Again I am humbled. Doug is a retired-early test technician (lab tech sounds better in a header) with no formal training in English – nothing beyond high school for composition, grammar, syntax, or literature – but he does read a lot. Avid readers tend to be better writers than non-readers. Doug and I met because I wrote a letter to the newspaper with a quote from Bertrand Russell, and Doug mailed me a letter asking where on earth I’d found it. He thought he’d read everything of Russell’s. That was my first clue that this modest lab tech was more erudite than I. I’d only read a hundred pages or so of Russell, if that. I skim a lot.
We kept writing each other. Years passed. Eventually Doug got the hang of using email and web surfing so he wouldn’t have to keep photocopying and snail-mailing magazine articles to me. He sent me links to Iowa Cold Case, a site created by unpaid volunteer Jody Ewing, to keep unsolved murder cases in the public awareness. Jody also happened to be co-founder of one of the largest and oldest online writing workshops, so I promptly joined. Soon I was swamped with reading and critiquing novels from people all across the globe, and submitting my own fiction. A role reversal occurred with Doug. I used to send him ten emails to his one. Now I was the one who didn’t reply to every email.
Doug had a good excuse for taking a long time to write back. He’s so scrupulous, so careful and thoughtful, not just in catching typos and polishing his words, but in making sure he hasn’t said anything offensive. I, on the other hand, hurl a blizzard of words into the ether, never even suspecting I’ve said something offensive until another door slams in my face. Yes, you’d think I’d know better by now. You’d think I’d follow Doug’s good example, and weigh each word, and chop out any offenders, and make sure the smile emoticon indicates I’m only kidding. I tend to tease my friends the way guys on TV do, with insult-humor (or so called humor).
Okay, I’ll cut to the chase. Doug and I found equilibrium. He read a few chapters of my novels. These are chapters that had been workshopped and critiqued by the “pros” – fellow novelists, some of them published. How could Doug catch 13 typos in the first 5,000 words when a dozen other “pros” had missed them?
In my recent blog on Shistosity and the Slaty Cleavage, I had “velocity” in mind and re-spelled the rock term as “shistocity.” Doug emailed me “watch your spelling of schistosity.” I re-read my blog. I didn’t see the problem, even though I’d posted a link to a journal article clearly titled SHISTOSITY, not Shistocity, and Slaty Cleavage.
Indeed, we see what we expect to see, or want to see, and for a proofreader, this is not a good thing.
I am indebted to Doug in so many ways for so many thoughtful emails, gestures of friendship, and research he does just for me even though I’d never ask him to go look up something for me. Doug’s neighbors and fellow residents of his small town also could tell countless stories of his generosity and kind deeds. The irony of this: Doug is an atheist, and everyone knows atheists are amoral and selfish! At least, that’s the misconception that led me to write our newspaper in the first place. In another blog, I might tackle notions of right versus wrong and how humans supposedly can’t or won’t heed the difference unless they believe in a Supreme Entity who created right and wrong. Oh, dear. Bertrand Russell. I can’t find the quote that launched a thousand ships (or 10,000 emails, as it were) but Doug will have it. He’s organized, reliable, and good at research. Skills any novelist would envy.
–Sure enough, Doug came through just now with the quote that launched a thousand emails:
“Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible, thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid … Thought is great and swift and free, the light of the world, and the chief glory of man.” ― Bertrand Russell, Why Men Fight
Thank you, Doug, for being there, like the light in a farmhouse window one spies while trudging hopelessly through a blizzard.