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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year to You and Your's [sic]...

It's gratifying during the holiday season to receive cards and gifts from relatives and friends. Some cards include a "year in review" letter which I rarely read as the busy lives of others, their comings and goings, photos taken in the exotic places they've visited during the year, serve to remind me of the bland and cloistered life I live. The intent of this post, however, is not to lament the "gusto lives" of others but to address, compared to a trip to Machu Picchu or a tour of the monarch-laden forests in Mexico, the picayune subject of punctuation. After thirty-one years in the classroom unraveling the idiosyncrasies and vagaries of the English Language for school children, it's hard to let go the need to right the wrongs of English usage.

So, readers, let us plunge into today's lesson: the apostrophe. And, yes, whereas the word is "all Greek," it needn't be all Greek to those whose willy-nilly use of it bring out the English teacher in me. (Just the other day I had occasion to point out to the young ladies at my bank that I'd never before seen the surname of Santa and Mrs. Claus spelled as "Clause.")

As a subject, the apostrophe is no stranger to The Ripple. June twenty-third, 2013, I posted "Apostrophe to a Sign" in which I championed a cause for adding an apostrophe to some new Valley signage. Unlike periods and commas which appear fairly secure in the writer's comfort zone, the apostrophe is a conundrum, a puzzle, a snare and a pitfall to those who use the written word.

The apostrophe's purpose, as is the case with its fellow punctuation marks, is to clarify meaning in written text. Oral expression uses the subtleties of voice (inflection and pitch for example) to make the speaker's message clear.

While the apostrophe is employed a number of ways (omission of letters or figures...pluralizing letters or figures), one of its principal uses is to indicate ownership or "possession," especially where nouns are concerned. Ms. Sidney Mundy, my sage college English professor, stated the apostrophe was superfluous: the context of the sentence made ownership of something clear. ( Consider "the cats tail tripped the rat trap." No confusion here as to whose tail it was.) The conventions of written expression, however, require the writer, whenever he writes possessive nouns, to sprinkle them correctly with apostrophes.

Consider, then, those Christmas cards and gifts.What is a "grammar cop" to make of the salutation "Merry Christmas from the Smith's"? The apostrophe sensitive reader wonders "the Smith's what? Merry Christmas from the Smith's house, Smith's car, Smith's dog, Smith's driveway?" Even so, shouldn't the apostrophe be stuck after Smith's "S?" Context seems to indicate the well-wisher is more than one Smith. Aha! Just another case of a rogue apostrophe, a "lost and lorn" misplaced squiggle. False alarm. No ownership intended. Just a simple case of a noun plural: "We Smiths wish you a Merry Christmas." No harm or confusion meant.

To you Smiths, Smith's, Smiths,' a thank-you for your holiday greetings and well-wishes and a very hearty Happy New Year to you and yours, your's, yours' from The Ripple.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Curious Case of the Fallen Hummer: or A Bird in the Hand...

Over the weekend we hosted the family Christmas party. The day was unseasonably cold. A breath of frigid air from the Arctic vortex gripping most of the nation leaked into our mild maritime climate. For two or three days daytime temps didn't rise above freezing. The chickens' water bucket froze solid during the night as did the hummingbird feeder outside the kitchen window. I took to bringing both bucket and feeder in at night and setting them out in the morning frost free.

Thanks to our local hummingbird species--Anna's--we have a front row window seat of hummer activity year round. Winters, during rare periods of sub-freezing temperatures, a male Anna's perches sentinel in the backyard maple within twenty feet of the kitchen window food source. During the day I like to play "Where's Waldo" with the tiny bird, where after close scrutiny of several bare twigs either the dull green sheen of his back or a twist of head and beak give him away.

On party day my brothers had retired outdoors to the deck and were engaged in a lively competition, a bit of oral frivolity involving olives tossed high in the air, when brother Keith noticed what he thought was a leaf drop suddenly from a maple branch. When he went to investigate, Keith found a male Anna's hummer lying motionless in the grass. He gently scooped it up and to share his discovery, called me over. Other than appearing stunned, the bird looked to be uninjured: eyes open, wings not all appearances unharmed, just stunned. Stunned how? It didn't fly full tilt into a window pane but landed on a lawn that's now mostly moss. I took the bird from him, not knowing quite what to do with a handful (and a very small one at that) of hummingbird and took it inside.

Although I inserted the bird's slender beak in an eyedropper full of syrup, it would not drink. I closed my hand tighter, thinking my body heat might bring the little guy around. Just its shimmering ruby head and stiletto beak were exposed. For a few minutes I wandered around the house cuddling the tiny bird in my hand. In a show-and-tell mode I went from one household guest to another: "Look what I have here." Five or six minutes of public display was all it took and then a fluttering in my closed fist like I was shaking hands with a prankster holding a buzzing vibrator button. The little fellow had revived and was demanding release which I was only too happy to grant. I stepped outside, opened my fist...a pause, and then the bird shot from my hand, darted up in the maple tree, and perched on a twig. It had hardly escaped before it zoomed in to protect the feeder from an upstart female.

Grateful on the one hand, puzzled on the other, I tried to make sense of it all. When I shared the incident with a birder friend of mine, he said regional hummingbirds survive our harsh winter climate by entering a state of torpor which enables them to regulate their metabolism to conserve energy and body heat, a physiological phenomenon where, like flicking a switch, hummers can literally shut down the life within them. Perhaps at that moment I had observed a state of hummingbird torpor? But why would such a tiny, vulnerable creature do such a thing? Switch himself off and drop twenty feet to the ground possibly to be picked off by a marauding cat? Such behavior seemed so un-Darwinian. I have also heard that a hummer can starve to death in an hour's time if it doesn't find nourishment. Not sure if science substantiates that, but I'm inclined to side with my wife's theory. She believed because of all the olive tossing on the deck, plus the bustle of activity around the kitchen sink, the little male was afraid to access his food source and succumbed to a hypoglycemic tailspin.

All theories aside, my heart lifted when that little bird left the warmth of my hand and returned, apparently unscathed to our kitchen window to remind us once again that some day summer will return.