Category Archives: writing

rule #4

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[Source: The Telegraph.]

An article appeared on my Facebook feed today that I think it worthy of comment. In ‘6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person‘ Cracked.com writer David Wong hypothesises that a person’s value to the world is found not in soft characteristics they may possess (funny, kindly, smart), or in the things that they are not (selfish, slovenly, dishonest) but in what they actually do. Wong says that it is only marketable and/or desirable skills that will make the world beat a path to your door. He applies this to employment (no one cares that you are a nice person if you can’t do your job properly) and to relationships (stop whining women/men don’t want to date you and make yourself datable).

In fact, Wong says this simple philosophy can be applied to every aspect of our lives…and that it ought to be. He suggest that anyone dissatisfied with themselves in any respect should stop whining, stop making excuses, stop hating on anyone who is managing to achieve success and just get the hell on with constructing a version of you that you – and the world – can value.

Wong’s post spoke to me for a couple of reasons. The first reason is this: one thing I’ve learned about myself is that inside me exists a swirling vortex of rationalisations and excuses, self-loathing and doubt always tugging at my ankles, inviting me to give up completely and be sucked to a nice, comfortable oblivion. I’ve done a lot of hard things in the past few years, and done many of them well, but I always approach these things with fear. A large part of this is that deep in my heart I think that if I don’t try too hard, no one can laugh when I fall on my little pink arse. I learned to think like this as a child and it’s not an easy habit to throw off. I am lucky to have friends who try to help me. Recently, when I was asked to do a radio interview, my fall-back position was to gasp, ‘Oh, no! I could never do that!’ So I refused. But when I mentioned this to my friend Chrys, she faced me up, pursed her lips and said sternly, ‘Jane, we never say no to opportunities.’ She was right, of course. I called the journalist back and did the interview. And the next time I was asked the same question I said, ‘Sure. Love to.’ There. Growth.

Anyway, thanks David Wong for reminding me that fear should not be the factor that defines my life or determines my destiny. It’s good advice and useful to hear from time to time. I can see a dozen ways I can apply this…not least as a prompt to start blogging regularly again. I have a dozen rationalisations and excuses to explain that, some of which are close to valid, but the truth is, they are keeping me from what I want to do, so they have to go.

The second reason I liked Wong’s article is that it happens to line up nicely with my own little list of Rules for Living. This is an actual list that I’ve been jotting as I flee from one messy, miserable life and attempt to construct a new and better one. Christianity, at least the fundamentalist brand that I subscribed to, supplies adherents with a tidy, plug-and-play template for living. As a messed up 19 year old, that appealed to me. I wanted a well-worn path to walk and gleefully ripped off the bubble wrap and erected my newly-purchased, guaranteed-effective religious scaffolding and set about constructing an identity and a life inside that apparently nice, safe space. When the building collapsed with a whump and I found myself suddenly without a belief in a deity and watching the backs of the believers who had once been my family receding at speed, I was forced to make some choices. I looked around at the rubble at my feet, kicked a few broken bricks, picked up one or two fragments, put them down again, and decided that very little was worth salvaging. I determined to start construction at the foundations.

This is where my list of Rules for Living comes in. Well, more sort of guidelines really. As time passed and things arose that seemed important enough to keep, at least for now, I wrote them down. Here’s how the list looks so far:

Rule #1: Live the fuck in reality.

Rule #2: Don’t hang with assholes.

Rule #3: Own your own shit.

Rule #4: You cannot be a better [________] than you are a human being.

Rule #5: Know thyself.

Rule #6: Integrity: It’s all you’ve got.

Rule #7: Call bullshit bullshit.

Rule #8: Never, ever settle.

Rule #9: Boundaries. Have them.

Rule #10: Treasure the right things. Nurture the right relationships.

Rule #11: Fuck ‘ought’.

It’s a work in progress.

