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Why Mary Shelley Kicks It

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I was prompted this week to think up a girl-activist to cover, and since I’ve already written a few times about Malala Yousafzai, my mind switched to literary mode and bee-lined straight to Mary Shelley. A lot of people wouldn’t consider her an activist—she is best known as a novelist, after all—but a quick look at her life shows that Mary had quite a bit to say, and at a very young age.

When Mary Shelley was a teenager, she wrote what is only considered the germ of modern sci-fi and one of the coolest and most nuanced monster stories to date. During the week I was assigned to read Frankenstein a few semesters back, my husband just happened to be in the middle of the story’s TV series adaptation Penny Dreadful, which focuses a lot on the monster that Shelley created. Both the series and the actual novel were a radical departure from the cartoonish, green monster of the twentieth century. Shelley’s monster was complicated and nuanced. His very existence challenged the social order, the meaning of life, and laws of physiology all at once. Shelley is famous for bringing a spookier air to the gothic novel, pushing the envelope even further with the monster’s anguish of existence and the terror he throws at Dr. Frankenstein for creating him and then running away (similar to the Deist god that was hanging around Europe and the United States around that time). More so, Shelley set the precedent for women in science fiction right out of the gate—even if it wasn’t necessarily followed through until Uhura—and showed her contemporaries the value of a woman’s contribution to arts. Two hundred years later, and we’re still basing things off of her work, which says something about her activism to get her writing out there, in whatever genre she wanted, no matter how new or male sounding.

I admire Shelley most for her writing—if you haven’t sampled her work, I suggest that you pick up Frankenstein for some evocative summer reading. Still, it’s hard to forget that she comes from a fiercely political family. Her mother had been the vocal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the perfect activist match for Shelley’s philosopher father, William Godwin. It’s no wonder then, raised around publishing and with a legacy as big as her late mothers, how Mary Shelley found the courage, as a girl, to begin one of the most famous writing careers the English-speaking world has ever seen.

An Introduction

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Hello to all of you! My name is Erin Seaward-Hiatt, and as I write this I am seated in my home office beside my pet shih tzu, Archie. You can learn a lot from a person by looking at her workspace, so here is a brief list of the things that are currently on or around my desk:

  • An artist’s contract for a publisher in Minneapolis
  • A 1950s Russian postage stamp commemorating Sputnik
  • A giant clothespin grasping a Canadian Thanksgiving card
  • A few Instax snapshots of cats
  • Several Kate Spade pocket journals
  • A Soviet-era cinnamon tin with pennies in it
  • The Devil in the White City
  • A Toulouse-Lautrec–style painting of someone’s butt
  • A book about magazine writing

I feel like all of this together paints a reasonably faithful portrait of who I am, which is a freelance graphic designer (and sometimes writer) with too many pets and at least a passing recognition of Canadian holidays. The journals are earmarked as Christmas gifts for friends I haven’t seen since before the late-December publishing-world monsoon hit, and the tin with pennies is just something I shake at the new husky when she’s being too barky. I’m from Chicagoland (with Newfie roots on my dad’s side) but currently live in good, old Provo, Utah, with my screenwriter husband, Neil, (who wrote this Studio C sketch about Santa’s elves forming a union).

For the past year (as of next week) I have been working solo in my home office designing books, books, the occasional flyer, and then more books. The goal was to work unfettered, and leaving my former paper craft design job—of close to seven years—was a necessary first step in both getting where I wanted to be as a book designer and, of course, digging deeper into graduate school. I’m pursuing a master’s degree in English and creative writing, and I occasionally write articles, like this one, about how feminist criticism has a knack for crashing right into religion. I’ve been published sparsely, but my goal is to grow the now-malnourished writing side of my little creative studio. This course will help with that and has the added perk of counting toward the graduate certificate in women and gender studies at Utah State, a credential that won’t scare off any potential feminist clients. I consider myself a feminist on a variety of levels and believe in questioning hegemony, whether we’re talking about a deep, political level or just in everyday subtleties. This course will be an interesting look at what we teach girls and how that information affects them as they grow into their roles as either perpetuators or squashers of negative tropes.

