Friday, June 27, 2008

modifier modification

I think I've mentioned that I've been doing a lot of editing for my boyfriend--both of his still-not-finished thesis and of a travel journal he wants to make into a book at some point. I find this work to be very satisfying because it gives me the power to fix grammar errors. However, since becoming an editor in this regard, I've noticed an increase in the intensity of the psychological discomfort I experience when I encounter grammar errors that I cannot fix, which is to say, most of them. I feel especially uneasy when these are errors which will be read by many people, who, I fear, won't even know the difference. My Grammar Errors album on facebook has served as a helpful antidote to this discomfort, but it only works for errors that are big enough to photograph, which excludes those found in books, Christmas newsletters, and online forums. In an effort to alleviate a bit of my current annoyance with misplaced and dangling modifiers, I am going to catalog just a few here.

I'll start with one I ran into 6 months ago but which has stuck with me. Dear friends of mine, in their first Christmas letter as a married couple, wrote the following sentence: "After exactly ten years as a vegetarian, Nathan's first Thanksgiving turkey has Katie eating meat." The modifier here is supposed to be modifying Katie, the (former, apparently) vegetarian, but, grammatically speaking, it is actually modifying the turkey, which is the subject of the sentence. Ergo, if one were to read this sentence the way it is written, one would properly assume that this turkey was a vegetarian (and also at least 10 years old, for that matter.) A correct sentence would have been something like this: "After exactly ten years as a vegetarian, Katie eats meat: namely, Nathan's first Thanksgiving turkey!"

Katie and Nathan should know better, because, well, everyone should know better, but it gets worse. As it turns out, plenty of people who make a living by writing make this same mistake! Take A.J. Jacobs, whose book, The Year of Living Biblically, I am currently reading (and loving, but that's beside the point.) A few pages ago, I read the following pair of sentences: "I spend a half hour tidying the medicine cabinet. I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A(acacia) to Z(zein), which, as a former encyclopedia reader, appeals to me. " The former encyclopedia reader, of course, is A.J. himself. It is not zein, nor is it the fact that the ingredients go from A to Z (either could be concluded from the grammatical arrangement of the sentence as it is). The sentence, therefore, should go something more like this: "I notice that the ingredients in Chlor-Trimeton go all the way from A(Acacia) to Z(zein), which appeals to me, a former encyclopedia reader."

Even my beloved Augusten Burroughs has trouble with modifiers. In his most recent book, A Wolf at the Table (which was a little disappointing to me--and not just because of the grammar), he writes the following sentence: "Despite slathering himself with lotion, blood continued to soak through his clothing, making him look stabbed, wounded." This one is actually, in my opinion, worse than the ones I just mentioned, because the object of the modifier is not merely far away from the modifier, but is actually completely absent from the sentence. This modifier, therefore, is "dangling" rather than just "misplaced." The modifer ("despite slathering himself with lotion") is obviously referring to a person (hence the personal pronoun "himself"), but there is no person in the sentence at all. It's a mess. Here's a better version: "Even as my father slathered himself with lotion, his blood continued to soak through his clothing, making him look stabbed, wounded."

Perhaps the most heartbreaking dangling modifier I have seen latley was one I ran into on the etsy forums. When you read it you'll understand why it's heartbreaking. Here it is: "As a former English teacher, yes, that would be a correctly used set of commas in your example." That's right. An English teacher dangling a modifier. It makes me cry a little. Who is this person? Well, that's the thing; we don't know who she is, because she is not the subject of the sentence like she should be. What she meant, I hope, was this: "As a former English teacher, I can tell you that you have used commas correctly in your example." (To her credit, she was right about the commas.)

The moral of the story is this: When you write a sentence with a modifier in it, ask yourself what (or who) you are referring to, and then make sure that this person/place/thing/idea is 1) in the sentence and 2) next to the modifier. In doing so, you will not only communicate more clearly and accurately; you will also make a positive impact on my personal mental health.

Thank you, and have a nice day.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

skate expectations?

