Pronouns: They, Them, Their. . . and Thon

I sometimes struggle in a world that seems to be changing at a dizzying pace. Even though I don’t see myself as resistant to change (for the most part), some of my efforts to keep pace, I fear, are ineffective. It often leaves me feeling frustrated, and I think that’s because I’m afraid of being left behind, of becoming obsolete or being found insubstantial. So, for example, if I lose connectivity with the internet and my TV thus taunts me with a simple message to that effect, I stand like a fool in front of my TV with a collection of remote controls (some of which I should have parted with years ago and another of which I suspect is an egg timer), and begin clicking every button. When I’ve exhausted all available buttons and have shaken or pounded the life out of each gadget, I unplug every cord from every nearby device and replug them one by one, and hope for the best. Some areas where learning could — and should —take place, just don’t exhibit obvious signs of growth.

Where it concerns change, however, in another realm, I try mightily to trot along with the crowd, and maintain an open and willing mind. It’s indeed heartening to see that our society is striving to create a little distance between reality and our hurtful patriarchal past. In particular, there’s a long overdue yet growing sensitivity with regard to gender-based identity. Admittedly, there’s a great deal of push-pull in the exercise — as can be expected in times of great societal re-shaping. The tussle reflects most overtly in the writing of laws — with each law passed that endeavors to provide a measure of fairness and comfort, there’s another one that sends the pendulum swinging wide in the opposite direction. Change can be uncomfortable — big change is hard.

One change that should be coming more easily to me is surprising and vexing me with how difficult I am finding it. My background includes a solid understanding of language (I have my high school Spanish teacher Sr. Faria to thank for instilling a love of foreign languages), so the expanded applications and use of the pronouns they/them/their to refer to a gender-neutral person should result in a positive embracing of the utilitarian nature of these pronouns. I say utilitarian because they, them, and their have long been used to refer to an antecedent of indefinite gender, even in the singular. (Here is a perfectly acceptable example: Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by their parents. I used to wrestle with the acceptability of using a pronoun that implied a plural antecedent, and would have said or written the sentence in this cumbersome way: “Every child wants to be loved unconditionally by his or her parents.”) Having been assured that Chaucer on occasion used the plural pronoun in similar instances, I am reasonably appeased.

It is one thing to accept the new normal, to get totally behind it — it’s another thing entirely to put it into practice or to navigate the new contexts in which I find it. This morning I read an article in The Atlantic about homeownership that was a fresh and highly engaging perspective. I was taken by surprise by the claim that homeowners these days are staying put longer than was happening when my husband and I bought our first house in the mid-80’s. Compare the five-to-seven year average from 1985 to mid-2000’s with the current average of 13 years, figures provided by HousingWire, a real estate news outfit. As I read along, musing that our first ownership lasted exactly 13 years — evidently, we far exceeded the average, I wondered about the reasons why homeowners these days stay put for a much longer stretch of time. It’s an idea that needs to be parsed, but perhaps later. I quickly got hung up on the featured homeowners, that weren’t homeowners, per se, but rather, homeowner (singular). The proliferation of they, them and their kept tripping me up, so unaccustomed am I to the evolving nature of gender-marking pronouns. I quickly found that my reading comprehension — which is never sharp in the best of circumstances — dropped to an even lower level. Unable to get back on track, I went into a panic. I was overthinking every sentence, looking at each as a mechanical arrangement of lifeless words that performed specific functions but conveyed no meaning. Subject-verb-object or subject-verb-adjective-object or subject-verb-possessive pronoun-object. I could no longer make sense of what I was reading, and it was all because I couldn’t get beyond the fact that a plural pronoun was being used for a singular antecedent. It’s like when someone tells you not to think about such-and-such, and then all you can do is think about it. At one point, I contemplated recasting the subject as a couple instead of one person, but that had no hope of working because I knew that the story was about Neilson, just Neilson, not Neilson and Amelia, or Neilson and David, or Neilson and their pet rabbit Twinkie. (See what I mean? Didn’t you just think that Neilson and somebody else had a pet rabbit Twinkie?)

Change is not easy. A part of me wants to re-read the article over and over until it feels natural. There’s a lot to recommend that approach, because it’s through repeated exposure that I’ll become accustomed to the pronouns’ new applications. On the other hand, I’m aware that there is another set of pronouns already out there that, unlike they/them/their; always refer to a singular, gender-neutral antecedent. Thon, thon’s, and thonself, where “thon” is a contracted form of “that one”. I find these words appealing because they’re so unfamiliar that I wouldn’t already have a fixed understanding or pre-conceived concept of their meaning. The freshness of these words would — in my mind — suit the new expectation. If I read the phrase, “When Neilson bought thon first home…” I wouldn’t have to first undo my understanding about Neilson and someone else; it would be Neilson. . . just gender-neutral Neilson.

