Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s the most wonderful time …

Cat Herders Day is here again!

It is time once again to celebrate Cat Herders Day, the official holiday of Five O’Clock Somewhere, tomorrow, December 15. Those of my followers in Europe are already enjoying the holiday.

The holiday was originally invented by a couple in California who have made up other wacky, offbeat holidays to celebrate. The date for this one, I’m sure, is a reflection on how busy most of us are at this time of year, with shopping, holiday arrangements, parties, entertaining, decorating, cooking, wrapping gifts, shipping gifts, writing and mailing holiday cards, traveling, coping with nasty weather, and sometimes also finishing up an academic semester or term with the accompanying final exams or portfolios and the grading thereof. Even those whose households are devoid of felines may feel like they’re herding cats.

Then there are those who are literally herding cats. Perhaps they have a house full of the critters. Perhaps they’ve taken an interest in a colony of feral cats, possibly even going to the trouble of participating in trap-neuter-release programs to reduce population growth and improve the health of cats in the colony. Perhaps they volunteer for a local animal shelter, fostering cats who need more special care than they can get in a shelter environment or providing kittens with a highly interactive environment to help them learn the socialization skills that will help them to get adopted.

This year, I’ve set up an event on Facebook for Cat Herders Day. You’re invited to come and share the ways you will be celebrating the day. You may post photos of the cats you herd and share your own cat-herding experiences, or if you don’t herd any cats yourself, express your admiration for those who do.

Of course, the Byrnes cat herd is small, consisting of only two cats.

Dulce was adopted in January 1997 from the organization now known as Animal Humane New Mexico. She had been picked up as a starving stray in a blizzard in Edgewood the previous Thanksgiving. She has been living in the lap of luxury ever since, and after all these years, I doubt she has any memory of her deprived early years.

Scratch came last year from the City of Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department, and his beginnings were happier. Although he and his littermates were turned over to the shelter, they were placed in a foster home where they socialized not only with humans but with many other animals, so he was a totally friendly and outgoing young cat. Gerald hadn’t intended to adopt a cat, but Scratch picked him out at an event in the parking lot of a local sporting-goods store.

So my thanks go out to the cat herders whose efforts led to two wonderful cats ending up in our household.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Grammar Moment: Pronoun-antecedent agreement

Please remember, “they” is plural.

This past week, as I do at the end of every term, I participated in panel grading of portfolios for the Essay Writing classes. It’s a procedure we use to help maintain consistency; I hand my students’ portfolios over to other instructors for grading, and in turn, I get to grade portfolios of other instructors’ students. The idea is that we’re making sure that we’re all looking for the same characteristics, the same standards for what constitutes a passing portfolio.

This year, among the portfolios that I was grading, there was an astonishing epidemic of pronoun misuse – pronoun shifts, unclear references, case errors, and, most glaringly, agreement errors.

The basic principle is fairly simple: The pronoun must match the noun to which it refers. That means that if you have a singular noun, you must use a singular pronoun (he/him, she/her, or it), and if you have a plural noun, you must use a plural pronoun (they/them). The trick for most people is to figure out whether the noun is plural or singular. The easiest way to test this is to construct a sentence using is or are – if you use is, you have a singular noun, and if you use are, you have a plural.

· One item = singular:
The horse is in the barn.

· Two or more items = plural:
The cows are in the pasture.

· Compound using and = plural:
The horse and the mule are in the barn.

· Compound using or or nor: Match what’s closer:
Neither the cows nor the horse is hungry, OR
Neither the horse nor the cows are hungry.

· Indefinite pronoun (everybody, anyone, etc.) = singular:
Everyone is at the party.

· Topic of study or discussion = singular:
Politics is a strange art.

· Group (collective noun) = singular:
The team is enjoying a winning season.

One situation that causes problems is when there is a collective noun. I will often see, for example, a company name followed by the plural pronoun they. But a company is singular. Let’s look at the following sentence:

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of their products.

First, you can tell that The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is singular, because the writer actually acknowledges that fact by using the singular form of the verb, is. Therefore, the plural pronoun their doesn’t match. Instead, the correct version of the sentence is

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of its products.

(Slight digression: I’m not necessarily endorsing Kimberly-Clark, but the company often runs ads in writers’ magazines to encourage writers to use its brand names correctly. If you blow your nose, and the tissue into which you blow your nose is a product of some other company, you should not refer to it as a Kleenex. That is a brand name that applies only to one of Kimberly-Clark’s product lines. I go into more details in my lesson on proper capitalization, which I haven’t yet put online but plan to soon.)

The other situation in which the plural pronoun is improperly used is when the writer is trying to be gender-neutral:

A student should keep their backpack neat.

The problem with this sentence is that A student is clearly singular, but their is plural. If we’re going to refer to a singular noun, we need to use a singular pronoun. For many years, the solution was to use the male gender:

A student should keep his backpack neat.

