One Year

A year ago today, I bought the domain name for this website, Humidity And Hope.

Yesterday was the 9th anniversary of that time I was threatened with arrest for feeding hungry people.

Those are not entirely unrelated facts.

In the aftermath of that day 9 years ago, my visibility skyrocketed. A fair portion of the people who read my stuff now came to know who I was in the aftermath of that day. I now had a “platform.” I was, at the time, responsible for fundraising for the small nonprofit that I had founded that would eventually serve more than 300 meals a day, and that would start what was at the time the only faith-based LGBT-affirming day shelter for people without homes in the state. A lot of people depended on me. I felt a lot of pressure to write about my work.

For the next five years, I wrote almost exclusively about faith and justice issues, especially as they related to poverty and homelessness. A lot of people still wish I would write about those things. Recently, I asked my Facebook timeline what I should write about on this blog, and more than ⅔ of the suggestions were faith/justice related.

But here’s the thing: I’m not really interested in writing about those things. But I’m very interested in doing those things. Not to say, “Hey, look at me – see this good thing I’m doing,” but because I believe that doing those things is how I want to live.

I don’t know that we need more people, especially guys, even more especially white guys – writing about what people should believe. But more than that – I am not convinced it matters at all what you believe.

I will go even further: I think that there is nothing more useless to the world than what you believe, and there’s nothing more important to the world than what you do.

I wanted a place to write about doing. Not about why you should feed the hungry, or a place to share my sermons, write about how evil the religious right is, or whatever other God-talk people would read. I don’t think in those terms anymore. I actually think it’s all God-talk.

The work I have done feeding the hungry and building the wildlife pond in my backyard comes from the desire – the mandate – to assist creation in flourishing. My time spent preaching sermons and my time walking along the creek by my house are both done in service to God. Whatever God may need from me, none of it is for me to come to God’s defense. However, the turtles and frogs are not as resilient and need my help much more.

In short, I wanted to write about my attempt to live a complete life. What does it mean to live a good life? What is required? What would that look like? I wanted to write about that.

I didn’t think it would be simple. It would be wide-ranging but centered around trying to be a certain type of person in a certain context. And for me, that context is the Deep South, which is my deepest identity.

So, over the last year, I have written about cornbread and gravy and depression and hope and birds and frogs and nature and travel and death and attempts at suicide and also about trying to live. I have published 216 posts containing over 175,000 words. I’m proud of all of them. Not because it’s the best writing I’ve ever done, but because it was all real. There was no agenda behind any of it other than to say, “Here I am. This is what I do and how I want to live. You might be interested.“ The last 12 months of publishing here have been the source of the most genuine writing I have ever done.

I’m not sure what this place really wants to be yet. But I think it’s beginning to come together. I know I’m glad I’m doing it. I’m glad I get to do it. And I’m glad you’re here.

It means more than you know.

The Whole Story

Some years back, my wife and I were in the grocery store. It was our regular grocery store, and we were just going down the aisle, discussing groceries and putting things in the cart. The store was busy, but not unduly so.

A woman I had never seen before came up to us.

‘Hi, Hugh. Hi, Renee!”

I had no idea who this person was. I looked at Renee. She obviously had no idea who she was, either. Our confusion must have been evident.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Maria. I go to [large church I had spoken at the year before], and I follow you on Facebook and read your blog and newsletters.”

I’m always a little uncertain about what to do next. I thanked her for reading my stuff.

“It sounds like you had fun at the beach. And what a cute beach house! And I hope Felix [our cat] is doing OK after that scare at the vet last week!”

She was harmless. But it felt just a tad creepy. It was the first time I had really experienced what I have come to call the “knowledge differential.”

In the first lines of Walden, Thoreau said, talking about his writing in the first person: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.”

Like Thoreau, I only know myself well, and even that knowledge evades me at times. I write from my own experience and only feel qualified to tell my own story. The advantage to this is relative expertise on the subject matter, but a disadvantage is that our relationship – mine and yours – is asymmetrical.

You know a lot about me. You don’t know everything because I have boundaries, but my life is well documented. Frequent readers know my cats, hobbies, favorite candy bar, anxieties, hopes, and goals. There are probably 75 of you I know some amount of stuff about. For another couple of thousand of you, I know (or at least have) your email address. And that’s about it.

This asymmetrical quality sometimes makes having friends really difficult. But not as difficult as making friends.

