Monthly Archives: March 2017

A Game of Cat and Moose

Once upon a time, there was a bisexual cat named Don Arminigo who was very good at hunting mouses. He would catch them, he would torture them; sometimes, if he got bored, he would eat them, but more often he would let them go. He had noticed that once he let them go, they became more of a challenge. And he liked a good challenge.

But the Insignificant Humans squatting in his palace were fearful of the mouses. They set traps for them, which Don Arminigo found quite distasteful. And one day, a particularly bold but stupid mouse Don Arminigo had caught, told him “This is the last time, Don Arminigo! Your masters are putting down poison and we’re all going to take it, because we’re all so sick of you!”

Once Don Arminigo had figured out whom the small creature meant as his “masters” (it had to be the Insignificant Humans! *scoff*) he was quite upset. But he got the better of those mouses—he found the rat poison in the pantry and he ripped it open, spoiling the Insignificant Humans’ plans.

“We can’t have that stuff in the house around Fluffy,” the broad one with the bald face said. “It’s too dangerous!” Fluffy was what Don Arminigo suffered the Insignificant Humans to call him.

And so it was that Don Arminigo protected his domain.

But he grew tired of chasing the mouses. Even the smartest and most agile of them were no match for his strength. He needed better prey. Larger and more terrifying. Which is why he trained the Insignificant Humans to leave the window open for him at night.

In the forest outside his palace, there lived an extraordinary Moose named Janet. She was eight feet tall and had antlers that could beat most trees in a fist-fight. “Antlers?” her friends would ask, “But I thought only male Moose had antlers!” Then she would turn her nose up at them and dare them to question her gender identity.

When Don Arminigo heard of this magnificent creature, of her grace and majesty, he knew no other beast on earth could slake his lust for blood. He saw her through the trees one autumn evening, munching on local leaves, and carefully plotted an attack until finally he threw himself out of the underbrush, leapt up onto her shins and clawed at the fur there like catnip.

It was several seconds before Janet the Moose even realized that anything was the matter. Assuming that the ticklish itch just over her ankle must be foliage, she lifted it up and then noticed it was still itching and finally looked.

“Ha-ha!” said Don Arminigo the bisexual cat. “I have caught you at last!”

“Oh dear,” said Janet the Moose. “I guess I’m in trouble now.”

“You have guessed rightly!” said Don Arminigo, renewing his assault on the rough fur.

Janet, now that she understood what was happening down there, soon realized she found the sensation quite pleasant. But, fearful that the valiant little hunter might stop or lose interest, she yawned “Oh, please, sir! Please! Not there! Not there! Oh, no!”

Satisfied that he had triumphed, Don Arminigo returned to the palace, where the Insignificant Humans had placed his food out for him as a reward for his bravery and skill.

This episode repeated for several nights as Don Arminigo ventured out and never noticed that Janet the Moose crept subtly closer to his domain, to cut down on his travel time. But then one day, Don Arminigo overheard the Insignificant Humans talking around their table.

“I’mana git that Moose!” said the furry-faced one, “He’s gon’ be food this winter and a nice fur coat for Betsy!”

The small, fast one’s face turned red at this and Don Arminigo grew fearful. Would they really do it? Would they really steal his prize? He found this most distressing.

That night, when he came upon Janet in the Glade just the other side of the fence from the property, Don Arminigo wondered how he could go about tricking the large, stupid beast into making it to safety.

“Gee,” said Janet, who had noticed Don Arminigo in the underbrush and wondered what was taking him so very long. “I wonder where that magnificent predator is! Maybe he’s forgotten about me! I hope he doesn’t come to me tonight! Maybe he’s lost the knack for tracking me!”

Unable to withstand such a taunt, Don Arminigo leapt out of the bushes with a fervor spurred by fear, crying “Aha! You thought you were safe, but I will show you how unsafe you are!”

“Oh, no!” yawned Janet, as Don Arminigo ventured further up her fur than he had ever dared till then.

“I’ll teach you!” cried Don Arminigo, “I’ll teach you to come close enough to my palace that the Insignificant Humans can see you!”

But at the mention of Humans, Janet’s eyes went wide and dilated. “Humans!” she exclaimed, and with Don Arminigo on her back, she charged back into the wilderness, never to return.

And there, far from the Insignificant Humans and their various schemes to thwart Don Arminigo’s natural instincts, Janet the Moose and Don Arminigo the Bisexual Cat lived happily ever after as cat and moose.


When I was writing my first Master’s Thesis, which was on using Semiotics to define the difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy, I found a typo in one draft that caught my attention: I had spelled “Fantasy” with a “c” where the “n” should go. I burst out laughing when I found it. I thought that was a beautiful word, potentially a portmanteau in the making. So I defined it.

