Fun with Apostrophes

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As a writer, I care about the written word. I care about proper grammar. While I have been known to dangle a preposition at the end of my sentences, I usually try to do what’s proper, especially in my writing for hire.

I had an instance this week where I wanted to confirm the name of a bay in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Someone who works for an agency in another state asked me to review a web site about this bay, which is the subject of a federal cleanup project because it’s contaminated. My office coworker is also helping with the project by providing engineering advice.

The title of the web page was first thing I noticed. It was called “Howards Bay,” which just screams out for a possessive apostrophe, doesn’t it? (Howard’s Bay.) Unless, of course, the bay was named after someone with the last name of Howards vs. the first name of Howard.

I’ve run across instances before where proper grammar for place names flies out the window because some mapmaker hundreds of years ago labelled places incorrectly on local maps. As such, writers like myself are required to grit our teeth and perpetuate the mistake because what’s on the map has become the actual factual name for those places. One example is the St. Marys River, which empties out of Lake Superior and into Lake Huron. It makes me cringe every time I write it, but there’s no possessive apostrophe in that name due to a mapmaker’s error.

Hoping against hope that wasn’t the case for Howards Bay, I investigated. I looked on the internet. I found that newspaper stories about the bay gave Howards an apostrophe. I found that many government documents (but not all) did not. I asked friends if they knew which form was correct, and received helpful suggestions about where else to check. I looked it up on the U.S. Board of Geographic Names website. It had “no data available” about this name.

Along the way, I discovered that that state of Wisconsin (where Howards Bay is located) has a state Geographic Names Council. Who better to ask? So I sent them an email. While I was awaiting their reply, I learned more about the organization. They seem mainly formed to approve new names for lakes and other geographic features.

They have a list of rules for new names. Among them is one that says, “newly acquired proper names for geographic features shall not be designated with ” ‘s ” or “s”, indicating possession, following the name. For example: Mott Lake, rather than Mott’s Lake or Motts Lake.”

Geez, I wish they would have had that rule in place when Howards Bay was being named!

The next day, I received the geographic names councilperson’s reply to my apostrophe question. Here’s what he said: All of our records that I have been able to find have no apostrophe for Howards Bay. I’ve attached a state sediment sampling document as evidence. I cannot give a more definite answer to the “official” name but I would say that the consistency in our records would point to this being the correct spelling.

In the meantime, with my dogged grammatical passion, I had asked the state cleanup project manager for Howards Bay the same question. He said: The apostrophe question has come up before.  I have not been able to determine which version is correct and occasionally catch myself using both. For consistency, the project team chose to perpetuate the mistake and go with the original name shown on maps, i.e. “Howards.”

Aaargh! Why are we at the grammatical mercy of ancient map makers? I say that modern writers should rise up and free themselves from this typographical tyranny! Add the apostrophe “s” and may the mapmakers be dammed!

Who’s with me?

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**Update** August 9, 2017

A friend of mine asked a research librarian with the Superior Public Library the origin of the name of Howards Bay (also called Howards Pocket). She said it’s named for John D. Howard who held an interest in a sawmill on Connors Point. He died in 1891.

So there really should be an apostrophe because it is Howard’s Bay. Darn those mapmakers! And there should be an apostrophe in Connors Point, too, but I’m not even going to go there. 🙂

Enough with “Farm-Raised” Ingredients, Already!

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By Thegreenj (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

You all know how I love critiquing television commercials. I just saw another one that reminds me of the 2015 ad for Lay’s “farm-raised” potato chips. This commercial was for Beneful grain-free dog food, which employs advertising professionals who are trying to sell us on the merits of all that “farm-raised” chicken in their dog food. The phrase is mentioned at least three times during the ad.

I ask you, WHAT OTHER KIND OF CHICKEN IS THERE? When’s the last time you heard of a flock of wild chickens captured and used for dog food? Never, I warrant.

While I have nothing against farms, and I am happy that chicken is the number one ingredient in Beneful’s dog food, the fact that it is “farm-raised” only makes me laugh.

Sexual Harassment, Wilderness-Style

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A couple of my crewmates clowning around during a break on a bluff above Mountain Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Back in the early 1980s, my first summer job in college was as a volunteer for a U.S. Forest Service trail crew in northern Minnesota. This was the first year the Superior National Forest ran a volunteer program, and I looked forward to spending time in the woods after living in a big city where trees grew out of cement. Our task was to clear several long-neglected hiking trails along the Canadian Border in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The experience not only taught me how to use a crosscut saw, but also an effective and rather devious method to counter sexual harassment. (No saws involved, however!) You see, I was the only female crew member. One woman and four men tromping around and living in the wilderness together, 24-9 (twenty-four hours per day for nine-day shifts). You do the math. Between each shift, we had five days to recover.