* * *

I was in a strange town on the East Coast for a few days, and I had mentioned in my newsletter that I would be in this town and was happy to grab coffee on a given day if anyone was game. This is how I ended up across the table from Steve.

We have an hour or so, and I recognize him from his Facebook profile picture when he shows up at the coffee shop. I ask him a question or two – the sort of small talk you do when getting to know someone – and then, in response to something he says, I begin to tell him that I can relate because of this thing that happened to me.

He interrupted me.

“Yeah, I know that story. I read about that when it happened.”

He then asked me a bunch of questions about that thing, including some that were boundary crossing. The next 45 minutes felt like an interview. When we left to go our separate ways, he took a selfie with me that went on his Instagram, and then he told me that he was my biggest fan.

Maybe it’s my age, but I always hear that line in Kathy Bate’s voice.

* * *

It’s weird, this asymmetrical relationship we have, you and me. When I run into people I have not seen in ages, they tell me about things that happen in their life, and then they comment on my life – they mention the trip I just went on, my depression struggles, and my cats. I hesitate to mention things I have written about because I don’t want to repeat myself if they already know, and I don’t want to assume they read my stuff (how annoying is THAT guy? “As I said in chapter 9 of my latest book, …”).

And so, when I meet people for the first time, I find myself reluctant to bring up my writing. Like I want to have a person in my life who is not a consumer of my words, who only know the IRL version of me and not the curated version, who only knows what they observe and can gleen. Friends who never worry if I am going to write about them. Friends who get excited when I tell them about the big thing that happened to me and who don’t already know how the story ends.

I’m not complaining. I signed up for this gig. I enjoy writing, and I write confessionally and openly. I enjoy it. It’s changed my life. Hell, it’s saved my life.

But it’s important for you to know that the Hugh you know from here is curated. I mean, it must be, by definition. So you don’t know if we would be best friends if we met. Maybe I chew with my mouth open, and that would annoy the hell out of you. (I don’t, but it’s an example – just go with it).

And I guarantee that you don’t know the whole story.


I used to believe in talent. These days, I’m not sure I do.

In high school, I took the ASVAB test – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam. Basically, it was a tool the military-industrial complex used to filter students with skills that would be valuable to the military into the recruiter’s hands.

Which is pretty screwed up if you think about it. But anyway.

A thing that absolutely shocked literally everyone who knew me was that I scored ridiculously high on the mechanical portion of the exam. Things like they show you a series of interlocking gears, numbered 1-7. And then they ask, “If gear #3 turns clockwise, what direction does gear #1 turn?”

Like that. I did really well on it.

I was not known for my mechanical ability. I was known for my reading. I was known for my acne. And that was pretty much it. If I had a talent, it was not anything mechanical. It was reading and writing.

We had shop class, which I liked the idea of, but it was filled with what I would now call toxic masculinity (including the teacher), and even then, it felt icky. Even today, I seldom fit into all-male spaces and don’t do bro-culture well.

My Dad was very handy. I would much rather read a book. It used to frustrate him to no end that he wanted to teach me how to work on cars, and I wanted to read.

“Hugh’s just not talented,” people would say. “He’s more of a bookworm.”

I don’t really think that’s a thing. I mean, I did well on that test – I obviously had an aptitude for thinking about things mechanically. But I still couldn’t use a hammer to save my life. And since Dad’s effortless way with tools was my basis of comparison, I felt uncomfortable and awkward. I was comparing my 2 weeks of experience to his 30 years of experience and was mad because he was better at it than I was.

He wasn’t necessarily more talented than I was – he had more experience than I did.

This Sunday afternoon, our kitchen sink clogged. This was particularly annoying because it clogged right after I had made waffles, but before we washed the dishes. I emptied the sink of all the dirty dishes and then plunged for a while. Nothing doing.

I then went to the hardware store and bought a 25-foot-long drain snake (I thought I had one, but maybe not because I couldn’t find it). After 30 minutes of cursing, I had a clogged pipe AND was the owner of a drain snake. Wherever this clog was, it was more than 25 feet away. But the washing machine drained fine, so I knew the clog was between the sink and the washing machine.

I went back to the hardware store and bought some sulfuric acid. Poured it down the drain and went to bed.

Monday, when I woke up, the drain was clear. Yay! I ran water for a while, and it worked. I set about my day. Just before lunch, I began to wash some dishes and realized it was clogged again. Dammit! And I had an afternoon of meetings scheduled.