It would be easy in the current political climate to find a decisive use for it and turn it to derogatory uses, and I am well aware that this will happen if the term ever takes off, but I still want to root the idea in something real, something that could have its uses in something approaching intellectual pursuits, if not quite (yet) academia.

The definition is as follows: a work of Factasy is a work of fiction that pretends to base itself on actual-world sources. One of my favorite examples is Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke uses footnotes to quote and reference sources on the study of magic. These sources are so convincing in their detail that it took me a good three hundred pages to remember that there had never, in our actual world, been a Raven King ruling the North of England for several centuries after the Middle Ages.

But on the other hand we have novels like The Da Vinci Code. It was very popular, but I didn’t like it. Part of the reason I didn’t like it was because it seemed to play fast and loose with its sources, which put it on uneasy footing. It’s one thing to have an expert in a field make discoveries over the course of a novel of “facts” that aren’t representative of any reality outside that novel, but the sources in Dan Brown’s most popular novel were confusing enough that I never figured out which sources he made up and which I could track down myself and read, if I took a fancy. And that was very dissatisfying to my reading experience in the long run—perhaps in part because I wanted so much to believe the version of reality that he presented.

So if I were to write up an instruction manual as how to incorporate aspects of Factasy in one’s work of fiction, my first bit of advice would be to be absolutely clear from the beginning on the relationship between the world and the sources. If they are tongue-in-cheek and all-encompassing like Clarke’s, then commit to them fully, but if your main character is a “world-renowned expert” in the field in question, and there is nothing utterly different about the world (i.e. if this is or could be the world we are living in) don’t be casual with the Factastical sources. Be careful. Be respectful of reality.

Deer in the Headlights

He likes to go hunting. He’s got his dogs, he’s got his boys, he’s got his guns. He likes deer and so does his wife—fresh venison really gets her going and after three kids in three years, not much else does.

It makes him eager. Eager in all the wrong ways.

He follows a buck and doesn’t even realize how hopelessly lost he is until he misses his shot. As the prey walks off, he curses and turns around. He calls out. There is no answer. He fires in the air. No one around fires back, or calls. He’s alone in the woods.

That’s where he finds her. At the bottom of a waterfall, in a pool by a spring, he finds her bathing. He doesn’t believe his eyes at first—why would he? What would a young woman like that be doing way the hell out here? At first all he sees is a human shape, beautifully light-skinned, with dirty-blonde hair flowing around it in the water. Curious, he moves closer.

She steps out of the water and he can tell, right there, dear God, she’s completely naked. She emerges from the water with perfect form, poised, only her wet hair clinging to her skin down her back. She seems so small…

Suddenly, she stops moving. Slowly, she turns around and he becomes self-conscious. He calls out to her, “Hey, what you doing out here?”

He doesn’t want to bring up her nakedness. He thinks maybe if he just doesn’t bring it up, she’ll think he just hasn’t noticed.

But now she’s turned to him and he can see her face. That face… she looks so young. Why, the girl can’t be more’n fourteen, could she? No breasts to speak of, no hips really, either, and yet what seems like a small thatch of—

Why is he looking?

“Look, hey, uh…” he begins again, “If you’re lost or something…”

She’s completely turned towards him now. She takes a step forward, leading from her shoulders and he finds himself raising his gun at her, at this poor helpless girl. He catches himself, then, lowers it back down.

He desperately tries to keep looking her in the eyes. He swallows.

“Do you like what you see?” she asks.

This is a trick question and he knows it. He knows what he should say, something along the lines of “Come on now, let’s get you home,” completely ignoring it. But instead, he finds himself saying “Yes.” Because he does like what he sees and he suddenly finds himself utterly incapable of lying.

She takes another step closer, landing at the edge of the water. “Do you like hunting?” she asks, much more enthusiastically, as though genuinely curious.

As she’s struggling to answer, she dips back into the water. “Yeah,” he concedes.

She asks him “And do you like to be hunted?” and at that moment, she disappears into the water.

Actually disappears. He cannot see her form beneath the waters, nor even a ripple above.

“Hey, you still there?” he calls. Then he thinks, somewhat benignly, But where are all her clothes?

The fact is, though, now he can’t even see her in the water.

The next thought to occur to him should be to wonder if the entire encounter was just some fever-dream caused by deprived horniness and guilt for it, but this is a thought that doesn’t occur to him because it doesn’t have a chance to. Because before it has a chance to, pain shoots out of nowhere across his entire body. I hate my name, he thinks, at the same time thinking that he’s melting.

But soon enough, the pain is over. His clothes lie in a pile next to him on the ground where he stands on his four legs and raises his antlers high. He likes being a deer, he thinks. His wife likes deer. He finds something on the ground to munch on until his dogs and his boys with their guns track him down and shoot him.

His clothes and gun are found, but his body never is—at least not officially. Though his wife is given a leg of venison to share with the children, and his friends make sure she’s taken care of for the rest of her life.