If you read David Wong’s piece, you might have recognised that Rule #4 is the one that applies here.  I discovered this rule while watching someone close to me attend parenting courses, devour parenting books and still come out a royal screw up in the parenting stakes. He would frequently ask me how it ought to be done. ‘The thing,’ I ended saying, ‘Is this: You cannot be a better parent than you are a human being. Life isn’t a trick to be learned. There is no magic formula. You can’t demand respect with shouting, or wheedle it with whining, or buy it with gifts. Your kids will respect you if you actually are a person worth respecting. There are no shortcuts and you can’t fake it.’

It seemed true to me at the time. And I’ve discovered that you can fill that blank in Rule #4 in with just about anything and it will remain true. You cannot be a better teacher than you are a human being. You cannot be a better doctor than you are a human being. You cannot be a better partner, sister, writer, neighbour, lover, employee…than you are a human being. It’s about authenticity.

We get a bundle of stuff handed to us when we are born – personality, privilege or the lack of it, varying physical and mental abilities – but then it’s up to us to construct something that approximates a decent human being with it. I’m for doing the best job at that that I possibly can. I only get one crack at it. Soon enough my turn will be over for good. I’d like to finish my days having done the best I can with myself, and having made a positive difference to my little corner of the universe, naff as that may sound.

So there you have it. It’s nice to be blogging again. I might just come back and elaborate on the rest of the list. In any case, I’m determined to press through the self-loathing, rationalisations and doubt and write here again. Thanks for reading, sweeties!

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pick, pick, pick

I should declare in advance that this post is likely to seem rather pedantic and whiny to the majority of normal humans. But bear with me and, with luck, I’ll look less of a goody-two-shoes, girly swat wanker at the end than the beginning. I do hope some of you manage to make it through anyway.

As I’ve mentioned, I am an Open Universities Australia student. OUA provides a convenient if slightly schizophrenic method of gaining a degree – students select from a smorgasbord of units offered by some 16 different tertiary institutions. Thus, although my degree will ultimately be awarded by Griffith University, so far I’ve taken units not only from that institution but also Macquarie, Murdoch and Monash universities and RMIT.

And that won’t be the end of it. I have a couple of subjects on my wishlist that are provided by Swinburne University – which means [whinge warning] another student number to remember, and one more badly-designed Blackboard interface to navigate. My OUA friend, December, who is studying at her fourth university so far describes us as ‘uni whores’ – like tarts on a Friday night we dash about town devising aliases and collecting numbers. It’s rather exhausting and we’re not certain we won’t contract a nasty burning rash before we’re done.

Anyway, the point of all that is to say that I’ve already had the opportunity to compare institutional standards to some degree which has left me with a peculiar dilemma: how to decide which of those unis has the worst record on proofreading its tutorial materials; which is the most inept with grammar, spelling and punctuation? Frankly, there’s not much in it.

Many of my uni friends have complained that if tutors are going to rabbit on in such a snippy and self-righteous tone about their high expectations for students’ writing, it seems a bit rude that they don’t hold themselves to at least a similar standard. Fair call, in my view, for a number of reasons. But lecturers and course writers with sloppy writing standards seem to be the rule rather than the exception in my university experience so far.

Take for example these excerpts from a document provided to me and my fellow students this week. It was produced by one of the universities listed above, but I could have selected similar samplings from the materials of any of the universities I’ve studied with so far. These snippets are from the Glossary of Art Terms provided to students. It was written, I think, by my course convenor or lecturer.

I’ve been trying to temper my pedantic tendencies lately so was able to find it in my heart to forgive the writer for explaining the concept of metamorphosis by pointing to ‘cattapillars’ which, evidently, are creatures that transform into butterflies. Hey, a simple spelling mistake or typographical error – we all make them.

Then, ever broadminded, I was willing to overlook his explanation that the term ‘hue’ describes a colour in its purest form, without the ‘edition’ of either black or white (although I admit tooth grinding featured in the absolution process). But I am also not a great poofreader of my own work (heh, heh) so I sympathise.

