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17May

Living Off the Grid: 5 Lessons Learned

Living Off the Grid: 5 Lessons Learned

The tornadoes that devastated much of Alabama recently left Huntsville without power for five days. It was an interesting experiment - living off the grid. We were very fortunate to have water the entire time and, as we gathered around our small transistor radio to listen to the fate of hard-hit areas, we felt blessed beyond words. Although I did spend some of that week with out-of-town friends and family (I'm a city girl at heart,) there were lessons we learned during those days without electricity, so I thought I'd share a few here:

1.Neighborhoods are important. Everyone looked out for each other, bringing ice when we were able to find it, cooking freezers full of thawing meat in block party barbecues, sharing candles and batteries, beer and stories. Local groceries and drug stores opened until supplies were exhausted - which boosted moral, too. The lines were long and the stores were dark, but shopping for a few goods gave us a feeling of normalcy that calmed fear of the "unknowns" ahead.
2.Electronics definitely hinder social life. When the cell phone batteries died, the video games couldn't be charged, and the TV shows were dark, folks talked. They met neighbors they didn't know. Parents and grandparents told kids stories they hadn't heard. Friends biked over to chat on the porch. Conversation became king, just for a little while - and it was really nice.
3.Generators aren't necessary. When people we knew bought them at huge prices, and I asked them what for, they told me the refrigerator, the TV, and the hot water heater. We did fine without all three, although I have to admit the hot water would have been nice. One of my students said they ran the garden hose in through the window and washed the soap off with water warmed by the sun, which sounded lovely. Generators, by the way, make a lot of noise. And the night quiet was a pleasant new sensation too when dusk-to-dawn curfews stopped all traffic on the roads.
4.The night sky really is beautiful. I don't know if I'll ever again see the stars without light interference from anywhere in the city. It was quite a treat. And while I admit it was a little unnerving not being able to see the proverbial hand in front of my face, the blanket of total darkness was intriguingly novel.
5.Family is all you need for a party. My birthday happened to fall on the first night we were without power and my family threw quite an innovative soiree. Dinner cooked on the gas stovetop and grill, candlelight in the backyard - even a no-bake homemade cookie cake with chocolate topping. It was magical night and a birthday I won't forget.

My heart hurts for the people who lost everything and for grieving family members of those who died. I am incredibly grateful for the safety of my niece and nephews in Tuscaloosa, one of whom crawled out unharmed from a house that was destroyed around him. I am thankful for my family, my friends, my home, and my neighborhood - and for the newfound knowledge that, if some future emergency requires me to live like a pioneer for a while, all will be well.

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11March

Space Once

Are you still spacing twice after each sentence like we learned in 8th grade typing? Well, stop. Now. If you're writing professionally, this practice will brand you as novice. It's a little thing, but it turns into a big problem when you repeat this error throughout a manuscript.

The reason for double spacing was that, in the early days of typing, each letter of the font took up the same amount of space, so we needed two spaces after a period to be better able to recognize where the sentence ended. Now we have proportional-spacing fonts (each letter taking up only the amount of space it needs) so one space at the end does the job just fine.

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06February

Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes Are Not Your Playthings

Dashes and ellipses are not your playthings. They are not confetti to throw against your manuscript for decoration. They are real punctuation marks with real functions in our language. I know you enjoy tossing them indiscriminately at your work. Hey, if it's a rough draft, have at it. But before you submit that manuscript to an agent or editor, clean it up! Why give the gatekeepers one more excuse to toss your work in a slush pile because you either don't know or don't follow the rules when it comes to punctuation?

And don't give me that "I like to break the rules" crap. Just like Picasso knew how to paint a scene with photographic accuracy before he developed his well-known style, you too must master the rules before you bend them. Creativity should not be used as a cover for laziness.

In an attempt to "get it right" for my most recent manuscript, I studied up a bit and tried to boil it all down into one easy-to-understand lesson. Hope this helps.

I.The ellipsis, or dot,dot,dot to some of us (formed in Word with Cont-Alt-Period) is used for:
1) omitted words or phrases, such as "Whether 'tis nobler ...to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..."
2) an unfinished thought or a trailing off , like "I don't know what to say ..." or "Oh, well ..."
3)a pause, as in, "You...uh...asked to see me?"

