Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On whether you should write whether

One of my big nits as an editor is the slurring of fhe fields of meaning for words. So it irks me that "therefore" and "thus" are used interchangeably because they can convey different meanings, which makes them more useful tools. (The difference, tout court, is that "therefore" means "because of this" and "thus" means "in this way".) Don't get me started on "hence"!
Generally, I automatically "correct" these words to the usage I prefer as a small rebellion against killing their usefulness. I use the scare quotes because it's not wrong as such to write "I don't like him, thus I punched him" (but it's ugly!) but I greatly prefer "therefore" in that sentence.
Two words whose meaning has slurred together are "if" and "whether". This is particularly common in Australia, and I find myself "correcting" "if" to "whether" often, at least daily, sometimes several times in a day. Here, the justification is clearer than it is for "thus" to "therefore" because in formal writing, "if" is unacceptable where "whether" should be used. (The spoken language is somewhat different, and I use the idiom I grew up with, which favours "if".)
There are three cases for if/whether, simply stated:
A/ Sentences that need "if", where "whether" would simply be incorrect.
If I see him, I will tell him.
If the siren blows, you can leave work.
Here, "if" introduces a condition that does not imply a choice. Often it could be rendered "in the event that" (but please don't render it that way).
B/ Sentences that need "whether", where "if" would make the sentence ambiguous.
I don't know whether he's coming tomorrow or Wednesday.
means that he is coming on one of tomorrow or Wednesday but you don't know which.
Were you to write:
I don't know if he's coming tomorrow or Wednesday.
the sentence can then mean that he may be coming tomorrow or Wednesday or at some other time, and you don't know which.
"Whether" always implies at least two cases. It often introduces one case, and leaves the other implied.
I don't know whether he's coming (or is not coming).
Tell me whether you like my shoes (or you don't like my shoes).
This leaves us with a simple rule for deciding whether to use "whether". If you could append "or" plus the opposite of the case you are giving, use "whether".
It's then clear that case A sentences must use "if" because they only offer one condition, not two or more cases. See the difference between:
If the train comes, leave town.
Whether the train comes or not, leave town.
C/ Sentences in which 'whether" is more correct but people use "if".
I don't know whether he's coming on Friday.
I don't know if he's coming on Friday.
Check if you have any messages.
Check whether you have any messages.
We can tell we need "whether" in this last sentence because there is an implied clause "or you do not have messages".
Should you write "whether or not"? Generally, the rule of English applies that one should not use redundant words. In the same way that one writes "to" for "in order to" or "period" for "period of time", you ought not to use "whether or not" where "whether" alone would suffice.
One uses "whether or not" when we mean to say that both conditions under consideration apply. For instance, when M says he prefers blondes, I might say "I like women whether or not they are blonde", or you might ask whether I am keeping my child at home tomorrow if she is coughing, and I answer "I'm keeping her home as a precaution whether or not she's coughing". In this sense, it is clearly the same as "regardless whether".