I was quite surprised to see the little gold star next to an etsy treasury with the title "skateboarding," but what, after all, is more essential to skateboarding than a sidewalk? Many thanks to thekeepershouse for the feature! Every time I look at this list, I'm reminded of the great Magee and Me movie, "Skate Expectations." Good--if a bit random--memories ensue. :)

what wondrous love is this?

through our sacred wand'ring
our minds were called
to the wondrous love
of a soft but fiery God

Sunday, June 1, 2008

lessons learned (1-5)

In that message from futureme that I just wrote about, my past self asked me if I had learned from the struggles I've had with Graves' disease and the consequences of it. In my post, I wrote that I have. I throw around that idea a lot, referring to the ordeal as a "learning experience" to lots of people I talk to, but it's time to be specific. What exactly have I learned? I haven't tackled this because it's just too much, too vast. I will never be able to articulate all of it; it will never be complete. It can't be clearly quantified, but I nonetheless feel like it's time to compose a list. Here is the first installment.

1. I learned that the stigma associated with mental illness is still around and that it even affects people who know better. Educated people. Insightful and compassionate people. Clinical psychology majors, for goodness sake. I thought I understood that people with mood disorders like depression weren't to blame--that it wasn't their fault, that they needed help and shouldn't be ashamed of getting it. I thought I viewed mental illness the same way I viewed physical illness. I didn't think I judged or looked down on people with depression... but then I became one of them. And I denied it, and I hid from it, and I ran away from it, and I denied it some more, just for good measure. I thought, depression happens, but it can't happen to me! What on earth will people think?! Etc. I know this doesn't sound like a very hopeful or helpful thing to learn, but it is. Understanding my own bias has informed my understanding of this stigma in general, which will make me a better therapist on a few levels. This inside information, complete with messy emotions, will, I hope, help me to know better what I can do to help eliminate stigma, as well as how to relate to clients who are resistant to therapy (or medication) at first. I'll know how hard it was for them to show up and say, "I'm depressed," because I had to do it myself. I'll get it, because I was there once too. I'll be able to say "I understand" and mean it.

2. More generally, I learned what depression feels like. I already knew the DSM criteria, but now I get it. This first-hand understanding will help me to have a level of empathy with depressed people (clients or otherwise) that I wouldn't have had before. A few years ago, I wouldn't have a really hard time processing a statement like, "I can't make myself get out of bed and take a shower." I still have thoughts along the lines of "How can that be?" but I nonetheless know that it can be. Because it was.

3. My diagnosing skills have also been greatly informed by my personal experience. Most notably, I know the importance of a little criterion we like to call "rule out GMC." Practically every diagnosis has this criterion--a message to the diagnositician that if these symptoms you've checked off are the result of a physical illness, then you don't make this mental health diagnosis. The doctor I first went to didn't follow this rule. He wrote me a prescription for antidepressants before he even took my vitals. If the nurse hadn't taken my heart rate and blood pressure (and noticed that "big thing" on my neck," I would've suffered for a lot longer, because a general medical condition was the reason for my symptoms. "Rule out GMC" is usually an afterthought, both in the classroom and in the doctor's office, but it probably saved my life. In therapy, I will never treat someone for depression without strongly encouraging them (because, you know, coercion is kind of frowned upon by APA) to get their thyroid checked. Mark my words.

4. Along the same lines, I've learned a lot about the mind-body relationship, which plays a central role in psychopathology and psychotherapy. The book of Proverbs tells us, "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones"(17:22) and "A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones" (14:30). Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked. The affect each other bidirectionally. Though I have my hunches, it really is impossible to say which came first (my depression or my thyroid disease) , but the point is that each of them made the other worse. The two couldn't be separated, and they both had to be treated. My understanding of this connection will surely inform my work as a clinician.

5. Obviously, I've learned a lot about the thyroid and Graves' disease itself. This education has enabled me to help people with thyroid disease--to offer advice and information as well as encouragement. Just a few days ago, I got an email from a fellow Graves' patient who stumbled upon my blog. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to be a resource for her--and hopefully a source of hope, too. I hope to have more of these opportunities.

(more to come...)