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Archive for August, 2011

Bless Your Heart

Little Old Lady

Photo by Shamrockinc, Photobucket

Texas, being the rather large place that it is, has elements of both the South and the West. South Texas, where I lived for twenty years before moving to Colorado, is actually more Western, but I did manage to pick up a few southernisms during my time there. One of them is the phrase “bless her/his heart.”

For those of you not familiar with it, “bless his/her heart” is a phrase southerners use to take the sting out of the most biting insults. So, for example, you might say, “Joe Bob Briggs doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip.” Pretty harsh, right? And possibly fairly accurate. But if you say, “Joe Bob Briggs doesn’t have the sense God gave a turnip, bless his heart” that somehow makes ol’ Joe Bob seem less like a mouth-breathing moron and more like one of those lovable small-town eccentrics so prevalent in places like Konigsburg.

It’s also a sort of sneaky way to get around any objections that Joe Bob or his supporters might care to make. You didn’t exactly call him a moron, after all—not exactly. On the other hand, you haven’t really declared yourself a member of Joe Bob’s fan club. You’re just making an observation about Joe Bob’s intellect, but bless his heart shows you really don’t mean to be critical. Just honest.

Now I grew up in the Midwest, which is well-known as the Land of Nice. Midwestern girls and boys are taught that you should never make anybody feel bad, that you should always be nice even if you’re dealing with somebody who isn’t very nice in return. If worse comes to worst, you become very cool and correct, but you never descend to nasty.

But “bless his heart” isn’t nasty—not exactly. It allows you to say what you’re really thinking—he’s an idiot, she’s an airhead, they’re a rotten couple—without getting hammered for saying it. It’s like a Get Out Of Jail Free card. You can be bitchy without really having to pay the price.

Still, once you’ve played the “bless his heart” card, you’ve made it pretty clear where you stand. It’s not like “just kidding”—you’re not really taking your insult back. Instead, you’re saying that you do in fact think Joe Bob is a moron but that, gosh darn it, he just can’t help himself, can he.

So then the question becomes, how do you defend yourself against the “bless your heart” offense? And the answer is, you don’t. You can’t be insulted unless you want to come off as a sorehead. And if you throw a “bless your heart” back at the speaker, you just come off as sort of desperate. You might get by with laughing—that’s probably what I’d have a a character like Docia Kent Toleffson do if anybody had the temerity to bless her heart. A really devious Southern belle might let her eyes pool with picturesque tears and her lower lip trembling ominously, but that could come off as overkill. I guess in the end, if anybody says anything to you along the lines of “bless your heart,” you should probably just smile weakly and duck.

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Happy Birthday, Mae

Mae WestMae West’s birthday is August 17, and those of us in the romance business need to wish her a happy one. She was born 118 years ago. So you might ask, why should we appreciate Mae? Because she was one of those women who paved the way—she wrote plays about sex and about gay men that got her thrown in the clink. She wrote movies about strong, sexual women who didn’t take any crap and who got the guy in the end even though they didn’t take any crap. And she had a wicked way with a quip.

West was on Broadway for around twenty years before she headed to Hollywood. During that time she wrote several plays, including a notorious one called Sex that got her thrown in the slammer for ten days in 1927 for corrupting minors (who apparently wouldn’t have learned about sex on their own). While she served out her sentence (eight days with two days off for good behavior), she wore her own silk underwear, took her meals with the warden and his wife, and gave lots of interviews. Eat your heart out, Lindsey Lohan!

Her next play after that was called The Drag, a tragi-comic portrait of gay life. That one didn’t even make it to Broadway since it was closed down by the Society For the Prevention of Vice.

West headed to Hollywood in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. She was 40 years old and, as they say, “well-nourished.” It didn’t matter. She became one of the most popular stars of the Depression Era, and the kind of sex symbol who sent people like Mary Pickford and other guardians of morality into a tizzy.

But what’s been lost in the picture of West as a sort of early version of Marilyn Monroe is how really revolutionary her female characters are. Where Marilyn’s characters tended to be childlike, Mae’s were always very much adults and very capable of taking care of themselves. Where Monroe traded on innocence, West’s characters gloried in knowing the score. Mae never chased men in her movies: they chased her. And when she finally gave in to their pleas, it was always on her own terms. Even in My Little Chickadee (which she hated because of her battles with W.C. Fields), West comes out on top in the end, after playing the most knowing schoolmarm of all time. When she sees a blackboard with the sentences “I am a good boy I am a good man I am a good girl” she mutters “What is this, propaganda?”