Last night after supper, I climbed under the house and saw the culprit – a section of the drain pipe that had been repaired long ago just before where the washing machine drains was catching debris from the disposal and had clogged. The repair was questionable in the first place, and the drain pipe was cast iron, original to the house. I could buy a 50-foot drain snake and probably get it, but the problem would still remain.

So this morning, I was at Home Depot at 6 am, and I bought a 10-foot length of 2-inch PVC and two generic fernco couplers (to connect the PVC to the cast iron) for about $30. I crawled under the house and, using my $14 angle grinder, cut the cast iron pipe on the downhill side of the suspected blockage. It was relatively dry, so it looked like my thesis was correct. I connected the franco coupler and one end of the PVC pipe to the cast iron.

I laid the PVC pipe along the existing pipe to measure 10 feet and then cut the cast iron pipe. This time, it was filled with nasty water, proving the blockage was in the 10 feet I was removing (probably at the damaged spot). In 10 minutes, I had the fernco coupling connected and had moved the plumbing strap from the old pipe to the new one.

I went inside and washed my hands and face in my unclogged sink.

14-year-old me would have been amazed at 50-year-old me’s “mechanical ability.” Lots of y’all think I am “very handy.”

Nope. I just have done this before. I have replaced bad pieces of drain pipe before, did a shit ton of research at the time, and learned about fernco couplers. I have used an angle grinder before. I knew how to get under my house.

But the first time I did it, I didn’t. That was when I bought the angle grinder. That was when I did the research and when I watched all the YouTube videos. This time, I didn’t have to. I wasn’t talented – I just had experience.

The other side

When I was 10 years old, my 5-year-old brother got appendicitis. His stomach was hurting intensely, and after a period of home remedies, we took him to the doctor, who diagnosed him with a swollen appendix, and he went to the hospital.

It turns out his appendix was swollen, and they did surgery to remove it before it burst. This was the early 80s, and as I recall it, he went into the hospital one afternoon, spent the night in the hospital, had his appendix removed, and then spent another night in the hospital before coming home.

The evening before his surgery, I was talking to Monty, the elderly lady who lived next door to me and who was, in my objective AF opinion, the best cook in the world. She was born in 1910 and had lived through two world wars, the flu pandemic, and a global depression, had raised three children – two whom she had not given birth to – and all as a well-digger’s wife. She had seen some stuff.

When I told her my brother was in the hospital, she asked what had happened. I explained he had appendicitis and that he was having surgery in the morning, but I had seen him at the hospital, and he was doing OK. She began to weep, then cry, and finally wail. Huge alligator tears ran down her weathered cheeks, and her wrinkled hands covered her face.

There was no air conditioning in her house. The windows were wide open, and the box fan hummed in the corner. Otherwise, it was silent, except for her heaving, low wail. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. I didn’t understand – I had read books that mentioned that the appendix was not a necessary organ. I had read that appendix surgery was very low risk. I thought it was sorta cool that he was in the hospital. Honestly, I was sort of jealous.

She got up and left the room. I sat at the chrome and Formica table and watched the dust waft through the sunlight as it came through the window, low in the evening sky. Eventually, she came back, and neither of us spoke of what had just happened. Soon, I was walking home through the pasture that separated our houses and got home in time for supper. I don‘t remember what we ate that night, but I remember Mom was not there – I think she was at the hospital – and it was just Dad and me.

I told Dad what had happened.

“But I don’t understand why she was so upset. Appendicitis is a simple surgery. You don’t even need your appendix. He’s going to be fine.”

Dad explained to me that to us appendicitis was not dangerous. But Monty had buried many people who had died of things that were no longer really dangerous but once had been. Before vaccines, before antibiotics, before ambulances, a lot of people died. And in her head, she was remembering all the people she knew who had died because their appendix had burst.

Earlier this summer, a dear friend of mine got COVID. He was traveling for work, and somewhere along the way, he was exposed and then tested positive. When I heard, I was devastated. He is one of perhaps 3 people I would drop anything and go where they were, anywhere in the world, if I was needed, no questions asked. When I read the text message, I just wept.

He assured me his symptoms were mild. He had all his vaccines and boosters. He was sick, to be sure, but was under a doctor’s care and would be fine in a few days.

I know this intellectually. But in my head, all I could think about was the folks I personally know who died from COVID. The endless stream of names on my timeline of loved ones of friends who had died. The horror of dealing with Dad’s death from COVID.

