Sunday, May 19, 2013
Two things happened today. Well, if you're into minutiae then 162 things happened today. But in short, I went to a Mormon church service (seeking curiosities), and I went to the laundromat (seeking clean socks).
Instead of spending my wash cycle time walking out for a sweet tea or gazing numbly at the socks rolling around in the drum, I thought about the musical directions in the Mormon hymn book I sang from this morning. I've seen plain English directions in hymn books before, at my grandma's church. The book at her church gives directions like "joyfully" or "slowly," sometimes casting commentary on the meaning but not much. In the Mormon book, however, all the musical directions are commentary on the essence of the song, and how the singer should feel about it.
While this may be a good way to indicate what kind of voice we should sing in, and maybe an indicator of how we should interpret the song, it doesn't help us understand what the tempo should be, or how the notes should be read. Isn't the main aim of directions like andante and allegro to give an idea of the tempo and the rhythm of the song? Okay maybe it's silly to expect everyone to learn Italian words, but even rock sheet music has helpful (rather than emotional and confusing) plain-English directions, like "moderate rock" or "a little faster" or "ballad."
Yet now that I rethink it, ballads and shuffles, and whatever else might be included in the directions in my Jethro Tull songbook, are examples of a language shared by rock musicians (although Anderson uses presto and allegro too). Maybe the language of hymnals has to match the language of church? So, there must not be any better way to describe how to sing a hymn, than with words like these:
Actual examples from the Mormon hymn book
These are so funny, because they attempt to be so specific and end up being so vague. Prayerfully? WTF, Mormons? Much can be said about musical directions as a means of shutting down a faithful one's (or a musician's) personal interpretation of a song, but there is just as much to be said about these lamentable word choices. So then, still at the laundromat, I got to thinking, why don't they just take it all the way, and get all religulous with the hymnal commands?
Possible Mormon (or any evangelical church) Hymn Directions
With the spurit
With clean thoughts
Zealously ( ♩ = 116 )
As if you are about to explode ( ♩ = 162 )
Like it's your Baptism-day!
Like the devil's got you by the balls
And still at the laundromat, I thought, Why not have the alternate atheist/agnostic/apostate version?
Possible Apostate Hymnal Directions
With frustration ( ♩ = 42)
With apathy ( ♩ = whatever )
Out of the side of your mouth
With goat voice
That should do it. Have you seen any strange, confusing, or plain silly musical directions? Can you add any to my alternate lists?
Thursday, May 2, 2013
Is has been quite some time since I posted anything "instructional." But I used to do it quite often. I posted a guide to the literature subject GRE. I described how to dovetail a philosophy major or minor with your English degree. I posted on how to talk about the Middle Ages, and how to use the word "modern" in all its definitions. Why I don't do that anymore is something of a mystery. I've been at this "Student of English" business for years now, so I usually know what I'm talking about. Maybe that's just the trouble. (And I explored this a couple months ago -- it seems the more you know what you're talking about, the harder it is to write essay-style pieces.)
Well, dash it all, tonight I'm going to instruct.
It may seem silly to instruct on something like this, but I think there may be a need. It's come up in conversations with smart undergrads, and it's come up twice in grad classrooms filled with smart people. And so I've seen that there are many who don't know that:
There is only one Yeats.
By that I do not mean "O what a literary genius Yeats is! There can never be another!" While I do think that Yeats is pretty irreplaceable, the point here is how to talk about Yeats. And other people named Yeats. Or Yates. Or any authors who share a last name.
There is only one Eliot. There is only one Shelley. There is only one Woolf. (And I will argue that there is only one Austen.)
When readerly types talk about authors, they often throw around last names. Whether this is for the sake of brevity or because it makes you sound professional in a graduate classroom, is variable. It is, in fact, professional and eloquent sounding, and it would certainly be a mouthful to say "William Makepeace Thackeray" mid-conversational stream. But when introducing an author into a conversation, it's only acceptable to do so by last name if everyone there will know who you're talking about. So anyone who is not counted among the "greats" has to be introduced by full name, just like when you write a paper MLA style. (You can't refer to some unknown critic with "Cooper argues..." on the first page of your paper and more than you can say "Smith has quite a way with metaphors!" in a conversation at a party. Because...Who the hell are these people?)
Contemporary writers should probably all be introduced by full name, because individual taste still determines what we read when it comes to stuff that hasn't yet been sorted out by the critics. If there are two new spewers of novels with sad titles and soft-focus covers, and both writers are named Smith, who can yet say which Smith is the only Smith? (For the sake of all that is right and good in the world, hopefully neither.)
But Coleridge, Thackeray, Keats, Byron, Milton, Spencer, etc, etc, should never be called by full name. That would just be silly. What other Milton is there?
That question leads us to where it gets tricky. I list a few of the Romantics above, but I left out Shelley. Because there is another Shelley. How do we decide which one gets the privilege of being the only Shelley?
