Mistakes suck. Errors do, too.
Adverbs will never go hungry for a lack of work in many writers’ drafts, including mine, but that part of speech demands erasure whenever one encounters it. Adverbs are the empty calories of the English language: They are tasty, and they appear to be helpful when we want to bend a verb to do our verbal bidding and guide our eager reader(s) to share our thought-patterns, when context and the verb itself are capable of handling the task just fine on their own. They are potato chips and cotton candy blended into a linguistic smoothie.
All of the personal errors in my history can be described with an adverb, colorfully. Merely an adverb minus a verb or other details, so no personal stuff, no self-incriminating or embarrassing information might reveal some things: complacently, awkwardly, abruptly, vigorously, languorously, braggingly, disgustingly, violently, wrongly. Timidly. Brazenly. Toss a “very” or three in there.
There must be 50 ways to leave … abruptly. There may be 500 ways to screw up. Here is Stephen King on adverbs:
I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day … fifty the day after that … and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Errors and mistakes. There is a saying: “Life has taken you down a different road, and your GPS is broken.”
One of the myths I believed about myself, deep into my grown-up-hood, was that I had incredibly good timing. (Pretend editor: Adverb alert.) When it was time to make a life decision, even if that decision was to not make a decision at all, I made it (or did not make it), decisively and without looking back. (Pretend editor: Adverb again.) As I said, this is actually a myth. One I chose to believe in such a way that it felt like neither a belief nor my choice.
The reality was that when I was trapped in one of life’s corners, I took what was available, crumbs or cake, and kept it moving. “Consequences” was a four-syllable word for “things I will probably, nah, make it definitely, ignore.” For the most part, my life was spent chasing employment, trying to find something akin to permanence, only to flub each new job sometime around when the excitement of being the new guy faded into “got the hang of it,” which morphed into “What’s next,” and then employers needed to find a new replacement.
I am starting to understand a sentence: “Shall not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Perhaps I made a lot of errors, but I am no mistake. I am not certain about this, but I continue making my amends for the errors. If I am here and alive (yes and yes) and all is fundamentally well (yes, indeed), then the road that I followed that brought me here brought me to a good place. There is nothing wrong with this road. At worst, I am now a signpost on it for others.
I do not have many specific “MacGyver”-type incidents of situational brilliance in my life, not yet anyway. More often than not, my mouth has talked me into increased trouble instead of rescue me, like the time when I talked a New York State Trooper into giving me a ticket. (He did not, because paperwork. And to spite me and my selfish need to complain. I am grateful for this … now.) And I am not a physically resourceful person. My relationship with the natural word of objects and things is that of a reluctant participant, one who breaks unbreakable things and walks into street signs.
When my body started to change in my mid-30s, when the symptoms of adult spinal muscular atrophy first showed, it came with a jolt. Only recently have I learned that this is a common experience among people with neuromuscular diseases. When walking becomes difficult—in my case because the nerves that had been sending (ever dimmer) signals to my legs (which had started to atrophy from receiving ever dimmer signals)—the end of normal walking comes as if everything had been just fine one day and the next day as if one’s shoes had been nailed to the ground or one’s co-workers had painted the floor with superglue. It is sudden and scary when the progression of deterioration is undetected and undetectable until the day that it is not.
To wake up one day and notice that one is thinking, “Hmmm. I guess do not remember how to walk. Wait, what?” when one was walking yesterday is odd.
The odder thing is my behavior regarding this: I attempted to MacGyver my emotional response. Rather, I attempted to manufacture a cliché of a superhero’s response. Very little was done consciously on my part other than to buy a cane and start to use the local cab service for any journey longer than my front door to my room; some drivers actually carried me from their car to my front door—stone sober (I emphasize this because my history could imply otherwise)—because my legs had had enough for that day. I developed a mode of walking, a stiff waddle that I hoped would not attract attention. It did, though.
I attempted to “strong and silent” my way through it as if I was confident that there was a something better on another side of a tunnel that saw me traveling through it in private and secret terror.
What would MacGyver really do? Probably what I ultimately did: visit a damn doctor. See a neurologist. I have learned to ask for help and even to (and this is a tricky thing) accept it. I still walk with a waddle but I am no longer counting down the minutes to a lesser and lesser able self, which is what I was doing before I knew what the heck was changing in my body. Accepting reality and using all the tools at my disposal, changing into the person who tries to do those things, that’s how I actually get to play MacGyver in my life. And keep things from sliding into new errors, new adverbs. My GPS is finished re-calculating the route.
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“Make No Mistake,” Keith Richards (with Sarah Dash):
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This an edit of a column that has appeared twice.
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