II. An em dash (so named because it took up the same space as an "m" on the keyboard, longer than an "en" dash which took the space of an "n") is formed in Word with Fn-Contr-Alt-Minus. (Minus is usually just left of Enter and shares the key with colon and semi-colon) An em dash is used when:
1) a speaker is interrupted by someone, as in, "This is the last time you're going to—"she said. "Don't lecture me!" he interrupted.
2) a speaker is too emotional to continue and interrupts self, for example, "I can't tell you what your gift means to me and my—"
3) a speaker changes gears in mid sentence, like, "I thought you were going to—why didn't you bring it?"
4)a parenthetical comment is added in the middle of a thought for clarification, such as, "I finally understood—for the very first time—what dashes were used for."

In informal writing em dashes can take the place of commas, semi-colons,colons, or periods:
In replacing commas, paired dashes add more emphasis. "I am the friend—the only friend—who told you the truth about that skirt." They move the dialogue at a faster pace when used as a semi-colon, "You ate the brownie—I gained the weight," a period, "You can learn this—it's not rocket science," or a colon, "I brought the necessary beach accessories—lotion, books, and booze."

III.An en dash is just the hyphen used in compound words like brother-in-law, compound numbers like thirty-three and prefixes like mid-1950's or ex-wife. It's also used to divide words into syllables, and of course, in phone numbers. En dashes also show duration, as in 8:00 – 5:00, and Feb. 4-6.

Let's review, shall we?
Ellipses: omitted, unfinished, pause.
Em dash: interrupted, emotional, change gears, parenthetical.

Yes, there is some overlap. There will be times, a few, when either an ellipse or an em dash would be appropriate. When that happens, your choice is simple. Use the dash if your speaker would be talking fast or is in a tense situation, and an ellipse if you want to slow the dialogue down a bit. (It works. Try it.)

Feel free to add any tips you've discovered that might help others to play nice with punctuation or tips to help writers bend Microsoft Word to our wills when punctuating.

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Posted in February, 2011

03January

Courtney Update

I'd lost track of Courtney, the hero of my Katrina story, for awhile. It wasn't the first time. People without cell phones or permanent addresses can be difficult to find. "Streets" was pretty good about checking in with me, but this time it had been about six months – and I was worried.

My head was filled with images of all the things that can go wrong for people living on the margins of society – people who don't know where they'll find food, people who move from one apartment to another as they're kicked out again and again for not being able to pay rent. Courtney had worked so hard for so long to stay out of trouble. I could only hope he was okay.

And then I got a text on December 25. "Merry Christmas." A number I didn't know. "Merry Christmas to you, but who is this?" I texted back. "Courtney Miles," came the reply. I was so relieved!

I called him immediately and was thrilled to learn he's safe and still in school. He'll finish junior college this spring and is still on track for a basketball scholarship to a four-year university next fall. He said he'd tried to call me a couple of times. (My phone service is terrible lately, and many long conversations with AT&T have not improved the situation. )

The good news is that Courtney's safe and in school. The bad news, he told me - he's being evicted from his apartment next week because he's behind on the rent.

I promised to try to find a way to help, but hung up feeling frustrated that there wasn't much I could do. I've sent him grocery money many times, but the cost of an apartment in California was beyond my means. If I lived near his school, I'd gladly take him in, but we're thousands of miles away. So I did the only think I know how to do. I wrote.

I wrote a letter and emailed it to the pastors of ten churches in Oakland and Alameda, asking for help for Courtney, telling them about his life and his accomplishments, what a great guy he is and asking for help in finding a place for him to live.

And the responses came – complete strangers with arms wide open offering to help someone they'd never met. A man named Stephen Jones of Central Baptist Church is demonstrating what "ministering" is all about by working to place Courtney with a family from his congregation. He and his son have driven to Courtney's apartment with groceries, called his landlord to negotiate a few more days, and looked into helping him replace the birth certificate he lost in Hurricane Katrina – all within 24 hours of receiving my letter. What an amazing "hands-on" approach to God's command to love one another!
So many people talk about their faith; Stephen Jones is living it.

I'm so grateful. And so optimistic about the difference a support network like this can make in Courtney's life. What a wonderful Christmas gift - to Courtney and to me! Courtney's story is only just beginning.

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Posted in 2011

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