Before you start weighing the options, the decision has probably already been made for you, by the same forces that shape the canon. Which one is a white male Anglophone? Which one is the parent or husband? (In the case of a child or wife using the same name even though the head of the household is famous.) Who's work is more influential? (Already partly determined by the existing canon, which is of course already influenced by gender, race, language, and so on.) I won't get into a discussion of canon here (because it's here), but it does bother me a little bit that the same canon criteria that long kept women and minorities from being heard are similar to the criteria for deciding who takes the honor of being "the one."
All that aside, Yates is no Yeats. Sometimes an author just completely outshines another, both in works and in historical significance. So even if you study Yates, even if your dissertation is on Yates, and you talk about his work with your colleagues and committee all the time only having to use a last name because they all know -- STILL, when you introduce yourself to someone who doesn't know you're knee-deep in Yates, unless you are at the Super-Secret Society of Richard Yates Conference, you'll have to call him Richard Yates. Or they'll think you mean Yeats.
Percy Bysshe Shelley is the only Shelley, so we can stop using his silly names now. His wife is Mary Shelley. Always Mary.
T. S. Eliot is the only Eliot. This one is tricky -- George Eliot is just as important as T.S., in my book. But that's not her real name. Besides the obvious canonical ding for being a woman writer, the fact that Eliot is her pen name makes it weird to call her that and only that, as if it's a last name. So T.S. wins.
Woolf is the only Woolf. Although, people frequently use her full name.* We have a tendency to do this with women, while men who are of the same authorial caliber are rarely called by their full names. Tom Wolfe is not Wolfe. He's Tom Wolfe. Only Woolf is Woolf. This is a case where a woman writer triumphs, because her work is so historically important, partly because it's the work of a woman about being a woman.
*I admit to sometimes even calling her by her first name. But as a believer in some kind of Écriture féminine, using a woman's first name brings me closer to her. Somehow it seems appropriate. But even though I talk about "Virginia" often, we should not be required to call women by their full names just because they're women. In fact, in the above list of "last name only" men there are two I'd never heard of before I read Woolf. Her last name was part of my vocabulary before Thackeray's or Lamb's. She actually introduced me to them.
Jane Austen, I would argue, is the only Austen. Since Austen sounds exactly like Austin, there are any number of writers liable to be confused with her as the centuries wear on. But why do we always call her "Jane Austen"? Again, I understand the affectionate use of a first name by a person who feels a close affinity with a writer. But as well known as Janey is these days, I think "Austen" should suffice.
As for who is the only Brontë... I think we are stuck with both Emily and Charlotte. (And if you plan to talk about the third sister who no one reads, her name is Anne and you'll have to be specific about it.)
So when you want to talk about authors, make sure you're clear, and that you sound like the reader you are. Don't introduce obscure folk by last name only. Don't trip over the full names of the greats who we already know by last name or even nickname. And if the dude you want to talk about shares a name with another writer, remember the "only one Yeats" rule.
I took that line from a professor at NIU. We were in a library smart-classroom and a student said she wanted help finding some bit of information on Yates. The prof started looking up Yeats, and she had to clarify, "No, I'm sorry, uh, Richard Yates." He was flabbergasted! And then he lectured us severely that there is indeed only one Yeats.
Just yesterday a Romanticist classmate mentioned Shelley as we sat down to our final Old English class. A guy behind her started to say "She is..." but the young Romanticist immediately cut him off. "SHE?" Then he sputtered out something incoherent and was like "OH! That Shelley." Yes, we all know there is a She-Shelley. And there's nothing wrong with She-Shelley. But Shelley is a he. So the whole thing was awkward with the girl thinking the guy hopeless and the guy thinking her a know-it-all, and various minds around the classroom thinking things like "OF COURSE IT'S SHELLEY!" or "Shit, should I have known that's what she meant by Shelley? I'm an idiot!" or "Ugh why are we having this conversation..." Luckily we made fun of Shelley for falling off his boat, had a lively discussion about drownings, and set things right again in time to translate together the saddest poem in the Old English corpus.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
|Son of a "working mother." He looks so neglected.|
The title of this post is the title of a magazine that started showing up in my mail a couple years ago. I assume it came free with something I bought for my kids, like the horrible unwelcome issues of American Baby that only recently stopped polluting my mailbox with their claims that "cesarean babies are happiest!" and other such rot.
Working Mother. Let's parse that. Most mothers in this country work. Most women in this country work. Yet there we have this appellation, like a working mother is some special breed of woman. She's really quite common. She's often amazing, but still quite common. This reminds me of Drew Gilpin Faust's assertion: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard. I'm the president of Harvard." Not quite the same thing, but something about "working mother" has that "woman president" ring to it.
Feminist gripes with mainstream magazine titles aside, Working Mother is not bad. And in fact, in my mildly affluent neighborhood, where we are one of the very few families who don't contribute to that affluence, working mothers like me are the minority. So sometimes it's good to have an ally, even if it is just a bunch of shiny paper stapled together.