There was every reason to think he would be fine on the other side of this. But in my head, it was the summer of 2020, and folks were dropping like flies.

I don’t know how long this will last, or if I’m just changed, the way Monty was forever changed because of the pain she had lived through. But I do not like it.

Not one little bit.

Seven years ago tonight.

Seven years ago tonight, our lives changed.

Renee, who was on the heart transplant list, had gotten the call. And this time, it wasn’t a false alarm. This time, it was real.

I was in a staff meeting at work when she called me. I told the staff, said I would keep them posted, and then left. I would not be back for two weeks, but we didn’t know that then.

I called Brian. He was four hours away and had a day full of meetings lined up. Within an hour, he had rescheduled everything and was on his way.

That night, we all sat in the preop room, waiting on them to take her to surgery. The picture up there is her talking on the phone to her dad that night, 7 years ago.

I’ve written oodles about that time. Many thousands of words. But that was the night our life changed.

That was the night we got a second chance. The night that some other family’s nightmare became our salvation.

My phone was ringing off the hook once word got out. People were texting me with offers of all sorts of help. I didn’t know how to pray or what to pray. I just wanted my girl to be OK. I wanted us to get through this and for us to have a good life. I wanted us to be able to build a life together. I wanted us not to be afraid all the time.

After midnight, the surgical team came and took her back, and we were shown to the waiting room. There were several of us – Brian, me, Renee’s sister, and her kids. And we lay on the waiting room floor and slept, or tried to. I dozed fitfully, and around three in the morning, I thought about all the people who were praying for us, who loved us, who were mobilizing on our behalf, raising money, and putting meals together. I heard the snores of the others, these people who loved us enough to disrupt their lives and just be with us.

And in the midst of all that, I felt this tremendous sense of peace wash over me, and I knew it was going to be OK. She was going to be OK. We were going to be OK. And I fell sound asleep.

Before it was daylight, I would get woken up, and a doctor younger than I am would tell me that she had come through the surgery just fine and that she had a hard few days in front of her, but her long-term prospects looked great.

She was going to be OK, he told me.

He was right.

The Hughniverse

Let me tell you the backstory behind this post.

A few months back, I was holding office hours for people on the membership team. I mentioned the wide-ranging projects I am working on that they are supporting, and I jokingly called it my empire. He laughed and said I was creating a Hughniverse.

I am a sucker for puns on my name.

Then, a few weeks ago a close friend made something pretty amazing, and I mentioned it in The Hughsletter. Later, when I was talking to her, I mentioned I had shared it in my newsletter, and she said she hadn’t seen it. It turns out she hadn’t seen it because she didn’t even know I have a second newsletter called The Hughsletter (again, I love puns on my name).

I am the worst promoter of my work, but even I recognize that of the literally billions of people on the planet who did not read anything I wrote last year, the most common reason they didn’t wasn’t that they don’t like my style, or they disagree with me politically or any other logical reason, but because they simply do not know I exist.

So, here is an up-to-date list of the projects I am currently working on. At least this way, I can say that I told you.

The Membership Team

The more than 120 folks who pay contribute between $5 and $25 a month to keep the bills paid around here. Literally, everything springs from this – they pay the hosting and the internet domains and the subscriptions for the software and, not incidentally, for my time when I am writing jibber jabber on the internet instead of doing something else.

They also serve as an advisory board of sorts – they know about projects before anyone else, and I seek their input on directions I am considering. They get the satisfaction of knowing that because of their support, I get to keep making cool stuff.

Food is Love

This is the narrative cookbook I am writing in partnership with the membership team. They are getting a chapter a week delivered to their inbox as I write this, and then I take their input and feedback and will edit it down and publish a physical book this winter.

We are a ⅓ of the way through this project. So far, members have gotten the stories (and recipes) behind such things as fancy rice, Salisbury steak, pulled pork, and Aunt Louise’s chicken soup. And this winter, when I do get the physical book made, they will all get free copies.

Membership has its privileges. If you aren’t a member, you can buy it when it comes out.

My Blog

I continue to post on my blog two to three days a week at Humidity and Hope. My most read post over the last 30 days or so was my story of our ragtag rescue cat Pepe.

Links to the new posts are posted in several places: My Facebook page, Twitter, and Tumblr. I also publish a full RSS feed if that is your jam (it is mine!). If you don’t know what RSS is, here you go.