“We Don’t Care”

Blake Morrissey was not the only black kid at Trinity High but it sure felt that way sometimes. Especially being the only black kid in the tri-state area (whatever the fuck that meant, but it sure felt like it) who doesn’t listen to rap.

But when they catch him listening to Funkadelic or to Lenny Kravitz or Jimi the hell Hendrix, they screw up their faces and ask him “Boy, why you listening to that white people music?”

He looks at them like Are you kidding me?

“This is Ben Harper,” he’ll say, or whatever, try to turn the tables on them. “You don’t know Ben Harper? Shi-it.”

“Man,” said Mike Cobb one time, “You really oughta get the fuck outta rock, man. I’m telling you.”

“Black people started rock’n’roll music. We founded it, that’s our baby. Then white folks come in, pour bleach on it, give it surgery, some shit, and what? We s’posed to just walk away? That’s our baby, dude! You don’t walk away from no damn baby. Besides, you never heard of Eminem? You ask any white person name five rappers, you know who they say? Every one of them goes for Eminem. Maybe even Vanilla fucking Ice. Probably round off with the Fresh Prince. Yeah, you heard me. But you think they listen to Dr. Dré? Snoop? Biggie? Tupac? Nah, man.”

Mike Cobb crossed his over-sized arms. “Do you?”

It was a sore spot for Blake socially, possibly even more so than the cutesyness of his given name, which far too many people just simplified to “Black”.

It was also what made him nervous when he heard that Angst was forming.

“Black folks got rhythm, right?” he’d said recently, spinning one stick. “So when’s the last time you heard of a black drummer in a rock’n’roll band? Man, they go bitchin’ and bitchin’ and bitchin’, just bitch bitch bitch about ‘can’t find drummers worth a shit’—you hear the shit they talked about Ringo back in the day? Ringo! That ain’t right! It’s a public service, me taking up the drums. Gonna do for drums what Jimi did for gui-tar.”

That wasn’t the real reason he’d taken up drums. He actually had a thing for a girl in the school band, Marjorie, a white girl, nice girl, turned out to be gay, though, long story. But once he was in it, he actually kinda liked it, and once he heard there were freshmen wanting to start a band—

“Hey,” Declan finally approached him. “You’re Blake, right?”

He endeared himself by not pausing over the irony in the name. My brother, later on, was not so gracious.

“You play the drums, right?”

“Who’s askin’?” Though, of course, by then he’d heard some stuff.

“I hear you like Rock, lot of the old stuff?”

“I like Rock’n’Roll,” said Blake. “Don’t know how I feel about the ‘Rock’, though. Seems to me it doesn’t roll much anymore.”

“You down to give it a shove?”

Blake liked the repartee. “What’s in it for me?”

“Right now, not a damn thing other than the music.”

Liked the honesty, too. “I’ll think about it.”

“Take your time.”

But it only took him about five minutes to decide.

The Faces of Sayuni

Sayuni had two faces, one either side of his head.

He stood in the middle and when he looked around, he had no idea.

He couldn’t tell what was where.

An Old Woman came to Sayuni out of the Void.

She carried two Eggs.

She told Sayuni to watch the two Eggs for her until she returned.

Then she disappeared back Beyond the Veil.

As Sayuni stood scratching his head, one of the Eggs shook.

It hatched and out popped Tychael, a young woman full-grown.

This is was bad news for Sayuni–he was supposed to watch the Eggs.

He should probably get word to the Old Woman, he thought.

So he said to Tychael: “You, Newborn, go find the Old Woman!”

But he had two faces and no idea.

That’s why Sayuni sent Tychael out the Wrong Way.

Sayuni waited a long time for Tychael to return.

While he waited, he got hungry.

So he ate the second Egg.

The Death of Romance



DARRYL: If you’re busy, I can–

AMBER: I’m not. Particularly, just… you know, trying to keep my mind… How you doin’? Have you talked to her?

DARRYL: She doesn’t want me to talk to her–

AMBER: You don’t know that. Do you want to talk to her? That should be a factor, too–I mean, to a certain extent.

DARRYL: I don’t know if I do want to talk to her.

AMBER: Why would you not want to talk to her? Look, you’d never know if you don’t try.

DARRY: Exactly. I don’t want to know. Do I? Do you know something I don’t?

AMBER: Sorry. Look, all I know is, she hasn’t talked about you in that way.

DARRYL: Because she doesn’t feel that way about me.

AMBER: That doesn’t mean she never will, you have to open that door–

DARRYL: And endanger our friendship?



AMBER: Why do you think it’s gonna endanger your friendship?

DARRYL: Because she’ll know! And I’ll know, and it’ll be weird.

AMBER: Know what? What will she know?

DARRYL: She’ll know how I feel about her.

