Monday, August 25, 2008

Now More Than Ever

I thought this ugly concatenation had gone by the wayside, but yesterday a Chevy commerical made it apparent that this tenacious turn of phrase is not going to die quietly.

"Now More Than Ever!" began the announcer, and I hid my face because I knew spinning cars and fast cutting were on their way. (I can't stand spinning things in commercials.)

Now more than ever, Chevy can eat it.

History of "Now More Than Ever"

"Now more than ever..." has always been around as a (not perfectly) good way to start a sentence. It's a modifier that places something in time like "Once upon a time..." or "In today's economy..."

However, I am fairly certain the slogan version of this phrase ("Now More Than Ever!") is a product of the post-9/11 victim mentality. We were hurting, and the fallout from the tragedy caused us to pull together (for a little while). Everything, according to politicians and advertisers, had become more intense and poignant and imporatant than it had ever been in the history of our nation. And so, "Now More Than Ever" was born.

After the patriotism of post-9/11 died down, the politicians and advertisers were left with a catchy phrase. Yet there was no specific tragedy to which it could be applied after it had held such a noble office as the number one official post-9/11 slogan (followed close behind by "These Colors Don't Run.") They had to cheapen it somehow, make it more applicable to daily life. So they started by taking it down a notch, and applying it only to the things Americans take as almost seriously as patriotism and revenge -- their cars and their oil.

Today's Usage of "Now More Than Ever"

I first started seeing the less serious definition of "Now More Than Ever" in American car commercials, and more recently in commercials for gas stations (oil companies I guess).

I can't figure out what the meaning is -- we need cars now more than ever? We should buy American now more than ever? We need to spend money now more than ever? And the gas -- we should buy more, now more than ever, because we're fighting so hard for it?

How about, "Now More Than Ever..." and then "whatever we want you to believe or buy." And if you aren't convinced by "Now More Than Ever" the terrorists are going to find you.

I can't remember specific products because the "Now More Than Evers" have been pretty sparse lately, so if you remember any funny ones please feel free to add a comment and I'll post them.

I know I have seen it in commercials for household products (aimed at the housewife, i.e. "Now more than ever, you need more time...") I know there are a few albums by that title (can it be used as a title?). One of them is electronic music, so that title may be apt. I'm fairly certain it's been used to advertise weight loss products, and of course, in 2008 political speeches.

Taking Back a Useful Phrase

If used properly, in moderation, and without the intention of manipulating the public, "now more than ever" is an okay way to say just that: "Now more than ever..."

The first rule is, you have to say something AFTER you say "now more than ever." For years now we have accepted this sentence fragment as an embodiment of a whole idea, of an era, of our own struggle toward making things better. But that's all it is, a fragment. Now WHAT more than ever? And why now? It should be explained.

I found it doing noble work as a modifer (its proper job title) at a poverty-fighting organization: “Now more than ever, poor countries need a fair trade deal. Rising food and fuel prices are hitting the poorest hardest and undoing progress on poverty reduction.” They gave it a job, and they gave it an explanation. Bravo, Oxfam.

But I've also found charities abusing it in the manner of politicians. One charity put out a pamphlet about human rights entitled "Now More Than Ever." It explained it with a subtitle, but they are still guilty of using this sentence fragment in bold red letters to get the reader's (confused) attention.

I know my approval of that particular Oxfam quote may denude my political sentiments (as if you hadn't already guessed what they look like). Maybe you think the slogan was perfect for 9/11, that it said everything we had to say in four words. Maybe you think it's appropriate wartime propaganda. Even if that were true, no sane person could argue that using such a loaded phrase to manipulate someone into buying a car is ethical.

Word Logic

There is still a problem, even though our phrase is certainly being put to good use by some responisble parties, with the logic of someone saying "Now more than ever." It is not a perfect phrase.
The whole thing is an assumption, almost a lie. How does anyone who says, "Now more than ever" know it's true? Have they lived forever? Did they do hours of research before making the statement? People use it in impromptu speeches all the time. They just pull it out of their hats and put it on like a "stars and stripes" necktie at which no one can laugh; like it is a phrase that cannot be doubted.

The extemporaneous speakers of "Now more than ever" are counting on the general sentiment still being that you are anti-American if you doubt the phrase "now more than ever." Remember when Jesus used to say it, when it was capitalized, and when we all nodded our heads and said, "Mmm hmm," or, "Gosh yeah!" under our breath at each utterance? "Now More Than Ever..." It must be Truth!


Friday, August 22, 2008

Modern Meanings for Modern

Modern Art

When I write an essay in which chronology is important (The Life and Works of Professor X, etc.) I always find myself in a quandry over when to use the word "modern" and when to use the word "contemporary."

