Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

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Seymour Chwast

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ms. Parenthetical

ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS is the poignant Mr. Pitiful, by Otis Redding. In addition to delighting me, it strikes a melancholy chord in my mind and heart and stirs up memories of betrayal every time I hear it.

Mr. Pitiful and I are kindred spirits of sorts for I was once Ms. Parenthetical. The cheery, upbeat melody of Mr. Pitiful belies its sad lyrics, just as the common-looking curved parentheses hide their destructive power behind a benign form. You probably think that parentheses are just another innocuous form of punctuation. Not true; if used thoughtlessly, they can be treacherous.

The opening verse of Mr. Pitiful follows:

They call me Mr. Pitiful
Baby that's my name now
They call me Mr. Pitiful. That's how I got my fame
But people just don't seem to understand
How someone can feel so blue
They call me Mr Pitiful, cause I lost someone just like you.*

I don't have to be told "how someone can feel so blue." I can write my own blues song. A verse from Ms. Parenthetical would parallel Mr. Pitiful and, perhaps, read as follows:

They called me Ms. Parenthetical

Baby, that was my name then

They called me Ms. Parenthetical. Tell you how I got my fame when

Parentheses imprisoned me and

Made me feel so blue,

I don't never, ever, ever want that to happen to you

They called me Ms. Parenthetical 'cause I lost someone too.

This is how I became Ms. Parenthetical. My boyfriend, a mutual acquaintance and I were corresponding via email about life and our artistic endeavors, which included my illustrating our acquaintance's book. The three-way emails were pleasant enough and continued for about a month. They then came to a temporary halt because the author needed to rewrite her work before I could start any drawing. Candidly, I was happy to put the work aside because I thought the story dull, unimaginative and lacking in vision or poetic beauty.

About five months hence, I discovered that the correspondence had only stopped for me. My boyfriend and the author had continued emailing each other, behind my back, daily, privately and for reasons other than collaborating on a book. Due to email misdirection, I had the occasion to read their ignoble emails.

Though the discovery of betrayal was emotionally unsettling, it was overridden by my fascination with the correspondents' use of parentheses in their dialogue. I was stunned by the power of this common punctuation and how these marks made me feel. Of all the words and sentiments I read in those emails, the parentheses were the most lethal. In a nutshell, punctuation punctured my heart.

For the first week or so after I was excluded from the emails, my boyfriend, Dalton, continued to sign his emails with both our names–"Dalton and Depingo." And the author addressed her emails to "Dalton and Depingo" as well, even though she was exclusively corresponding with Dalton. After a while, the author began addressing her emails to "Dalton (and Depingo)" and once to "Dalton (and, of course, Depingo)." Dalton followed suit and started signing his emails "Dalton (and Depingo)." Trapped between parentheses, I was being phased out, imprisoned, marginalized and rendered powerless. I was, indeed, in parenthetical jail, as it were. And I can tell you it was cold, dark and lonely between those restrictive, hard-edged, curved bars. It didn't take long though, before I was set free, grammatically at least, released from parenthetical prison and never again mentioned in their salutations or valedictions– ever–even in parentheses.

Deciding inquisitiveness was a better modus operandi than despair, I looked up "parentheses" in the dictionary. I learned that the definition is: to include material that you want to de-emphasize; a digression; a person, episode or incident that is irrelevant. Irrelevant! I? ...irrelevant? The second verse of my song started writing itself.

They called me Ms. Irrelevant!

That's what I was, baby

In parenthetical jail, baby

Where did I fail

I was Ms Parenthetical, it was irrevocable;

And all I got to do in jail was wail,wail, wail.

Then I summoned up the power of language and made an ally of it. I thought for a long time and finally realized there is only one thing worse than being parenthesized. And that was being deleted. Do I detect a third verse for my song in the making?

So I did what I had to do, baby
I deleted them with haste
I deleted them, baby–both of them–dragged them to the waste

I blocked them on my computer and then . . .
purged them from my mind . . .
That took a little longer, baby
But I was not to be left behind.
They call me Ms. Deletion,baby. I got a new name
I'm Ms. Deletion now, baby, I'm at the top of my game!

Paint on,
Depingo ... er ... um ... that's Ms. Deletion to some.

* Thanks to the late, great Otis Redding for his lyrics to Mr. Pitiful and inspiration for Ms. Parenthetical. The song can be heard ***here.***


  1. Oh go on ... I mean, go onnnnnnn!

  2. Who is this Dalton guy? He sounds like a real loser.


  3. Loved the blog post for today!!! *** a must read.

  4. this "mutual acquaintance" sounds like a real nutcase; just make her parenthetical

  5. Wow! You really do have a way with words, Susan. Your post was disturbing but moving, and you integrated the Otis Redding song wonderfully.

  6. Thanks so much Susan. I enjoyed that!

  7. Very much enjoyed your Parenthesis story!