It’s doubtful that thon and its other forms will ever garner enough followers to make it a viable pronoun. In my opinion, it’s a tragic waste, given that Merriam Webster had preserved its place in their dictionary from 1934-1961; alas, it was removed due to lack of use. Thon’s inner flame was extinguished too early, one might say.

As disappointed as I am that enough people are unlikely to be inspired to resurrect a perfectly adequate but demoted word, I’m nevertheless invigorated by this recent evidence of the transformative nature of our language’s pronouns. It is hoped that the adoption by the masses of better means to communicate gender identity will result in greater understanding and empathy. Now to invest the effort required to become skilled in their expanded uses. Right alongside efforts to identify remote control devices, as well as cords running — at times mysteriously — from wall outlets to contrivances like modems, cable boxes, security cameras, Roku streaming stick, Sonos speakers, Wii gizmo, and (oh, yes!) the TV.

A Thousand Ships

For those paying close attention (and I’m not suggesting that you should be paying close attention), you might have noticed a thematic repetition in some of my choices of books lately. It began with Circe, and having loved that book, I eagerly read The Song of Achilles by the same author, Madeline Miller. I just finished A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, and walked away from it with that same feeling of satisfaction. So, now I’m left puzzling over why I am just now being turned on by stories inspired by Greek mythology. Why now? Why not before?

One would think that there might have been a smidgen of curiosity way back when I was in high school. After all, our school mascot was a Trojan. Perhaps the turn-off was that everyone always considered the name’s other connotation much more naturally than any association with Odysseus, Helen, or Achilles, or just generally the whole Heroic Age. It’s possible that I quailed at the prospect of mispronouncing all those Greek names with a preponderance of vowels (and off-putting diphthongs). It is equally likely that the ancientness of it all failed to inspire me. I think I’m closer to understanding why I now can embrace these stories. The gradual shift within me has to do with a new acceptance of ambiguity, uncertainty. What I mean is, in the past I wouldn’t have been caught dead reading a story centered on the Trojan War, mostly because of archaeologists’ inability to say definitively where Troy was. While the accepted wisdom is that the walled city held an unassailable position at the southern approach to the Dardanelles (along the Turkish straits), I couldn’t imagine investing all that time into reading about an event that may or may not have taken place where the experts were in reasonable agreement that it did take place. Moreover, hedging their claims about the real names behind Homer’s characters only left me even more frustrated. If I were to read a book about war, I wanted a war from the last couple of hundred years. Everything about them seemed more conclusive.

The reason A Thousand Ships appealed to me is because Haynes freely admits (big surprise) that there are enormous gaps in our understanding of the role of women during that ten-year war (and the ten years that followed). With her imagination thus unfettered, she wove a vibrant, highly entertaining tale, one that portrays the female characters in ways that allow us readers to nod vigorously and say, “Yes, I can see how it might have played out that way.” There’s nothing high-brow in Haynes’ writing style; in fact, she very artfully transforms the unapproachable and fabled characters into flawed, mortal, touchable beings.

If you can get beyond the challenge of accurately pronouncing Greek names*, you’ll love this book. (I’m trying to ready myself to read The Odyssey, and maybe I should do the audio version to avoid my own mishandling of names.)

*As I read, I used online pronunciation guides, but even they were not in agreement. Sometimes, the British pronunciation deviated from the U.S. pronunciation, and other “guides” were just rubbish, contradicting rules of Greek phonetics (as I am beginning to understand them).

Lamenting the Decline of the Semicolon

Seriously, when was the last time you used a semicolon? Are you so afraid of using it wrong that you just don’t? Did you know that it’s considered the most controversial punctuation mark?

This past week I came across an essay on the diminished use of the semicolon, and it piqued my interest. I confess that I’m a big fan of that particular mark of punctuation; sometimes, a comma just can’t do the job, and using a period to create a full stop hews my ideas too radically. If you shy from using it, here’s a simple piece of wisdom from a 17th century language expert; Richard Hodges gives us this guidance: “At a comma, stop a little; at a semicolon, somewhat more.” (Follow link here to ThoughtCo.)

The essay that caught my interest, “The melancholy decline of the semicolon” by Will Lloyd (follow link here) was a delightful look at how authors and readers feel about the inherent worth of a punctuation mark that is so often misunderstood that it engenders strong feelings of contempt. Imagine that! A tiny grammatical function has the power to incite loathing.