AMBER: And why will that be weird?

DARRYL: Because of the power dynamics! She… has this power over me, and I…

AMBER: And you don’t want her to know that she has this power? So you’re thinking of this as, like, a military operation?

DARRYL: No! It’s just… it’ll be weird…

AMBER: And you don’t think it’s weird that you have all these feelings for her and she doesn’t know? You don’t think that’s a bit creepy?

DARRYL: If she doesn’t know… If she doesn’t know, how can she feel… weird about it?

AMBER: That’s not the point.

DARRYL: Well, then what is the point?

AMBER: The point is choice. She has the right to know how you feel about her. She’s your friend. You want her to be more than a friend, but she… doesn’t even know that that’s an option.

DARRYL: It’s always an option.

AMBER: Is it?

DARRYL: She’s straight, I’m straight. How is it not an option?

AMBER: I’m straight.

DARRYL: Hold on, are you… are you saying this… right here… That this is an option?

AMBER: Are you saying this is an option? ‘Cause if all it takes is two straight people, and this is what we’ve got…

DARRYL: OK, I guess I see your point.

AMBER: How do you actually feel about her?

DARRYL: What, you mean, like…

AMBER: Say the first thing that comes into your head. How do you feel about her?

DARRYL: The first thing that comes into my head? I want her. When I look at her, I… The bounce and flow of her hair, the curl of her lips when she smiles–

AMBER: How do you feel about her?

DARRYL: I want to hold her. I want to… be close to her. I want to tell her stories and see what kinds of stories she’ll tell in return–

AMBER: OK, good. That’s good. What is your favorite thing about her?

DARRYL: The way she understanding things. I’m… I really have a lot of trouble sometimes with… expressing myself? With making myself understood? And I don’t… know… like, I’m not sure that she does always really… understand me. As it were. But she never holds it against me. Or she doesn’t seem to.

AMBER: But what do you like about her? Understanding you is one thing, but…

DARRYL: Well, it’s not just me, it’s… sorry, I got a bit side-tracked. No, it’s… We’d be in class, and… our brains are really similar, you know? I can… she says… things that… it’s the stuff that she says, OK?

AMBER: So you love her because she’s like you.

DARRYL: No, I love her because–

AMBER: Pay up.

DARRYL: I don’t know if I have a dollar on me–

AMBER: I’ll wait.

DARRYL: All right, here. Fine. Although you did use the word first.

AMBER: Not in relation to my guy!

DARRYL: I do love her, though. Now that I’ve paid, I guess I might as well say it, right?

AMBER: Do you love her, though? I mean, I know you love the way she looks, and I know you love the way she makes you feel…

DARRYL: What do you want me to say, Amber? What are you fishing for?

AMBER: Do you actually care about her?

DARRYL: Of course I do! This isn’t even about me, is it?

AMBER: A little bit, yeah.

DARRYL: One bad relationship and you’re giving up on love?

AMBER: I am not giving up on love! And it was not a “bad relationship”, we were just… He was gay. You know? It didn’t mean that we didn’t love each other. It just meant that we… Look, I care about you, Darryl. I love you. You’re my friend. And I care about her, too. I want you both to be happy.

DARRYL: And you think that we could make each other happy?

AMBER: It’s not about what I think. It’s about what you think. You have to want to make her happy–

DARRYL: Oh, is that what you were driving at?


DARRYL: You could’ve told me that!

AMBER: But that would’ve–whatever. Look, the point is… You have to want her to be happy.

DARRYL: Why do you think I don’t want to tell her? Right now, we’re friends. And she seems to like it like that. Friends seem to be… comfortable. For her. Makes her happy. If I tell her I want to be more than friends… That could make her unhappy.

AMBER: You don’t know that.

DARRYL: I don’t know anything!

AMBER: Well, at least you know that.

DARRYL: Beginning of wisdom, right? God, it all used to be so much simpler. You like a girl, you… write her a poem. Recite it at her window at night. Now…

AMBER: Have you ever tried that?


AMBER: … Really?

DARRYL: Hell, yeah. I went to high school. You gotta be a romantic at some point before you can earn the right to be a cynic.

AMBER: You’re not cynical.

DARRYL: Challenge accepted!

AMBER: Good luck! You don’t have it in you! So what happened?


AMBER: With the girl? Reciting a poem at her window?

DARRYL: Oh, she um…

AMBER: She didn’t call the cops, did she?

DARRYL: No, but she told everybody at school. I was a laughing-stock. People started calling me Romeo. Obviously. Then some guy called himself the Prince of Cats and drew a knife on me–


DARRYL: True story. I reminded him Romeo kills Tybalt in the play, and then I got suspended for three days.

AMBER: ‘Murika!

DARRYL: Oh, God.

AMBER: So, because some guy drew a knife on you one time, that means there’s no such thing as love?

