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December 3, 2005

Note to readers of this column: I'm not sure where the following came from, but it suits me to a T so I am passing it on to you. Thanks for reading. Really, it just appeared on my computer one day, unexpectedly.

For quite a few years, I've been toiling at the same task and recycling the same old product - words. The craft is called writing and I can't imagine having more fun doing anything else. (That gives you a clue to the level of excitement that fills my waking hours, but I make no apology for it. I also make no pretense of having mastered the art, or even arriving at an understanding of it.) You've read in this space previously that I love words. I know many of you share this passion. Studying the derivation of words, admiring their symmetry and poetry, their ability to motivate and challenge, to provoke unashamed tears, silent smiles or audible laughter, their peculiarities, the relationship between English and the Romance languages, even the inconsistencies in rules of grammar that make our native tongue so difficult for others to grasp ... all of these fascinate me.

It is pure pleasure to read lines that seem to flow like a fresh water brooklet from those who have the gift. Writers, the good ones, can bring us to their point of view with masterful expositions of fact and logic. Some of the most accessible examples are found in the essays and syndicated columns printed on the editorial pages of many newspapers. Of course, there are many more forms of the art. Some of the masters take us on voyages to exotic lands, or open a window to peer through sheer veils where shadowy images weave stories of murky intrigue, or into tales of fragile romance that move us as voyeurs sharing tender moments with folks we really care about, even if they don't really exist. The very good writers, those who have mastered the art of literature, make the short hair on the back of my neck tingle with joy and/or anticipation. Those are wonderful experiences, meant to be savored.

I admire and envy those who manage to avoid even the occasional misspelled word; those whose meticulous work eschews improper grammar; those who never fail to use commas, apostrophes and other correct punctuation; and those who seem to select exactly the one word or the most colorful phrase for a particular need. Lapses in any of those categories bother me like a nail screeching across a blackboard. My own sins are well known to me. It saddens me when I discover that I have erred, that my humble output is riddled with misdemeanors. But all that is about the down side, and that's not where the joy comes from.

I have this irrational, Quixote-like fetish to totally eradicate split infinitives (such as you see in this very statement) and other broken rules and replace them with perfection. This has propelled me into a lifelong crusade to stamp out missteps. Semantics provide a topic that never seems to be exhausted, so I plunge ahead, fascinated each day by the subject matter. Just the mention or suggestion of the word "word" sets my mind in motion. Listening to the dialogue in a play, in the cinema or on a tiny TV screen is often sidetracked by mental detours and roadblocks that I set up. I find myself repeating the players' lines and trying to picture how those words looked on the typewritten or computer-generated pages of a manuscript. These deterrents have the unfortunate effect of destroying my concentration on the action, be it comedic or dramatic, unfolding before me, and thus removing any clear understanding of the story, but I accept that. Just do not ask me to describe the plot at some later time.

I guess that of all the forms with which I am familiar, letter writing has been my personal favorite for the longest time, but that is rapidly becoming a lost art. Fax machines and e-mail, that instantaneous medium of communication in cyberspace, are taking the place of formal letters. We find ourselves "staying in touch" with friends and family by dashing off breezy, truncated notes in a sort of shorthand, laced with jargon intended to make them conversational but with no real styles, and sometimes no substance. Writing or receiving a real letter is becoming a rare occurrence. Junk mail and periodicals clog the postal system. How sad for the mailman and us. Letters used to provide an opportunity to tell the recipient something about the character and the emotional state of the writer. Not so with email. Bring back the good old days of three-cent stamps and twice daily deliveries by the postman! Maybe then we can restore some of what we have lost.