That worked fine for centuries. But then, somewhere around 1970, somebody realized that about half of the human race was NOT male. One solution was to use slashes:

A student should keep his/her backpack neat.

That works, sort of. It’s a little bit awkward; for example, how are you going to pronounce it – “hizzer”? Some people like this kind of slash construction; Pat used to work with engineers who loved the supposed efficiency of slashes. He even came up with a universal all-purpose third-person pronoun to make fun of the engineers’ love of slashes: “s/he/it.” (In case you don’t know how to pronounce it, he’s from Texas.) So, at least when slash constructions come across my desk, that’s what I think of.

OK, so that still leaves us searching for a good pronoun solution. Here’s a possibility:

A student should keep his or her backpack neat.

That’s not so bad, at least in small doses. The occasional his or her or she or he in a paper is fine. It does solve the problem of being grammatically correct while also being gender-neutral. The problem arises when you have a whole paper full of such references. Piling on repeated uses of such phrases makes your writing wordy and tedious, and ultimately, you may lose your reader’s full attention.

Another solution is to use his half the time and her half the time. You may alternate every other paragraph, or you may flip a coin to decide which gender you’re going to use each time. A former teacher of mine recommended a “subtle feminist agenda”: use his when a negative connotation is involved and her when the connotation is positive, as in, “A good driver keeps her car well tuned; a bad driver has no idea what’s going on under his hood.”

But there is one other solution that avoids this whole issue altogether. Remember when I said that you can’t use the plural they to refer to singular nouns? Well, that’s true, but you CAN use they to refer to a PLURAL noun. Instead of fiddling with the pronoun, you can simply go back to the noun and make everything plural:

Students should keep their backpacks neat.

Presto! Problem solved! You now have a pronoun that is gender-neutral, and it agrees with the noun because the noun is plural. Probably 99 percent of all of your pronoun-antecedent problems can be fixed this way, by just making everything plural. Once in a while, you may have to keep to a singular form, but in the vast majority of situations, you can fix everything by going plural.

And believe me, your English teacher will love you for it when you get the pronouns right.

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Friday, December 02, 2011

How many cats is a three dog night worth?

Trying to keep warm

It’s a cold night in Albuquerque. It’s also a windy night. The predicted low is 24 degrees (Fahrenheit), and the winds are howling, gusting to 50 mph and sometimes even higher. According to NOAA, the wind chill means it really feels like 12 degrees or colder.

During the day, a wind gust of 78 mph was clocked in the far northeast part of Albuquerque, and the Sunport reported a gust of 53. Our storm door was flung off its hinges, and in the process, the hydraulic closing cylinder punched a hole in the front door. The result is that the door is letting cold air in, so it’s hard to keep the house warm.

I was listening to my favorite radio station on the way home from work, as my little Vibe was getting knocked all over the road by gusts of wind, and the DJ commented that it was going to be a “three dog night,” as a segue into a song by the band named after that concept.

For those who don’t know, the phrase comes from medieval times, when home heating was, to put it mildly, not exactly efficient. On an especially cold night, the humans in a house would derive extra warmth by having their dogs, often large ones, in their beds to help keep them warm. A “three dog night” was an especially cold one, as it required three dogs to keep the bed warm enough.

Unfortunately, all Pat and I have is a cat. And Dulce is not exactly a large cat – she probably weighs in at about six pounds. So she’s about a tenth of a large dog.

Now, we do have friends who could be described as cat herders. These friends have large numbers of cats on hand. And those cats are probably larger than Dulce – I’m guessing the average cat is 10 pounds or more. Also, cats’ normal body temperature is slightly higher than that of dogs, so maybe it doesn’t take as much mass of cat as of dog to produce the same amount of heat.

So I open this question up to the cat herders I know: If it’s a three dog night, how many cats is it?

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Thursday, December 01, 2011

One more NaNo under the bridge

This year's National Novel Writing Month effort seemed much harder than in past years. For most of the month, I was far more behind on word count that I've ever been before. It was only through a heroic effort in the last week that I got to the finish -- I hit the magic 50K mark on the 28th, took a rest on the 29th, and then cranked out another 2278 words on the 30th.

Here, on record for posterity, are the last 1000 or so words I officially registered this year.

Hannah arrived at the park about ten minutes early. The park had only a few cars in the parking lot, and only a few visitors strolling on the beach, basking on beach towels, surfing, or otherwise enjoying the out of doors, in spite of it being a beautiful (at least compared to the past few days) sunny day in late spring. She parked at the end of the parking lot closest to the fire pit, shut down the car engine, and waited. She hoped Walton would be in his personal car, and not one of the white SUVs the newspaper owned – even though they were unmarked, everyone on the police department knew what the Capitan’s reporters drove. Not that there would likely be any police officers around specifically looking for someone having a clandestine meeting with a reporter. But Hannah wanted to keep things as secret as possible.