DARRYL: Well, when you put it like that… no. It doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as love, it means there’s no such thing as romance. It means romance is dead.

AMBER: Or… It means you just haven’t found the right person. You don’t get to be cynical after just one try, Darryl. You don’t “get” to be cynical at all. You just have to get up, get over it. Try again. Do you feel the same way about Michelle that you did about that other girl? Did you trust that other guy?


AMBER: Then don’t go telling me things that aren’t true. Tell her. Tell her how you feel, let her make the decision.

DARRYL: I should tell her.

AMBER: You should tell her!

DARRYL: Should I write a poem?

AMBER: Do you think that she would like a poem?

DARRYL: I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.

AMBER: I’m actually not sure that she would get it. It’s just… she might think it was a joke. Or ironic.

DARRYL: Then I was right.

AMBER: About what?

DARRYL: Romance is dead. I think Irony killed her.

Fred the Shirt

Once upon a time, there was a shirt named Fred. She lived on the large girls’ shirts rack at a clothing store surrounded by a great many Dull Gray Shirts. The Dull Gray Shirts did not approve of Fred because she (her full name was Frederiqua) was a Loud Pink Shirt with a picture of an Ugly Green Fairy on the front. Even the store clerks rolled their eyes at her as they passed by, if they bothered to look at her at all. And the customers? The teenaged girls who passed through the store, every single one of them, looked at her, lingered on her, and laughed in her face, before carefully selecting one of the all-but-identical Dull Gray Shirts that surrounded her.

But then one day, a curly-haired blonde girl named Shirley walked into the store. She was there with a friend and the friend was just like all the other Dull Gray Girls, but Shirley seemed different. She didn’t seem as impressed by most of the selection, but when she laid her eyes on Fred’s Loud Pink shoulder, she lit up like a beacon.

“Seriously?” said the friend when she caught Shirley looking, and soon launched into an invective against Bright Pink Anythings all over the world and how none of them could bring about social success.

Shirley bowed her head and left the store empty-handed, but a few days later, she came back alone. “I’ll show them,” she told Fred while waiting in line at the register. “I bet none of them even bothered to try you on. I’m gonna rock your look, I just know it!” Then she realized she was talking out loud to a shirt and smiled at the store clerk.

There were a few Dull Gray Shirts in Shirley’s closet, but only a very few, and those, according to gossip, had been foced on Shirley by her parents. That night, Fred was carefully folded atop a faded pair of jeans that only casually mentioned the record collection without talking Fred’s ear off about it. And the next day, Shirley slid the shirt on—she fit perfectly—and strode into school like it was armor.

“Seriously?” said Heather, the fried who had disapproved at the store, and with that one word, Shirley’s confidence shattered. She crossed her arms in front of the Ugly Green Fairy all through first period and then rushed to the restroom to change into her Emergency Back-Up Dull Gray Shirt. And when she got home, Shirley took Fred out of her backpack and stuffed her into a box under her bed with a collection of ripped, torn, scorched and poorly tye-dyed failures of Shirley’s childhood.

Over the next few days, as Fred languished, Shirley started to realize that there were a lot of things that Heather said that she didn’t agree with, but went along with because Heather seemed to assume that they went without question. And yet here she was, her and her Dull Gray Shirts, trying to fit everyone else into a Dull Gray Shirt when they could talking out loud to fairies on their chests. Or on their butts—wait a minute!

It was sixth period and Shirley didn’t realize it unitl they had all stood up, but the girl in front of her, Judy Chung, was wearing a pair of jeans that featured the Exact Same Fairy floating up the calf to the left butt-cheek.

“Seriously?!” Shirley exclaimed, which caused Judy Chung to turn around and give her a quizzical look. “Sorry,” said Shirley, “I was just admiring the fairy on your… um…” She was going to say “jeans”, but Judy Chung offered, “Ass?”

“Why, yes,” Shirley accepted. “I was admiring the fairy on your ass.”

With that awkwardness out of the way, Shirley dashed home after school and released Fred from her under-bed prison—which hadn’t been that bad, really: the hole-ridden flanel was actually a pretty decent guy, once you got to know him—and she clutched Fred to her chest and promised never to let her go again. Until she needed to be washed, of course. Which would be pretty soon, probably, because Shirley was very excited to wear her again.

And the next day at school, when Shirley saw Heather and saw the expression on her face at Shirley’s unabashed display of aesthetic defiance, Shirley cut her off with a decisive “Seriously!” and kept on walking, looking for Judy Chung. ‘Cause even if she wasn’t wearing those pants today, she was pretty confident that the two fo them would still match.

But Judy Chung was wearing the jeans. The jeans were named George, which was short for Georgiana, and the minute Fred saw George, they knew from the bottom of their hearts that the four of them would have no trouble living happily ever after.

