The Joy of Learning to Close Those Tags


In 1987, a friend invited me to help celebrate her 40th birthday aboard a chartered catamaran on Galveston Bay. I wasn’t a sailor, and never had boarded a sailboat, but I accepted the invitation because I loved my friend and wanted to share in her happiness.  Driving to Galveston, I never imagined I was heading toward  an experience that would still be affecting my life nearly 20 years later.

As we loosed our lines that hot August night, there was a freshening breeze, and a lapping of wavelets against the hull. As the sun touched the dusky horizon and stars emerged above the mast, I felt a sudden impulse. Walking to the stern, I asked the captain, “Do you teach people to do this?” Glancing in my direction, he mused, “No one’s ever asked”.  When I asked again, he gazed at the darkening shoreline a long moment before saying, “Fine. But you’re going to learn it all.”

He was true to his word, and he taught me well.  No one “learns it all”, but I learned enough over the next months to know the joy of competence, and the discipline of the sea. In bays and waterways, offshore swells and quiet anchorages, we practiced navigation, rehearsed Rules of the Road, bled fuel lines, and mended sails. I learned to single-hand, and I learned to crew.  Above all, I learned to love water, wind and sky in a deep and profound way.

The learning took time, but the most important lesson I learned immediately. On my first day aboard, Tom asked me remove the canvas cover from the mainsail furled on its boom. The boom was higher than I could reach; the sail was tightly stacked and tied. Looking at it, I spoke the first words that came to mind: “I can’t reach it.”

Bent over the anchor chain, Tom never moved. When he spoke, his tone was clear: “Never again will you say, ‘I can’t’. If I tell you to do something which seems difficult or impossible, ask, ‘How can I?’ The answer may be that you ask for help, or find someone else to do it, but that’s not where you start. The only way you’ll succeed is by first asking, ‘How can I?’”

“Over the months, there were difficulties to spare. Each time I hesitated, Tom would grin and say, “You know the rule.”   By that time, I certainly did.  When difficulties arise, the rule says: relinquish pessimistic or petulant “I can’t” for curious and optimistic “How can I?” 

Then, begin again.

Over the years, the question I learned to ask on that sailboat has embedded itself so deeply into my psyche it seems a birthright, true across every realm of life. No matter how painful a relationship, no matter how fearful the unknown, no matter how difficult life’s challenges, there always is a way forward.

I’ve had more than a few occasions to remember my “rule” since coming to WordPress.  When I posted my first blog, I was as Dazed and Confused as the title implied.  Confronted by a site filled with people  comfortable with categories, tags, css, rss and html in the way I’m comfortable with my cousins or my cat, I could only admit to the truth: “When I look at a hyperlink, I hyperventilate.  When I hear the word “tag”, I think of a children’s game.  If any computer guru in the world begins a sentence, “All you have to do is…”, I’ve already done a mental turn and am running for my life.  They mean well, and so do I.   It’s just that “intuitive” is not a word I associate with computers or their programs.”

On the other hand, I’m not oblivious to the fact that the world has changed in my lifetime.  I’ve been forced to admit that, “whether I like it or not, the day of the Number 2 pencil, or even the old, clunky Underwood, is over.  If I am to share my words and my vision, technology must become my friend.”

And so, taking a deep breath and with my somewhat older friend “How Can I?” by my side, I began to create a blog.  Step by step, I learned to work with images, and colorize my text.  I learned not to use Word to create my entries, and how to create links.  I learned about blogrolls and Blogger,  text-wrap and Twitter.  It was slow and more-or-less awkward, but all worked well until my last post.

I met my match in the form of four links which wouldn’t format properly.  I like to emphasize links by making their color different from the text around them, and never had problems doing so.  This time, it was beyond me.  I tried everything I knew and a few wild guesses for good measure.  I simply couldn’t make it work.  The only solution was to swallow hard and head off to the forums, to see if I could ask my question clearly enough to find an answer.