My interests are kind of all over the board, but some of my favorite experiences have been rescuing and caring for our new husky, flipping open the pages of a legit book to read something that I wrote, discovering Anne Brontë and Wax Fang, and watching this scene from Top Secret on a loop.

Oh, and you’re probably wondering whose butt is in that painting. No idea. But it’s a replication of an earlier White Elephant butt painting that my co-workers and I all fought for the Christmas before I resigned. I won but left it in the designers’ mock-up room as a mark of my existence and a commemoration of my tenure as their plucky leader in the unrelenting tempest that is paper crafting. The artist painted me a new one as a going-away present.

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Wherein I Review Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind

I have been up to my eye sockets lately in sciencey books. And not just whimsical topics either, like how toothpaste is made or why the yo-yo turned into a fierce legal battle. For some reason I can’t get enough lately of weighty, hopeless tomes about the cold war. You could call this recent interest my way of upholding my personal resolution to be a lifelong learner, but really it’s just because a mildly irritating bout of mono has renewed in me a sense of how much it must suck to get lymphoma from a nuclear weapons factory. So when Tyndale House Publishers sent me the twentieth-anniversary edition of Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind to review, I kind of jumped at the chance to take a break and sink back into our less-depressing, distant history.

As I turned over the final page, I realized I had been right about enjoying the nice foray into history. And I was wrong about the “less-depressing” part. To put a fine point on it, Rivers is a fine writer with oodles of experience turning hearts aflutter with her work in the romance world and a more nascent talent of exploring religious fiction. In public I generally hesitate to be numbered among romance or historical fiction fans. Her book reflects, though, a reasonably on-the-mark sense of what an early Christian might have gone through for her faith, and it might strike modern American sensibilities as absurd to really have to think about the fact that a Christian could be so persecuted. A Voice in the Wind, first published twenty years ago, came at a time in Rivers’ life when her conversion to Christianity begged her look at her writing in a new way. The novel is a well-researched account of early Christians in the first century, a tumultuous period in Judeo-Roman history and one I greatly enjoyed learning. The story moves through violent and often opulent backdrops to show, essentially, our heroine Hadassah’s journey as she loses everything she loves and remains steadfast in her religion. Regardless of the reader’s religious or social background, it’s heartening to follow a character who endures so much simply because she believes in something. So even though the book is full of sword tips tearing holes in tunics or sending half torsos tumbling to the ground, there’s something refreshing in the theme of faith and love.

A little criticism, though. I mentioned Rivers’ standing as a popular novelist, but I found some of the prose lacking in literary charm. Some of the ancillary characters’ dialog bordered on hyperbole or struck me as a little too cartoonishly evil. Nevertheless, the book was written in an accessible way that kept even a literary snob like me enraptured by the plot and historical elements. So even if your walls are full of Ferber and Orwell, make room—if you like history, religion, or just a gripping read, it’s worth your time to pick up A Voice in the Wind.

Not All Poetry Is Created Equal

Free verse is sometimes not
to me plausible poetry;

it’s usually just an odd
choice
of line breaks, like
when the cat
stabs at my return
key
while I malign Mondays
in a Tweet.
As a literary
type
I do feel obliged
to pretend I really get it,
that wonky poetry peppers
my discourse
and punctuates the shopping lists
and stupid jokes
in my pocket journal.
But in the end
I still prefer the limerick
about that old man
from Nantucket.

I Don’t Hate You

“Where should we go?”

“I don’t know,” he says. “Anywhere but that shitty, blue steel mill.” I like the shitty, blue steel mill. But he’s right; it’s been done, and it’s a dead trend. It’s just around the corner from our place on the south end of town, but I remember its quaint grunge appeal best when it’s been fixed in the backgrounds of engagement photos and glamour shots. People we know from all over the valley gather to strike their practiced poses before the dilapidated and unromantic structure, and almost monthly I cringe as yet another corrugated blue monstrosity tumbles from the folds of a delicate, hand-lettered announcement. Alone, the photos taken before this ugly, industrial tomb are striking and edgy. But arranged in a group on our kitchen table, they elicit a freakishly conformist vibe. How, and why, does everyone follow the same unspeakable laws of trend, and why does it never vary?