“Teenage Angst”

Declan never saw himself as a rockstar. I know that seems hard to believe now, but like I said, Declan was a smart kid. Too smart for his own good. Smart enough to realize without needing to really even think about it how long of a shot it’d be to try to get famous.

That being said, he couldn’t tell you what he did want to be when he grew up, short of maybe one of the Ninja Turtles or something. Ghostbuster. Batman. But he always knew it was Tommy who had the chops. Maybe not the abilities—not at first, anyway—and maybe not even the raw talent (after all, again, what are the chances?) but two things Tommy had in abundance were charisma and stamina.

So how the hell did Declan end up with Angst?

“The fuck are you looking at?” Tommy said anytime Declan made eye contact at school.

“Gutter-punk with no talent,” Declan usually shot back, or some variations.

But that day, I don’t know. I guess Declan was starting to feel like nothing ever went his way. Too many teachers he hated. Too many classmates who felt underwhelming.

“Dude!” Jasper would scoff when his new friend started acting this way, like he wasn’t his friend.

“It’s not you,” Declan would insist, “it’s everything.” And with the back of his hand on his forehead, he’d drift the fuck off and away.

So this time facing off to his brother, his family, he found himself thinking of all the things he could possibly say to actually hurt him.

“What am I looking at? I’m looking at the idiot who failed American history twice. I’m looking at a guy who can’t get a girlfriend—at least not one he can respect. I’m looking at a guy who knows he’s not cut out for college, so he’ll probably spend fifty years in a dead-end job working for shit unless he drinks himself to death first, so better hurry up now! The worms are waiting…”

But instead, when his brother came stumbling out of the building to smoke a secret cigarette in the same private alcove where Declan was gathering his thoughts and shot the usual “Fuck you lookin’ at, huh?” all Declan said was “I’m looking at my brother.” And then he stomped away in contempt.

“Can you believe that kid, Toby?” Jasper asked later that day at lunch. “I saw him in the men’s room and I swear dude was, like, watering himself—“

“Hey, do you wanna start a rock band?” Declan said.

“A what?” What my brother thought he’d said isn’t entirely clear.

“A rock band.”

Pause. “Oh!” He starts tapping his utensils on the table like drumsticks. “You mean like a rock… band. Right.”

“Yeah, like a rock band. Like the fucking Beatles. You in?”

“Can I be George? I always liked George. He classy. Underrated.”

“I don’t really care which Beatle you are, long as you commit. You play anything?”

“Oh, yeah, totally.” This was an exaggeration.

“OK, cool.” This was good, seen as how Declan didn’t. “Good. Let’s call ourselves Angst.

Jasper thought that was cool, even if he wasn’t entirely sure what the word meant.

Against the Oxford Comma

All right, it’s time. Too long have I been silent.

The Oxford comma is overrated.

There. I said it. And you know what, I’m proud that I said it. I acknowledge that there is a chance that I will lose friends over this post, but for fuck sake, if you’re going to unfriend me because of a point of punctuation, you are the fucking problem.

Now, mind you, I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t have its uses, but to blindly throw it about without thinking critically does in fact label the user a pretentious git without sufficient faculties for this business.

The idea of the Oxford comma is that when you are serializing words in a sentence (usually nouns, but I suppose verbs and even adjectives would qualify, too, in some cases), there have to be commas in between all of them, even if there is also a conjunction. Now, standard practice in English only demands that you put a verbal conjunction (e.g. and, or) between the last two; if you say “I was angry and sweaty and nauseated”, that’s a non-standard form of stylised emphasis, not something you would say casually or in a formal context.

The argument for adding a comma even in the presence of a conjunction is ostensibly to avoid misunderstandings based on one of the other uses of the comma: mainly, description. The commas are used to bracket descriptions and enumerations within the sentence by separating them out from the rest of the construction:

“My mother, a renowned linguist, taught me how to speak and write correctly,” or

“The twins, Byron and Shelley, had a terrible time in their English classes.”

In the first example, the phrase “a renowned linguist” is used to give more insight into why the speaker is bringing up his or her mother in this conversation by giving a pertinent description. In the second, the phrase “Byron and Shelley” tells us specifically to which twins we are referring in this context—and possibly why.

Proponents of the Oxford comma argue that if you are serialising words, omitting a comma between the last two even in the presence of a verbal conjunction makes it appear that the comma before the penultimate word in the series is actually used for this alternate purpose of enumeration and/or description. Here are some examples used by Oxfordites in their campaign:

  1. “We invited the strippers, JFK(,) and Stalin.”
  2. “Kill Harry, Hermione(,) and Ron.” (which I am using instead of the more popular “I’m having milk, toast and orange juice” because it makes just slightly more sense)
  3. “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector(,) and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Each of these examples has its own odd quirkiness, linguistically, but the first is the most common and widespread, as well as the one that makes the best case, which is why I will be handling these three in reverse order.