But, tolerant as I am, I cannot exhonerate that man for asserting that ‘Montages tend to compose the differing source material into more seemless, unified compositions’. Seemless? Unforgiveable!

Irritatingly, the document was supplied in an HTML format thus denying me the catharsis of taking to it with a red pen. (I realise I could have printed it out but, even for me, that seemed a little pathological.)

If the fact that those errors got through the writing and proofreading stages and all the way to publication without so much as an ‘Oh, my God! Are you an idiot?’ doesn’t make your blood boil, I imagine you are thinking about now that I should perhaps get a boyfriend and shut the hell up. I mean, does it really matter that one university has just outed itself as less of a paragon of educational prowess and, perhaps, more of nest of lazy, illiterate public servants unable to gain respectable employment in the commercial world? Well, yes. Actually, it does. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

The late, Richard Mitchell, also known as The Underground Grammarian, thought so too. In his book, Less than Words Can Say*, Mitchell relates the story of a fourth grade teacher who dashed off a letter to the editor of her local paper, incensed at errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation she had detected in a published article. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, her letter went to print full of similar mistakes including mismanaged capitalisation, punctuation and syntax. She even wrote ‘aloud’ in place of ‘allowed’ when referring to the ‘artical’ in question. Being a concerned parent, a grammar philosopher and not just a pinch-cheeked pedant, Mitchell reasonably asks,

So what the hell is going on here? Who hires these people? Where do they come from?

and

What could be more satisfying than a legitimate and documented complaint against those people in the schools who tell us so haughtily that they know what they’re doing?

He continues:

The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can’t spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher’s ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well. We see already that her education has been less than perfect. Is her knowledge of arithmetic, for instance, also less than perfect? How well informed is she about history and science? Those very misspellings–don’t they seem characteristic of a person who simply hasn’t done much reading? That is, after all, the way most of us learn to spell correctly. When you’ve seen “allowed” and “aloud” thousands of times on the page, you just know which is which. And if this teacher hasn’t done much reading, how likely is she to be well informed about history and science, or any of those things in which we expect her to instruct our children?

Well, who did hire her? Some principal, presumably, or some committee, or somebody. Let’s imagine that it was a committee. What did they look for in her credentials? In her letter of application, were there errors? Would the members of the committee have been able to detect them? Would some of them say, even now, that a silly misspelled word here and there is too trivial to worry about?

And where did she come from? Some school graduated her, and some board granted her a certificate to teach. Did she just slip through the cracks in the system? Is she the only member of her class, the only graduate of her college, whose spelling is shaky? Of all of those teachers and incipient teachers, is she the only one who doesn’t seem to have done much reading? The professors who wrote her references–did they mention that she had some problems with spelling? Did they know that she had some problems with spelling? Had they read any of her writing? Did she do any writing? As much writing as she did reading, perhaps? If your physician’s elementary training in anatomy were as uncertain as this teacher’s spelling, would you think it too trivial to worry about?

The implications of the poor standards revealed in these university tutorial materials are not insignificant. If the fundamental mechanics of English don’t matter to my university lecturers, what else do they not care about? Or are they so ill-educated that they simply don’t know about homophones such as ‘seemless’ and ‘seamless’? And if that’s the case, what else don’t they know?

Which leads me to ask: Can I trust this university to provide me with what I thought was implied in our contract – the arrangement where I give them some $20,000 in exchange for what I had hoped would be the beginnings of an excellent education? How might I know in advance? What might the indicators be? Perhaps the institutions’ written communications? Or am I just a nitpicking fusspot who should shut the f*ck up and smile as I hand over another $6000 next year? After all, whatever the standard of the course content, I’ll get a nice, frameable piece of paper at the end, right?

Sigh.

(Oh, and should it turn out that this post went to publication full of undetected typos, I’ll be claiming Jane’s Law was at work 🙂

* A free, online copy of Richard Mitchell’s Less than Words Can Say is available here. His other definitely-worth-a-read title The Graves of Academe is also available to read free at the same site.