He drives. We search for a site with less shitty, blue metal and more character, something less cliché. He’s more original than that. It’s our day off from being creative, so we end up choosing a park with leafy trees and a white country fence. It’s pretty. It’s predictable. It’s easy. A family celebrates an elaborate reunion in the distance, and unrestrained laughter rises over the hill as we pick a spot. The whole scene looks suspiciously like artwork from a grade-school craft fair: picturesque and heart warming, but anticipated, rehearsed. We find an aesthetic tree near the ramshackle swing set, and I pose awkwardly while he adjusts his lens.

When we talked about shooting some photos, I imagine we both had perfection in mind. I would select an outfit that elongated my figure and hid my finicky midsection. My newly colored hair would spit in the face of physics, arranged into an untangled style that would hold its integrity throughout the breezy afternoon. He would find in me a model to mold into a star, and in his skilled hands my figure would retreat from everyday chaos, and I would be beautiful. My smile would beam, the camera would click, and he would make me shine.

“How come you never smile?” He positioned the camera again and again, doing his best to create art from my sterile visage. I looked as natural as a robot deep in the Amazon, and I couldn’t help but summon the comparison to Liz Lemon, that paragon of graceless femininity. Waving! You remember waving, don’t you? Shot after shot I stretched my mouth into a perfunctory smile, but the effect was unpleasant—something of an upside-down grimace superimposed onto a dowdy, wizened troll. His composition was flawless, but the subject left plenty to be desired.

Exasperated, we switched gears. “Make me laugh,” I said. “I want you to laugh with me.” It must have been an easy thing to laugh at just how stupid I was acting, trying unseriously to play the Marilyn when I’m really more of an Anita Loos: better penning the script than playing the coquette. The moment I fear that I’m trying, and failing, to look glamorous or sophisticated, I crouch behind my careful veneer and flee into sarcasm. So, we laughed. At me. And like the eerie latinate words of a spell, his loopy cadence roused something in me, and the resultant photos were stunning.

See, unless I’m laughing my ass off, I cut the figure of a pouty, unfunny hag. Well, at least to me. It’s exhausting to think how much of my day consists of my overcorrecting to keep the bitch mask from making an appearance. People always ask me what’s wrong, if they’ve offended me, if I’m having a good time. The answer is almost always nothing, no, and yes. I just wasn’t born with that infectious, heartwarming smile that turns up with nary a Simpsons reference in sight. Or maybe I was, and I lost it somewhere between the bassinet and the big, hungry world.

Maybe it was in the first grade. I was something of a teacher’s pet. Not deliberately, like that snotty asshole who sat by the radiator. But over the course of the first few weeks I’d done enough to establish myself as the charming, little redhead who had reminded our youngish, copper-haired teacher just why she’d gotten into teaching in the first place. Such singular intellect, I imagined Miss Quinzio cooing. I shall never stand before such a sparkling pupil as long as I live in this dreary world. She reminds me of a young Me! Beyond my parents, my teacher was the wisest, most sophisticated judge of merit I had at the ripe age of six, and I wanted to become the paragon of wisdom that she was. I wanted to sit before her and soak in all the knowledge and good sense that her twenty-three years on this planet had given her. I was her rapt student, ready for the molding.

Back when I was too young for school my older brother had taught me in the ways of cursive handwriting, advanced fractions, and defense against wet willies. The lessons were hard won but came in handy in those early weeks of homeroom. It turned out I was good at this school business. I spelled two-syllable words, knew all about Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, and had a firm handle on nouns and verbs. You could have asked me anything in the whole world, and after every inquiry my tiny hand would shoot in the air. I was a pint-sized rabbi with the whole of human knowledge swirling beneath my careful pigtails, and I beamed with satisfaction at a job well done. I was as confident and unabashed as a graduate student until the day that a heartless little boy wiped a booger from his nose and tore me down in one naked moment of scrutiny.

“How come Erin smiles all the time when the teacher calls on her?” the child sneered before scores of my friends. It was all so clear. Smiling, it seemed, was wrong. Smiling announced to the world that you had met your goals and were happy with the state of your life so far. Smiling meant you accepted yourself. And smiling was wrong. Six years old, and I was a goner. That day I became acutely conscious of my body and the countless signals its tiny motions would say about me to the world. I could no longer just be; now I had to do.

Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Erin, that’s seriously the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? You don’t feel comfortable smiling because you’re afraid that people will look at your mediocre life and laugh at you for being satisfied? Well, I’ve had WAY worse happen to me in the last twenty-four hours than you’ve had in your whole pathetic life! For instance, a dump truck ran over my cat, but it only got the back end, so now the cat is alive but has to walk around on a tiny chariot with a squeaky wheel, and she tracks poo all over my brand-new carpet and WON’T STOP MEOWING!”

To that, I say…maybe you should quit reading my blog and go take care of that.

It sounds trivial, but though I never dwelt with any serious consequence upon that first-grade moment until my adult neuroses forced it onto the table, it is unquestionable that it helped me unlearn smiling. I was ruined fast by a six year old in a Ninja Turtles sweatshirt, and it never occurred to me to write that kid off as an unenlightened asshole until I had a good twenty years of Mona Lisa camouflage behind me. Then too, I grew up in a paranoid, serious family with a crotchety gene stretching back to the Taft administration. The disease is as alive in me as an icy winter breeze, so even when I’m unspeakably happy I look like I’ve just wrestled half a kitten from beneath a dump truck tire. That’s not to say we don’t smile in my family; it’s just not our natural stasis.

I want to say the grumpy gusses in my life have meant positive things for me, that they merely allowed their world-weary paranoia and dissatisfaction to escape with untimely gusto. After all, Us v. Them is the court case that built humanity. It can be called Darwinian to have a family predisposition to draw inward at the first sign of conflict and retreat into the night with a sneer and a sarcastic rejoinder. It’s my pedigree, and it’s taken me years to come to terms with this austere defense mechanism.

So what does it take to make me smile? A Meg Ryan flick? Radical facial surgery to correct my un-used smile muscles? A thousand cat pictures? The answers are no, maybe, and yes, but with red pandas. My only hope—apart from red panda pictures—is to lose myself in the people who make me tumble to the ground in my genuine, unflattering laugh. It takes laughter and humor from behind the lens. It isn’t pretty. But like anyone searching to expand her canvas of existence—anyone preferring to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ (#gimmeabreak)—I simply love a ridiculous moment that gets you giggling the way you do when your defenses are down, the kind of moment that sets your face in a jack-o-lantern grin every time you think of it. If you’ve witnessed that unsettling phenomenon in me, then we’re friends. If not, I don’t hate you, and yes I am having a great time; you just need to try harder to make me really laugh. Then you’ll see it.

Down to the End

It is one of those long Wednesdays that stretches on with no discernible end, and after a nine-hour work day, driving to the city seems more difficult than advertised. Traffic is slow, and my friends are jammed into a small coupe, their stomachs rumbling in protest against the spicy pork tacos I’d thoughtlessly fed them before trapping them in this hour-long descent into gastrointestinal hell.

We arrive at the club too early and stand like cattle for what feels like forever. Out in the street an SUV changes lanes and collides with a black sedan. Everyone is okay, but the blond man in the sedan chokes back his fury in observance of the expectant crowd. The SUV driver falls over herself apologizing, but you can tell the guy really wants to let her have it. This gives us something a little more peppery to talk about.

It has been an endless day, but I’m excited. Cattle or not, I am outside this unimposing club in Salt Lake City with my closest buddies waiting to see my hands-down favorite band ever. Ticket firmly in hand, I cheat out of the drizzle and try to conceal my childish hope to be the first to catch a glimpse of The Mountain Goats. I see instead a bunch of ordinary people who look just like my friends and me, and I gradually drop my guard and  slump into the resignation that I will not see anything interesting or move forward in line anytime soon.

The waiting fans snake around the building and down the street. This surprises me, and I don’t know why. The Mountain Goats have been a prominent face in the music scene for years, but I think it is both heartening and a little jarring to realize that so many people in our community are fans. I’d never run into someone–outside my close-knit, mildly snooty circle–who felt the desperate recognition of “No Children” or dreamed of fleeing proverbial Eden to build a new life. Yet here are hundreds of people, some of them bearing albums for the band to autograph after the show. Are they rehearsing some casually witty remark for the brilliant lead vocalist? If they are anything at all like me, they’re reaching for a genuine and classic compliment and hoping that when the moment comes, they don’t simply blurt, “You’re, like, so smart and great and poetic and I brought my panties for you to sign.” I mean, I got nervous talking to the guys from Air Supply, so I’m pretty dedicated to the idea that I’ll crash and burn before I even shake this interesting musician’s hand.