Pause to consider what Ben Platt discovered in 2017: from 1800 to 2000, semicolon usage decreased 70%. Also, researchers at Lancaster University tell us that in the last 30 years, usage of the semicolon has decreased by 25%. One should not conclude that I’m a smug know-it-all when it comes to grammar and punctuation. I make lots of mistakes, and I frequently will re-write chunks of sentences just to avoid cornering myself in a situation in which only the best editors and language experts can maneuver with finesse. But there are times when I will not be dissuaded from its use; I will not, as others might suggest, use the em-dash or simply slap a period down with a sense of dramatic finality. I worry, too, that I’ll wake up one of these mornings and the headlines will be some version of: “Semicolon Usage to be Outlawed.” Just as worrisome is the thought that I’ll be among the 5% still using the semicolon, while the rest of the population will be communicating entirely in acronyms and sentence fragments. At some point, someone will ask with complete bewilderment, “What’s a sentence?” SMH WTF

A Few Memorable Reads from 2021

If I were to settle on the one book that I found most satisfying to read this past year, it would be Circe by Madeline Miller. When I finished it, I wanted instantly to call Lindsey so we could talk about it. And then I scrabbled around in my head, thinking, who should I give it to next? Circe now is in my other daughter’s queue. For those looking for a fresh (subversive) take on a peripheral character of Homer’s The Odyssey, I give this book my highest endorsement. (And this is coming from someone who has never even dabbled in greek mythology.) As I’m sure others have done when they finish a book that leaves them thirsting for more, I launched eagerly into another of Miller’s greek myths, The Song of Achilles (which was published in 2012, and, of course, endorsed on the cover of Circe). Loved that one, too!

It only seems fitting that I include a link to the indie bookstore where I bought Circe: https://www.waterstreetbooks.com/book/9780316556323

Here are just a couple other good reads, neither of which are new releases, but well worth your trip to the library:

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, 2019. The granular details of the 30-year struggle for peace in Northern Ireland (ending as recently as 1998 with the signing of the Good Friday accord) impress upon the reader the complexities and fraught realities of life in the region, particularly Belfast. As fascinating as this account is of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, not to be overlooked is the story behind the story, the controversial interviews that took place with key members of the IRA. Boston College’s Belfast Project became the focal point of an international court case as the two sides fought over control of the cache of interview tapes, the secrecy of which was promised by BC. I assure you, as soon as you finish the book, you’ll be online in a flash, trying to find out all you can about the “rest of the story.” Start by googling “Boston Tapes”.

The Immortal Irishman, the Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan, 2016. When my brother-in-law Tom recommended this book to me, I knew it would be captivating because there are few books that can grab and hold his interest for the duration. My other motivation had to do with a discovery I had made about one of my Uncle Jimmy’s Irish relatives; Se´an MacDiarmada, a possible second cousin of his father, was one of the seven signatories of the Easter Rising of 1916, all of whom were executed for their role in the insurrection.

The Immortal Irishman follows the inspiring life of Thomas Francis Meagher from his privileged beginnings in Waterford City to his participation in the Rebellion of 1848 to his life sentence on Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Australia, and his escape from there to the United States. You’ll follow with rapt interest his exploits as the gritty leader of the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, at every turn asking yourself, “How did he survive that?” His is a remarkable story, and Egan does him full justice in his methodically researched and even-paced narrative.

As you can see, my interest cleaves to 19th and 20th century Irish history, and that’s no accident. On nearly every branch of my family tree, my ancestors immigrated from counties all over Ireland — Donegal, Galway, Waterford, Clare, Monaghan, Cork, Kilkenny — to this country either during the Great Famine or a generation later. It’s natural to want to understand the lifestyle of our forebears and their reasons for leaving home. . . for good.

I’m curious to know what books have captured your interest in 2021. Any common elements or particular motifs?

My Favorite Book: the Evolution of a Bibliophile

Depending on when you ask me, the mood I’m in, I’m apt to give you a different answer to the question, “What was your favorite children’s book?” Sometimes I might answer, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. (The full title is actually A Little Princess, Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Being Told for the First Time). Other times, I’ll say Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It surprises me, then, that I’m now casting the exercise in a different light. If I tried to resurrect the good feelings that surrounded the experience, I would have a hard time saying which one made me feel the best. Memory plays tricks, especially if the experience is weighted with emotion. 

I’m doing just that right now — resurrecting the early emotional experiences of reading — and trying to dissect how I felt in the moment.  I read Misty several times; what made that such an enjoyable read was its ability to allow me to imagine myself owning a pony. . . that I would have bought at Pony Penning Day. It’s a common fantasy for little girls, and I fell hard in my pony yearning. It would last until I fell hard for boys.

Misty was, I believe, as much about the illustrations as the story. Maybe even more. Years later, the name of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, would come more readily to mind than the author’s name. I began to search for books that he illustrated, finding that he regularly did the artwork for Henry. I enjoyed those other stories, including The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, but not as much as Misty

While I’m pretty certain that I bought Misty at one of those Scholastic Book Club fairs that schools often had (and still do), the mysterious appearance of A Little Princess serves as an enduring vexation. I loved its story, even more, perhaps, than Misty, and greedily — no matter where I was in my reading — sought out the illustrations, scant as they were. Try as I might, I cannot call to mind where the book came from. Nothing was ever said about it, and because nothing was ever said about it, I concluded that it wasn’t for me to know. But, why wouldn’t the “benefactor” (as I would always view the anonymous person who put it conspicuously in my path) make a show upon presenting it?