So, to begin with 3:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

The contention from the Oxford camp is that this sentence, sans comma, suggests that the former President of South Africa was both of semi-divine origin and guilty of certain profane proclivities. The idea is, of course, as stated above, that the sole comma creates the impression that it is for descriptive purposes, rather than for serialising.

But this accusation is without merit—not only is Mr. Mandela not (provably, at least to my knowledge) guilty of either of those things, but moreover, this sentence does not and cannot suggest that he is. No one who has not been brainwashed by the Oxford camp would think that.

The reason for this is because repeating the indefinite article (an/a) creates an unmistakable separation between the two entities that come after the comma. If you were trying to suggest that Mr. Mandela was both of those things, the sentence would look like this:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector.”

Now there’s no mistaking it. Once you leave out that indefinite article, you make it quite clear just how twisted your mind is. That is not, however, what the original quote shows; the original quote very clearly delineates three separate “highlights” (which is plural, btw) that will be seen on the subject’s world tour.

Interesting things happen, however, when we do put the Oxford comma where its proponents say it should go:

“Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, a dildo collector, and an 800-year-old demigod.”

Here we really do have a case of ambiguity. You will notice that there are now commas on both sides of “a dildo collector”—this puts it in the same syntactic position as “a renowned linguist” and “Byron and Shelley” in the examples above. So while you may have spared the former South African President the torment of an unnaturally long life-span, you have now unmistakably linked him with certain implements many members of his constituency would no doubt find scandalous.

The second example from the Oxford camp is awkward in a wholly different way and the argument against it bases itself on yet another standard use of commas, which is to mark a form of address, e.g. “Harry, do speak up” or “Pay attention, Mr. Potter!”

The contention here is that if we do not use the Oxford comma, as in

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron,”

we are telling Harry’s two closet friends to kill him (probably under an Imperius Curse, one assumes). Now, though this does not seem likely, we could just as easily use the example:

“Kill Harry, Crabbe and Goyle!”

The problem is that this still sounds quite awkward. I honestly can’t think of any case in which I would be addressing two people and put both of their names at the end of a sentence—at least not in English. If I was (terrifyingly blonde and) trying to command my henchmen to rid me of my nemesis, I would probably say something more like

“Crabbe! Goyle! Kill the Potter boy!”

So I really can’t think of

“Kill Harry, Hermione, and Ron”

as any less ambiguous than

“Kill Harry, Hermione and Ron.”

But now we get to the crux of the argument: number 1.

I have seen a great many variations on this construction—I would even venture to say that most examples in favor of the Oxford comma follow this precise pattern, which is a series of three nouns, the first of which is plural:

“We invited the rhinoceri, Washington and Lincoln.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“I was twerking with the puppies, Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence.”

The only reason any of these look ambiguous at all is because of the order in which they are summed up. If we reverse the order:

“I was twerking with Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies,”

“This book is dedicated to Ayn Rand, God and my parents,”

“We invited Washington, Lincoln and the rhinoceri,”

there is no more confusion. Under no circumstances can “Jennifer Lawrence and the puppies” add up to “Miley Cyrus,” who is not nearly cute enough to even compete with that; nor is Ayn Rand composed of any divine aspects (and frankly, if I understand correctly, she would probably resent the association); and no matter how many rhinoceri Lincoln brings with him—hold on, how did Lincoln even get hold of multiple rhinoceri? None of this makes sense, anyway.

The point is, if you reverse the order—which, frankly, makes a lot more sense to me stylistically anyway, most of the time—there is almost never any ambiguity at all.

I did find one example where there is, though: the example given is

“Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

which, of course, makes it seem as though those are the names of his ex-wives. Which is ridiculous, of course, because if he had married those two, we would call them “husbands” as they are obviously men. But if you switch it around:

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

then modern conventions present the risk of thinking that each of these three men married the same two women. However, this is not necessarily a problem that would go away if you added the Oxford comma, e.g.

“Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall, and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

because it is not a problem of punctuation, it is a problem of syntax and word use. And if we actually were trying to say “the two women who were both married to each of these three men,” and we said

“Kris Kristofferson’s, Robert Duvall’s(,) and Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives,”

it would sound like they had two wives apiece, and the ambiguity would be compounded. So, really, when it comes down to it, the only thing for it is to rely on tone in speech and context in writing to create this distinction.

And to a certain extent, the same is true for the Oxford comma in most cases. No one in their right mind is going to think that Jennifer Lawrence OR Miley Cyrus are puppies or that Washington and Lincoln are rhinoceri—well, unless you named two rhinoceri “Washington” and “Lincoln”, which I suppose would be valid—or that Ayn Rand and God (who HATE each other, by the way) would ever get close enough to become anyone’s parents. Syntactically, it’s a very specific case where it’s necessary at all and if it is used in other cases, it can create the very ambiguity it professes to combat.