It is a mixed feeling to realize that so many people are familiar with a group that my friends and I have come to see as our own discovery, and against all logic this irks me. From a pitiful place in the back of my mind creeps this looming snob made astute by fourteen years of musical training. I cast a disappointed glare at those around me and whimper to myself, We might share a space beneath this dribbling awning, but I’ll bet you don’t have all the lo-fi stuff too.

I hate waiting in lines. I’m realizing that the pain creeping up my calves suggests a degree of thoughtlessness in having chosen strappy wedges for a standing-room-only event. Though, I don’t admit this to Neil, who loves to rib me for wearing my geisha shoes anywhere but the movies.

The line moves, and it feels good to walk. Finally inside, we meet the rush of relief that comes with progressing from A to B, the sense that things are in motion and soon the show will fill the hall with what we’d all been waiting for. Our optimism fades as twenty minutes pass, then thirty, forty. A few of us gather near the stage hoping that we can make the band appear on sheer enthusiasm alone. In the back stand scores of concertgoers, relaxing and having one drink, then another.

Ninety minutes delayed, the opening act enters the stage, a three-piece Beatles throwback with a chick drummer and a set of catchy, original songs that all sound more or less the same. By the time they’ve banged out their final chord, most of the crowd is thrashed and restless, sloshing beer onto the floor and packing tighter toward the stage.

We wait, fearful again of being left alone without the promise of a scheduled downbeat.  Suddenly, from a side door, the headlining band cuts through the crowd and jogs on stage. The fans up front stand awash in stage lights and watch with purpose as this three-man group fills the hall with an almost medicinal melody, and I forget about my throbbing feet. People in the back are still drinking and talking over the strains of the show’s opener. These are the people who’ve come out looking for something to break up the week, a Wednesday night with buds. They had called their friends encouraging them to come out to the club, adding, “I heard there’s supposed to be a live band or something.” I hated them.

The opening song comes from the new album–which I haven’t yet pegged as quintessentially Mountain Goat–and blends to a well-worn favorite that sends the crowd cheering. A familiar cadence fills in the spaces between each of the die-hard fans crowded up front and plows into the socialites talking loudly in the back. It’s my favorite song, “Old College Try.” On the album it’s performed with an organ and guitar and evokes the feel of a reverent chapel. It is small, this chapel, enveloped in dark after nightfall, and I like to imagine that the only thing lighting the worn room is a sparse candelabra perched near the pulpit.

My mind’s eye fills the room with uncertainty. A man waits shuffling slightly and thumbs a loose thread hanging from the sleeve of his borrowed blazer. A minister catches a discrete glance at his watch, the witness sighs, and the doors creak open, revealing a petite and ordinary woman, about thirty. She isn’t dressed for a wedding, but, then, neither is he. Just whatever they could find last minute. Suddenly the room feels full and complete, and as the man and woman join hands, they take their terrifying plunge together, sure now that this is the only way to set their world spinning again.

I elaborate, but the actual lyrics are decidedly Darnielle. There is a hopeless and doomed undertone to the couple’s story, but the veteran songwriter destroys all lingering doubt with a few well-chosen phrases. His poeticism colors a drab scene, and with a morbid simile–in what I consider the highlight of the song–he likens a trash can fire in a prison cell to familiar eyes that illuminate and elucidate everything around him. He injects a little hope into a deep, dark world, which really stands out if you’re the type of realist who has a clear picture of just what can go wrong in life.