When this month's issue showed up, I was in a mood where the title and article headlines rubbed me the wrong way. I flipped through the pages to find something to rant about. I'd been aching to do a social rant on something, anything. But this time I was disappointed. Yet even though I could not find an article to work my critical pincers upon, Working Mom still gave me something to write about.
In article entitled "Teacher, please," Abigail Green outlines the phenomenon of Teacher Appreciation Week and the toll it takes on a working mom. She tells the story of her five days of failing to live up to many of the appreciation week "requirements." On flower day she hits the grocery store before the florist is there (because she has to drop the kids early to make it to work on time) and in desperation she snatches dripping tulips from behind the counter. Kudos to her. I sent my son in with a plastic flower I pulled out of a storage bin, telling him it would be more special because it won't die.
Funny stories of frantic mornings are good memories, in a way, but it's the public shame that is hardest to live down. Something Green doesn't mention, something more important and more sinister than hectic schedules, is how working moms are often judged by their SAHM neighbors who can't understand how YOU DIDN'T KNOW IT WAS CUPCAKE DAY?
How are we supposed to remember which day is cupcake day? Or even have time to make cupcakes? (And here I remember a rich woman -- the mother of a friend of mine -- counting the storebought baked goods at a PTA function years ago. And as my own working mother set down the tray of rice krispies treats, the woman sighed, saying "Ohhh look how many people brought rice krispies treats...")
The local moms stand around outside waiting to pick up their broods at the walker door. They're all in gym garb and North Face. One of them wears tall fashion boots with her gym garb. They talk about developmental milestones. Sometimes, about the careers they gave up. One of them loudly proclaims that it is irresponsible and thoughtless for a mom to go to grad school. (Yes, that happened.)
In come the PTO emails that imply that if you don't have the time, then you have to have the money. Donate soft drinks and plates. Send money for gift cards. Etc.
I pick my son up at that door three days a week, but they look at me like they don't know who I am or what shrubbery I just crawled out of. I only have one mom acquaintance -- our boys became friends after hers punched mine. Her husband is an art professor. The other women's husbands are in sales.
The shame doesn't just come in the active SAHM hating on working mom (and grad mom) variety, but also in the blindness of the school district to the make-up of its student body. It's kind of a passive shaming. Because the school district has tons of money, it operates like all its students are Richie Rich. And all of Richie's moms stay home and have nothing better to do than read emails from the school and pore over the calendar and pack two weeks of lunches in advance and stick them in the freezer.
The school does not send announcements for events, because I should know, somehow, that tomorrow is pajama day. My son has cried more than once over missing pajama day.
My son's class operates on a four day schedule. Not five. So library day (when he needs to bring books back) is always on a different day than it was last week. He never brings his books back on time. And when there is a holiday, it is a complete crapshoot what day the next week will start on. What the hell is this? Yeah, high school students have different periods and sometimes rotating schedules, but they are responsible for that. A second grader (or his mom) should not have to go online and check the calendar every single night to find out what new and different surprise is in store for him the next day at school.
Once I forgot to pay the lunch bill (the kids can run up to $10 in debt on their lunch cards, in case of forgotten lunches). I owed $4.40. The school sent me a stern note saying how "All of our parents make sure to pay their lunch balance on time." First of all, that's a bit stern for a balance of less than $5, when district policy allows him up to $10 before they give him a stale cheese sandwich and toss him out on his ear. Secondly, and more important than my irritation at receiving debt collection-style notes from an elementary school -- shouldn't a school think to offer free or reduced lunches to a family who has been getting behind on their lunch payments? I know you have to qualify for that (and we wouldn't qualify), but they don't know our situation. For all they know I don't have $4.40 to spare. Here's what they should send: a letter that asks for the balance to be settled and comes with a form and a nice handwritten note saying "We noticed Mikey hasn't had lunch money this week. Do you want to apply for free lunch and see if you qualify?" Aren't schools supposed to be on the front line of helping kids in poverty? Again that's not us, I paid the $4.40. But their approach seems completely blind to any other kind of student demographic than the ones whose moms they see hovering around the classrooms as "room parents" every day.
I complain about this all the time (mostly to myself, in the kitchen, while trying to figure out what all the uninformative papers in my son's backpack mean), and it was good to see similar angst (and not a shred of guilt!) in Green's article.
Did I mention they never send home notes? Unless you owe money. Then they want to break your working mom thumbs.
Now before the stay at home moms get mad at me, I know there are arguments on both sides. I know that SAHMs get unfairly judged by "career women" just as often as SAHMs dish out criticism of working moms. But in the realm of kids-at-school, and getting-shit-done-for-the-PTO sorts of stuff, SAHMs are in charge. No one is telling them that staying home is making them less involved in their kids' education or a less valuable member of the community. Working mothers in conservative, affluent areas like mine not only deal with the passive shaming of a system that doesn't recognize their family or lifestyle as a component of the neighborhood, but their kids miss out because of that system too. Information on the little things (pajama day, art fair, etc) is hard to get, and we're not on the "phone tree." And because we can't make social bonds with the North Facers at the walker door, they don't let their kids bond with ours.