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Time Out

There is a Time Out wrapper on the stair. Someone ripped and dropped it. 8.50 and I have the first symptom of rage.
Deep breath.
The raggedy man is ugly. There is a scar on his jowl. I can see it from where I sit, right now I can see it. It looks like someone sliced him one time. Miss Inoffensive is ugly. Her hair is fine. Can't you plump it up somehow? Can't you volumise it? Maybe she doesn't want to.
Maybe she doesn't want her hair to attract attention. She talks in a low whine. It says, I am not going to offend you. She was talking in the lunchroom about Aborigines but her comments had no substance. Something about a judge. Something about a case. You know she is sympathetic and can write in the substance for herself.
Is it a kind of ill-formed elitism to believe that you could write in the substance for just about everyone you meet? Were people really this unsurprising in the life I left behind?
My shirt smells strongly of the liquid B uses to "iron" clothes. It's entirely artificial. They did not think it worthwhile even to pretend to make it smell of flowers. It is odd that everything that has a floral scent smells like no flower you've ever come across. Because they could synthesise the flower smell, right? But it's just not worth bothering.
I feel caged. What else could I do? I think about that almost all the time but somehow it's as though there's a block someone has put in me, that the inability to figure out any way out of it is artificial.
I am thinking about a piece of art that I will paint. I have felt like I'm flourishing recently, albeit in a barely perceptible way. It's just that I feel like I'm going to die and that impels me. I am thinking about poker again: there are concepts at play. I know that if I nail them I will be made.
It worries me that I might not nail them before I die.
I do not have change for the machine. I was going to have a coke with lunch but I had no change. I realised I didn't care. I could just drink water. But I didn't. Just being able to was enough.
Do you have days in which you feel disconnected, and could you only get the dots joined you would truly see? No. I wonder sometimes whether I can feel any other emotion than vanity. And love for my childen. Which is the same thing, let's not kid ourselves.
I do not buy brand names. But I wanted a coke. I do not believe in God. But I want magic. I do not love myself. But I worship love.
I know. I could have picked the wrapper up. But I realise that only now: I was complicit because I wanted to despise another person. It is a long way to shore and I am treading water instead of swimming.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

We are mice


Proud warriors.


Strong, unyielding giants bestriding our Earth.

Apparently not.

Not here in Australia anyway. Here we are worms who need to apologise even for having the temerity to take a shit.

So we know that ads for household products are aimed squarely at women. And we know that Australian women hate men (with reason, I daresay). But we have to grovel?

Beg forgiveness for taking a shit?

Paul Hogan would spin in his fucking grave, I can tell you. Were he dead. Which he is not because apparently his missus has not given him permission to shuffle off this mortal coil.

About 3pm

I had a curious dream last night. A friend who I had known when I lived in London 20 years ago was in town and we met up for drinks. We talked about her best friend, an old girlfriend of mine. She said the girlfriend still thought a lot about me and I said, we should meet up for old time's sake, or something like that.

But she was forbidding. She did not say it could never happen but she made out there were obstacles that would make it close to impossible. She did not say what they were, exactly, although I felt I knew, but became angry at the idea. Not angry, shouting; angry, dark, as though I was intruding on something by the very suggestion.

I don't try to make sense of my dreams. They aren't messages or anything. They are just the way your brain keeps itself alive at night as far as I know.

I used to have a recurring dream about that woman too. She would always be laughing, her long hair falling down over her face. I wish we had remained friends. I felt joy in her presence, and it's hard to find.


It has been bothering me that I have not felt well recently, on and off unwell for a while now. I feel like I am not in good shape. The whiplash from my rearender hasn't helped: I've had a lot of stiffness in my shoulder that has made me feel old. I'm usually extremely loose in the shoulders, which is odd in someone who spends so much time at a computer, and at odds with nearly everyone I know, who has rockhard shoulders.

But I feel like I will not live much longer and it bothers me that I have not had the joy in life I should have done.

I don't even know what "should" is supposed to mean in that sentence.


I have been filling up a piggy bank with the loose change I have around the house. It feels like my life dripping away, coin by coin, because, you see, these are all Australian coins. I feel like I am refusing to live here. I cannot go home and, as though to punish myself for being too cowardly to follow my heart, I refuse to live here too. I have not been alive for years and frankly that's squeezing me to pieces.

Recently, I stopped blaming everyone else for how bad I feel my life is and has been. It's me, but I consider it unfortunate that I have not been lucky enough to know people who want me to have a good life despite myself. I married a woman who did not care whether I was happy and I will probably do the same again.

I cannot be on my own. I cease to exist without someone loving me, nurturing me. I enter an existential panic that is inexplicable to anyone who does not feel it.


I don't really think it's all me. Are you fucking kidding? It's only all me in the sense that I blind myself to reality: I pretend that people understand give and take.