In the end the song is not about perfection or, probably, not even a wedding as my art-should-be-pretty sentimentality has painted it. But what I see in the story are two people embittered by life and beset by the kinds of challenges that make the fainthearted cut and run. They’ve slogged through the mire together and often felt the sting of hot tears bathing arguments so loud and long that neighbors would skitter away nervously after the storm had retreated. Their differences are looming, but they can’t get past the reality that something tells them to suck it up and go for it. Their path is both extraordinary and unremarkable at once, and I still can’t get through the song without recalling my own over-embellished sob story and bawling my eyes out in the name of complicated love. Whatever the setting, be it ducking under the bubbles in my tub or cutting down proofs in my very busy and very open office, I blubber for my private joys and sorrows, and to look at me you’d think I’d lost a casual friend or, at most, my favorite pet. It makes people uncomfortable.

Back at the concert, I try my best to avoid looking to my left at Neil. He’s the guy in the church, swallowed in a shabby tweed jacket, too big for him–his father’s. He is there because we need each other and because being together is the one sure detail that makes everything else we do feel like a consolation. He is that flickering candle that leads me home, but sometimes he can be a real pain in the ass. I’m told I’m not all sunshine and roses myself, so I give him a pass unless I’m really livid. Years ago–back before I’d discovered real affection and genuine good fortune—I dragged him to hell, and when he came back, he was kind enough to bring me with him. And that is saying something.

When the song had begun, Neil had jostled me in excitement, beaming, “It’s your favorite!” He listens. He knows me, from what foods I hate all the way down to which obscure indie song is my favorite of all obscure indie songs. It is touch and go for a minute, and I beg myself, Don’t be that girl! Do not cry in this bar!

There is no organ at the show, so the band casts their familiar piece in an upbeat guitar, bass, and drum kit mix. It surprises me. How can they capture all the complicated emotion in the song with a typical, high-energy rock show rendition? The album version had spoken of my story, and how can I appreciate its art without all the right pieces in place?

I really should learn to trust people more talented than I am. People who write for Decibel and studied poetry while I was nailing down fractions.

For the first time in memory, crammed against the stage and surrounded tightly by indie kids and ex-indie grown-ups who followed the group from the beginning, I see all the optimism and certainty that had been crammed into my favorite two minutes and fifty-three seconds on vinyl. I had gotten the message that love and stability are hard won, for the lucky. But I had missed entirely how much you’re allowed to enjoy wading through the crap and arriving at something that closely resembles pure happiness. I am not tortured by experience; I am human, living a variegated and complete life just like the people singing along all around me. The gleeful energy rattles the walls of the crowded club, and even the hipsters in the back forget about themselves and their drinks if only for a moment.

Catching a glance at Neil as the song winds away, I don’t burst into tears in this stuffy, crowded bar. Instead, a great, dopey grin plastered across my face, I squeeze his hand, and he squeezes back.

Syntax and the Single Girl

Nobody is exactly like me. And I’m not just talking about the weird stuff, like the way I see the Bhagavad Gita as a nice, relaxing read or how I like to point out faces I find on inanimate objects. Like anyone, a rich body of lifetime experience and personal preference makes me the unique, little snowflake pictured in my parents’ photo albums.

In some ways, I’m a lot like the other humans; we try to be good and make the world better. We are smart and good at our jobs, and we all deal with love and loss, surprising triumph and spectacular failure. But one difference between most well-adjusted adults and me is that most of them, as intelligent as they are, don’t see the confused little typos leaping out at them from all corners of our info-saturated world. Their text messages don’t have semicolons, or even correct spelling, and most people don’t engage in hot-blooded debates over the Oxford comma. They must not have that socially inept part of the brain that forces them to take a red marker to the grammatical train wreck of subway graffiti, and they certainly don’t evoke the names of Strunk and White in a world where constructions like “epic fail” and “besties” grace our screens and tongues.

I majored in what many reasonable people consider one of the nerdiest disciplines outside of those math-and-sciencey fields that can actually pull down a decent living: I am a grammar geek. Knowing this, people assume I’m ever watchful of their speech, poised to correct and scold at the drop of a misplaced modifier. They see me as a vigilant predator. They can feel my English degree strangling their carefully chosen words before they’re ever spoken, before I even have a chance to pull out a pad of paper to diagram the sentence “I come in peace!”

People trip up when they find out what I studied in college. After the inevitable conversation starter, “English, so, like, are you gonna teach or something?” about nine out of ten people will stammer an apology for their habitual grammatical heresy, along with the assumption that I must be absolutely cringing at all their real big mistakes.