Both words have multiple meanings, and the funniest thing about these words is that both can refer to times long gone or to the present time. Let's ignore the Webster definitions. The scholarly definitions for these words come from art, from criticism, from philosophy, from historians.

"Contemporary" is the easier word to use correctly. Its use is still fairly close to how Webster would want us to use it. The scholars have let it be the word that the general popuation can continue to use when they mean "something that looks like it was made recently" or "something that is hip to the times." It also still retains its meaning of "a person who lived and worked at the same time as another person." This is how we usually find it in essays.

The first meaning I gave for "contemporary" becomes a problem however, when you start to talk about art or literature or any of those other subjects that have their critics and their words with Capital Letters (which may or may not have been accepted as words with no capitalization by now -- to further complicate things). "Contemporary art" is what a layperson would call art made today. A scholar has to find the right word -- is it postmodern? antimodern? It's certainly not "modern art," even though that is what many more lay persons would call it.

So we've arrived at the first accepted definition of "modern." Actually it's not that easy. If you call it "Modernism" you're talking about art and culture in the first half of the 20th Century. If you call it "Modernity" you're taking it all the way back to the 17th Century. The time period for "modern" varies from discipline to discipline, but we can say for simplicity's sake, that it's post-renaissance and it's not what's happening today.

Modern Chairs

There is no moving wall set up for "modern" however. It's not as if fifty years from now "modern" will be altered to include up to the 1990s. By then we were postmodern. "Modern" will always stop around 1950 for many. And it will never stop for others. So what do we do? Do we keep appending "post" every few decades until we're postpostpostpostmodern? We chose poorly when we chose "modern" as the name for any time period. Future historians will have to overhaul us.

Antimodern is one I just learned. Means what it sounds like it means. I like that in a word/movement/philosophy. But not everyone is keen on antimodern.

Do you ever look at the shelves of survey books on literature or philosophy? There are so many with the word "modern" in the title. I am never sure what I'll get when I pick one up.

(Early) Modern Philosopher

I looked up what the philosophers think is modern on Wiki (I have it on good authority that Wiki is 66.6% god. And the human part is always honest about its failings.):

They use a lot of ambigous terminology on purpose! They can't decide amongst themselves what "modern" really is. You'd think philosophers would be engaged in an ongoing 'lectic about the true meaning of "modern." I'm sure Modern is floating around up there somewhere with Plato's Beauty and Equal. We won't know the essence of "modern" until we love the right little boy.

While looking online for doctoral programs in literature that offer an emphasis in criticism, I had all but given up on one university -- until I discovered that all of their literary criticism and theory courses were under the heading "Modernism." It was not even a sub-department of English lit. They have their very own professors of Modernism.

I'm not going to go so far as to make up my own definitions for various prefixed and suffixed versions of "modern," but I have been doing some research to make sure I use the most appropriate form for any given subject or time period. And if a professor has a problem with that, I'm going to ask for an essay (with sources) from that professor on how to use the word "modern." Or at least to be directed to a handbook on it.

Perhaps I should contact the Modern Language Association? Maybe they'll know what to do about this mess.

Modern Language

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Course in General Egoism

I purchased a copy of de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics from an online bookseller at I purposely chose one listed as "heavily marked" -- I always buy the most scrawled on copies I can find in the vain hope that some genius of a grad student left tracks worth following or penned insights in the margins that might make a confusing text unfold its secrets.

If the notes aren't that earth-shattering, they are usually helpful just the same. At least they give me jumping off points: if the reader sees something I overlooked, or says something I disagree with, that's fodder for an essay or preparation for a discussion. I have a "good reading copy" of Barthes' Mythologies with some fine notes by a sharp female undergrad. "Sarah B____, Anthropology 321, Spring 1981." She taught me some Greek words with her enthusiastic marginalia.

If the former owner of my marked up books turns out to be a total dunce, there are usually notes worth laughing at, at the very least. Or obvious notes that I can easily ignore.

My de Saussure copy unfortunatley did not provide me with anything helpful or even amusing. In fact, the former owner's notes became more of a distraction than anything. I had to find a way to use them to enhance my reading of the book, since the red-inked chicken scratching refused to be ignored, flowing from the side margins into the top or bottom, sometimes right over the text. But it was not so much the visual noise of the notes that made me incapable of pushing them to the side; what was being said kept me reading them, and scoffing at them, and scribbling next to them.

