(Editor’s Note: This month our favorite proofreader takes a bus journey and speedily ruminates on the Self, commas, exclamations, and the astonishing loveliness of ambiguity in a world [a style-manual world, anyway] that prioritizes precision.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS)
When last I percolated here, my dregs, if you got down to them—and how could you not, 3 tall paragraphs easier to guzzle than a brick, let alone the world and all its oceans, interconnected though they may be?—could have been read as “When you get right down to it, we are all raccoons.” That’s the thing about dregs: a hard stop at the bottom of the carafe, with nothing beneath but a countertop stretched over whatever doodads populate the ceiling of hell, doesn’t invite interpretation. As with tea leaves, you can rearrange the dreglettes, but even if you’re a fool for random patterns they’re not going to inspire sleepless nights or a revised liberal arts curriculum. Granted, we are nothing if not raccoons, but that’s not exactly a fresh thought. Einstein, Calamity Jane, the Dionne Quintuplets, and virtually everyone whose name is droppable has, if only for one brief sliming moment, accessed their inner round table and considered that the omnivore rattling around in their garbage can was essentially him- or her- or themself/selves. John Donne said as much, King Arthur sat as much, and various enlightened beings have lived as much, perfecting a state of oneness with raccoons, buzzards, pancakes, whatever illusory forms rattled, circled, were flooded with syrup, or in any other way made a specious case for their independent existence.
That’s not exactly where I was going last month, but the dregs said “Stop here or you’ll penetrate plexiglass (alteration of “Plexiglas” per Merriam-Webster’s).” I’ve no desire to penetrate anyone’s plexiglass, least of all my own, so I stopped there and am only now refilling my pot with a few words about our peculiarly human masks and tails. First, let’s play Us and Them. Splitting our cozy Self into species and regarding raccoons as the “other,” it becomes clear that they are the most punctuated animals in the forest, each tail a rhapsody of serial commas, each face a question mark verging on exclamation, flexible paws cradling dependent and independent clauses as easily as crayfish and stones. As they lope, their arched backs become semicolons on the move, and if you approach one from behind you’ll find the elegantly apportioned tail initiating a furry sentence that terminates in the most fulsome period this side of Go, Dog. Go! The inky button is positioned squarely (by which I mean roundly) beneath Dick Turpin’s gaze and pulses in crinkledom over Dracula pearls designed to puncture and sift all your trashcan allows. Since humans crawled out of their wormholes and began to strive for literacy and other forms of one-upsmanship, there has not yet been a sentence so well-turned that it could possibly be mistaken for a raccoon. Similarly, squirrels aren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics.
If no athlete’s grace and dexterity can rival a rodent’s and no sentence yet composed can achieve the pixie perfection of a thief bent on depriving the city dump of your pie crusts, then why don’t we just give up? I suppose every refugee from Eden has struggled with or, being nonsquirrels, clumsily scuffled with that question when they weren’t clumsily scuffling with the question of whether or not the world was about to end. If an answer occasionally emerges from the fray, it might be as simple as this: there’s something to be said for ambiguity, for breaking an apple’s perfect skin with your sawed-off fangs and wondering whether it was the right thing to do, knowing it might not have been. Like Simple Simon, who as a connoisseur of pies fruity and not was far more complicated than the legendary folk hero we celebrate April 1 and every other day dedicated to human inadequacy (which would be all of them so far, unless world hunger was eliminated yesterday), “ambiguity” as an answer to anything, including what it means to be human, is a hard stop that keeps on going.
A visit to the local library (imagine that!) suggests that there’s actually everything to be said for ambiguity and nothing much to be said for anything else, though if your library contains scientific journals such as the ones our Manual of Style is designed to tease into perfection you’ll find a compelling counterargument. A less compelling but more visceral argument for the existence of precise diction, at least in its ability to describe persons as the sum of one of their parts, may be encountered on the Chicago 66 bus. Sadly in the first case and ho-hummily in the second, those are exceptions. In language we seek and prize precision, as if it could possibly turn us into porpoises, but language itself thrives on ambiguity. Flush with multiple meanings, the thrill of the hint, subsurface innuendo erupting into a geyser of accusation, then freezing midair into flurries of doubt, ambiguity is an ever-expanding state of expression gobbling into its definition the essences of uncertainty, hesitation, disgruntlement, past and looming failure, vague gnawing the likes of which beavers and termites would surely deem unprofessional. At its ragged outer edges ambiguity encompasses a sadness only caffeine and the promise of love can dent, and then only till 3 o’clock in the afternoon or the recriminating hour before dawn, respectively.
Which leaves us with ourselves, such as we are and such as we conjugate, a pack of Dorothies with doubtflaked eyelashes batting away the overweening sun. Typically though not exclusively nocturnal, the raccoons we’re not are likely holed up in ancient stump craters or the deep crotches of forked trees, nowhere to be seen as we arise from our poppy fields and mommy complexes and head out to face what’s left of the world after the previous day’s reiteration of human inadequacies. All masked up with tails on the shake, we’re not exactly a pretty species but counter outward clunk with swagger and swag acquisition. Each swagheap, even the most ill-gotten, is marbled with an honest acquisition, the language with which we serenade and belittle one another, filling libraries with music and the CTA with pygmies. If, in our rush to compare, contrast, and explicate, we punctuate injudiciously and foster unwarranted division as often as we channel filtered sunlight, the moral weight of our punctuating decisions isn’t entirely hidden. As a child I read that bears lost their tails as a result of one particular bear’s tail freezing off in the natural course of a practical joke. I assumed something similar had happened with my parents. Then I grew up, or at least reached a plateau of some sort, and realized that our tails are merely obscure, ringed internally like oaks, years cramped together, styling us from the inside out. As each year’s punctuations congeal into unalterable consequences and 10 packs of 365/6 days squeeze into a decade like the proverbial 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound sack, the rings grow closer together until they’re barely distinguishable. You don’t have to saw a person open to verify this; you just have to observe the drooping tails of your neighbors in crime, the beloved beneficiaries and victims of ennobling and enervating language. As years press memories and misdeeds into hardened pulp, human tails droop at increasingly oblique angles, such that presidential aspirants are able to sweep floors with the tips of their generously weighted conclusions. Such a gift. Just last week I picked up an apparently run-over broom (flattened handle, bristles caked with granulated autofudge) on the curb of Pulaski Road and realized, as I tenderly toted it home and nursed it back to an upright position from which it was almost as useless as when it lay stricken, what a thrill it would be to have a nice new broom, the kind you see at an otherwise boring store and think, sighing audibly, “Well, I already have a broom. But damn!”
There it is, not so much the nowadays mild curse but the punctuation mark coloring the word and wrenching it into a refined state of ambiguity. As Kay Francis once said to William Powell in the context of 2 characters united in love and destined for separate gallows, “This is living, isn’t it, Dan?” We punctuate; therefore we are. Are what? Raccoons, sure, but beyond that certainty a rash of beautiful bustling hesitations—saintly clause, fiendish fragment, each reinterpreting murk in the light of a moment just passed, anticipating and dreading the future, then, all too soon, drinking it in.—David Antos