Aug 10, 2009

The Ambivalent Exclamation

Walking around the Northwestern University campus on Thursday with Katherine and Will--it's been more than twenty years since we were all there together. Impossible to believe. Now we've returned with four daughters between us. And I have to say: walking down Sheridan Road in sub-Arctic temperatures with a chilling wind and icy sidewalks and twelve pounds of books in my arms when I was 21 was somehow much easier than walking down Sheridan Road on a perfect summer day with two kids to herd away from traffic when I'm 45, especially when one of those kids is hell-bent on climbing everything that doesn't move. That would be Eden. Who I swear is part monkey.

As we neared the big bend in Sheridan that marks the southern edge of campus, we passed the Victorian house that was once the departmental office for Anthropology, which was my minor. And in the strange, associative way that memory works, I remembered taking a class in that building during my senior year with the legendary Navajo scholar Ozzie Werner, which then made both Katherine and I remember we'd been friends with his son Derek, which made us wonder where Derek is now, which made Will remember that Derek had once been on a campaign to get people to adopt what he called "the ambivalent exclamation point." Essentially, it was the top of an exclamation point with a comma (and not a period) underneath it, to denote a slightly less than enthusiastic response. Or a non-committal reaction. Or a passive-aggressive response, although I don't think we knew the term "passive-aggressive" back then. Kind of like what Alaskans would have put after the headline "Sarah Palin resigns," explained Katherine and Will, who are longtime Alaska Democrats. (Proving that's not an oxymoron.)

I hope the ambivalent exclamation point hasn't disappeared into oblivion. If I could find Derek Werner, I'd ask him to revive it. Or at least to cede rights to its revival to me. Because I think it's a brilliant invention. Imagine all the uses we could put it to. I, personally, would stick it at the end of headlines that interest other people but about which I have to work really, really hard to care. "Bush Lonely in Dallas." "Octomom Gets New Reality Show." It's a way to acknowledge other people's interest, while politely yawning at the same time.

Punctuation: it's both sorely underrated, and in need of invigoration. When did we last get a new punctuation mark? It's time.

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