This ambiguity can, however, be fought from the opposite direction, by discouraging the use of commas in these alternative cases. At the end of a sentence, after all, if you want to enumerate, you might as well use a colon, as in

“We brought in the rhinoceri: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln,”

or, conversely, a dash, which would give us

“I was twerking with the puppies—Miley Cyrus and Jennifer Lawrence,”

which sounds a little clunky, but would serve to enhance the comedy of two puppies having been named after celebrities. Or of two celebrities being referred to as young dogs.

And in the case of enumeration in the middle of a sentence, either bracketing dashes or parentheses can be used:

“To my parents (Ayn Rand and God) I dedicate this book,” or

“The strippers—JFK and Stalin—were invited to the party.”

There are solutions, then, that might actually cure the problem, rather than providing a band-aid for it. Yet there are those in the community at large who have bought into the meme so thoroughly that they have forgotten what the purpose of the Oxford comma was.

I also need to address one specific case that came up recently—and when I say “case”, I mean that literally, as this pertains to a legal matter. The issue in question was the enumeration of the types of activities that don’t qualify for overtime pay, which are, as listed in the contract,

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) perishable foods.”

The part of the sentence that is rendered ambiguous is “packing for shipment or distribution of”, the contention being whether “packing” could refer to “distribution” as well as to “shipment”.

This should have been considered a moot point, however, given the rest of the sentence, because of the way that serialization works. Serialization only functions to begin with because the final conjunction between the last two serialized words gives context to every preceding comma. That means that if “packing for shipment or distribution of” was meant to be a single unit, we wouldn’t know how to interpret the SEVEN separate commas that preceded it. So if they had wanted to set up the sentence that way, they would have to have put an extra “or” before the word “packing”. Unless of course it was a newspaper headline, since those seem to get away with everything.

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who told me that the omission of the Oxford comma was a pet peeve of hers, and when I pressed her about it, she not only told me that she wasn’t interested in hearing my arguments, but she didn’t even seem to be current on the actual arguments in favor of her own position. She was just taking stock in the Oxford company to be trendy. In and of itself, this is lame because it cheapens the cause of people who actually know and care about grammar when someone arrives at these conclusions with zeal that can only be described as religious, but when I see people online foaming at the mouth about the Oxford comma, it becomes downright frightening. Blind loyalty to phenomena you do not understand is the opposite of science, and that applies to linguistics and grammar every bit as much as it applies to the natural sciences.

So the next time someone tries to lecture you on “Why you should always use the Oxford comma”, show them this sentence:

“I’ve had about enough of Nick, my dog, and other liars.”

And ask them what the dog’s name is. When they look confused, show them this one:

“I walked into the room and saw Hank, the man who killed my father, and the Sheriff.”

And ask them how much trouble “I” am in. If they see an Oxford comma there, they won’t know that “my dog” is a description of “Nick”, and they’ll think that there are three different men in the scene at the bottom. Then you can laugh at them and their useless, too-specific and ultimately nonsensical examples.

Spring and Storm

Spring Logan was there from the beginning. She was the first everything and I thought she was all there was. She was beauty. She was sunlight cascading through her hair. She was the smell of flowers and the energy of youth.

But being with her wasn’t always easy, because knowing her meant putting up with Storm.

Storm Logan wasn’t a 24/7 issue. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, she was out of our way and I could enjoy my time with Spring, unabated. But when she did show up, there were thunderclaps right in my ear, and for no apparent reason.

“What did I do?” I asked Spring.

But Spring just shrugged. “She’s just like that, is all. It’s not you, it’s just a natural thing.”

I kept wondering how it could be that Spring and Storm could coexist like they did and yet be so different in their temperaments.

“It’s just who we are,” said Spring.

But any time Storm would come over, she’d bring havoc and leave devastation in her wake. I started to fear every day every night she might come, the things she would say, the fires she might light. “I can’t take this anymore,” I told Spring. “I can’t take her being here.”

Spring was sad, but she nodded and she smiled, and for several weeks, we didn’t see or hear from her sister. She stayed away, wrought her mayhem elsewhere, and I was safe. But I saw Spring lose her lustre. I saw the color drain out of her face. I would try to coax her out, but after a while, she barely even spoke. She didn’t even cry.

“What can I do for you?” I asked her.

She didn’t even have to answer. That was when I knew that Spring wouldn’t spring without Storm, that all the devastation was like putty in her hands she used to shape her sweetness. Without Storm, Spring was dry and barren, withdrawn. She was not herself.

So I called up Storm and stood and waited for thunder.

It’s been quite some time since I last saw Spring, but she left me with a bang and not a whimper and while I do not miss her Storm-dependency, I wish her well and acknowledge that she is better off with her than she was with just me.