The details of the question and answer aren’t really important.  The fact that I was able to solve my problem with the help of a forum volunteer is wonderful, but somewhat beside the point.  The point of it all appeared a day or so later, when I stopped by my blog to answer a comment.

I’ve begun responding to readers by adding my italicized comment directly beneath their post.  It’s neat and tidy, and helps the flow by keeping comment and response together in one place.  This time, when I added my response, the entire comment-and-response became one large, clickable link.  It didn’t hurt anything, but it wasn’t right.  Staring at the screen, caught up in html-phobia, I stopped hyperventilating long enough to remember my success in repairing those four recalcitrant links simply by re-arranging a bit of code.  I thought to myself, “It was easy enough to fix that, once the problem was pointed out to me.  How can I fix this?”

Clicking into the html editor, I looked over the page.  I examined the code as though it were a lab specimen, looking for the anomaly, the error, the out-of-place character.  Making myself slow down, I went through the code one line at a time, over and over, until I found it: an unclosed < a > tag.  Amost breathless with excitement, I added the necessary  < /a >, saved it, and previewed the page.  It was perfect.  

Sometimes, a tiny triumph is enough.  Sometimes, solving even the smallest problem will do.  Now and then, just a glimpse of a present reality can open our eyes to the wonder of future possibilities.  After two months at WordPress, I’m still a bit dazed but not nearly so confused, and I’m learning once again the power of those simple words: how can I? 

It will take time to learn the vocabulary, the culture and the simple etiquette of this blogging world, but I find it more accessible every day.  There’s a certain elegance to this “other language” called html that intrigues me, not to mention the pleasure of learning so many new skills. 

Now and then, someone will ask, “How can you spend so much time messing around with that computer?”   Reading my words, looking at my images, I ponder a bit, and then ask in return, “How can I not?”





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5 thoughts on “The Joy of Learning to Close Those Tags

  1. Good evening Linda. See, all you had to do was… lol. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Or in your case, sometimes it’s hard to see the s for the s.

    Code is poetry. More specifically, good code is poetry; Bad code is… bad poetry. Hard to read and forgettable.

    I have a friend who’s an English professor and a total computerphobic. He has remarked that he can’t see how people can keep the syntax of code straight. One extra comma, one misplaced period and the whole thing doesn’t work. I always reply that it’s no different than the English language where punctuation and grammar are critical. In fact, in my opinion, code is much easier that written English. There’s a lot fewer possible combinations with computer code. What’s really funny is that he is the best person I have ever met at grammar and punctuation!

    I suppose the moral of the story is that it’s all in your perception.

    Hi, JD,

    It occurs to me only after reading your comment that part of the problem may be that for some of us code looks so much like math and science rather than syntax and grammar. I’ve never had problems with spelling, punctuation or usage, and used to diagram sentences for fun. It’s probably the reason Huri laughs at me for my collections of dependent clauses that string out from here to next week. But ask me “If a train leaves Chicago at 5:07 going 45 miles an hour, ….” and I start to quiver.

    Although I’ve heard C++ and Fortran and such referred to as languages, I’ve never really thought of them that way. A little paradigm shift here and a reconsideration there, and away we go!

    Fun, indeed.


  2. JD, that’s a neat take on this post! I was feeling quite sympathetic about Linda’s trying to learn all this stuff, for it seems incomprehensible to me. But, I must admit, I’ve never attempted to learn it. I do, however, understand grammar, punctuation, and Excel formulas, so perhaps html-phobia is indeed all in my perception.

    Evening, NumberWise,

    I think part of the trick for us cyberphobes is the need-to-know routine. In the beginning, way back, I tried to learn some of this so I could use it. I never got anywhere – there was too much, and nothing made sense. But, when I started trying to learn things as I wanted to do things, it became much easier.