Because the boundary waters is a federally designated Wilderness, we were not allowed to accomplish our task via any motorized or mechanical means. This meant we carried in all our gear by hiking or canoe. This gear consisted of hand tools such as axes, saws, nippers, and shovels, plus our own food and camping equipment. We tented on lakes near the trail and fixed up the campsites along the way, too – digging new latrine holes and smoothing out the dirt tent pads.

Volunteering had seemed like such a good idea at the time. But after about four days, I started asking, What have I gotten myself into? We hiked for miles each day. It was June and the blackflies, mosquitoes, and ticks were out in full force. I could easily slap twenty mosquitos into my jeans with one swipe. We used government-issue bug dope that could take the varnish off of furniture – slathering it on at least five times per day. I’d also never cut through a tree before, and learning new sawing and chopping skills was challenging.

Portaging a canoe was new, too. The crew decided a good initiation for me was to carry our heavy aluminum canoe (this was before the era of Kevlar) up the 120+ steps on Stairway Portage between Rose and Duncan lakes. I made it, although my legs were shaking quite badly once I reached the end of the portage.

I tried not to let all the challenges discourage me. After all, I was in the outdoors that I loved. I was reading John Muir and Sigurd Olson’s books and was buoyed by their idyllic descriptions of nature. I wanted to help the wilderness.

I wrote this in my journal:

Save this space
for that lone bird
blending with the sky
and hill-green water.
Save it
for that flight.

I did not complain, and in fact, volunteered for extra work like hiking back to camp to collect a forgotten canteen, or going on a reconnaissance hike with our crew leader to assess the next day’s trail work. It looked overwhelming. The trail hadn’t been maintained in years, and massive piles of fallen trees blocked our path. In some instances, it was going to be easier just to reroute the trail instead of trying to cut through the deadfall.

Randy*, our crew leader, was a 225-lb. fair-haired Swede who was at the mercy of his vices of drinking and smoking cigars. Another notable crew member was Peter*, a divorced 29-year-old who worked odd jobs in Minneapolis – everything from dish washing to acting in television commercials. Handsome, but mercurial and insecure, he seemed mature at times, but at others, like he had a chip on his shoulder. His perpetual five-o’clock-shadow gave him the look of a stereotypical prison convict. He was also always sharpening his knife, which gave me the willies.

Our evenings were spent around the campfire. Collectively, the guys had brought enough liquor to fill a whole backpack, which came out at that time. Their conversations, which centered around whisky, wilderness, women, and hopping trains, were punctuated by swearing. “Sh*t” and “motherf**ker” were their favorites. They called the tourists that we came across “peasants,” as if they were the wilderness-poor who could only stay in the boundary waters for a short time, while we were truly rich because we got to stay here for most of the summer. I tended to agree with them on that point.

Because I was a woman, I slept in my own tent. The guys slept two or three together in the other tents. Near the end of our second trip, several of the guys started making comments at night when we were all in our sleeping bags. They’d yell over, half-joking, half-not, “Hey Marie!  What does it feel like to have a c**t? Hey Marie, come over here, I have something I need your help with.” You get the drift.

I had never encountered anything like this before. I can’t remember if I acknowledged their taunts or not. And where was crew leader Randy during all this? I don’t know. Probably asleep, or feigning sleep. By the second or third night, I was finding their comments tiresome.

The next day, after the hard labor of constructing erosion control bars on a steep portage, the guys went skinny dipping while I was in my tent reading.

After a while, they mentioned getting cold and that they were thinking of coming out of the water. Instantly inspired, I made my move. I came out of my tent and sat on a rock not far from the lake, enjoying the view and all that nature had to offer.

With me sitting there in all my femininity, the guys did not have the courage to walk naked out of the water. So I sat, not talking, for a good long time. After their teeth started to chatter, I stayed a few minutes more, then nonchalantly ducked back into my tent.

You know what? The vulgar comments stopped, and I didn’t even need to complain to any authority figures. I only needed to muster a little spunk and show them what it felt like to be vulnerable (and very cold and shriveled) because of their gender.

The gender thing wasn’t all bad, however. One evening before the harassment started, Peter volunteered to heat up water over the fire and help me wash my hair while the other guys were gone fishing. He rinsed the suds out onto the ground instead of into the lake, which was our drinking water. His fingers massaging the luxurious warm water through my hair felt divine.