I started out by responding in a kind of parallel play, choosing a clean, new margin for my notes, as if I was telling de Saussure "I agree with you, not that guy over there. What do you think of this?" As the other student vied for de Saussure's attention it escalated to a direct confrontation between the note-taker and myself, and I began addressing him directly in the same soiled margin, disagreeing with him and berating him. "Leave it to the sociologists!" "God, you are such a dork!" Finally, I became so fed up with is intrusion on my reading that I had to tell him to shut the hell up. "Give it a break man!"

The now very heavily marked, unsalable book was owned by one Ferguson M. A_______, III; the title page bears his hand written "Ex Libris" stamp. Already, I was urged to respond. Underneath this I wrote, "Robyn Byrd (the first)."

Before the introduction was through, Fergy, as I came to call him (because I imagine that's what his mother calls him) had become my arch-nemesis. He had a peculiar hang-up with using or inventing terms prefixed by "self-" (self-serving, self-paradox, self-glorifying), and it soon became apparent that he (himself) was quite the egoist/egotist.

I am certain he hoped that his genius notes would be read by some impressionable undergrad who would feel so indebted to the author of those marginal insights, that the student would look Fergy the Third up in the linguistics department (where he would surely be chair by that time) at his university, and beg to be his pen pal or tutee. Oh that first email from a stranger would be so sweet!

Here are some gems from the first half of the book (I've transcribed the text here, and I've added some scans of his handwriting for full effect). Section:Chapter:Line number at the top. S is for Saussure, F is for Fergy. I've faithfully summarized for de Saussure where the text to which Fergy was responding was too long to write out here. My commentary is in red. Not because I'm like Jesus, but because I'm emulating Fergy. I don't know if I can pull of the attitude, but I'll try.

S: The third period [in linguistics] began when it was discovered that languages could be compared with one another.
F: One could deduce this easily and leave the 'proof' to lays like Bopp.

Lays like Bopp!? Are you a scientist Fergy? A linguist? I think you are as "lay" as I am. The best part is he drew a little caret and added "easily" afterward.

Intro:I:14 (continued)
S: [Bopp] did see that connexions between related languages could furnish the data for an autonomous science.
F: . . . to call this an autonomous science is self-serving. Communication must be approached as an art - not science.

Oh man, Fergy. I think it's going to take a dissertation to prove that one. Maybe a suitcase full of them. What have you gotten yourself into?

S: (A paragraph about the progress of linguistic study to date, and its limitations)
F: The plants in the garden 'sing' all the time. It is Man who tends 'his' garden and shuts himself off from the song. And then, arrogantly, reinvents singing.

This is one of Fergy's more eloquent responses. Hi-falutin' and snobby, but eloquent. I have to respond though. He is complaining about how linguistics has made language its own study, and how linguists think they have made advances. Well Fergy, I think it's true of many subjects we study that the answers are always there waiting to be discovered, and we are proud of ourselves when we finally think we've discovered them. How else should we behave? We're not being arrogant. We're just the only creatures who can theorize, so that's what we do.

S: But ought linguistics on that account to be included in sociology?
F: This 'turf grabbing' always amuses me.

Linguistics is one of the most cross-applicable, multidisciplinary studies I can think of. This isn't 'turf grabbing,' it's de Saussure trying to find a place for linguistics, giving examples of how broad it can be. Psycholinguistics, cultural lingustics, structural linguistics. . . scholars study all those things, and I don't think they fight over who's allowed to study what part of it. Even if they do, it's not Fergy's place to decide for them who gets what!

S: But a paradoxical consequence of this general interest is that no other subject has fostered more absurd notions, more prejudices, more illusions, more fantasies.
F: A science of talking communication is the original self-paradox. How can we talk about talking without realizing the limitations of self-reference, i.e. how is it that God can talk to God? And not misunderstand, or realize that the puppet is playing in the mirror, again.

Nice punctuation Fergy, as usual. There is just too much going on here. I can't even respond. What the hell is a self-paradox and how does he know which self-paradox (if there is such a thing) is the original!? This is where I became certain he was not just writing for himself.

S:Everything is internal which alters the system in any way whatsoever.
F: And I submit that what is internal is truly the internal moods, feelings, needs. Self-glorifying conduct can be seen as merely brighter pin and tail feathers.


S: The sound represents the entire word as a whole.
F: Oh, I think not.

Wouldn't a question mark and a circle around that text suffice? I can almost hear Fergy's "scoff, scoff!"

Part One:I:97
S: (A diagram of pictures and their Latin equivalents. A tree picture : "arbor", a horse picture: "equos.")
F: And so, words create Reality, and he is a Deist.
This one is my favorite. Very funny! Makes me think I might like him in person.

Part One:I:100
S: First Principle -- The sign is arbitrary.
F: Duh!

