“Sir, you are employing a double negative.”
Mr. Spock, Star Trek: TOS, A Piece of the Action
What could be better than coming home after a tough, mind-numbing day’s work, putting on your favorite pajamas, pouring a glass of wine, wrapping up in a blanket, and diving into your favorite grammar book, maybe a color-coded treasure from Ole Miss, A Grammar of Present-Day English by Pence and Emery? Oh, the wonders of relative pronouns and commas and syntax! Or is that just me? All right, it’s just me. I’m a nerd. Don’t hate. But don’t worry; I’m not going to spout a lecture on the subjunctive mood or predicate nominatives or subordinate conjunctions. My point is just that I like grammar. It’s a hobby, I suppose, aside from my almost-useless English education degree… I like grammar because, unlike so many other aspects of my life, it makes sense. It’s logical. I know the rules. I know the exceptions to the rules. And when I run across something I don’t understand, I know where to go to figure it out. I just get it. Strange as it may sound – and believe me, I KNOW just how strange it sounds – I like it because it’s the one thing I’m sure about. Well, one of two things I’m sure about. (And yes, I did in fact end with a preposition there. Ask me why, if you like…)
You see, I have been going through a bit of a career crisis. Not to be a downer, but hey, doesn’t everybody get that at some point in their lives? Long story short, I have become one of those statistics – you know, one of the however-many teachers who quit before they make it through their first five years… Heck, I barely made it through two years. I don’t need to go into detail about all that; all I need to say about it is that teaching is a high and noble calling. And despite what politicians would have you believe, educators are the legs this country stands on. With that being said, frankly, I had polio. So what is a figuratively crippled ex-teacher to do?!
I’ve struggled over this thing for a long time now. I’ve searched for other full-time jobs. (And alas, I haven’t seen any ads in the classifieds headlined with, “Wanted: Companion to the last Time Lord. David Tennant’s incarnation.”) I’ve agonized over different options. Should I stay at my old college job? Should I work on a master’s degree? Should I try something totally different? Should I just find a second job? Should I… run away? Am I a good candidate for clown college?… I’m scared I’ll just fall flat on my face again with my next endeavor. But I’m nearing thirty years old, and I have to do something! There’s a big world out there, and lots of living to be done. But with my confidence stunted, it’s been difficult to make a decision. I feel limited in lots of ways. It’s frightening to even think about sometimes. And well, as I said earlier, I like certainty. Subject + predicate = sentence. Add a dependent clause, and you’ve got yourself a complex sentence, and so on. Something I understand.
And the only other thing I understand for certain is the value of the good people in my life. Despite the fact that he gives me more grief than anyone else about the way I enjoy grammar, my best friend is the person who has listened and helped me work out every problem I’ve encountered for about ten years now, including this career thing. One night, when I had become reduced to a pathetic, lachrymose mass of saturnine confusion (yes, I mean every word of that), he was patient. Like always. Melancholy and mystified as ever, I stared dejectedly down at the kitchen table where we sat. “Hold on. I’ve got something for you,” he said. He left abruptly, then returned with something in his hand. He placed a copy of Harvey’s Elementary Grammar and Composition, copyright date 1880, in my hands. Now, if there’s anything I love as much as grammar, it’s a book, especially an old book… You know, those old books with character, books who would have a story to tell besides what’s literally written on their pages. This book was all of those things…
I could feel my face brighten up and my mood rise immediately. With a little gasp, I read what was scrawled in pencil on the first page: “Flora Hamm. Oct. 31 – 1894. Ramer, Tennessee.” If that date is accurate, the book belonged to this Flora Hamm 119 years ago… And what’s even more spectacular: there’s a painting on the back cover. A tree or flower, and a house with smoke rising from the chimney, in yellow and green, along with what appears to be an ink spill. I would love so much to know this book’s history. How many people have used it? Who did the painting on the back? Where did the smudge on page 13 – “Nouns” – come from? I imagine little Flora Hamm as a child, curls bouncing around her face, wearing a pretty little summer frock, sitting at her desk, spilling ink on the back cover and panicking as it soaked through to the back pages, as her mother walks in and scolds her about not taking care of her books… Oh, if the covers of this book could talk!
And of course I had to smell it. No, I’m not a weirdo for that. Ok well, maybe I am, but not the point… I opened the book about halfway through, closed my eyes, and breathed it in, thinking about the irony – how the deterioration of the ink and lignin in the paper manifests itself all these years later to create a smell so comforting, so wonderful… “Book-sniffer…” he huffed with his typical sardonic tone. And I smiled. And at that moment, I knew I could never take for granted the fact that I have the best friend anybody could have: the person I can call for anything; who took me to see the Braves; who sat through a Rascal Flatts concert with me even though he doesn’t like country music; the person who took me skydiving… And I realized I could better understand the advice he’d been offering all this time: chill out and get a grip; just do something already, and do the things you love. If you take a black eye again, you just take a black eye again. Don’t stop swinging back. You’ve got support; you’re not all by yourself. What kind of loser is it that just sits back and does nothing because of fear?
I love grammar because it makes sense to me. It’s one of very few things I can feel certain about. I love old books because of their histories and what they can still teach us, explicitly and otherwise. And wouldn’t you know – these are the same things that make my best friend who he is to me. And the fact that he can put up with me: the neurologically atypical, grammar Nazi, Trekkie, career-less misfit… The confidence he’s shown in me has become contagious. (I’ve applied for jobs teaching English abroad – trying for a change of scenery and material – and I’ve worked my way through some 500+ GRE flash cards and countless practice questions… Nothing carved in stone, but it’s a start…) He pushes me to make something of myself, even when I’m resistant. He points out that I am making strides of my own. And it’s true – I am; but without him, I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on the journey. True, he is full of sarcasm. And sometimes full of, well, you know… But I wouldn’t have it any other way. If we didn’t give each other a hard time, it wouldn’t be any fun.
I realize that I am one of only a few people who read grammar books for fun… But I encourage you to do what you love, even if it’s not popular or other people don’t find it quite as interesting – unless you’re, say, a violent sociopath or something. Then you just need to get help. Or write books. But anyhow… Glean what you can from doing what you love and leave your own mark wherever you go, so that somebody can find evidence of your passion, even years later, and be inspired by it. The person who really appreciates the history loves to see the smudges and paint and spills on the book. Try to avoid life’s negatives – and double negatives; Mr. Spock would be pleased, and so would I. But if you do fall on your face at some point like I did with my first career choice, you’ll have something to talk about, at the very least. Remember, it’s the deterioration of the book that makes it smell good.
Total pages: 160 Total Friends of Atticus pages: 27,412