singular they and respecting an individual’s pronoun preference

I have long attempted to be aware and sensitive in my writing. I have a copy on my shelf of Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. It was published in 1980, and I have a paperback edition published in 1981. Perhaps parts of it are dated, but it shows that consciousness and inclusiveness in writing is not a new topic. As the world has become aware that gender identity is not always a binary matter the subject has become more visible. No doubt the pandemic lockdown gave this a boost when we were all on Zoom and many of us put our preferred pronouns next to our name. That has become a convention on LinkedIn as well.

crumpled paper and notebookI discovered that writing in a conscious manner is not necessarily as easy as it might seem. I recently reviewed the book How Far the Light Reaches by Sabrina Imbler. Imbler identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/their/them. I attempted to respect that in my review. I thought I had done a pretty good job but searched on “she” and “her” just to be sure. Was I wrong! The review contained female pronouns throughout that I had to correct. I even wrote, “Imbler identifies as nonbinary and I use her pronouns of choice.” (And yes, I fixed that as well before hitting the Publish button).

Some people still get their knickers in a knot about singular they, but for many of us that ship has sailed. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style states, “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun, however, they and its forms are often preferred.” and “In general, a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.” But Chicago hedges its bets. Section 5 is the “Style and Usage” section written by Bryan A. Garner. Garner writes, “For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” Garner does, to his credit, repeat the assertion that a person’s preference is to be honored.

In the fifth edition of his Modern English Usage, published just last November, Garner provides a detailed history and analysis of the singular they. He concludes with some rather circumspect advice:

quoteHow future generations will deal with disambiguating they as either singular or plural in Standard Written English remains to be seen. Only time will tell. In the meantime, careful writers using the singular they must take care to avoid ambiguities, miscues, and awkwardness.

Of course, I’m not making any revelations in saying that singular they is nothing new. Grammarians and linguists have been making this point for a very long time. An article on the Oxford English Dictionary web site states that the usage goes back to at least 1375. I have seen it mentioned many times that Shakespeare used singular they and that he used it more than once. For example, an essay on the old Language Log web site at the University of Pennsylvania cites two examples, including this one:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

There are plenty of other examples throughout literature, and much ink has been spilled (or many electrons rearranged) on the subject, so I won’t go on beating a horse that should be dead.

In a world filled with people like Ron DeSantis, where we are fighting battles that should have long ago been won, the least we can do is honor the wishes of our nonbinary brothers and sisters siblings.

And if I slip up kindly let me know.

Experiencing Shakespeare

Experiencing Shakespeare coverExperiencing Shakespeare: From Page to Stage
Alissa Branch, MA
University of Oklahoma
$24.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

The premise of this course is that Shakespeare is meant to be heard and seen on the stage and not read in a book. That would appear to be obvious, but too often his work gets read rather than seen performed.

Alissa Branch is an experienced actor and director who knows Shakespeare well. With the help of two young actors she explains how we can best experience the great playwright. She begins the course by talking about Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age. Branch tells us that the theater was probably the only place where people of all social classes came together. She says that the theaters were crowded, with some attendees right next to the stage. Branch explains they were a rowdy bunch, often interjecting comments as the players performed. She describes how theaters had no roof, just an overhang above the stage, and plays were performed in the daytime, not at night. Women were not allowed on the stage, so women’s parts were performed by boys whose voices had not yet changed.

Branch explains what most of us probably learned when we studied Shakespeare in school: he wrote most of the dialogue in iambic pentameter, blank verse. Each line consists of ten beats positioned in an unstressed-stressed pattern. However, in a later lecture she describes how Shakespeare wrote some of his dialogue in prose, which the playwright uses to indicate a change in mood or tone.

When I took my Shakespeare class in high school the paperback versions we read had stage directions, but those came from later editions. As Mr. Hill, our teacher, constantly pointed out, the original manuscripts had no stage directions. Branch spends some time explaining how the actors had to discern entrances and exits as well as the blocking by extracting hints from a careful reading of the dialogue. In fact, actors in the Elizabethan age did not even have full scripts. The printing press at the time was just beginning to come into its own, so actors worked from a long parchment “role” with only their lines, plus, perhaps a few notes providing cues. Modern actors, obviously, receive complete scripts, and when performing Shakespeare often mark their iambic pentameter dialogue with the stressed and unstressed syllables.