Ok, so it's a "duh" principle. Yet Fergy put a big red star next to it, lest he should forget. Maybe the star was just to call attention to his helpful comment.

Part Two:II:146
S: (A table showing signs and their sounds)
F: Attempt at making a science . . . works for sheep perhaps, but you can't predict ME!

Apparently I can't predict him either. Halfway through the book, Fergy disappears. Maybe he gave up on linguistics. Maybe he just gave up on de Saussure. Maybe he got a girlfriend.

So I am grateful that the rest of my reading will by unsullied by obnoxious "self-serving" notes. But I think after all this I'm really going to miss him.

Professors are always wary of telling their students too much about a text, or of giving away their opinion of it. They want the students to have a fresh look at it and form their own opinions. That may be a good tactic, but I do like having a fellow student companion on the page with me.

Too often college students are not as interested in analyzing what they're reading as they should be. The classroom can be a dry place for ideas and exchanges. When I buy these crumply old books, I'm not only getting a good deal -- I'm getting a room full of students with whom I can debate, agree, yell at, be inspired by. I've got my own little book club just sitting on my shelves, and we've got all the characters we need -- the smartypants, the softspoken insightful one, the cynic, the observer. It's going to be a rollicking good semester.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dialog with a Three-Year-Old

I am a mother to a three-year-old boy and I have always tried to talk to him like he is thirteen. Or maybe twenty-three. I think that tactic worked on his infant mind, for when he started speaking it was slowly, deliberately, and with perfect enunciation -- pauses to correct himself and pauses for effect. "Look what I just said mama." Yes, he says look when he means listen.

It's these kinds of little word slip-ups that lead to endless questioning and get us into some heavy philosophical discussion of what things are, how we say what they are, and how we perceive things. Sometimes it gets scientific and I can only gloss over the answer, but I try to tell him the truth.

Too much for a three-year-old? Probably so, but I'm hoping he absorbs some reasoning and thinking skills that present themselves one day in algebra class or on his SAT analogies, just like his language lessons in the cradle have given me a three year old who has mastered all his tenses.

Sample Dialog One: The Circle/Traingle

Mikey: What would I say if I saw germs come out of me? ("What would I say..." is how he starts too many questions. We're working on it.)
Robyn: I don't know what you would say, but it's good to get germs out of you.
Mikey: What would they look like?
Robyn: They come in lots of shapes: blobby amoebas that look like 'splats', circles with hairs all around, pill shaped things, corkscrews...
Mikey: What if there was a germ that looked like a circle and a triangle?
Robyn: It can't be a circle and a triangle at the same time.
Mikey: Whyyyyy?
Robyn: Because a circle and a triangle are essentially two different things. Nothing can be round and also have three points on it.
Mikey: Ummmm. What would you say if you saw something that was a circle and a triangle?
Robyn: I wouldn't know what to say. Probably, 'Whoa.'
Mikey: Why would you say 'Whoa'?
Robyn: Because I would have no idea what I was looking at. No one's ever seen a circle/traingle. At least I haven't. I think I'd be pretty confused.
Mikey: (sing songy) No circle/triangles! We can't have any circle triangles! No no no!

Sample Dialog Two: What to call it?

Mikey: Mama, is that called a car? (pointing to a weird looking car)
Robyn: Yes, it is a car. Don't say 'called.' Say, 'Is that a car?'
Mikey: Is that a car?
Robyn: Yes. What something is and what something is called are two different things, you know.
Mikey: When can I say 'called'?
Robyn: If you see something you've never seen before and you have no idea what to call it, you can say 'What is that called?' And if you're asking about things with proper names you can say 'What is this river called?'
Mikey: Mama, is that a car? (pointing to a regular old car)
Robyn: Yes!
Mikey: Hee hee. Mama, I didn't say 'caaaaallled.'

Sample Dialog Three: The Doppler Effect

Mikey: Mama, why when big trucks that aren't fire engines go by does it sound like 'woooOOOOOOOooooo!?' (I love his sentence structures)
Robyn: You mean how the sound gets higher and lower?
Mikey: Yeah!
Robyn: It's the Doppler effect. The sound waves get stacked up as they come toward you, and they get stretched back out as they go away, so they change pitch.
Mikey: Why?
Robyn: Um, 'cause waves behave kind of like objects? I think that's why they get pushed together. Light does it too.
Mikey: Whyyyyyy? Why did they decide to make it like that? (he is stuck on 'they' and thinks everyone 'decides' to do things)
Robyn: I don't know, I'm not a scientist.
Mikey: You ARE a scientist! You AAARE!
Robyn: No, I'm not. I can't explain it. I can show you in a book though. I have a book with pictures.
Mikey: Ok.

