Cranky Writing Teacher Rant (and Some Helpful Resources) for #NationalPunctuationDay

file0001694774604Yes, I’m one of those people who mutters judgmental things like, “Doesn’t anyone learn proper English anymore?” while reading some of my students’ work. (And I teach mostly adults who are smart, so it’s not just kids today.) In my calmer moments I simply think that everyone should be required to take basic grammar and punctuation (or test out of it) before embarking on any more advanced writing classes in specific genres. Gotham Writers Workshop, where I teach, has a nice one-day class on the basics.

If you fear you’re at all shaky on punctuation or grammar, you can also check out the following:

The classic, Elements of Style (a.k.a. “Strunk & White”)

One Direction member Harry Styles (just kidding … except not)’s adorable interactive punctuation guide

Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab Guide to Punctuation

Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (for an advanced, meaty read)

Personal Essays Are Hot, But Pitching Journalistic Pieces Is Nice Too

There’s a helpful essay in Slate today about how hot the personal essay market is online, and why. (Short answer: Essays are cheaper than a bunch of in-depth reporting. But your personal story better be pretty damn harrowing.) If you’re not super-familiar with what websites are into and trends in media, this will help orient you.

But I also loved this advice, shared on Twitter by writer and editor Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle):


In all cases, this should be everyone’s new motto: “It’s not your job to be scared to pitch.” I know it’s mine now.

Why We Need Female Spiritual Leaders

I spent the last two weeks meditating for several hours a day, maintaining silence, and chanting a hell of a lot — such is the drill at my Zen temple’s annual summer retreat. It’s 24/7 spiritual development on hyperspeed, thanks to the lack of chatter, the lack of internet and smartphone use, and the endless amounts of time spent staring at a wall to center oneself in the moment. And yet, nothing provoked more thought in me during this particular year’s retreat than two of the tiniest details that have all but escaped me in the past: an occasional chant we do in which we name the female Buddhist leaders of the past (what we call the “Matriarchs’ Lineage”) and a throwaway line in one of our daily services in which the Zen student leading the chant dedicates its merits (we’re very big on dedicating merits) to “the women and men” at the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

These two little, mundane liturgical occurrences couldn’t help but make me think, this time, of Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois and the chruch’s recent threats to excommunicate him because of he’s been agitating for the ordination of women. The reason our group, the Manhattan-based Village Zendo, made these two tiny changes in our services years ago, of our own accord, was because we were founded by, and are still led by, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, both women. Of our top tier of four senior teachers, two are women. None of this is a coincidence; it’s exactly why female leadership is needed in any organization, because women see the ingrained inequalities and right them intuitively. The Matriarch’s Lineage was a Village Zendo creation, and took quite a bit of meticulous research to get correct — but our female leadership knew it was worth the effort. It’s not always men’s faults that they don’t see such slights as the fact that many chanted lineages are completely male, and that women have surely contributed to the building of many religions, whether or not their contributions were recorded as meticulously as men’s. That aside, just hearing “women” before “men” in the bit about West Point always warms my feminist heart a little — what a Zen miracle! Not only do we count, but we can come first sometimes!

Continue reading

Sex: How Much of a Fantasy Girl Should You Be?

He wanted me to wear short-shorts. Like Daisy Duke short-shorts, half-inch-inseam short-shorts, the kind one could purchase from Victoria’s Secret’s lovely outerwear collection in the mid-’90s. He gave them to me under the guise of some gift — our one-year anniversary, perhaps — but I had not worn them outside our dorm-room walls, likely because they were a bit (go figure) short for my comfort. I would happily wear them at “home,” or in “the bedroom,” both of which equated to our respective campus housing cells, as I did not mind spicing up our nascent sex life. But I did not take it upon myself to go anywhere (where would I go in these, anyway?) with them barely covering my ass in everyday life.

Then, suddenly, he was angry with me. Sulky, barely-speaking, passive-aggressive angry. At first, he refused to tell me why, insisting I should instinctively know. Then, after some seriously frustrating phone conversation — our first conflict in more than a year of dating — I dragged it out of him: He was mad I had not intuited his desire for me to don the short-shorts for Dillo Day, an outdoor music festival at Northwestern University (that is, alas, not as dirty as it sounds). Apparently it should have been obvious by his buying of the shorts and presenting them to me in the early spring that I would then be obligated, by my undying gratitude for said shorts, to frolic in them at the pinnacle of the season.