Reading A Little Princess was a much different experience from reading Misty. The first time I held the book in my lap, I had shut myself in our upstairs closet. The closet was a favorite hideaway for all of us Morrisseys. It was a roomy space in the eaves between the two upstairs bedrooms. Importantly, it had lighting — a single lightbulb screwed into a porcelain lampholder with a chain pull, within easy reach of the deep cocoon that one could make with the sleeping bags and blankets. Surrounding my nest were army cots, Christmas decorations, boxes of photos and other items either permanently forgotten or relegated to uncertain status. The closet had a door. I was only seven years old, but even then I understood the value of solitude and privacy.

 My pleasure in reading A Little Princess was intimate, private, and solitary. One might say it was transformative. It was the first time that I could truly feel I was escaping, not just my family, but my tiny life. I lost myself in the story; it defined for me — for all time — the chief purpose of books, that is, to imagine oneself in another place, another time, and in different circumstances. It wasn’t as if, at age seven, I was weighed down with fearsome burdens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that I discovered for the first time that books offered magical alternatives, and, yes, temporary escape. Who wouldn’t love that, no matter what your life was like?

Nowadays, I typically have two, three, sometimes four books going simultaneously.* Even if I’m reading nonfiction, there’s a need to consider how the topic might tie into my life. It’s never remote or static. When I’m reading about specific moments in World War II, for example, I ask myself, how would my life be impacted if I were, say, a Frenchwoman living in Paris when Germany invaded the city in May of 1940? Teasing out that thought allows me to conclude that many residents — especially single women — found their options to be especially difficult. I can better appreciate their conflicted feelings about collaborating with the Nazis. If you’re starving or afraid, your unfortunate decisions are thus shaped. 

That’s merely one example of how books can shape our thinking, broaden our understanding of the world. Whether it be fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, true crime, etc., in some sense we are all looking to be transported. And although a return to a much earlier favorite might not produce the same feelings — in fact, it likely will not because our adult needs are far removed from those of our childhood years — we never stop seeking opportunities to deflect our current worries and to occupy our minds with more pleasant alternatives. 

*I should point out that although I read a lot, my brain often does a vigorous scrubbing; i.e., I’m apt to forget what I’ve read just as soon as I put the book aside.

Question for my readers: Can you think of books that, as a child or even now as an adult, you found transformative or influential? 

Hello from over here!

My blog, now more than ten years old, has moved to this new location. I’m poking around to see what this new home is all about, and exploring fresh ideas to make it perfect. I hope I can depend on your patience as I (boldly?) experiment with aesthetics and new ways of presentation. It’s an opportunity, too, to break away from habits that haven’t done anything worth keeping, either for you or for me.

If you’re a new visitor or follower, here’s what you can expect to find. When I was a high school classroom teacher, I was forever finding opportunities to tell my students stories, often about growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s next to a maximum security prison. Always there would be a point, sometimes subtly delivered, but educators never willingly forfeit a teachable moment. Chaos could be reigning, and all I needed to say (in nothing more than a conversational tone) to instantly grab their attention was, “Let me tell you a story. . . ” So, for decades, I’ve been telling stories, often in the oral tradition. Now blessed with an abundance of free time in my retirement, my brain has a chance to focus on my stories and luxuriate in the details. I’m enjoying this new sense of wonder that I bring to the effort. In short, this is all about my evolution as a writer. “Becoming a writer”, I find, is no easy thing. Just as there were countless acronyms and industry-specific expressions to learn when I entered the field of education, writing has its own lexicon. And best practices. And communities, some of which embrace new members warmly, but others of which who have forgotten what it’s like to be a novitiate (not in the religious sense), and get all smug and cold-shouldery.

One of the first lessons I have learned in my new endeavor is that “fresh new voice” often doesn’t include a second career baby boomer who fits into a majority classification. I get that, and I support organizations that are trying to bring understanding and fairness to the realm. It hurts, however, that my pieces might not be welcome, or that my ideas might be irrelevant for today’s conversations. At least, that’s what I fear.

All of my topics are nestled beneath an umbrella that encompasses my evolution as a writer. The particular topics that I prefer to write about include: my large, vocal family of Irish American heritage, genealogical discoveries within that same sphere, local history, my two capering canines, insights from my years as an educator, and commentary on what’s going on in the world. I have lots to share, lots to say, and I hope you’ll be just as eager to join the conversation. Maybe even coax me along so that I feel confident when I say that I’m a writer.

Let the adventure begin!