We have these kinds of lessons a few times a day. I feel weird sometimes because when I pass other stroller-pushers on the street they are usually not engaged in a discussion or any kind of coversation with their child beyond "Mommy look!" answered with "Yeaaaah...that's nice honey..." So I feel like I'm doing something right.

I've gotten stange looks, but I've also gotten compliments on my answers to Mikey's endless questions. A lady in the bathroom at the library: "What a great way to explain that! I never thought of that..." after I told him why red is hot and blue is cold.

Maybe it makes me a nerd and maybe I'm making my son into a nerd (I have a feeling he'll be studly enough to pull it off though). I'm sure our little daily dialogs can't hurt. And I think I get as much out of them as Mikey does.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge -- Part Two: Our Tiny Footprint

I am not about to launch into an essay on the many-thousand-year history of patriarchal societies, the conspicuous glossing over of women's work in texbooks and lectures, the permanent sex/class-divides caused (in part) by the rise of agriculture; all these things are beyond the scope of a fifteen paragraph blog entry, beyond the scope of even a fat bestseller or a doctoral dissertation. My thoughts on female reguritation of the history of man-centered knowledge will have to confine themselves to specific, direct reactions to my most recent reading.

I turn again to Virginia Woolf for help in discussing the diminutiveness of the female footprint in literature. Mrs. Woolf had her own room, you know, and from the privacy of that room she put semi-feminist thoughts into our heads.

Listen. (I'm already imitating at least two men.)

Virginia starts by looking for the beginning -- When did we start to know anything about women that wasn't written by a man? She finds nothing on the shelves until the turn of the 18th Century: "...what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century."

Note: Virginia is perhaps overlooking a few women, but we can forgive her. Sappho? Most of what we know of her is legendary. And Virginia, an Englishwoman, would probably not have been familiar with American Puritan women's writings from the 17th century. The 15th century's Book of Margery Kempe was not discovered until 1934, and Margery was illiterate anyway. The 12th century's Marie de France wrote Lanval and other chivalric smut that might not have much bearing on the direction of women in literature -- though I'm sure there are scholars of Marie that disagree.

So the writing women of circa 1700 have left us only a few quires, written in the privacy of a well-furnished chamber befitting their high-birth. Childless, they conceived and bore poetry instead, often with the praise and approval of a paid tutor. And then they hid these inky children away among their books, for fear of ridicule.

These women were burdened by their gift, and as Virginia observes, their verses nearly always belied their distress. They felt opression from the "opposing faction," yet they did not as yet feel any sense of entitlement to a life without that opression.

A survey of books by men from the same era (listed in Chapter 2) produces scores of treatises on the inferiority and awfulness of women (Small size of brain of . . . Mental, moral, and physical inferiority of . . . Vanity of . . . Weaker moral sense than . . .) And there are some positive sounding titles that certainly did nothing to advance the status of women (Worshipped as Goddesses by . . . Attractiveness of . . . Love of children of . . .)

If these writer-women were reading (and they certainly were), what effect did that kind of library have on them? Here's one: Anything serious written by a woman was usually accompanied with her own apology. From a political activist woman to a politician: "...and I perfectly agree with you that no woman has any business to meddle with that or any other serious business, farther than giving her opinion (if she is ask'd)."

I think men had written themselves into a corner by this point. By not letting women (or giving them the opportunity to) write their own history, men had left themselves in the dark about women. They wrote and wrote, but in truth they were frightened, mystified, confused. For some the writing was just a way to make sense of it all. For other it was no doubt a means to keep stalling those women by putting them in their place with books. If the men stopped writing and the women caught up, it might blow the cover off thousands of years of hard work.

And so closed the 18th Century, with little more to show for our efforts than a few thousand men's books translated by women for money, a few hundred sophomoric essays on Shakespeare, and a few dozen novels that would not survive a generation, that would certainly never see a classroom or be enveloped by the sturdy cover of a textbook anthology. Yet Virginia grants us: "The extreme activity of the mind which showed itself in the late eighteenth century among women . . . was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing." Not exactly a cultural revolution, but it's something.

So for the next hundred years, as the novel took hold, opportunistic women writers crammed their verses and stories into that "novel" package, adopted pen names, and found a place on the bookseller's shelf. Jane Austen, The Brontes, George Eliot: the shining examples of 19th Century literature that we get in the classroom. By no means is this a list cut short by stingy male professors. These few women are not the only women who wrote, but the only ones who met with such conditions that they could express any kind of genius onto the page. They were the only well-to-do childless women who controlled their anger and also happened to be writers.

