April 24, 2007

My family is not this exciting.

This is the story, summarized from a Chronicle article, of how a 19-year-old boy, his mom, and his grandmother all ended up in the San Mateo County jail last week on theft, drug, and prostitution charges.

Mom, who is 39 and advertises herself on Craigslist as a âGoth girlâ prostitute, stole a car several months ago by walking up to a man sheâd never met, telling him that she was an old friend of his, and asking to borrow his car. Although Iâm certain this would never work for me, even back when I was an actual girl-aged Goth girl, this guy hands her the keys.

If this were a movie, weâd now cut to the following scene:

PARKING LOT, late at night, several weeks later. Crickets are chirping, and so forth. MAN is standing in the same spot. He clearly has not moved. His beard is growing out and he is covered with a fine layer of dust. At the beginning of the shot, he is wearing an EXPECTANT EXPRESSION, which slowly changes to a DOWNCAST LOOK.

MAN (in a sad voice): I donât think sheâs coming back.

So the man finally figures it out and reports his car stolen, including the idiotic part about how he believed that this woman he didnât recognize was actually an old friend. After the cops are finished laughing, they look into it and find that the woman already has a warrant for probation violation and a record as long as my arm. So they track her down through her Craigslist ad and set up a âdateâ with her at a motel in San Mateo. When they get there, they find her prostitutinâ away (presumably corseted up like an aging Goth club kid), and they find her meth and her syringe. They donât find the car.

Mom tells the cops that her mother and her son â thatâs the 19-year-old and his 57-year-old grandma â are in the car, somewhere nearby, with an underage runaway girl. This turns out to be true. Grandma turns out to have a fake ID in her purse, which she tells the cops she uses to pass bad checks. She also turns out to have a record slightly shorter than Momâs. The son doesnât appear to have anything except a runaway teenaged girl and a big grin. Oh, and a stolen car. So they all get hauled in and, in one heartwarming intergenerational courtroom scene, arraigned on various charges:

Son: Auto theft and receiving stolen property.
Mom: Probation violation, drugs, prostitution, and auto theft.
Grandma: Receiving stolen property and unenumerated charges related to the fake ID and check fraud.

Thereâs a great MST3K episode featuring a movie called I Accuse My Parents. This 1945 morality tale was about a basically good kid named Jimmy whose chilly middle-class home life drives him to crime and gangsterism, and to falling in love with a trashy nightclub singer named Kitty. The movie starts with his inevitable murder trial and attempts to build his case, via flashbacks, for how his parents made him this way through their drinking and arguing. All of this is, of course, an elaborate set-up for the filmâs punch line; while Jimmyâs the one whoâs on trial for killing someone, he does a neat redirect to pin the blame elsewhere: I Accuse My Parents!

Well, I Accuse My Parents too. Talk about insanely boring middle-class families. Sorry, Baby Sister, but you know itâs true. Whenâs the last time you and Grandma got busted joyriding in a stolen car with an underage runaway while Mom was getting cuffed for meth and prostitution, dressed in fetish gear? Yeah, thatâs what I thought. Me either. I rarely even ask to borrow my actual friends' cars; Iâve never talked a stranger out of his keys. Iâve only used Craigslist looking to purchase a car, cheaply but for real money, and for apartment listings, and once I contacted a few people who had chairs for sale. I once worked in a motel room for a night, but it was because I sprayed too much bug spray in my apartment and I had to relocate elsewhere to sleep and study. Iâve written some checks I shouldnât have, but they were to the phone company and my credit card company, and it was my real account and it only happened because I was broke and I canât do math. I even paid the $35 overdraft fee.

I blame all of this on my boring-ass parents. They donât really drink at all, let alone too much. Consequently, they fight like normal people, not like alcoholics who hate each other. And unlike Jimmyâs parents, when I won an essay contest, they tended to notice and say something nice. On the other side of the scale, when I was in high school, my mom handed me down her old car; she didnât even go out and steal one for me. I had to procure my own drugs and teenaged girls, for Godâs sake. My mother always seemed convinced that I was going to end up in a life of drugs and prostitution, and that I was going to haul my sister down that road with me, but I think our upbringing was just too normal, vanilla, white-bread Girl Scout for that. Boring!