And I publish the entirety of the text of most blog posts on my Facebook profile page as a public post. I want everyone to have the opportunity to read my stuff, despite the fact that it probably costs me subscribers by not forcing Facebook readers to click through.

The Hughsletter

This is the accidental newsletter. Back in August of last year, when I began blogging regularly again, I set it up so people could get an email whenever I wrote a post. So far, so good. But then I began publishing multiple times a week, and people freaked out a little and asked if they could just get one email a week from me with links to everything I wrote that week.

So, I did. Then I would think of other things I had seen or liked that didn’t really merit their own blog post but that I thought would appeal to people who like my blogging style, so I added those links. Or I would mention a follow-up to a previous post I knew they had read. Before long, it was its own thing.

This is my most personal publishing venture. It’s the smallest audience, so it feels like talking to people I know rather than the internet at large. You can sign up or peruse the archives here.

Life is So Beautiful

Every Monday morning, I wake up, make coffee, and then sit down and write an email to several thousand folks in at least five different countries. I write a blog-length reflection on where I see beauty in the world right then, and then I share links to five things I had seen that week that struck me as beautiful. Because the world is beautiful, but sometimes it’s hard to notice it.

And I’ve been doing it for seven years. It’s my biggest project, in terms of readers, and my longest-running one. You can sign up or peruse the archives here.


That’s a lot. There is talk of other things in the works. I’m working on an idea for the next book I will serially write like I am this one. There is talk of a podcast. I want to set up a live streaming cam on my birdfeeder and pond. I will get to it eventually. Or not. But I am having a blast, regardless.

Thanks for reading my stuff. It means more than you know.

Most Days

Creative people love to hear about the routines of other creative people. They hear that Hemingway often wrote at a standing desk, so they buy a standing desk. Or that Austin Kleon uses a Pilot G2 Gel Pen, and so they buy a Pilot G2 Gel Pen. Walter Mosley says that you should write two hours a day, Sunday through Saturday, 52 weeks a year, for the rest of your life. Julia Cameron says that the secret is three handwritten pages a day. Stephen King writes in the morning and reads in the afternoon.

I belong to a book club made up of creative people, and we read and discuss books about creativity. Quickly you see that they all have some sort of recipe or prescription. They also don’t seem to recognize that there is a degree of privilege in even the best of them.

Take Walter Mosley and his two hours a day of writing. When we had infants living with us, I didn’t sleep for more than 3 hours at a time. I didn’t shower every day, let alone write every day. My writing output was zero. But Mr. Mosley would say I was just not serious about your work. In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, he mentions time constraints, and his advice is basically that you have to figure out how to do it. “Let the lawn get shaggy and the paint peel from the walls,” he says.

That it is easier to neglect walls and lawns than children’s feeding schedules goes unmentioned. Also, we creative people tend to be a thin-skinned lot, and once you realize the impossibility of the average working person being able to take Mosley’s advice, it is easy to be filled with despair. It is a recipe for failure if success is defined as following Mosley’s prescription.

Yesterday, I wrote 1200 words. Thus far today, I have written over 300 words and will most likely write another thousand more before I am done. I don’t write every day, but I do write most days. Because I am OK with writing most days, I have written more than 200,000 words in the last 12 months. If I were only a success if I wrote every day, I would have 200,000 words and be a failure.

Yesterday I walked 2.5 miles. Today I walked 2.5 miles. But Saturday, I didn’t. But it doesn’t matter, because most days, I do. That has been enough, over the last year, for me to lower my blood pressure, lose weight I needed to lose, and feel more connected to my neighborhood.

I think 24 hours as the default unit of time is a mistake – I try to take a more seasonal approach these days. It doesn’t matter what you do every day. It matters what you do most of the time.

Over this season, did I write most days? Did I meditate or pray most days? Did I walk most days? Did I eat in ways that respect my body most days? Was I kind to other people most days? Was I a good partner most days? Was I the sort of person I wanted to be most days?

When I focus on doing the thing, say, 70% of the time rather than doing it perfectly 100% of the time, I get a lot more done, and I feel like I do better work. And honestly, I feel better about myself.

Most days.

The Spiritual Life

“Can I ask you a question?”

It came over text. I didn’t see it for a while. I have a bad habit of walking away from my phone.

But when I saw it, I replied.

“Sure. What’s up?”

I should say here that it wasn’t a close friend, but someone I know casually. In other words, getting a text from her wasn’t weird, but it was hardly a regular occurrence.

“You’re a preacher, right?”