I don't know who needs to step up here. Why aren't the schools smart enough to realize that not all parents can be involved with school activities EVERY DAY? Why can't parents in one-earner families realize that they are actually NOT the norm, and that we working moms appreciate what they do at the school, but we just absolutely can't contribute the same way? Do the working moms need to start a club to call attention to ourselves? To ask SAHMs and schools to stop making us feel like terrible parents? Or most importantly, to allow for kids of working moms to be involved in all of the activities they never find out about because NO ONE TOLD THEIR PARENTS.
A working mom club... Ain't nobody got time for that!
|He'll make his own pajama day.|
Friday, April 19, 2013
I am learning to play the flute.
Why the hell would a 32-year-old woman try to learn to play a new instrument? Or any instrument at all for that matter? (These are the things my fellow soccer moms wonder.) Because this is the kind of shit I do. That and ballet classes, and self-portraits, and grad school, and translating Old English poetry, and a lot of other things mothers don't typically even think about, or suspect that their neighbors are up to. Take that suburbia.
I played saxophone and french horn in school, and I got especially good at the sax. I was emulating Lisa Simpson then. Outcast nerd with saxophone who hates the school band music (the vegetarianism waited until I grew up). But instead of jazz like Lisa I wanted to play rock sax. I'd listen to the radio and play the solos by ear. And in the early nineties, there were plenty of sax solos wafting o'er the airwaves. Like a river flowin' into the ocean...
Now my inspiration and instrumental role model is Ian Anderson. (Who else? Well, Peter Gabriel plays the flute, but it's not quite the same.) I've been into Jethro Tull for about ten years, and all through my 20s I dreamed of being in a rock band. I always pictured myself playing rock flute in that band, and singing in a folksy voice. Always doing a Tull cover or two.
So a few years ago I got my chance to play in a cover band, and I became the lead singer. And I sang bluesy, not folksy. And the Tull in our catalog was null. I was instrumental to the band line-up, yet even with all my multi-talented influences I remained ironically non-instrumental. I honed my vocal craft for four years, but always felt terribly lacking. I didn't have anything to hold. Sometimes I had hand percussion. Other times, just idle hands. I'd pick up a tambourine and shake it lightly enough that it was inaudible, just to have something to do. Most of the time I just danced wildly. The few times I offered my saxophone abilities during practice discussions, the band was skeptical.
That venture has ended, so as a singer I've been longing to perform in some way or another. I loved the rush of being up front, the euphoria of getting lost in my own sound-making. But I don't have a band now, and no one is impressed by just singing. Everyone has a voice. You have to be able to do something. ENTER: FLUTE!
So I've been working on it for about a month and a half. My basic music reading came back at two weeks. My sight reading came back at four. The fingering came back at four weeks too. Then the simple Yiddish song "Tumbalalaika" committed itself to my memory, allowing me to practice embellishment without slowing down to fiddle with my tangled, confused digits.
I still can't keep time when I learn a new song. That will come, I'm sure. I still forget notes when there are flats and sharps not in the key signature. I think the memorization of tunes will come better once I'm not using so much brain power to get my fingers over the right and proper holes and to tell B from D on the staff, and so much muscle power to keep the flute from flying out of my grasp whenever I play C sharp. (You have to let go of all but one pinky key, and that key depresses forward. TweeeeeetfllubbupwhoAAH!)
|Let it float...|
|Too much grasping.|
In fact, I couldn't wait so much that I looked up Bourée and started playing it. It actually is easy to pick up right away! And I'm not even fifteen! All the trick is in the timing and the embellishments. There are still some symbols I have to figure out, but I can feel where the trills should be, and I know the movement of the song even if I don't properly interpret all the lines and dots. I have the notes, I have my Tull records, I have my woodwinded mind -- I think I am set.
The title for this post came from overly philosophical thoughts I began to have while playing a Tull song for the first time. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There's a line in The Sun Also Rises about an American woman speaking French and being surprised at it coming out French. And then talking too much just to hear herself magically talk French. That's what it felt like.
Then tonight I thought about having to relearn to read music, and then to add in all the other info on the page besides just the notes (notes on notes, paratexts...), then interpret it for myself to make it sound agreeable, and like actual music. I thought about the acts of reading, writing, and translation. I think my knack for Old English translation, silly as this may sound, has been helped along by my learning to play the flute. I began the two endeavors together this semester -- translating OE, "translating" flute -- and they are remarkably complementary.
I was Bourée-ing after I put the kids to bed tonight. It was great to hear my 8-year-old son call down to me, "Hey, I can hear the song now! Doo doo DEE, doo dee DOO, doo dee DOO, doo doo DEE..."
(And then after a few clinkers he called down "Mama, would it help if you just put on the record?")