We had a nice talk around the fire afterwards, during which he asked me out to a play in the nearest small town. I don’t recall my exact answer, but it was probably something non-committal, given that I had a boyfriend of sorts back at college. And then there was all that knife-sharpening he liked to do….

I found out later from the other crew members that Peter had in fact just gotten out of the state prison, so it was probably a good thing that the hair washing didn’t woo me.

The harassment didn’t stop me from eventually working for the Forest Service. I volunteered again as a photojournalist on another ranger district in the same forest during my first summer after college. That eventually led to my hire as the forest public affairs specialist.

During the five years I was a Forest Service employee, I never got harassed by another employee. But that could be because I had a reputation. 🙂

*Names have been changed.

Clearwater Lake

The view from one of our campsites on Clearwater Lake.

My Sons are Immortalized in Plastic

 

It seems the Mattel Company, makers of the Barbie and Ken dolls, have stolen my sons’ likenesses for their new “Fashionista” Ken Doll line. The “Comeback Camo” Ken Doll and the “Chill in Check” doll look EXACTLY like my boys.

I will not further exploit my sons by posting their actual images to my blog. You’ll just have to believe me that the resemblance is uncanny, even down to the clothing.

I was sort of creeped out when I saw the TV news story about the new doll line the other day. I mean, what are the chances that two out of 15 dolls could double for my offspring? A follow-up question is, what kind of mother am I to give birth to not one, but two cultural stereotypes?

I should be mad that Mattel has taken my sons’ likenesses without their consent. But it’s also rather flattering.

Either way, I know what my sons are getting for Christmas this year!

Elephant of Love

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Photo of African elephants by Gorgo, Wikimedia Commons

My youngest graduated high school this month. The milestone has triggered some reminiscing in me. He was the one they had to cut from my belly when he was born eighteen years ago. Before the doctors lifted him out of that airless world, the anesthesiologist said, “Now, you’ll feel like an elephant is sitting on your stomach.”

I was glad for the warning because that’s exactly what it felt like – a deep pressure that I never experienced before and hoped never to again.

Despite his rough start, we both recovered quickly. The nurses were charmed by his big blue eyes and dark hair. They also liked that he was loud. “He’s a good baby,” they said. “He’ll always let you know when he wants something.” They joked that it was hard to keep diapers on him because, “Your baby has no butt!”

My son’s roars and spunky nature garnered him the nickname of “Tigger,” after the bouncy stuffed animal from the Winnie the Pooh books. He met his big brother and seamlessly fit into our small family.

He took his first trip at four months when I had to go to New Orleans for a work meeting. He wasn’t one of those babies who cries on flights. Instead, he smiled at everyone and had all the stewardesses wrapped around his tiny pinky finger by the time we arrived. He got to ride the St. Charles Streetcar and stay at the Inter-Continental Hotel downtown. Pretty good for a little guy.

He was so cute that sometimes I actually welcomed going away to work because it helped me avoid “cuteness overload.” Just to test whether all his cuteness was in my head or not, when he was two, I entered him in a Cute Baby Contest held at a local mall. Turns out, the judges agreed with me. He won first place for his age group for Prettiest Eyes, and second place overall. He could have advanced to more contests, but he did not enjoy the experience, so I spared him. I had the proof I needed by then, anyway.

On the first day of kindergarten, he was so excited, he ran down the street to the school at the end of our block. Soon, he knew the names of everyone in his classroom, and even those of kids from other classes.

The only pause he gave us growing up was his accident-proneness. Once, he wore his Superman pajamas (complete with red cape) and tried to fly off the basement steps onto the concrete floor below. That did not go as he planned. (Concussion.) Another time he tripped in the kitchen and hit his forehead on the corner of a wooden bench. (Stitches required.) Then when we went to Mexico and were eating at a restaurant in the sand on the first night, he turned quickly and ran his face into one of the poles that supported the hammocks. (No stitches, just lots of crying.)

Weird accidents with other kids happened on the playground and in school. There were black eyes, bruised hands, sprained ankles, and innumerable scrapes. Oh, and I mustn’t forget his third-degree arm burns when a classmate mishandled a hot glue gun.

He kept us busy with swimming lessons, baseball games and soccer practices. His transition to high school seemed to go well at first but he had a hard second year. He became quiet, elusive, moody. He rallied in his third year when he was chosen for the varsity soccer team and was required to keep his grades up to play. He finished his senior year as one of three co-captains of the team.