It would be many years more before co-ed universities and birth control could give us a few more inches of intellectual and temporal freedom. "Chloe watched Olivia put a jar on a shelf and say how it was time to go home to her children. "

It must affect a young writer to look back at these few hundred years and earlier (and later) and watch women struggle to put the pen to the page, and then go to pieces when they get the opportunity. The embarrassed 17th century poets, the angry Bronte sister (Charlotte had her rants here and there), the chick lit. It is hard not to be inspired by any woman writer who shows genius, but it is also hard to trace a path around her footsteps that avoids those pitfalls of anger and resentment.

So we turn to men, to be sure we're getting "pure" inspiration, unmitigated by resentment. Although no writer has an ego small enough to allow him or her to write without worrying about what their reader will think of them, men perhaps have an advantage. As even Virginia tells us, the shelves of women's books are sparsely populated so we must turn to Thackeray, Coleridge, woman-hating Milton, woman-fearing Browning, and for the ultimate "genius whole and entire," Shakespeare. I too have always preferred to read men's writing.

The layers of ambivalence here, the flip-flopping from being inspired by women of genius to being disgusted with their attitudes, from being disgusted with men's misogyny to being floored by their (superior?) genius, are sure to cause confusion and distress in a woman writer. We are to live by the example of how men write, but not to imitate their style of writing. We must write like women, but not let ourselves feel like women. What a mess!

To say something positive: in the few hundred years we've been allowed writing, we've done a fairly good job of knocking down walls, and some women have walked right through them intact (though they were wearing fake moustaches).

This is an abrupt ending, but I don't want to get started on contemporary women's literature. (Gag.) See. I'm part of the problem.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Attack of the Smartypants

I'll finish my three-part pseudo-treatise on men, women and their respective "knols" (knol = a unit of knowledge, according to the almighty Google) on Monday. Truth be told, and I am honest, I could use the weekend to think about it.

Today I stumbled across a blog by a writer for The Guardian, a London newspaper. The blog is on The Guardian website, so many people peek at it every day. And many people comment. And many people get pretty snide.

The bloggerette is Ms. Jean Hannah Edelstein, a transplant from New York who writes "the book blog" for The Guardian. She has some elements of style that I admire, that remind me of my own writing (or how I'd like to write someday), and she even writes on similar topics. She also says some things I don't agree with, and uses some turns of phrase I'd shy away from. But overall I like her articles.

When I scrolled down to read the comments on "Do we protest too much about where we write?" I was disturbed and felt I needed to defend Jean Hannah. Some of the readers were being a bunch of nasty smartypants!

Jean Hannah's position was doubtful about whether environment is all that important to a writer's productivity. Personally, I think it is to an extent, but my opinion is not of importance here. Some readers disagreed in a friendly manner, and others felt the need to be jerks.

Typeth "McTalbayne":

"Oh, boo hoo. Thank whatever stars watch over you that you can get out of your study/house/apartment and go other places to write. Be grateful you have legs that work, money for overpriced coffee..."

Whoa! Where did that come from? Wasn't Jean Hannah saying just that, but in a nicer way? With whom is McTalbayne disagreeing? Perhaps the previous posters. None of them demanded a room of their own, they just said they like the coffee shop. Why are some people driven to inappropraite outbursts, or to angry argument when no one wants to argue?

Some nastier posts were directed at Jean Hannah herself when she dared to write about publishers asking for refunds on advancement checks in the article Are these the final days for writer procrastination?" If you have any concept of subtlety or humor or rhetoric, you could tell that this article, as well as many others of Jean Hannah's are not meant to make any bold statement of opinion. She throws out questions and ideas, and treats them with humor and speculation. (Sort of like what I do here, but I don't write for a newspaper, so I definitely draw more conclusions, logical or not...)

The first sentence of that article: "As if writers needed to feel any more pressure to add to their performance anxiety, news from New York indicates that we won't be getting our deadlines extended indefinitely." Do the readers really think this is 100% serious? Of course it's semi-sarcastic and facetious! I like her layers of sarcasm and truth (I try to mix my own layers into more of a froth), and I can't see how anyone could misunderstand. The article is no reason to rail against Jean Hannah and make personal attacks about her own book deals.

Posteth "NaturalBornBlogger":

"...your profile says that your first book will be published in May 2009. Would you be including gems like your essay on Britney Spears? Please don't procrastinate and deprive the world of a masterpiece of chick-lit. Please don't suffer from writer's block, you are nearly there."

What what WHAT? (Say it fast like Archimedes the owl in Disney's Sword in the Stone.) Now that's mean sarcasm. What brings on this brand of nasty? Many of Jean Hannah's readers are writers themselves, and many have witty responses. Some disagree with her, and are very elegant about it. But I feel badly that she has to also deal with these loons.