Friday, April 12, 2013
I've been blogging here for five years now, and in many ways the blog has done what I wanted it to do. It's kept me aware of how often (or seldom) I write, it's given me an audience to keep me honest, give me shit, and give me hope, and it's provided a record of my changing style and interests. But probably most importantly, as the title suggests, this blog has followed me through my career as a student, from "non-traditional" college junior to graduating Master of Arts. That's me. I'm a master now. A black belt in literature.
The next illogical step in this eternal forward march of studentry is to take a PhD. Yes, I'm going to do it. I only spent the first year and a half of this blog talking about how I would do it. And now five years later, I will.
I'm staying at NIU and entering the doctoral program this fall, with full support. That is, they are paying my tuition and I am getting paid (better than I was paid as a masters student) to teach. Had to throw that in there in case anyone reads this and wants to tell me I'm going in debt. Yes I will continue to be quite poor! But I won't be paying anything for school, just like I didn't pay anything for my MA. They'll be paying ME for school.
The school has very little money for any new appointments in 2013-14, after hiring a huge cohort last year. But they found some money for me. The graduate director made sure they found some for me. And that was awesome. Since he didn't know if they'd have enough money in the English department, he wrote a letter for me to get a "recruitment" scholarship from the Graduate School. Which is funny because it's more like a "Wait, wait! Please don't go somewhere else!" scholarship. I like it. But after all that (I took the money of course) they also found me an assistantship appointment and the bucks for that too. Maybe I could go somewhere else. But it is sweet to be where you are appreciated.
The letter that informed me of my scholarship award also informed me of how I should feel about it. "I encourage you to think of the waiver as a demonstration of the Graduate School's faith in your ability [...] and an institutional commitment to your academic success." Thanks, Dean. I'll think exactly that.
Know what I told them in my statement of purpose? That I'm going to study the history of ideas. And that I'm going to study Old English. And that somehow that will all work out. I put it more eloquently of course, and they did not seem to mind my unapologetic goal of becoming a generalist. In fact, I think it might even help in a market where every new grad has been told Specialize! Specialize like hell! As Dr. David Gorman tells me, "Be someone who knows something." Spending these years on intellectual history will bring me knowledge of many somethings. And being a fool for Old English will give me a very enjoyable pastime that I may one day be able to pretend is my "specialization."
WAIT! OH SHIT! I just read an article in The Economist telling me I'd better not do a PhD because I'll only make 3% more than my MA'd peers. The correspondent made an attempt to separate STEM, professional, and humanities PhDs, but not a very good one. She also noted that the award for the most unfinished dissertations goes to humanities students. It's probably because we get paid the least as assistants, and at some point we can't take it anymore and our kids get hungry. (TAs in other fields at my school get paid more than me to do recitations, grade, or sit as lab attendants. While we, the few, the proud, the English, design and teach all our own classes by our own damn selves.) Material pains aside, as many of the (non-sexist, very respectful) commenters argue, many of us who pursue a PhD, especially in the humanities, are not thinking of that 3% or however much it should be (and how much would be enough for someone who already thinks a PhD is a waste of time?).
So this is NOT where I say the blog has run its course! I'm still a student. For at least four more years, I'd bet. And now that I'm a 32 year old PhD student, I'm no longer non-traditional.
I have in the works three very long blog posts on actual topics, that is, they're not autobiographical indulgence as I like to label it. I'm writing about sexism, because it's everywhere. I'm writing about it twice (1. anti-feminist tu quoque, and similar problems in arguments by angry commenters, and 2. the sinister side of benevolent sexism). And the third work in progress is about my grandmother, who died February 27.
Also in the works is a proposal (idea finalized today!) for a fellowship to do research in the NIU Library's Special Collections. It has to do with H.P. Lovecraft but I won't tell you what it is until I submit the proposal. We've got the second largest collection of his papers outside of Providence.
I'm due for a writing revolution, revamp, or rejuvenation. Nothing well written has come out of me in a long time. That's the thing I miss the most about this blog -- the push of having a place to publicly publish (soooo much alliteration! Thanks Wulfstan...) put me at the top of my game sometimes. Lately I've fallen off, and so have my words. I think I'm in a transitional stage. I'm learning a lot, so lately when I write I know what I'm talking about. I think I need to rise to the next level of incompetence for my writing urge to kick back in. Maybe when we use writing to understand things we can't figure out otherwise, that's when it's at its best.
Friday, March 8, 2013
There is a time and place for swearing. In fact, in some situations, a swearword provides better rhetorical effect than any other word could possibly embody. There is, if you will, a kairos for swearing.
There is also a method to swearing. As I wrote in 2011, there are three basic categories of rhetorical swearing: attention-getters, intensifiers, and ironic swears. Sometimes these three work together, sometimes only one or two are at play. I won't get into it here because I think 2011 Robyn did a decent rundown of how this works.
I'll talk about two new angles I've taken on this thing: the (im)morality of swearing, and the (un)education of swearers.