While many Great Courses series consist of only a single professor providing the lectures, Branch had the assistance of two professional actors, a woman named Brooke and a man named Kam. Brooke and Kam performed scenes from various plays, helping to demonstrate the point Branch making. The three of them also demonstrated what the environment might be like in the rehearsal room. Branch took on the role of director while Brook and Kam discussed how they might deliver their lines and block out their stage movements, making notes in their scripts as they worked. While it’s easy to take a performance on the stage or on the television screen for granted, Brooke and Kam showed how much preparation is necessary to achieve the end result.

Most Great Courses lecture series are twenty-four or thirty-six lessons, but Experiencing Shakespeare is only twelve. That’s about six hours of material, and it is six hours well spent.

How Far the Light Reaches

How Far The Light Reaches coverHow Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures
Sabrina Imbler
read by the author
Little, Brown & Company (December 06, 2022), 5 hours and 41 minutes
$25.96 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

In How Far the Light Reaches Sabrina Imbler has compiled a series of essays that constitute both a memoir and a sort of bestiary of sea creatures. Each essay describes one aspect of life in the ocean and also some part of the author’s (or their family’s) life. (Imbler identifies as non-binary and I use their pronouns of choice.)

Imbler describes a vigilante crusade to go to Petco and persuade customers not to buy goldfish and subject them to life in a small bowl. They then discuss what happens if you flush a goldfish down the toilet or throw it into a pond or stream. Surprisingly, the goldfish will thrive. It will thrive, in fact, to the point of becoming invasive in its new environment.

In an essay about the longest-known animal gestation, an octopus who carried her eggs for over four years, Imbler writes about their mother’s struggle with weight loss. An essay on another invasive species, the sturgeon, also describes their grandmother’s escape from China when invaded by Japan.

Mostly, though, Imbler writes about their own life. In an essay about the sand striker (also known as the bobbit worm) the author describes how men took sexual advantage of them when they were binging on alcohol. Imbler takes the opportunity here to write about social justice. They write they are neither willing to blame the men nor excuse them on account of the system in which they were instilled:

quoteAlmost every system we exist in is cruel, and it is our job to hold ourselves accountable to a moral center separate from the arbitrary ganglion of laws that so often get things wrong. This is the work we inherit as creatures with a complex brain, which comes with … the duty of empathy, of understanding what it means when someone is stumbling.

A long essay on how humans kill whales, or how whales sometimes simply beach themselves, describes how scientists do a whale necrology and how they write up those necrologies. Imbler explains they took a class on whales thinking it would be about whale biology and life cycle, when it was actually about whaling, much to their consternation. The author interweaves their own necrology on a failed relationship with a woman, that woman being the reason they signed up for the class in the first place.

Imbler is candid about their own relationship struggles. In an essay about the cuttlefish and how it can change its appearance, Imbler suggests they may have spent too much time changing their appearance to please a partner. Describing a tiny sea creature that travels in swarms Imbler writes about their own participation in the New York City lesbian community.

I enjoyed listening to Imbler’s voice reading these essays, but I am not unequivocally recommending the audiobook version. The print and e-book version contain line drawings which (obviously) are missing from the audiobook. And Imbler’s writing is so vivid and evocative that seeing it on the page or e-book screen is likely to be an equally marvelous experience.

The bottom line is this: If you are interested in marine biology, or if you care about the experience of gay and transgender people, or if you believe in humans looking out for one another, then How Far the Light Reaches should be on your reading (or listening) list.

Every Good Boy Does Fine

Every Good Boy Does Fine coverEvery Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons
Jeremy Denk
Random House (March 22, 2022), 370 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $18.79

All of a sudden I am reading (or listening to) books about classical music. Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Declassified by Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch. This week I finished the Kindle edition of Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine. You might look at these books as mirror images of each other. Warsaw-Fan Rauch is female, a violinist, and straight. Denk is male, a pianist, and of ambiguous sexual orientation. Warsaw-Fan Rauch gave up her career in music while Denk still teaches and performs. Both books interweave autobiographical material with interludes of musical instruction.

While Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s book is more of a memoir, Denk’s book is an autobiography. He recounts his life from childhood to getting his PhD. He describes his childhood on the East Coast and how that was uprooted when his father opted for a more stable and less stressful job as head of Information Technology at the University of New Mexico in Las Cruces. This was fortunate for Denk in that as a youngster he was able to get piano instruction, something he began before moving west, from the professor of piano at the university, even though he did not normally work with kids Denk’s age. Denk’s parents, though, were not keen on listening to him practice and put the piano in the opposite end of the house from where they spent most of their time.

Denk writes about his life in New Mexico and the challenges he faced there. His mother had a serious drinking problem which complicated his attempts to practice the piano. As a reader I was wondering how long his mother would last, but she eventually got sober and lived to see her son perform in major recitals during his college years.