In fact, it’s the nature of Mae’s characters that got her in trouble with the censors. It wasn’t just that her characters had sex, it was that they were in charge of that sex. Female characters who played around in the movies of the thirties and forties generally were punished for it—with babies, bad reputations, and broken relationships. But Mae’s characters behaved like men, taking responsibility for their own pleasure and reveling in it. Scandal! Mae being Mae, she got away with it.

And, of course, there are the quotes. Mae is undoubtedly one of the most quotable figures in the Golden Age of Hollywood. So here goes—most of these are from her movies and most of them were written by Mae herself.

“When I’m good, I’m good. When I’m bad, I’m better.”

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”

“When choosing between two evils, I always choose the one I’ve never tried before.”

“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

“Why don’t you come up and see me sometime—when I’ve got nothing on but the radio?”

“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.”

“Are you showing contempt for this court?” “No, I’m doing my best to hide it.”

“Good sex is like good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”

“His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

“Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often.”

“Can I hold your hand?” “It ain’t heavy. I can hold it myself.”

And the most famous, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me,” supposedly delivered off the cuff to an LA cop.

Happy birthday, Mae. And thanks.

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booksOkay, it’s time to admit the truth. Once, long, long ago in the dim, dusky past, I was a copyeditor. Not only that, I actually taught copyediting. Now you’d think this would help me write, but in fact all it really does is help me punctuate. Any copyeditor can tell you that editing your own stuff is always tough. However, my editing experience did help me determine one thing: the Chicago Manual of Style is both the writer’s equivalent of Holy Writ and a bitch and a half .

There are a lot of style manuals out there. Some, like Strunk and White, have only limited usefulness (and if you don’t believe me, check out their entry on flammable, which, trust me, ceased to be accurate somewhere around 1960). Some, like the AP Style Guide, are useful in particular circumstances, in this case if you’re writing for a newspaper. But the Chicago is one of those books that’s in a class by itself—it covers everything. Want to know how to deal with transliterated Arabic? The Chicago will tell you. Want to know if you should capitalize centuries? The Chicago knows. Have a copyright question? There’s a chapter on it. This, of course, makes the Chicago invaluable as a reference. So what makes it a bitch and a half? Try finding the answer to any question that isn’t exactly straightforward and you’ll find out.

Suppose you’re trying to figure out how to punctuate the following sentence: Her brother Harry was the chief of police in the town. Should Harry be set off with commas or not? Actually, it depends. If the heroine has more than one brother, then no commas are necessary because the name defines which brother is being spoken of (it’s a restrictive phrase). But if Harry is her only brother, the name would be set off with commas because brother and Harry are identical, and hence Harry is a nonrestrictive phrase (an appositive). The Chicago covers this in two different sections, but only if you happen to know the terms appositive or restrictive phrase. If you don’t, good luck in finding the rule.

To truly use the Chicago, you have to know the terminology used in grammar. If you’re a former English major like me, you might be able to do this (although you also might not—I actually learned a lot of this stuff from the Chicago itself since I was a lit major). If you majored in something else, you may find yourself up the creek. And that leads to the Chicago’s ultimate Catch-22: if you already know the terminology, you probably don’t need to look up the rule. If you know what restrictive and nonrestrictive refer to, chances are you also know how to punctuate them. It’s only the people who don’t know the terminology (and thus don’t know where to look for help) who need to find the information.

Ultimately, this isn’t the most frustrating thing about the Chicago. The real problem is that it’s so inclusive that you always suspect that the answer to your question must be inside somewhere, but you may spend a lot of time trying to find exactly where. And with very technical things like capitalization, you may well find that no specific rule covers the exact situation you’re trying to find. (I should also admit in passing that their usage section is fairly useless, but that’s true for a lot of usage guides.)

Still, I’d advise every writer to have a copy of the Chicago  on hand. Yeah, you can go to Google and try to find answers, but you may find a lot of different answers to the same question. If you stick with the Chicago, at least you’ll always be consistent.  Of course, you’ll also be frustrated and sometimes a little brain dead, but as we copyeditors can tell you, that’s par for the course. And you’ll always know the answer is in there. Somewhere.

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