    One of the great helps with WordPress is the ease with which you can move back and forth from the visual editor to the html editor. If something works in one spot but not another, it’s easy to compare them and see what the differences are.

    Another great truth is that you and I didn’t grow up in the computer age. Period. Lots of these folks can’t conceive of people who never, ever used a computer in an office, but I never did. Never laid eyes or hand on one until 1999. By that time, 5 year olds were so far ahead of me it was pathetic.
    In that kind of situation, self-deprecating humor and a willingness to plead total ignorance are useful!

    Glad to see you stop by – hope the week is going well and you’re not totally overwhelmed at work!


  3. Linda,

    I think you’ve done extremely well with your Blog building venture. Just 2 months into WordPress, your technical knowledge of blogging way surpassed my 10 month’s wandering. Again congratulations and keep up the good work…I’ve enjoyed all your posts.

    Also, from the first section here in this one, I can see the seed of a memoir or even a novel sprouting. The sea, sailing, or even the varnishing of boats are great metaphors to work with. I await your literary endeavor in the coming days. All the best!


    How kind of you to stop by, especially since I think you’re still “roughing it” cyberwise. I thought you might like this one, with all that rippling water in the background!

    As for memoirs, novels, and such – who knows what will happen. I’m like the solitary pianist in the afternoon heat, working through the scales and etudes, or the vocalist singing 1-3-5-1-5-3-1 in every key. Some day, one of those selections from the ipod your son left will present itself, and it may be that I’ll be ready to perform.

    By the way – I completely approve of the Glenn Gould selections!


  4. Hah!! See Linda, even those of us who have used html for years still get tripped up at times. When I wrote:

    Or in your case, sometimes it’s hard to see the s for the s.

    I typed in:

    Or in your case, sometimes it’s hard to see the (‘less than sign’ ‘greater than sign’)s for the (‘less than sign’ / ‘greater than sign’)s. (please substitute the actual symbols for what I spelled out.)

    I never thought that since the page was presented in html, that the ‘signs’ would be interpreted as tags. And therefore they didn’t show up when I posted the comment. lol.

    Live and learn.


    I’m laughing for two reasons. I knew that only because, in the process of posting the entry, I kept losing the tags. I finally got them to stay in the body of the text by adding spaces.

    But the real hoot is what my mind did with your entry. I thought you had written exactly what you meant, but simply had been delicate about it. Thanks to my Midwestern upbringing, I can’t see “s and s” without thinking of (an indelicate substance) and shinola. It fit the context, and I laughed and went right on. My grandmother was always describing particularly thick-headed people as folks who couldn’t “tell s.. from shinola”. So there we are! THAT’S part of what makes language so much fun – layers and layers of meaning!


    ps – had tags in this response, with spaces, and they disappeared here just like yours did. Apparently the comments boxes are edited differently than the entry itself. Not only that, my use of the “a” tag turned the rest of the text brown instead of black. Always something new!

  5. How can you not indeed? I believe quite firmly that we always have to be trying to learn something or our brains will atrophy, just like muscles that aren’t used. At least with blogging and all that goes with it, we have something to show for our learning.

    This theme doesn’t support markups in comments? I’ll try for bold and see what happens.

    Good blog! I’m adding you to my blogroll.

    Have a great weekend.


    How kind of you to stop by. Your point about learning is apt; I’m always entranced by those stories about the 70-year-old who decides to get a high school diploma, or learn to read, or begin painting or writing. Natural curiosity combined with hard work can accomplish wonderful things. One of the joys of blogging is being able to see those wonderful things happening in corners of the world that would have remained hidden in past years. I’ll never forget finding the page of a woman in Manitoba who had begun sculpting in her middle ages. She had an entire outbuilding full of busts and statues and blocks of granite waiting to be what they would be. When someone asked why she’d begun such a project, she said, “I just wanted to see what would happen.”

    Thanks again for the comment – I’m looking forward to keeping up with what’s happening on your blog!


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