The "Morality" Problem
I wish to discuss how swearing, both in daily conversation and for rhetorical purposes, pisses off a certain audience, and not in a constructive "get riled about this!" way. This bothers the hell out of me. Not the swearing! The needless offendedness and backlash that inevitably pops up in your comments feed when you drop even a perfectly timed F-bomb. Not that I don't think people should have their own stylistic word preferences. Shit, I get nauseated when I see the word "delicious." It's a preference. And readers who shy away from literary works or essays because of "language," or worse, readers who insult and denegrate the writer for using "language," need to realize that their preference for prude writing is just that -- a preference. Not something you need to hate on good-natured, foul-mouthed fuckers for.
No amount of There you go again with the bad language you stupid bad person! can take away the rhetorical power of swearing. Just ain't gonna happen, sanctimonious bastards.
So why does it bother me so much that someone has a lower vulgarity tolerance, and may not prefer my writing? Don't get me wrong -- I am tolerant of all readers' preferences in writing and rhetoric. If you don't like to read me because I have a potty mouth (potty fingers?), that's cool. But what I am not tolerant of is when readers turn a writer's work into "evidence" of the immorality of the writer's character, based purely on the writer's word choice.
A disclaimer before I go further: Certainly there are offensive words that negatively reflect upon a writer's ethos. As I said in 2011, hate speech is not rhetorically effective, nor is it okay. You may be allowed by your first amendment rights to utter all sorts of disgusting things about other human beings, but being hateful with language in ways that judge folks for their color, religion, sex, etc, is just the worst kind of assholery. And sometimes it IS against the law. To remain morally neutral, you must be an equal opportunist with your swears. Or even better, to remain morally actually a pretty cool person, swear only at fuckers who deserve it, and only swear upon the subjects of their foul acts or dubious characters that make them swear-worthy.
But this brings me to my big point about most of the great swearwords that provide rhetorical effect -- they are not offensive to any particular group of people, in fact, when used as intensifiers or in other vacuous applications (i.e. using "fuck" in ways that have nothing to do with intercourse) swears are morally neutral. They do not express goodness or badness of the character of the utterer, any more than his or her other word choices. Cusswords are often loaded with value judgments, yes. But even those values are slippery. Something that's "fucking awesome" or "awesome as shit" is good. These bad words imbue things with positive or negative value, and the way that works is up to the writer or speaker. There is nothing inherently immoral about swearing. With the exception of words designed to hurt people for no good reason (see above), Words are Words. Some are more powerful than others, some are more elegant, some are more earthy. But no word is "worse" than other words* just because it ended up on the FCC's list of words you can't say on TV. It is an arbitrary value judgment that we attach to the word when we think that way. Just as with any other word we perceive as intense or insulting, swearwords may make the subject of an author's disdain seem worse, and the words may very well be the best suited words for the occasion.
*(This makes me think of language parity -- linguists argue (and so do I) that no language is "better" or "worse" than any other language. I think there is a sort of internal language parity too. Some words may be better for certain situations, just as some languages are better at expressing certain kinds of thought, but that does not make those words superior to the other words in the language.)
There are many factors that may cause people to be averse to profanity, but here are a couple that I find problematic:
First, one of the earliest and most widespread types of swearing was taking the names of deities in vain, and making dirty jokes out of religious mantras or prayers. If we hold onto some stupid idea that all swearing is actually blasphemous (i.e. immoral), it comes from this association. But words like piss, shit, fuck, etc. have nothing to do with blasphemy, and derive their power by association with bodily functions. "Goddamn"...well that's blasphemy. But it's a good one!
Second, swearwords like "shit" and "fuck" existed as everyday words in Germanic languages (like Old English), before the Norman French had their way with English. The words were still vulgar, but "fuck," for instance, has probable etymological roots in several non-vulgar North Germanic words for "intercourse" and "penis." One theory is that from 1066 AD, the cultural push for the English aristocracy to speak French probably pushed Germanic expressions of disdain and Germanic words for bodily functions into a class of speech considered to be only worthy of peasants. So like many linguistic trends, it became a class thing. So today, people who don't cuss think they are classy, and they think those who do are of base character.
But I think it is often the truly classy people who know exactly when and how to use those age-old, four-letter intensifiers. Here is a classy lady anecdote from Online Etymology Dictionary:
In 1948, the publishers of "The Naked and the Dead" persuaded Norman Mailer to use the euphemism fug instead. When Mailer later was introduced to Dorothy Parker, she greeted him with, "So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck' "
The Education Problem
Many swearing haters, especially those you meet online, in your comments feed, object to bad words because they think educated people shouldn't use them. As if having a vast vocabulary means you are only permitted speak or write in words that have far more than four letters. If you use a swearword, it matters not how cogent your argument is, how hilarious your story may be -- it only matters that now EVERYONE KNOWS YOU'RE STUPID. At least that's how the angry commenters see it.
I have a theory about this, and you're going to think I'm a snobby bitch but here it is: it is mostly uneducated people who like to point out that a writer's swearwords are proof of A) no imagination and B) no education. Their own lack of education and imagination makes them angry -- your blog bio says you have two degrees or your latest article is about something esoteric. That riles them, and if they disagree with what you have to say they will need some irrelevant point to cling to (she said "Goddamn!") to prove you are wrong, because they are incapable of a serious response to your positively ingenious point-making.
