Be a Human Comma

The lowly comma stirs up plenty of controversy in the editing world. Should we use the Oxford comma? Avoid it? Use it only when necessary? Are commas the enemy? The answer depends on who you ask, and even the AP and Chicago Manual of Style can’t seem to agree. The first editor I worked with was a comma junkie, inserting them into my work everywhere and insisting on the Oxford comma. Others have assassinated commas ruthlessly to the point where I felt their elimination made my manuscripts potentially confusing. I find that I now fall somewhere between the two extremes.

Several years back I came across Robert J. Samuelson’s Newsweek article, “The Comma’s Fate.” Not only was it engaging and well-written, it was a treatise on modern life. Samuelson said this about the disappearance of the comma from today’s writing:

If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social commentary.

toes on the beach

Photo credit: jjjj56cp via Flickr. Creative Commons license.

In American culture pausing is bad. I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard once:

An American businessman visiting Mexico met a native fisherman who was bringing in his small tuna catch for the day. The American asked the man why he didn’t spend more time on the water catching more fish. After all, what on earth could he possibly be doing with all his extra time? The Mexican told the businessman that after he slept in late he fished a little, then played with his children, took a siesta with his wife, and spent the evenings sipping wine and playing guitar with his amigos. The American scoffed and advised the fisherman that if he’d just put in more hours catching fish he could cut out the middleman, sell directly to the processor, and eventually even open his own cannery where he would control the product, the processing, and the distribution. “You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village,” he said, “and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

“How long would this take, señor?” asked the fisherman.

“Oh, 15 or 20 years,” said the businessman. “But that’s not the best part! When the time is right you announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions!”

“Millions?” said the wide-eyed fisherman. “But then what, señor?”

“Then,” said the businessman, “You could retire to a coastal fishing village where you could sleep in late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take a siesta with your wife, and spend the evenings sipping wine and playing guitar with your friends.”

Life Gives You Pause

Would you call this a pregnant pause?

Would you call this a pregnant pause? (Photo by Karen Hertzberg)

I like to work, especially because the work I’ve chosen, communicating through the written word, is something I love. Generally, I strike a good balance between work and downtime. But I’ve also felt the seductive pull of the frenetic whirlwind pace many Americans embrace. I feel guilt-ridden and ashamed when I’m not doing … stuff. Productive stuff. If I’m not working and volunteering and joining and running frantically to and fro with a cell phone pressed to my ear and a tablet at my disposal, what must I be missing? What opportunities are passing me by? I allow myself to wonder, not without discomfort, whether I’m a terminal slacker.

But here’s the deal: I’m not missing anything. Not a single goddamn thing. Like the Mexican fisherman, I do the thing that gives my life purpose and earns enough to sustain me and mine, and when the work is through I allow myself to breathe and to be. I’m giving myself permission to do the things that may not fill my wallet but fill my spirit instead. I grab my camera and head to a garden or the woods. I make my mind a playground for the fictional characters who live there and I write their stories down. I grab a crochet hook and craft something. I play the piano and I sing (but only when no one’s listening; I’m working on that). And yes, I take my siestas — not just power naps but long, satisfying slumbers. I’m an opportunistic slacker, folks, and I make no apologies. (Well, yes I do. And excuses, sometimes. But not today; not here.)

Friends, allow yourself to be a human comma. The pause beckons you to slow down, nestle into yourself, relax. Take a deep breath and let the world woosh by — it will still be there when you’re ready to jump back in. We invest so much of our time into making a living that sometimes we forget to actually live. Do yourself a favor — comma every now and then.


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