The author was not only talented musically, but academically. He graduated from high school early and arrived at Oberlin College at age sixteen, where he declared a double major in music and chemistry. From there he headed to Indiana University (IU), where there was a teacher with whom he wanted to work, and then on to Julliard for his PhD (though he had begun doctoral work at IU).

Denk describes his teachers who were terribly demanding and very finicky about how he played certain passages. Frustratingly, he sometimes received what seemed to be contradictory instruction from different instructors. He is candid about his somewhat awkward social skills, and although he had relationships with two different women, he hints at an occasional attraction to men, and directly recounts the attraction of a couple of men to him. About his junior year he writes, “Somewhere in there I lost my virginity,” although he does not provide the gender of the person with whom that happened. Denk is also honest about his alcohol consumption, admitting to arriving for important events where he was to play while hung over.

The title of the book refers to putting words to the letters on the musical scale. Denk, in his own telling of it, despite a lot of irresponsible behavior, in the end does in fact do fine.

indulging in nostalgia

Several years ago when Dick Cavett was posting on Facebook he mentioned that his old shows were being shown on a television service called Decades. The programming was shown on a digital subchannel on CBS-owned television stations. As luck would have it, our television provider at the time, Verizon (later sold to Frontier) offered Decades, which Channel 2 in Los Angeles carried on one if its subchannels. I was delighted to be able to watch the Cavett shows along with other gems of the era, such as Laugh-In.

Frustratingly, the CBS-owned stations dropped Decades and replaced it with a service called Start TV, which features action-adventure shows, particularly those starring women (Rizzoli & Isles, for example).

Since then we had switched to Spectrum because we were upset with Frontier’s pricing policies and because we wanted to be able to watch the Dodger games, which at the time were only available on Spectrum.

Decades logo and taglineThis winter PBS broadcast a marvelous special that documented the relationship between Cavett and Groucho Marx, showing some of his many appearances on Cavett’s shows. An accompanying New York Times article quoted Cavett as saying he still watched his old shows on Decades. The Decades channel was still around? Really? I went to the Decades web site and found no indication that it was available on Spectrum in Southern California. Not willing to give up, however, I used the search function on my cable box and found that Decades is carried on Channel 14, a low-power station in Ontario, a city thirty miles east of Los Angeles. Spectrum carries that station.

So I have my Decades and Cavett once again. I love watching the old Cavett shows (there were several incarnations). Talk shows were different in the late sixties and the early seventies, and Cavett’s show was more cerebral than most. One episode featured Louise Lasser and the psychologist Albert Ellis. Lasser quizzed Ellis about the ethics of the profession and the differences between Freudian psychology and (what were at the time) current practices. In response to a question from Cavett, Ellis defended himself against a quote that appeared in the New York Times, explaining the context and the nuances surrounding his complete presentation from which the quote was extracted. In another episode, E.G. Marshall said that if we can send a man to the moon who hit a golf ball across its surface, we should be able to provide universal healthcare. (Some things don’t change.)

Of course, guests smoked on the set in those days. E.G. Marshall lit a cigarette for Maureen Stapleton. An elderly Bette Davis failed to observe the convention of moving down a chair when the next guest was introduced, perhaps because she didn’t want to leave her seat next to the desk where the ashtray was.

There are some differences in the current incarnation of Decades. Laugh-In, once a Decades staple, is gone, but there are plenty of old CBS programs, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ed Sullivan, and the various manifestations of the Lucille Ball series.

That’s more than enough to satisfy my need for nostalgia.

I Came All This Way to Meet You

I came All This Way to Meet You coverI Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home
Jami Attenberg
Ecco (January 11, 2022), 253 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon paperback $17.99

I am always ready to read about writers, and if it is a memoir so much the better. I knew I had done the right thing in buying I Came All This Way to Meet You when early on I read, “I fully understand what the words do for me: when I write, it’s a place I can go to feel safe. It has always worked that way for me, ever since I was a child. The safety of a sentence.” That resonated.

Jami Attenberg reflects on her life as a writer and she is honest about her struggles. She describes a book tour for an early novel in which she drove around the country in her own car, knowing that her bank account would be empty when the tour was over. And the tour did little for her book sales. She writes about doing commercial writing to pay the bills and subletting her New York apartment while she went to live in Seattle for no good reason.

In fact, Attenberg writes a lot about her living situation. She describes living with friends while pursuing her craft. She recollects living in a Manhattan apartment when she had a high-paying, high-power corporate job, and giving that up for a Brooklyn apartment in a building where other tenants like herself were trying to escape the New York rat race, but where the landlord was not keen on making repairs. Ultimately, she was able to buy a home in New Orleans where she could have guests rather than be the guest.