All of this is why, rather than living an exciting life of intergenerational crime sprees or ending up in the arms of a gangsterâs floozy, I am sitting in my clean, bright apartment, SINGLE, with about 9,000 books, writing questions for a grammar quiz on restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, phrases, and appositives, because I care more that my students can write intelligibly than that they think Iâm cool. Thatâs hopeless by now anyway.

Can you find and fix the two grievous errors in the following sentence?

Anyone who thinks their family is vanilla, obviously hasnât met mine.

Posted by katie at April 24, 2007 03:06 PM | TrackBack

If you're talking about "they" to refer to gender-neutral third person, there's some conflict about it. Ben Yagoda, in one of his excellent grammar books, points out these examples:

Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing: "God send everyone their heart's desire!"

King James Bible: "In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves."

According to Yagoda, this craze of "anybody who thinks his family" vs. "anybody who thinks their family" came about in the 18th/19h century, kind of at random. I say you go with what sounds better in any given sentence, but then I'm not grading your quiz.

Posted by: didofoot at April 24, 2007 03:44 PM

p.s. Nod to the entry, and if any of my teachers had ever given me a grammar quiz, I would have been her disciple for life. Or their disciple, if you like. =)

Posted by: didofoot at April 24, 2007 03:46 PM

"Anyone who thinks his (or her) family is vanilla obviously hasn't met mine."

That's my vote, unless you're one of those people who (god help us) accept the use of "they" as an English singular neuter pronoun. If you are, then my vote is, "What the fuck?" Anyway, I don't know where you were all those times that Mom and I hot-rodded it around town in stolen cars full of coke and Hollywood hookers. They say the first child in a family is always the responsible one with a boring life, and apparently they're correct.

Posted by: Dianna at April 24, 2007 03:51 PM

His (or her) is awkward, though, as is his/her. Just her sounds too determinedly politically correct, while just his sounds archaic and out of touch...until English ponies up with a naturally evolving, not awkwardly invented gender-neutral pronoun, I'm sticking to 'they.'

Posted by: didofoot at April 24, 2007 03:58 PM

Grammarian flame war!

Oh ho, Madam, I rebuke you with a stiffness and propriety derived from the stick wedged firmly up my ass. You are clearly a permissive grammarian bent on relaxing the standards of English usage to the point of mutual unintelligibility. If we refuse to maintain the thin barrier of number agreement that separates singulars from plurals, we risk losing our personal pronouns, our conjugations, and our very articles. What then stop them from sack their library and great city and pull down very wall of civilization? What reason they not live in cave?

OK, OK, sorry, just kidding. I mean, I actually take your point, and I know thereâs a new school of grammarians who argue for relaxing some of the rules that cropped up during that 18th-/19th-century period of crazy codification. I just happen to disagree, in part because it was as a result of those rules that written English calmed down and a lot of ambiguities and weird usages were excised. Weâve got a âstandard Englishâ now, and I think thatâs essential for clarity. I also think that using "they" as a singular pronoun is actually far more awkward. Although I do it all the time in spoken English, because it's so hard not to, there's something about seeing it on the page that makes me wince, especially on 25 or 35 or 45 papers in a row. Also, I hate to see my students tag themselves as ignâant because they make these mistakes without knowing that they are mistakes. Agreement isnât that bad; the commas are the worst, man, the worst.

Posted by: katie at April 24, 2007 04:41 PM

Oh, I agree with Di's reworking of the sentence, especially the removal of the offending comma between the subject and its predicate.

I looked all this up in my satisfactorily dogmatic 1878 composition and rhetoric book, hoping it would come down explicitly against slack pronoun usage, but it really has little to say on the subject. On the other hand, in the rhetorical section of the book, it defines "wit" as that which derives from "such an unexpected relation between ideas as will excite surprise, but no other and higher emotion, like that, for instance, excited by the sublime, the beautiful, or the useful," and it offers the following example of the successfully witty:

"A spaniel, a woman, and a walnut-tree, --
The more you beat 'em, the better they be."

Posted by: katie at April 24, 2007 05:04 PM

It's ok, I too have many grammatical points I cling to despite the way they're evolving out of modern speech. Some for clarity's sake, some just because I like the old way better. The spelling of "through" for example. "Thru" makes way more sense, but I just hate it.

In Edith Wharton's autobiography there are long sections deploring the ungrammatical speech of the people she met. Not their writing, mind you; she actually SPOKE correctly. Try doing it by 19th c. rules; it's exhausting.

Posted by: didofoot at April 25, 2007 08:22 AM