Now I'm being nasty. I felt like writing about this (I have to stop feeling things so often) because I don't know if I could take the pressure and humiliation of those kinds of comments. My head would get red and tingly and then I would sulk for a day or two. Jean Hannah fields her readers' complaints and attacks with grace.

But that's why I'm here. To work on my writing, to be challenged by friendly comments, to become confident and skilled enough that I can write what I mean and defend it (also in a friendly way). I don't mind readers disagreeing with me. You can poke as much as you want at my faulty logic, my essentializing and generalizing, my misquotes. That's the spice of life! A good-spirited argument leaves all parties involved a little enlightened. But nasty people don't help anyone grow as a writer or as a human being.

Criticism of style is ok too. But eager comment posters on any site should think about what they would write to a friend, what they would write at a workshop, or better yet, what a professor would write in the margins. Nothing else is helpful. Don't be a smartypants.

Now you know why my comments are all subject to approval. Until I write for magazines and newspapers, I am only open to praise (ha ha), editorial corrections, and friendly, friendly banter.

Quoth Mandarax:

"Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."
--Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ladies, Here's Your Knowledge -- Part One: The Boyfriend

In an earlier post I touched the subject of "female regurgitation of knowledge." I'd like to poke at it some more today, and tomorrow, and the next.

We can separate different types of regurgitation into three main categories. The first is the regurgitation of the boyfriend's knowledge. This is the lot of the common woman. The second is the regurgitation of the entire history of man-centered knowledge. This is what ails the female populous in general. Finally, there is regurgitation of the professor's (and other men in a teaching/advising position's) knowledge. This is what befalls the college student or scholar.

I can say that I have experienced the first and last types of regurgitation (that word is becoming cumbersome), blind acceptance, and zealous bandwagon jumping. I've managed to steer clear of the second. Even as a teen in the gay 1990s, when I thought I was the last bastion of anti-feminism, I was really thinking like a feminist (I can see that now). I have always been suspicious of old dead white men. But as I grow older, I have developed a healthy suspicion of living men too, yet as a student I continually find myself influenced by male professors.

The Boyfriend

For the rest of female humanity, let's start at the beginning. (We're writing in the royal "we" today, or in first person when needed. I am tired of the language complications caused by the impersonal third person "one.") Agreement with boyfriend, believing any "facts" he delivers, acceptance of all his ideas and ideals, zany, socially unacceptable or otherwise, seems to be a problem for young women in particular. Figure 1: Where is the young lady's funny hat?

It is especially sad when we see intelligent young women dating intelligent young (or old) men whose ever-expanding egos leave the young women in shadow. From cultural training or lack of a gelled personality (what teenager is outside of influence?) young women hang on the words of their smart young men, shoving aside their own ideas, rationalizing his, and essentially stagnating their own thought processes. A brilliant girl can whither if she sticks by the doctrines of a not-so-brilliant guy who thinks he is a genius. Not to say we all need to be perfectly matched by IQ tests or ego sizes. But a woman who is sharp should not be afraid to turn her wits loose on or around her mate.

I experienced this mind-corralling as a teen. I escaped it at twenty-one. I must say it is advantageous for intelligent young women to date men who are interested in things, who are curious. We can be inspired by their clear thoughts, by their varied experiences. But men, usually the older part of the couple, are bound to be more rigid in their thinking, and less influenced by their young companions whose brains are still bouncing all over, who may not as yet have found focus on a subject or a cause. Sticking to unformed women may be men's way of not being challenged.

Men often think of young women as their muses. Well, the muses inspired creativity for a reason: they actually did all the things they inspired! If they are the symbols we conjure up to represent something, doesn't that mean they must have been pretty darn good at that something? If so, isn't everything man creates on the inspiration of a muse merely an imitation? Men are catalyzed by the beauty and/or talent of a woman, and seek to create art/words/thoughts that can only fall short of the beauty that inspired them, their hairy bulge-veined hands snatching wildly for the proper male expression of or reaction to a female essense.

But sure the antique Greeks were far more mild,
Else of our sex, why feigned they those Nine,
And poesy made Calliope's own child;
So 'mongst the rest they placed arts divine
But this weak knot, they will full soon untie,
The Greeks did nought, but play the fools and lie.

Male scholars, you have a muse as well, and her name is Clio. She is hard at work writing histories recounting your abuses of her methods and memorizing your infractions against her mortal counterparts.

I bet Zeus was proud of his heartbreaking muses, even though his pride was a manly pride in his own offspring, his own creation.

