Wednesday, December 05, 2012

An international Incident

It sure is funny the way things turn out.  Strike that opening sentence.  Instead, how about “A chance encounter on a warm day in August led to an unexpected Thanksgiving dinner, which in turn led to what might have been an international incident."?  Now I have your attention. 

Openings are important.  It drives me nuts to see a judicial opinion or any written piece that begins:  "At the outset..."  Excuse me, we know it's the outset because… it is… the outset!  Geez.  And what about "Preliminarily we note…"?  Not necessary to tell us what is about to be noted just before it is noted.  (For purists, the words "it is" in the preceding sentence are implied.) 

Now that I got that off my chest, let's get back to our national holiday and how my seemingly unconnected post-Thanksgiving dinner relates to our discussion about grammar in my last three columns.  It is apparent I have become touchy about the subject. 

It all began with the e-mail I received from Justice Manella several months ago.  If you recall, she playfully chided me for a past column in which I used a “that” instead of a “who.”  I exposed my vulnerable underbelly and disclosed the contents of the e-mail to you, my devoted readers.  And then I eventually held a contest.  I gave my book Under Submission to the first five readers who discovered a grammatical error that I intentionally placed in the column.  This in turn led to a moral issue.  What about the unintentional grammatical errors that could or, to be more accurate, would undoubtedly turn up in the column?  So many of you poured… I mean pored over my vulnerable prose in a relentless search for the most picayune errors you could find.  And you found them.  And I had to be forthright and acknowledge them, whether defensible or not.
Those past columns had garnered dozens of e-mails.  But now a quiet has set in.  The fear of embarrassment inhibited many people from writing me.  How do you think I feel?  I hope that the rules I periodically visit in my dog-eared copy of Strunk and White I have applied more often than misapplied.  I have written 207 columns for the Daily Journal, but I still fret over the possible grammatical blunders and lapses in clarity that brazenly mock my negligent eye.  The implacable deadline is no excuse.  I sympathize with lawyers struggling to get that brief or motion in by the due date.  But sympathy alone does not prompt a continuance.

I give thanks for your past e-mails and thoughtful comments about how we express ourselves.  That reminds me, I was going to tell you about Thanksgiving.  Flash back to a hot, muggy day in August.  I am on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles shortly before noon.  I am about to enter a music store.  As I pass three young Chinese women standing on the corner, one of them says, "Pardon me, Sir.  Can you tell us where there is a mall?"  How I hate to be called "Sir."  It is almost as bad as yelling "Judge" in a crowded place, including a theater.  "Do you mean a shopping mall?" I ask.

We have a short discussion.  I learn that they arrived from China the previous day and they are exchange students who will begin studies at UCLA, my undergraduate alma mater.  I drive them to the Westside Pavilion, a mall that should satisfy most of their shopping needs.  We exchange phone numbers in case they need assistance in this foreign country from a responsible adult.  (That last adjective may be open to question.)

I drop them off and they thank me profusely.  When I arrive home, I discover one of them left a camera in my car.  I return the camera to them the next day and take them on a tour of Los Angeles, including Chinatown.  We have a photo taken of us in front of Disney Hall.  The three students are in their 20's; they are intelligent, enthusiastic, charming and funny.  Their English is impeccable.  I caution them about getting into cars with strangers and they break into laughter.  We have lunch at a delicatessen and they have their first dish of cheese blintzes.  I take them home.  We hug and say goodbye.

Fast forward to a few days before Thanksgiving.  You may have had a similar experience to the one I am about to describe.  Friends, strangers, and even the checker in the market wished me a Happy Thanksgiving.  I do not recall such enthusiasm and joy for this holiday in the past.  Are all these people Democrats?  Perhaps they are the same people who are loath to say "Merry Christmas" for fear of offending those who might be Jewish, Muslim or an atheist.  "Happy Thanksgiving," on the other hand, is a safe bet.  You can mention the name of the holiday instead of voicing the bland "Happy Holidays."

Thanksgiving Day arrives, and we have an early afternoon "dinner" at our home to accommodate my 100-year-old mother-in-law.  In early evening, just when we have consumed the last piece of pumpkin pie, and I am slipping under the table, the phone rings.  "Happy Thanksgiving" says one of the Chinese students at the other end of the line.  She explains that because everyone has been greeting her with "Happy Thanksgiving," she wanted to pass on the greeting to me. 

What else could I do but invite the three students and four other exchange students who they met at UCLA for a Thanksgiving dinner at our home on Saturday evening?  What would they know from leftovers?

We had a wonderful evening and laughed a great deal.  I gave a talk about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.  The Wampanoag Indian Tribe gave the Pilgrims food and taught them how to survive.  Too bad we did not learn how to reciprocate.  We also discussed Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken."  Not only did a few of the students know the poem, but their analysis was thoughtful and perceptive.  We also discussed American expressions and what they meant, like "Catch-22."

But, as usual, I was faced with a moral dilemma.  I gave my book Under Submission to a few of the students.  They thought it would help them with their English.  So did I.  But the next day it occurred to me that if any person read at random just one of my columns, he or she would likely discover a grammatical error here or there.  Imagine how many there must be in my 463-page book.  It could be replete with questionable syntax, misspellings, a variety of solecisms, and, yes, even typos.  Under Submission could undermine these unsuspecting students' mastery of the English language.

Overcome with guilt, I called one of the students and expressed my concern that the book could lead her astray.  She laughed much in the same manner as when I cautioned against accepting rides from strangers.  I think she said she had sent the book to Beijing for translation and distribution throughout the land.  I feared that over a billion people would be corrupted by my grammar and syntax. 

The horror of this prospect vanished the next day when my wife and I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant.  At the conclusion of our meal, I broke open my fortune cookie, squinted, and read from the small slip of paper.  My fears vanished in an instant.

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