Attenberg tells us how her original publisher dropped her because of dismal sales, but she found another publisher where an editor saw the potential in her work. She was able to make book tours on the publisher’s dime, including trips to Europe. But anxiety over flying and other stresses brought their own issues. She found herself consuming drugs, both prescription and illegal, and abusing alcohol.

The author is also honest about her health and her love life. She tells us more than we need to know about her uterus which betrayed her, the pain and discomfort she suffered, and the freeing hysterectomy that she put off far too long. Attenberg writes about her attempt to make a relationship work, about the disputes and arguments, and how she second guessed herself, wondering if doing something different here or there might have made things different.

We also learn a lot about her father, who spent his life in sales. During the lockdown in 2020 Attenberg was living in New Orleans and her parents in Florida. She took the opportunity to do a phone interview with her father and obtain some of the detail she had not known about his long career. Her father’s philosophy was that selling is selling and if you can sell one thing you can sell anything else. I found this section rather tedious and uninteresting, but it was simply an interlude in a book that otherwise fully engaged me.

Attenberg brings it home when she writes:

quoteWhenever my life turns into any kind of cliché, I am furious. Not me, I want to scream. Not me, I am special and unusual. But none of us are special and unusual. Our stories are all the same. It is just how you tell them that makes them worth hearing again.

She’s right, as painful as that is to acknowledge. I admire Attenberg for sharing the truth about who she is and how she sees herself.

The Real Ancient Egypt

The Real Ancient Egypt cover imageThe Real Ancient Egypt
multiple professors
various institutions
available for streaming with a Wondrium subscription

This series is different from the standard Great Courses lecture sets. It features four professors in a sort of round robin discussion on each of the nine topics in the course. The presenters are Melinda Hartwig of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Betsy M. Bryan of Johns Hopkins University, Kate Liszka of California State University, San Bernardino, and Kasia Szpakowska formerly of Swansea University.

The four Egyptologists offer insights into ancient Egyptian culture and work to clear up misconceptions on the subject. They point out, for example, that ancient Egyptian culture lasted for three thousand years and that it was not monolithic. There were, they tell us, many changes in the culture during that time, including, for example, burial practices. Professor Bryan makes the point that curses to protect a tomb disappeared after the Old Kingdom.

The first episode discusses King Tutankhamun. They tell us he was not a major king, it’s simply that his tomb was discovered intact and not plundered, a very rare thing. Tut, in fact, became king very young and did not reign for very long. Recent genetic testing, they say, shows us that Tutankhamun’s father was Akhenaten, known for initiating the Amarna Revolution in which he moved Egypt’s capital to the city by that name which he built from the ground up. He threw aside all the other gods in favor of the worship of the disk of the sun. That did not last and his son initiated the return to the worship of the traditional gods. (They point out, by the way, that Akhenaten isolated Egypt politically and did not participate in the international community of the Near East, something that was disruptive to the region.)

One of the most interesting episodes was the discussion of the women rulers of Egypt. There weren’t many, but there were some. A few ruled in their own right, others seem to have acted as regent, as Nefertiti appears to have done with Tutankhamun when he was young. Evidence shows us that these women were smart and capable.

Not being a standard Great Courses lecture series, there is no course guidebook for The Real Ancient Egypt. That’s unfortunate because it would be nice to have such a thing for reference. For example, they several times displayed a graphic timeline showing the various phases of ancient Egyptian history: The Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, interspersed by three Intermediate Periods. It would be nice to have that available to review.

I have long had some familiarity with ancient Egypt, but this series had information with which I was not familiar. I certainly felt it well worth my time.

Young Bloomsbury

Young Bloomsbury coverYoung Bloomsbury: The Generation That Redefined Love, Freedom, and Self-Expression in 1920s England
Nino Strachey
Atria Books (December 6, 2022), 303 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $29.00

As a Star Trek fan I am tempted to call this book Bloomsbury: The Next Generation. I believe author Nino Strachey was wise not to choose that title.

Plenty has been written about the original Bloomsbury group that centered around Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but Young Bloomsbury covers material less well documented. In addition to the Woolfs, the original group included the author Lytton Strachey and his longtime companion the artist Dora Carrington. Also part of that group was Ralph Partridge. The three of them formed a consensual household. Lytton preferred young men, but valued Carrington’s companionship. (Dora went by her more gender-neutral last name.) Ralph preferred women, and the two eventually married for convenience. The three presided at Lytton’s country estate that was frequented by younger visitors.

