Elements of Universal Composition

Many people consider a liberal arts major in a business world to be a waste of perfectly good tuition dollars, but I don’t count myself among them. The liberal arts expose you to a vast number of influences and as you gain depth in all, you begin to see the patterns that resonate throughout each. Composition is more universal than some would accept. What makes a song or short story transcendent can be very similar.

One aspect of this universalism is that mathematical, computer, and human languages share certain commonalities in the same way that music and other art forms do. Doesn’t it therefore behoove us to embrace the commonalities and attempt to make the transition from one to another as seamless as possible if for nothing else, the ease with which the next generation can assimilate them? I believe a move towards convergence is a reasonable goal.

Not to be confused with the Cereal Coma that Mr. T might recommend

Oxford/Harvard/Serial comma

In science, math, and computer code, a set of 3 values are delimited by commas such as (x, y, z). Yet in AP Style, the comma between the second and third item in the series (or serial comma) would be omitted. The argument against states that the “and” provides the necessary delimiting factor and that the comma creates ambiguity as it is also consistent with appositive statements. This could be resolved by the use of parentheticals or dash delimited appositives rather than frustrating readers of this sentence: I enjoy Hot Tamales, Mike and Ikes, and Good and Plenty.

Quotes and punctuation

The rule in American English is that when there is punctuation at the end of a quote, you are expected to place the punctuation within the quote regardless of whether it is part of the quote.

Example: I really enjoyed “Gigli!”

In addition to leading readers to believe I have no taste [to be honest, I think I tried watching the movie, but failed to stay awake], this farcical sentence would also potentially lead others to misquote the film name to include the exclamation point. The reason for including it inside the quote is to maintain a consistency of where the punctuation occurs, but it creates confusion that you don’t see with computer code.

Punctuation and musical rests

With some concepts, there is divergence between more technical forms and artistic. English straddles both functions in ways that some others don’t and under these circumstances it’s harder for me to see the obvious path of convergence.

Eats, Shoots, and LeavesIf you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” you may be familiar with Lynne Truss’ dislike for the concept of punctuation as musical rests. Lynne’s perspective is that punctuation should focus on setting expectations (the way a semi-colon tells you that the thought isn’t quite complete) rather than cadence. Having written a lot of code and utilizing multi-line functions, I can see the point of that perspective.

On the other hand, I believe that literature should be more like music in this regard. There’s great scene in “Eddie and the Cruisers” where Eddie thinks that the song needs more diversity of timing and he turns to Frank to back him up. Frank discusses the concept of a caesura as a pregnant pause to build tension and emotional context. I’m a firm believer in having that same functionality in English punctuation (granted, you can go overboard with this ala William Shatner caricatures) although I concede that in technical writing it may not be as relevant.

Further Discussion:

I understand that these perspectives may be controversial, so I’m happy to listen to other points of view and form a discussion. Feel free to comment below and I will try to be prompt in response.

Review: Tomcat in Love

[NOTE: This was originally written in June, but not edited until now.]

Tomcat in LoveWith the Anthony Weiner coverage as of late, I felt this gnawing desire to re-visit my favorite Tim O’Brien novel, Tomcat in Love. Tim ranks with John Irving and Neil Gaiman (he is seated in the late Douglas Adams’ former spot) in my top 5 favorite contemporary writers. Numbers 4 and 5 tend to be more fluid with Malcolm Gladwell, Nick Hornby, Tom Stoppard, and Isabel Allende jostling for position.

Elevator Pitch:
Professor Henry Higgins as played by Bill Clinton stars in a fusion of High Fidelity and Of Human Bondage.

Review:
Tomcat in Love follows the complex life and psychology of Thomas Chippering, Professor of Linguistics and incorrigible flirt. At the heart of this character is the duality of wanting to be in love with one woman and wanting women everywhere to want him. While most men can empathize, the measures that he takes are questioned by the women who truly love him.

As with most O’Brien novels, you can expect certain themes in this one like personal transformation as a result of Vietnam. He also explores the sacred nature of love, perhaps an allusion to the Sufi concept of earthly love as a parallel to comprehend the divine. With each novel he tends to seize on something beyond these and explore that thoroughly – for example, with In the Lake of the Woods he focused on ties between stage magic and politics. With this one he dove into linguistics, a real treat for me.

I thoroughly enjoyed how he focused on words as holding individualized semantics based on the person similar to a picture, song, or a scent forever being tied to a piece of history for people. For example, to Thomas the word “turtle” would be forever colored as a broken promise. I was also attracted to the theme of an intellectual rationalist exploring the visceral nature of his passion and its ability to create utter chaos in his world.

If you can’t get into a book of this length, check out The Things They Carried – a collection of stories O’Brien penned with the Vietnam War as a common theme. It’s more digestible in a single sitting and a good introduction to his writing style.

