Mama held Dan in the crook of her left arm, and listened to me read.  I hoped there would be a really big word.  Mama turned tongue twisters into a game. The day before, we'd laughed at how many cows could fit into a coliseum.

Just as I'd turned the story's last page, I heard my grandfather's steps on the porch and rushed to open the front door.  I giggled and laughed as he swooped me up, swung me down, and removed his felt grey hat.  My grandfather was tall and muscled thin.  He had deep blue eyes in a clear oval face, chiseled cheeks, and a firm jaw.  Pa asked if I wanted to ride with him to check on the cows in a back pasture.  He didn't have to ask twice.  Mama bundled me into a heavy coat and warm mittens. The cap she'd crocheted pushed my auburn hair under the black coat's collar.

I chatted about my favorite book, One, Two, and Three Kittens, while Pa drove the Ford truck, careful to stay on the dirt track and not disturb bordering grasses.  A man of few words, he listened, nodded, and asked questions that sparked my chatter.  When we reached the back pasture, he cut the truck's engine.  We walked toward the scattered, brown-faced cows he had separated from the main herd.  Accustomed to Pa's presence, they continued to graze.

Some minutes later, satisfied that nothing looked amiss, Pa pushed back his hat and asked how many legs a cow had.  I giggled the obvious answer.  My mind went blank when he asked how many legs existed when the number multiplied . . .two cows times four legs . . . eight legs.  Several cows and many legs later, my mind exploded with energy.  I didn't have to count the legs on my fingers, stop at ten and begin again.  By the time Pa drove me home, I had become like Sarah, too eager to sit still.  Multiplication was fun. I couldn't wait to tell Mama.


If you read "Remy Broussard's Christmas", a holiday story I posted, you know that Remy was fictitious, but the setting was real.  For two years, first and third grades, I attended a three-room school with two grades in each room.  I skipped the second grade because my family had spent time with me, preparing me for school, and because I sat where Remy sat, next to the second-grade, I could absorb lessons there.

Today, as I sit at the keyboard and think back to that classroom, I see eager faces who learned under difficult conditions:  crowded, unheated classrooms in a school that lacked a cafeteria, educational toys, and, often, barely trained teachers, if that trained.  I was one of the lucky ones because my family owned land and enjoyed a comfortable income. 

I say 'lucky' because, there for the grace of God go I:  the majority of my classmates were the sons and daughters of sharecroppers, hard-working people trapped in a system that prevented economic progress.  My family had the money to purchase books.  My parents didn't work in the fields from dawn to dusk and had the time to spend with me.  Most of the kids I attended school with dropped out of school when they turned 13, to work in the fields alongside their parents.  It is sad to think how their lives might have been if opportunity had existed.  Parents needed their kids in the fields to work off exorbitant rents or face eviction.  With nowhere else to go, the system perpetuated itself.  Until 1964.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act broke the back of the sharecropper system.  Recovery takes time.