I told him he was nuts, he told me I didn’t understand his tender feelings. But I moved past it, resigned to sometimes not understanding the love of my life’s every thought.

Or at least I’d thought I’d moved past it.

Continue reading

What’s So Great About Happiness?

As we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day this week, there was a lot of retreading over the age-old question: Has feminism made us happier? So, so many people think they’re quite clever by telling us: No! It has not! It has, in fact, ruined everything! Phyllis Schlafly and her niece, Suzanne Venker, wrote The Flipside of Feminism to tell us this in many, many pages, over and over again. Venker states baldly, “Feminism has sabotaged women’s happiness,” while the book goes on to detail the many ways the women’s movement has ruined everything: It gave most families two incomes, thus making us want more money and more stuff. (Definitely feminism’s fault, not mass consumerism or anything.) It emasculates men. (Poor, poor dears.) And most of all, it apparently screws up sex in all kinds of confusing ways.

See, men want marriage and kids more than ever, while we women want to maintain our independence longer, Shlafly and Venker tell us. Except we apparently also don’t want to have enough sex: “Sex is a problem, too. More and more wives today say they’re too tired for sex. …Naturally, this poses a problem for husbands, who are rarely too tired for sex. Sex is a man’s favorite past time, and the wives who are too tired to have it are often resentful of this fact. If change is going to come, it will have to come from women—they are the ones who changed the natural order of things. Moreover, men aren’t the ones who kvetch about their place in the world—not because they have it so great, contrary to feminist dogma, but because it’s not in their nature. Men tend to go along with whatever women say they need.” Except, of course, we also want to have too much sex, because men are getting it somewhere, which is making them not want to get married, which is how feminism is apparently ruining marriage (which is sad because traditional marriage is always such a treat). Except, of course, as we learned earlier in this paragraph, there are men who do want marriage, who are seeking it and begging us for it while we selfishly and stubbornly maintain our independence.

In any case, it seems we’re caught in some kind of vicious (and nonsensical) cycle of unhappiness. That, dear ones, is the point here. We’re unhappy because men won’t commit, and because some of them want to commit; because we want easy sex, and because we’re too tired for sex. Know what’s weirdest of all about this? I agree. With all of it, in all of its nonsensical glory. Here’s why: It’s true, I’ve been frustrated by noncommittal men in my life; I’ve also run away from men who wanted to commit to me. I have wanted easy sex, and I have been too tired for sex, and I have even wanted easy sex sometimes because I was too tired for complicated sex. Oh, life, you vexing vixen, you! And the main reason for all of this complexity in my life is, in fact, feminism.

Continue reading

5 Reasons Britney Needs a Feminist Awakening

There’s no doubt that Britney Spears is not a feminist icon. But she could very well be the most important female pop culture figure of our times — which is exactly why it would be nothing short of revolutionary if girlfriend ever managed to escape the poptart prison her handlers have constructed around her during her decade-plus reign to realize her own grand significance. Here, we plead our case to the woman behind the Femme Fatale image. Oh, if only we believed she were reading!

Dear Britney,

Here’s why we need you to get with the F-word:

1. Madonna and Christina. Remember how you once made out with these two in a wildly overhyped menage a girl-on-girl-kisses-for-media-attention? We do. And we wish that Madge and Xtina had been able to somehow pass a little feminism your way while swapping spit onstage, because they’ve certainly got girl power to spare. As much as everyone likes to declare you “the next Madonna” — and as much as we understand why — you’re missing that element of self-determination that Madonna’s had since before she was even famous. (That kiss was her idea — go figure.) While you’ve long denied your sexuality even while selling the heck out of it, Madonna has … well, embraced hers. If you haven’t noticed. Same goes for Christina, who grew up with you on The Mickey Mouse Club and faced the same pressures of growing into womanhood very publicly. She may have been the one who ended up in unfortunate assless chaps, but she never pretended not to know exactly what they meant.

Continue reading

Debbie Gibson Wishes and Rockstar Dreams

photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

Sometimes, if you are very lucky, life comes along and makes you think wishes come true. Long-held, deeply embedded wishes that have lingered since childhood — since, say, you were 4 and dressed in your mother’s silky pink nightie that looked like a long glamorous dress to you and you were belting out Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” into a karaoke microphone attached to your Donnie & Marie record player. Just as an example.

Last night, life was kind enough to do this for me. I wanted to become a rock star. And it happened, for my 36th birthday no less.

Continue reading