Caveats:
There are adult themes at play so this is not something I would recommend for children. It’s also narrated by a protagonist who tends to speak at a level commensurate with Frasier and Niles Crane:

“Much as I adore a good shower, I have never comprehended the point of sharing lavation fluids. Where is the romance in imitating goldfish? …My cozy bachelor world, I realized, had swiftly come undone.”

Introductory Statement

Throughout the years I’ve started and stopped journals and blogs, never getting very far. I took a class in college called “Autobiography” wherein I was expected to write over 20 pages of autobiographical information, but I’ve never been able to replicate that perseverance without a deadline. If you’re wondering as to the cause of my block, I have ADD and an over-developed personal critic. My early coping mechanism at the collegiate level for this was to stay up until the caffeine subdued my ADD and my internal critic fell asleep, allowing me to spew my thoughts coherently into the computer. In later years I would tap into my competitive side to develop coping mechanisms and the resolve to muscle past the blocks, although arguably the threat of deadline remained a form of propulsion.

GrandmotherThe reason I keep coming back to this is I feel a responsibility to journal as a third generation language major on my mother’s side (Grandmother and aunt: English, mother: French). My grandmother kept a diary throughout the years that upon her death passed down to my mom, who has kept a diary or calendar for as long as I can remember. My mother in turn has insisted that I wait at least 10 years after her death before I can consider publishing a novel based on their lives using the collective diaries as a resource.

In May, while visiting my parents, I was forced to remove the remaining vestiges of my collegiate career from their basement. I’ve been leafing through some of my old writings since then, somewhat shocked by how heinous my writing was. If I’m able to stick with this, I will probably bring them out for your collective chuckles, albeit with serious amounts of preface to establish context.

I’ve pre-written a few posts in recent weeks so that I have something to kick this off with and develop momentum. I value any feedback you have to offer. Bear in mind that in my English career, my passions were Literature > spelling > grammar so I tend to use non-standard grammar of the Chicago vein, but I am getting ahead of myself as I’ve already written an entry for that.

Why Flairicus? Evolution of an Identity

The earliest nickname I was given was “Touchdown” because my first and second initials are “TD”. This was used infrequently so it never stuck. During my school years I didn’t really have a nickname other than the occasional “Runt” reference (I graduated high school at 5’1” tall whereas my brothers were 6’+) or “Einstein” (end product of  an intellectual discussion in a video arcade, much to my delight).

Chimichanga

Who wouldn’t want a nickname based off of a deep fat fried burrito?

In college I wound up with “Chonga” – a natural progression from “Chimi” after I insisted that “Timmy” was the kid who always fell down the well in “Lassie” and hence my stern refusal to go by that name (NOTE: In the early 2000s I would modify this restriction to allow for the use of “Tim-mah!” as I had a lot of friends who enjoyed South Park). The name appealed to my linguistic interests as it felt like such a guttural, almost bestial name such as you might give to a literary Tarzan clone, thereby making it the equivalent of calling the tallest kid in school “Tiny.”

I got online in the early ‘90s, but I didn’t want to use “Chonga” as it would be visible to my peers and the faculty. I remember that I spent part of a morning and my entire lunch at Tonn’s Restaurant brainstorming numerous options. I was serious about this – I had a lot of considerations as the name would invariably define me to some degree on a collegiate level.

Some of the criteria I compiled in my head:

1. I wanted something that would set me up as having a sense of humor.
2. I had a fascination with Q from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, but there was a low end character limit.
3. I also wanted a literary allusion to establish my English major cred.

MercutioSomewhere in the middle of scarfing down Spicy Chicken while paging through the compilation of Shakespeare’s plays which I had lugged with me, I turned to Romeo and Juliet and there it was: Mercutio. I had found something that met all three criteria (I pronounce the second syllable in the same manner as “queue”) and it was thematically appropriate in that I enjoy a good verbal sparring and often described myself as a “tragic comic.” A year later I would curse my lack of foresight when I signed up for my account on the Krypton server and was forced to use Mercutio@krypton.msu.edu instead of KalEl@krypton.msu.edu.

After grad school, I began work as a web site designer and I needed a new nickname for designer cred. I had become fascinated with the world pair of “flair/flare” and how when you vocalized it the meaning was similar in that both words symbolized flashy and dramatic, something I aspired for my designs to be. I began using it as a standard handle on Internet forums which I contributed to and when playing online games with my friends.

The problem with “Flair” was the advent of Office Space brought a lot of visibility to the word and getting it as a user name on most systems became nigh impossible. I started throwing in “Mc” in front of it but Grey’s Anatomy started a “Mc” craze so by necessity I had to find an alternative and opted for Hellenification (aka, getting my Greek on).