Clio, the "hot nerdy chick" muse.

How many great women have been consentually overshadowed by great men? Let's think of a nineteenth century couple: both the lovers and all who observe them seeing her as the muse, he as the thinker, writer, painter, whatever have you. Of course when he dies she can take up a study of something from her bed, maybe write a book or two about it, accept posthumous awards and degrees for him, run a foundation in his name.

But he spent his whole life creating -- his formative years when he made unheard of conjectures, his mature years when he honed his theories or practice, his aging years where he had a chance to recant or defend any part of his body of work. We women can make this life for ourselves, as writers, artists, scholars, but it is far more difficult for us than for our husbands and companions who are better positioned to reap the benefits of a strong mind.

To some few friends, and to thy sorrows sing,
For groves of laurel, thou wert never meant.

Support from a man is something that should be quite welcome to a woman who has a mind to speak. But if the only things on her mind are things he put there, we'd might as well tell her to go back inside and mind the children.

"My husband says attachment parenting is the latest advance in child rearing. So I've sewn all three of mine onto my gown. Cecilia stop squirming! The man is trying to paint us!"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What's in a Lay-bel

I was just re-reading some old entries, deciding on which way to go with the blog, writing down new ideas for entries, when I got to thinking about my own lay-ness.

I am a lay person, it's true. My lack of focus or my lack of ability to adhere to related topics, my typing errors, and my sometimes over-zealous "editorial" style writing on this blog are examples of my lay limitation playing out.

I forgave myself, for I am only a college student, a late starter at that. My sponge brain may not be as spongy as my youthful fellows in the study of English. I also forgave myself because I've been writing more, and sharpening my wits. Even on days when I am sorely disappointed with my unchecked rantings or my disjointed ideas, I find something to laugh at. And the something is usually sharper and harder hitting every time.

So then I got to thinking what exactly is a "lay person," where does laity end? In each industry those who consider themselves professionals will refer to the general public as lay, insomuch as they do not know the jargon to understand something written or spoken in technical terms. But when one's future profession is in education, and one's future is to be spent on the grounds of a university, at what point is one no longer a lay person in that profession -- at what point is one a scholar?

Sure there are professors who call their students scholars. I had one who put little blanks for our names at the top of the paper, and in front of the blank it said "Academecian:" That's very flattering, but given the academic diversity of an undergrad class, some of these students (their official title) are future accountants and nurse practitioners, not scholars or academecians.

The origin of the word "lay" might give us a little insight into whom it should be applied. Back when clergy members were officially the only non-lays, and they coined the term "lay" from the Greek laikos, meaning of the people. This was a good term because clergy effectually were not of the people -- they removed themselves from society.

Perhaps when a student stops coming out of his room to take meals, he is promoted to scholar. As one's research becomes more specialized every semester, as one begins to live and breathe in the terms of one's discipline, one moves away from the people. One cloisters one's self in an office full of books, and one only greets the people to tell what one knows. Often the scholar does not even have to leave the building to do this. Some grad students may even live on campus, and take all their meals in the dining hall. Scholars may not be awakened at dawn for Matins and Lauds, but most of their existence, if it pans out as I've conjectured here, seems fairly "monkish."

Becoming a scholar, a Ph. D. holder, a professor, however you want to put it, seems like it is more life-encompassing committment than taking, say, an MBA. The goal is not to take the education and run, but to live with in and in it for the rest of one's life (or until one retires, or unless one writes spectacular proposals that grant years of Sabbatical here and there).

So will I no longer be a layperson when I am accepted into a research program? Will they send me a letter telling me I can call myself a scholar? I mean, I'll be assistant teaching. Do they want laypeople assistant teaching? Maybe I won't get the honor of that title until I make candidacy -- around the third year when students (?) can begin work on a dissertation. Or perhaps in this profession you are just a trainee until you've defended your work and been given your second or third piece of calligraphy-encrusted paper.

I think I will know when I get there. It might be my third or my fifth year but I'll know. I may not get a letter from the school, but I'll throw myself a party anyway. Instead of kegs and bottled beer I suppose I'll have to have wine or something, and call it a soiree.

Professor Widebottom: This party is off da hook!

Professor Girdlekins: Fo shizzy!

I know I am silly to think about labels so much. But the ambiguity of being a student, an assistant teacher, a research assistant, a researcher, an advisee, and eventually an expert on something, all at once, is so intriguing to me.

For some reason I like thinking about anything that exemplifies any of those names that we give things that defy classification or to systems that pull in different directions: androgeny, ambivalence, ambiguity, dichotomy. I think I am experiencing all of those in some area of my life right now. I like to complicate things.