One of the regular visitors to Strachey’s estate was the sculptor Stephen Tomlin. Although he and Lytton were regular lovers, Tomlin (“Tommy”) fell for Julia Strachey, Lytton’s niece. They eventually married, but the relationship was a stormy one. Ultimately, they lived separate lives, although they never divorced, something that was rare in the Bloomsbury group. John Strachey, Lytton’s younger cousin, was one of the few to do so. He was also one of the few members of that circle to engage in politics, although Leonard Woolf wrote pieces for the Labour party.

Another of Lytton’s lovers and a regular visitor to the compound was the novelist and music critic Eddy Sackville-West. In fact, most of the men in the Young Bloomsbury group were gay. It was a dangerous time for these young men as homosexuality in England was illegal, and one could be arrested for cosmetics or attire that might simply suggest such an orientation. But for these men Lytton’s estate and home in London provided refuge.

Those of us who were around in the late sixties and early seventies thought we were being progressive regarding sexual and moral matters, but the Bloomsbury crowd was ahead of us by half a century. No one blinked an eye at the Strachey/Carrington/Partridge arrangement, and no one had any judgments about the same-sex relationships of the younger generation. The author says Virginia Woolf “provided a sympathetic adult ear in a period when same-sex love was open to hostile challenge.” Wolf did, however, observe the activities of men like Tommy and Sackville-West with a certain bemusement, as quotes from her letters and diary show. Such opinions, though, were without negativity or judgment.

As a member of the Strachey family, Nino Strachey was granted open access to archives and records. And as she states in the beginning of the book, she has another reason for her interest in the subject. She tells us she has an offspring who identifies as gender fluid.

Young Bloomsbury is fascinating reading and adds a new dimension to the history of a rich period in twentieth century British arts and letters.

thoughts on Epiphany

Epiphany stained glassToday is Epiphany, when Christians, especially those in the liturgical tradition, observe the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. I often see this famous Howard Thurman quote around Christmas Day, but to me it really belongs on Epiphany. After all, the Wise Men, the kings and princes, didn’t encounter the Christ Child until twelve days after his birth. In any case, we are well-advised to heed Thurman’s words.


When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

Metaphysical Animals

Metaphysical Animals coverMetaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life
Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman
Doubleday (May 10, 2022), 416 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $21.99

Metaphysical Animals is a joint biography of four women who studied and taught philosophy at Oxford. The authors investigate the lives of Elizabeth Anscombe, Mary Midgley, Philippa Foot, and Iris Murdoch.

The book examines the lives of the women as undergraduates at Oxford in the days before World War II. This was a time when women were rather grudgingly accepted as students there. The authors then describe their time at Oxford during the war when there were very few men present. Later in the war they had to leave Oxford as women were conscripted to perform civilian tasks in order to assist with the war effort. All four of them returned to Oxford after the war, taking on various teaching roles.

The narrative is bookended with a prologue and epilogue that center on Oxford’s desire to give Harry Truman an honorary degree and Elizabeth Anscombe’s efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, to block that honor on account of Truman’s responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The obsession of the authors with this incident is rather puzzling as it has little to do with the material in the rest of the book. Nonetheless, Mac Cumhaill and Wiseman cover a lot of territory in the decades that this book covers.

Given that we are talking about Oxford, there is a lot of attention paid to the classics, and these women studied with professors whose works I read as an undergraduate at Pitzer College. I knew Gilbert Murray and his treatment of Greek Tragedy and E. R. Dodds who wrote the assigned text The Greeks and Their Gods. (Dodds, I did not know, was interested in the paranormal and a member of the Society for Psychical Research.) They also studied with Gilbert Ryle, with whose work I became acquainted in a philosophy class.

One philosopher who gets a lot of attention in the book is Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although he taught at Cambridge, he was in London during the war and Elizabeth met with him regularly. After the war she continued to study with him. In fact, she translated his final work from the German after his death and took his former Chair at Cambridge University.

The final quarter of the book is less biography than an exercise in “doing philosophy.” I took two philosophy classes during my first two years at Pitzer where we did philosophy. That was a long time ago and engaging in this kind of mental gymnastics is a different way of thinking. I admit to having had trouble absorbing this material.

Oddly, I did not see evidence of the claim in the subtitle that these women “brought philosophy back to life.” It is only in the book’s Afterward that the authors clearly detail the significant accomplishments that the group left behind. I would like to have seen those accomplishments more clearly described in the body of the book.

However, those interested in the academic history of mid-twentieth century Britain and those who love the process of philosophy will find Metaphysical Animals worthwhile reading.