It also riles these less-informed readers when you talk about everyday things that they feel are their domain. In my above-mentioned 2011 entry on swearing, I talked about a lady who hated on me for hating on Jimmy Buffet. My use of a single swearword negated anything else I said in that entry, which was merely a rant that was obviously my own opinion about some bad music, not a philosophical argument on the merits of Margaritaville. She took a casual swearword ("dumbasses") and and said I might as well be saying a hateful word ("retards") and I was therefore politically incorrect. I never said that word. That was her association, her mind thinking in hateful ways. I was just out to make fun of some drunk dumbasses.
I won't say anything more about the uninformed reader, because I've shown my snobbishness enough. What I will say besides all that, is from the point of view of the educated potty-mouth.
Why do we use these words if our vocabulary runneth over with more sophisticated ones? Because, as I said above, they are sometimes the absolute perfect word for an occasion.
Let me explain. Cusswords are some of the most flexible and versatile words in any language. Ask a linguist! You can use "fuck" as almost any part of speech. You can use "shit" to mean just about any noun or group of nouns or class of things. This lack of specificity is not something that automatically makes a word a good word choice -- I note "W.C." on my students' papers all the time for using vague, non-specific words like "nice" or "large." But for all their ambiguity, swearwords don't often lose their potency like other vague words tend to do. Their very intensity prevents that loss -- and the effect of using a catchall like "fuck" or "shit" emphasizes one's exasperation, or the hugeness of the class of things being discussed, or the egregiousness of those things. The phrase "I don't take shit from anyone" has always been a powerful one for me. It can mean so many things, and that swearword is exemplary of the ballsy attitude one has to have if one truly does not wish to take said shit.
All that being said, this doesn't mean you should swear like a sailor. Overused swears, like any overused words, become less effective. And because of their sharpness to the ear, they become cacophonous. But the well-timed, rightly applied, and situationally appropriate curse can have a weighty rhetorical effect not only because of the power of the chosen swearword, but because of its unexpected presence in an otherwise academic or conservatively written piece.
Finally, swears are much like pathos. They are not totally logical (even if their meanings can be) and they don't say anything for your ethos except that you probably have balls, and are a regular guy unafraid of regular words. But the emotional appeal of swearing --which is a valid rhetorical appeal -- cannot be overlooked. We can be riled by swearwords in a good way. Put into action by them. It's the written equivalent of the shake of a fist to accompany a cry of injustice, or the purposeful slapping together of hands to accompany a cry to get to work.
Anecdote time, and then I'll leave you to practice your dirty-talk.
I recently got into a most distressing (and eventually very funny) argument with a young lady. She isn't too much younger than me, and she is not exactly an accomplished wordsmith. She pulled the vocabulary card on me!
Here's the short of it: she was messing with me in a bad way. I've had personal problems, health problems, and deaths in my family this past year. 2012 shat on me. Then she appeared at the edges of my life and immediately saw to it that my problems were even worse then they had been. I am not a confrontational person. But this girl knew what was going on, and kept on anyway. It came down to me telling her "Don't fuck with me."
She lost it! "You're attacking me! You truly are an awful person! I'm just trying to defend myself! And you're SWEARING at me! OMG SWEARING!!!" etc etc. (That one f-word was the only swearword I used in the whole conversation.) I tried to calm her down. I actually said (and my husband thought this was hilarious) that I only swore because the f-word was the most rhetorically appropriate word for the situation. She said it showed I have no vocabulary! (I've got some vocabulary for you, girl...she didn't even comment on the rhetoric thing because I'm sure she had no idea what I was talking about.) I didn't say anything else. Maybe she thinks she won. It wasn't worth arguing with someone who can't appreciate the following:
When someone is fucking with you, what better way is there to put it? Stop molesting me. Stop making things uncomfortable for me. Stop saying mean things about me. Stop trying to turn my loved ones against me. Stop texting me, it's 3am. STOP FUCKING WITH ME covers all of that. And then some. And the fact that I said it has nothing to do with my saintly morality (ha!) or my hard-won education. Is has to do with choosing the right word for the right situation.
There is a rhetoric of fuck, and a kairos of fuck. Dealing with crazy bitchez is a right occasion for that word. So is making a joke, because well-timed swearing makes a lot of people laugh. It might not make you laugh, and it might not work an effective rhetorical peroration on you -- but you have to appreciate its rhetorical and humorous effect on many human beings, of all walks of life. (Parrot-heads excluded.)
Friday, February 1, 2013
In AD 449 three ships landed at Kent, in the southeast of Britannia, and those who rowed the ships eventually took hold of most of that island. In AD 2012, those sea raiders took hold of my mind.