After all, we live in language. A surgical resident doesn’t perform appendectomies over a plate of cheese fries at Fuddruckers, and a physics major is never asked to demonstrate the principle of buoyancy during a screening of The Hangover. But people do communicate. Like my comedian friend who is constantly challenged to “say somethin’ funny,” I chose a career path that transcends the classroom and elbows its way, uninvited, into nearly every conversation. On first meeting, people either recite pre-packaged Shakespeare dialog at me or inadvertently point out how shrewd and judgmental I must be about language. My major was, apparently, a lifestyle choice.

Even the people who know me best fall into this trap, though not the part where they assume that I have done nothing so far with my degree or that there is nothing to do with it besides teaching. A colleague of mine, the brilliant designer and eloquent daughter of international journalists, warns me before I edit a short, conversational blurb, “I’m sure this is, like, atrocious to you grammatically.” Neil, a comedic screen writer, rattles off some hilarious and on-point gem that makes me guffaw cola in a sitcom-worthy spit take. Wiping his face clean with my freshly laundered coat sleeve, he asks, “What? I didn’t use that word right?” Even with all his confidence, all that experience making people laugh with everything from political parody to dick jokes, he can’t seem to grasp that I’m laughing at his humor and not at his lowly peasant tongue.

People seem to agree that I’m out to shine a glaring spotlight on them when they say the wrong word or insert extra syllables. They see me as some unlikely grammar bully pantsing the underlings. I suppose I can’t fault people who think this way; a glaring grammatical error ranks somewhere between garlic breath and cottage cheese thighs in the realm of potential embarrassments for educated Americans. But the truth is, I’m not quite the loud, ornery cheerleader for “whom” and “lay/lie” that everyone seems to prepare themselves for. (See? I can dangle my prepositions like the best of them.)

Of course I notice slips, mishaps, and outright stupidity, and I admit I can copyedit like it’s going out of style, though that’s probably because it is. My alma mater did go to the trouble of printing my name beneath their seal on a really nice piece of cardstock confirming my proclivity for the word “proclivity.” I love my language, but as long as you’re not fixing anything in the printed word for the masses, the wacky mistakes can really dress things up, add a bit of color and vitality to how I see you.

My mom always said, “English is such a stupid language!” Yes, she always said that. I couldn’t agree more, but it’s in discovering exactly what makes it so stupid that fascinates me endlessly. I might spend an unrecoverable hour of my life flipping through the dictionary searching for hilarious guide word pairs (eat – earwax; strut – stuff), and you might say I’m hysterical. And not in a good way. But I might think to myself that, actually, the word “hysterical” comes from the Latin hystericus, which reflects an ancient idea that hysteria comes from the womb (thanks, Ancient Freud) and is exclusive to women. Nothing is wrong with my womb, not that you asked, and as a rabid feminist, I’d say “hysterical” is in the traditional sense much too strong a word to describe the fact that I’m enthusiastic about something that other people find dense and boring. After I’ve both congratulated and censured myself for being such an etymological dweeb, I’ll take that mixed bag of positive and slightly negative energy and forge on in the world, certain that I’ve chosen my field wisely.

So yes, I notice words, and once in a while I might spout off something that makes you wish you were back at Fuddruckers prepping a writhing patient for surgery. But against all stereotypes, I don’t enjoy the know-it-all-ism that often accompanies a basic command of the English language. I worked to become an expert, and to those without that luxury (or, let’s be honest, to those who had better things to do), I thank you heartily for making me look that much more proficient and specialized through your choices to revere something apart from my great passion. I might giggle while you fold your underpants away into your Chester drawers or when you talk nostalgically about the heighth of the Bush administration, but I promise I’m not judging you. Well, not linguistically.

I will not embarrass you as you speak. I will not pull on your words and twist your voice into oblivion until you sound like some vague, bruised mimeograph of me. (Yes, mimeograph. Like bruises, they’re purple. And what the hell, I wanted to use an archaic word.) I hereby promise to reserve my judgment and my cat-like editorial eye for the fine publications that elicit my expertise as an important new force in this exciting chapter of publishing history.

But seriously though, it really bugs me when you say “ain’t.”