A car pulled up next to Hannah’s, an older sports car, with slightly fading purple paint, and Hannah recognized the driver as the reporter she had followed out of the newsroom on the way to the incident at Callahan’s. He got out of his car, and she got out of hers. She noticed that the badging on his car had been slightly altered – it was no longer labeled “Probe” but rather “Prose.” Hannah pointed to the car. “‘Purple Prose,’” she commented. “Seems a more appropriate car for a sports reporter than a news jockey.”

“I used to be a sports reporter,” Walton said, “back in my home town where the newspaper came out twice a week. I got put on the city desk when I moved up to the big city with the daily newspaper. Not as much fun, but hey, it pays the bills.”

“So did your editor clear me as a confidential source?” Hannah asked.

“Yes, she did,” Walton said. “She also tentatively gave me permission to use that other person – the one you were talking to while you were on the phone with me – if he has a good reason to keep secret that he talked with me.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hannah said. “I know everything he does, maybe even a bit more.”

“Let’s take a walk along the beach path,” Walton said. “We shouldn’t let this good weather go to waste.”

“Amen to that,” Hannah said. The two set out strolling along the concrete pathway, almost undisturbed. Again, Hannah was surprised at how few bicyclists and skateboarders had to be dodged. It was as if, even in daylight, this stretch of beach was haunted and nobody wanted to go there.

“So you have information about another crime that was committed last night?” Walton asked, pulling a small voice recorder out of an inner pocket of his windbreaker.

“Well, it’s not exactly a crime,” Hannah said, “at least not yet. It’s not even anything officially reportable yet. A man’s gone missing, and the man who has been his father figure thinks foul play is involved. Based on what I know, I have to agree with him. And the time frame puts the disappearance in the same window as the other incidents that are being pinned on Harry O’Malley.”

“Interesting,” Walton said. “Tell me more.” He leaned in closer with the voice recorder, shielding it from the view of anybody who might look closely at him and Hannah. Anybody who didn’t look closely would simply assume they were two people who were very fond of each other, taking a sunny Saturday walk together, Hannah reflected. At least Walton was fairly tall, so Hannah was only slightly taller than he was – there wouldn’t be people taking note of any great disparity to remember them by later.

Hannah went on to tell Walton about Igor Krumski and his disappearance from the lab the night before, and of Professor Egglehoffer’s insistence that foul play had been involved. She described how Igor had pulled the prank of getting her and Harry thoroughly lost in the hallways of the photography building on Thursday, and the incident she had witnessed between Igor and Katrina M’Bomo Friday afternoon. She also mentioned the pages torn out of her notebook and the key that had been moved on her key ring.

“You know, some of that evidence really does point to Harry O’Malley,” Walton said.

“But there’s other evidence that points away from him,” Hannah said. “His assistant, the guy who took him home from Callahan’s, left him passed out in the bed at home. When I got home, he was still in that bed, still passed out. It stretches credibility that he would come to, drive to the university, do something to Igor, drive to the bridal shop, set fire to the place, crash the truck into the fire hydrant, flee the scene – so nimbly that he could get away from the witness who tried to chase him – get home, and once again be passed out in the bed when I got there.”

“How do you know he wasn’t faking being passed out?” Walton asked.

“He was practically drowning in his own vomit,” Hannah said. “He partially regained consciousness while I was cleaning him up – he was literally stinking drunk – and began to sing Irish ballads off-key. That’s standard with Harry when he gets seriously drunk.” She decided Walton didn’t need to know about the other activity that accompanied the off-key singing.

They arrived at a park bench alongside the path, facing the ocean. Walton gestured to Hannah to sit down, and they sat side by side, watching the surf that was nearly devoid of surfers.

“So does he get drunk often?” Walton asked.

“Almost never,” Hannah said. “Yesterday … well, let’s say that he had a serious shock to trigger the binge – something that doesn’t really need to get published in the paper.”

“I heard what he was shouting at you at Callahan’s,” Walton said. “I take it at least some of that was true.”

“It was,” Hannah said. “But we really don’t need to go into details. Harry and I are trying to work it out.”

“Now that he needs you to help defend him on criminal charges,” Walton said. “Are you really that sure that he’s innocent, and that you’re willing to go back to him?”

“I know that he’s innocent,” Hannah said. “And I know that I love him. And I know that he loves me. And now, I think I’ve told you enough. What can you give me about the witness to the truck crash – the one who tried to chase the driver but couldn’t catch him or her?”

“I have a name,” Walton said. “I have an address and phone number. And I have an interview that I did with him earlier today.”

“Great!” Hannah said. “What did the witness say?”

“It’s all on here,” Walton said, tapping the voice recorder. “And I have a transcript in my car for you. But there’s one hitch.”

“What’s that?” Hannah asked.

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