Or is that right? See, the problem I have is that I do believe that people must at heart understand give and take. So if they do not give what I feel they ought to, I have to conclude that I was wrong about what I deserved.

That's not good for your self-esteem.

But I don't have any way of generating self-esteem from within myself. People say, just love yourself, but how are you supposed to do that? I look inside myself and I see a whirlpool, a spinning vortex of bits and pieces of life that I've lived, as though a tornado were set loose in my soul and now I cannot build anything out of the scraps.

If a person thinks a lot about me, how can they not know that nothing hurts me more than to be nothing, that I have always been someone who needed others to write and say, I know you're there?

I remember when S wouldn't write to me for months. She said she was hurt (and I don't doubt she was, although whether it was justified is another question -- but I am not at all discounting that hurt is something you feel whether it's justified or not; I've just always believed that intentions count and have been willing to forgive a person for hurting me if they didn't intend to; after all, what I most despise in Mrs Zen was that she simply didn't care -- I think it is the worst you can do to a person, not to hate them but just not to think they're worth caring about one way or the other; and I do recognise that I feel that way about most people I know, but I have not claimed to be decent) but I think she knew that she was paying me out more harshly by doing that than she could in any other way. She knew that not letting me know I existed would be a knife twisting and burning in me that I could not ignore.

I may have that wrong. I'm not an expert on human beings, or at least, if I am, I wilfully ignore most of what I know because if I didn't I would have an excellent life and there's still a monkey in here whose main intention is to ensure that my hopes are destroyed and anything good in my life turns to shit.

I may have it wrong and she may be more like Bella. I assume Bella behaved the way she did to protect herself, because she couldn't resolve what her being desired and what her indoctrination told her it should desire.

They were both genuinely crazy. Probably they were attracted to me because they thought I had the key to unlock their craziness, and tired of me when they realised I do not.

Perversely, I probably do, but they did not know how to get me to use that key.


Sometimes I wake up in the night and think how much better it would be not to know myself at all, to be blissfully unaware. I ask myself sometimes how Mrs Zen can sleep at night, but then I realise that she has no desire or ability to know herself, and genuinely believes herself to be innocent.

She is not even lying to herself. People are like that here. They are raised with a sense of entitlement that is alien to the English psyche. It must make it difficult to understand where I am even coming from, and I know that it was a huge failing in me that I am capable of understanding that and dealing with it, yet I didn't bother. I think I have to accept that I didn't love her in the right way to achieve that, and that was a deep cruelty to her.

Still, often it takes two to create cruelty. It sounds a lot like victim blaming to say so, but victims are often to blame, because we are not on the whole victims but are just frail beings who don't understand each other very well.


It leaves me at a crossroads and I am determined that I will live with the belief that I really do not have much life left to me and must resolve it. The problem, as I see it, is that I did not move past 14, and I have been looking for others to help me, to become the mentors I did not have then, or to provide the love I needed like water, but I have to be capable of it. Somewhere within me, given my talents and ability, which I don't doubt truly do exist, must be the capability to grow and become a man. I know I was flourishing 12 years ago -- and now I have pissed away too much time mourning that and too little rediscovering the man I was becoming.

But to do it involves such a large change in my mindset that it leaves me doubtful. You know how sometimes you face a task that is so large you don't even know how to begin it? Yet you know that all it will take is to begin, no matter how small that beginning is?

I have been waiting for someone to tell me which is the first step I should take, but at the same time I do not have anyone in my life who is wise enough, or who cares enough about me, to point it out. It's a paradox that to be someone who anyone could care enough about would need me to have already walked some way along that path.


Faced with paradoxes like that in our lives, it's easy to become paralysed, to chooses inaction, to wallow in self-pity. Yet I'm contemptuous of others who do that, and of course when I think about myself I am quite clear that I am like those others. But doctoring yourself is not easy. You may clearly see the diagnosis and simply not know the cure.

Or know it but be unable to focus on it, which is, I think, worse.