Even though a torn knee ligament sidelined him for part of the season, he earned the title of “most dedicated” player. And when he returned to play, he completed the most beautiful head shot into the net that I have ever seen.

Now, he has a long-term lady friend, a job, and he’s poised on the cusp of a new life stage. We are having a graduation party for him this weekend, and I expect that sometimes during it a certain feeling will overtake me — a deep pressure in my gut that I hoped never to feel again.

But I will be glad to feel it, because this time, it’s the big-assed elephant of love.

Here’s to you, my son.

When is a Bridge a Bong?

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The Bong Bridge as seen from the water.

I was giving directions to an out-of-town acquaintance the other day when I told them they’d need to drive over the Bong Bridge. They looked at me, wide-eyed, and started snickering.

Yes, it’s true. In Duluth-Superior we have a bridge by the name of Bong. The Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge, to be exact. It’s named after a World War II flying ace, but out-of-towners and the uninitiated don’t know that. The name always provokes some kind of reaction.

I was away at college when the bridge was being built and named in the early 1980s. Whenever I returned home and drove on the freeway down the hill into town, I would notice more bridge pillars in the harbor as it slowly came into being. I can’t recall if there was a lot of controversy about the name, but I assume there must have been some.

Although the name is a nice tribute to a local war hero, the people who thought up the name HAD to know it would get shortened to just “Bong Bridge” or just “Bong” in the local vernacular. After all, we have another bridge that spans the same body of water, which is named after John A. Blatnik. Everybody just calls it the “Blatnik.”

“Take the Blatnik to Superior,” we say. Now we can also say, “Take the Bong to Superior.” Most locals know that won’t get you into trouble with the law.

It’s just such a questionable name. I can’t believe it got through the transportation department’s approval process. But Richard Bong must have had a big fan club that overwhelmed common sense when it came to bridge names.

Bong Museum

A mural of Richard Bong and his wife Marge from the Bong Museum in Superior.

We even have a Bong Museum. But it doesn’t contain what you think it might. Not even one. I know. I checked.

The name does make the Bong Bridge easy to remember, I’ll say that for it. While it’s confusing having two bridges that start with a “B” in the area, differentiating between them is easy. The Blatnik is the bridge closest to Lake Superior and it’s named for a guy. Then there’s the other bridge farther inland that’s named for drug paraphernalia.

Maybe the name was a good idea, after all?

The Fox is Guarding the Henhouse in America

It was with great dismay that I read about the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator’s removal of nine members of from its scientific review board. The board in question (the Board of Scientific Counselors, or BOSC for short) is one of two that help the agency determine what issues need its attention and funding.

The dismissals hit close to home because I used to be on the BOSC. From 2010-2013 I served as a communications advisor to the EPA on this board.

I know, you’re looking at me and saying, “Really – you?” Yes me. I know I don’t seem like a high-powered research scientist because I am so fun, witty, and seemingly non-scientific. And besides, I get chased by turkeys and attacked by squirrels. But YES, I really was appointed to this influential federal committee not long ago.

The main point I tried to make to the EPA during my tenure was that they didn’t have public communications components to their programs, and that they needed them. I suspect this is one reason why more people aren’t even more upset about some of the changes President Trump has recently made or proposed for the agency. People don’t understand what the agency really does (other than fining corporations for pollution violations), so they don’t understand the significance of Trump’s actions.

Yesterday’s New York Times article says that administrator Pruitt plans on replacing the ousted members with people who represent industries that are regulated by the EPA. Pruitt spokesman, J. P. Freire said, “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.”

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My favorite name tag mistake of all time came from one of my BOSC meetings. The name tag makers just assumed I was a Ph.D. because everyone else on the committee is a Ph.D. Alas, I am only a “master.”

This almost sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But think about it. These people will be in a position of power to change things. Maybe they don’t like all the regulations their corporations are subject to. Gee, maybe they could fix that.

Let’s say the EPA is like a bank — a bank made up of natural resources, if you will. Corporations use natural resources to make their products. The EPA is in charge of protecting the health of natural resources – rather like how a bank vault protects the money from bank robbers. Take the vault away, and what do you have? Free money for bank robbers!

Allowing corporations to control the agency that regulates natural resources is like allowing bank robbers on the board of trustees for your bank. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t sound like a very good idea to me. It’s the old “fox guarding the henhouse” deal.

Write your congressional representatives, please. Write letters to the editor. Bang on a drum. March in the streets. I’m going to.

Then I’m going to take all my money out of the bank and bury it in the back yard.