I used my standard line: “That’s what the piece of paper on the wall says.”

There was a pause of a few minutes.

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. That sort of ‘not taking it serious’ thing you do. You don’t act very spiritual”.

It was my turn to pause. If she needed me to be “Pastor Hugh,” I wanted to be that for her. But if she just wanted to bust my chops because I said “shit” on Facebook, I didn’t really have time for that.

“Is that a question?”

Her: Maybe. Like, even though you act like you don’t, you do take it seriously, don’t you?

Ahhh. Here we are. I didn’t fit her paradigm of what a spiritual person looked like.

I scheduled a time to grab some coffee with her, and we talked for about an hour.

Here is an abbreviated version of what I said.

I told her that while I understood what she meant, I just don’t think in those terms. Like, deciding that this is spiritual, and this isn’t.

There isn’t spiritual work and secular work. There aren’t spiritual people and not spiritual people. There isn’t spiritual music and not spiritual music. And there isn’t a spiritual life and a not spiritual life.

There is just the sacred and the desecrated. That’s it. Those are the only two categories my worldview permits.

It’s all supposed to be holy. It all matters.

So yes, I take it all seriously. I take it very, very seriously.

I’m just not interested in pretending to be something I’m not, I told her. I’m the kind of guy who says “shit.” I’m not the kind of guy who tries to turn every conversation to be about God. Besides, if everything is holy, it’s all about God anyway.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says,

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

I think about that a lot. That there is no such thing as a spiritual life – there is just whatever we are doing at any given minute. As Dillard advises, there are practices one can engage in to catch those moments so that we capture them and thus form a pattern, both blurred and powerful. And for me, looking for the beauty that underlies everything is one of those practices. Loudly proclaiming my spiritual allegiance is not.

So, I’m not a guy who is going to say, “Ain’t God Good!” when my car gets hit in the parking lot. But I am the guy who will notice the sunlight refracting through the cracks in the windshield as I wait on the tow truck. And I believe God is in those cracks, too.

And that is my spiritual life.

Brevity is not my goal

As I have said elsewhere, I am, first and foremost, a storyteller. The writing is a secondary decision and a distant one at that.

However, I learned long ago that some people discount what you have to say if you do not couch it in terms and frameworks they accept as authoritative. So, I try to get the grammar somewhat right, anyway. As much as I wish I did not care what other people with more education than me, more credentials than me, and more platform than me… I do.

Deep inside is still the eight-year-old kid who was laughed at by a grownup for mispronouncing the word “proprietor” as I had only read the word and never heard it said. I am yet to forgive that guy. Honestly, I am yet to try. It’s on my to-do list. Admittedly, it’s at the bottom of the list, but it’s on there.

We carry so many ghosts around with us.

So, anyway, I worry about my grammar. And spelling. And usage. And diction. I use several tools, including spell check and Grammarly, to do final passes on anything I send out into the world to make sure I got all my subject/verb agreement and tenses correct. And the fights I have had with the punctuation robots over how many commas should be in a sentence are legion. Generally, the robot thinks I should use less, errr, fewer, unless I don’t think I should have one, in which case, it thinks I am wrong.

To be clear – I see them as advisors. “Here is a potential problem,” they say, and then I decide on whether to take the advice. I do perhaps one time out of three.

In almost every paragraph of any length, it will highlight at least one sentence and tell me that it is too wordy and should be rewritten. (Ironically, including the one you just read.) But the grammar robots do not understand that brevity is not my goal. Telling a good story is.

A good story needs to be understood, and proper punctuation and grammar can aid in that understanding. But it is far from the only requirement.

A good story should connect with the emotions of the audience. It should be an invitation into empathy, a connection with what is important in our humanity, a point of sameness that we can alight on together in a tumultuous world. It’s hard to do that when reducing the word count is your primary aim.

Recently, the James Webb telescope released pictures from deep space, showing us galaxies and solar systems we did not know existed. The picture accompanying this post is one of them. Here is how NASA described the picture in the Alt-Text, which is the description it provides for screen readers:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes. The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

I have two things to say about that description. No, three things.

  • Whoever wrote that cared about the reader. It’s stunning in its description and care.
  • It is not brief. Most alt-text is a sentence or two long.
  • The grammar robot freaked out over that paragraph of text.

People love to harp on Strunk and White’s admonition to omit needless words, but who decides if they are needless? I think clarity and connection are much better goals than brevity.