I won't explain all the ripe conditions that made me so enormously receptive to mind-ravaging by long-dead Anglo-Saxons, but it was a slow and then sudden march they made into my interior, just like their slow yet relentless push into the midlands and beyond that made "Britannia" suddenly "Angle-londe." Like an English toad in a teapot, I didn't know I was gettin' Anglished until I was totally and irreversibly Anglished.
Last semester I took History of the English Language, and it is taught at my school as a historical linguistics class. The prof who teaches it is an Old English scholar, so she naturally dwelt on the Anglo-Saxon period and then raced a bit to cover Middle and Early Modern English. I enjoyed the dwelling. I am now taking Old English (learning to translate poetry and prose) and I plan to take the advanced OE class next year. This is going to make my focus for the Ph. D. all the more difficult to rationalize.
I knew I was interested in what we lit folk call the "history of ideas" but usually the ideas don't come from the murky, early, illiterate middle ages. Antiquity gets in there, and then some people probably skip to the writings of saints, or to the High Middle Ages. I had skipped straight to Milton. But now I have found men even more English than that Englishman, and certainly more manly. Men who think of their words as things to work with or even as weapons to be wielded. Studying them is as out of fashion as studying words.* But that's what's driving me these days.
I'm bringin' Saxon back. (Yeah!)
*(No one studies words anymore, except hot Russian women born the same year as me. I wrote my statement of purpose for my Ph. D. app today and I told a friend that I was basically stating unapologetically that I should have been born 100 years ago so I could have been a philologist while it was still a respectable, fully clothed profession. I'd like to have been a German philologist. Maybe I was?)
One disappointment of the history of English class was the prof's lack of interest in North Germanic people and their literature. We talked at length about the Danes' linguistic contributions to English, which cannot be ignored in such a class, but we did not talk about the literary and cultural exchange between Old Norse and Old English traditions. I'm reading a book now that's about just that. Really, just that. Down to the individual words and whether they're used in a Saxony sense or a Norsey sense. And sometimes, because of the paucity of OE we have in manuscript, it will be like a word that was only ever used a couple of times in Beowulf and never anywhere else so who knows what the hell?! Holy hwaet! It's hardcore. (And the coolest historical thing I've learned from this book so far is how much well-known ON poetry was actually written on English soil. What a fucking cool island. Let's go there!)
Anyway, that book paves another avenue I'd like to take for tracking down the history of ideas and stories and myths. And maybe I'll even put a "narrative theory" angle on it -- because that, my friends, unlike fully clothed philology, is hot these days.
A final word before I show you what I'm reading. The only way OE could become sexy again without me hosting a "Hot Word-Hoard" show on Maxim Radio (which would require massive breast implants and maybe some other minor alterations even though you wouldn't be able to see me) is through HOBBITS. I don't know how many of the LOTR nerds go beyond being really into wearing elf ears, but I imagine quite a few of them know about Tolkien's language badassery in the books. And man was he into words! Saxon words. Mercian words to be exact. So maybe, just maybe, hobbits (and maybe some fair-eyed, scale-mailed Rohirrim on lathered horses -- because Rohirric is Mercian!) can make Saxons sexy again.
So why is this a "mind raid," a cerebral pillaging, and not just a fun new direction for my never-ending studies? Because it's taken over. I was bad enough last year after I'd stumbled upon the literary OE section in the library. And this semester, purely by accident, I got off the escalator in an emotional fog, found myself on the wrong floor, and walked right into the early English HISTORY section. Now I can't go in that place without checking out books. I mean, that's what's supposed to happen at a library, but this is getting bad. I won't list everything in the stack, but here are the few that I have actually begun to read. And I'm taking notes on them.
Origins of the English People -- So much stuff! Here's my review.
Sharing Story: Medieval Norse-English Literary Relationships -- This is the book on words I was raving about above.
The Age of Alfred -- An ancient dusty thing, from the lit section instead of history so I'm hoping it's more about his making England literate.
The Year 1000 -- Written around 2000, explores the daily life of an Anglo-Saxon. One of the main sources is a calendar. (Or at least it becomes the book's motif -- which is kinda cool because it's not just like "THE YEAR 1000," like what was it like 1000 years ago, but it's the day-to-day of the actual year 1000. January to December.)
Writing the Map of Anglo-Saxon England -- Mixes literature, history, and geography! This was a good find because most books I've seen that talk about "place" are archaeological or anthropological studies. This is a nice hybrid of physical places and literary phenomena.
Verbal Encounters: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse Studies -- More Danes and Angles just shootin' the shit.
That's it for now. There are a couple more on the desk at work, and I'm gong to the fore and aft of that period with some stuff on Roman Britannia and some stuff on Arthurian facts and fictions.
Does it seem like I want to know everything about these fuckers? I kinda do.
CORRECTION: I am two weeks from the end of Old English class, and it has been much slower paced than the History of English class where we skipped over everything Viking to save time. So, come to find out, the professor is not as apathetic toward North Germanic stuffs as she seemed. In fact, she reads Norse sagas for fun, and even showed us Eddaic sources for some OE works.