Monthly Archives: September 2011

Yay My School!

The living room of my apartment

My blogging lair

If you’re really afraid of spiders, don’t visit me. I’ll meet you somewhere downtown if you’re offering a book contract, and I’ll buy you a beer, but my apartment is full of spiders. These spiders mostly have tiny bodies and long legs, and they don’t bother me much, even when they grow large. Only a couple of times have I seen spiders with large bodies, including the very unfortunate occasion of a fat beast with short legs running across my bed like something out of Lord of the Rings. Apparently I’m not bothered by spider legs—it’s spider bodies that creep me out. No matter what kind of spider I find, though, I no longer kill them, but catch them in a plastic container I bought for that purpose (I wrote “spiders” on top of it) and take them outside. I began this catch-and-release policy under the influence of a Quaker friend.

My friend works at Penn State, where you soon learn that FOOTBALL IS IMPORTANT, in case you missed that really subtle message living in this town. She was explaining to me that since the economy of our town is based on football, I should have a more sympathetic attitude. I don’t know. I can learn to tolerate spiders, but I don’t know about football. Living where I do, that makes me like an atheist keeping real quiet at a tent revival.

She also told me recently about the origin of a school cheer that is extremely common here, which goes “We are Penn State!” If you’re not from here, you’re probably thinking Seriously? Because even if you love the school, you surely have to admit that it’s not exactly clever. Or interesting. Or imaginative. But what this strangely dull cheer does have going for it is a noble origin. According to tradition, it came from the defiant statement of a Penn State official to racists at a southern university in the 50s, who wanted to exclude black players from a bowl game. On hearing this obnoxious request, the more civilized PSU official replied something along the lines of “We don’t do that. We are Penn State.”

Most school cheers are less noble and more interesting. At the University of Georgia, which several members of my family have attended, the mascot for the school is a bulldog. Go figure. Anyway, it’s a bulldog. There is an actual dog, with a series of dogs who have replaced one another over the years like Lassie. Because the school, like many schools, is often known by its initials, in this case UGA, the name of the mascot dog is Uga. With a bit of spelling parody on a southern accent (actually creating a more distinctive word), T shirts and posters proclaim the “Dawgs”. Getting back to the school cheer—notice how I did that? I’m like a laser—you can hear people in the stands and drunks in bars screaming, “Let the big dawg eat!” School spirit.

I don’t recall any particular catchy cheer from my high school. I think it was just something like “Yay, South Hall!” Or maybe we had something better than that, and I’ve just tried to block that period of my life out of memory. Not long after high school, I went into the Air Force, hoping to become a Russian linguist and instead became a hospital lab tech. So much for my clever plan. But while I was there, an older sergeant told me a high school cheer that was so entertaining I’ve never forgotten it. I tell this story the way I heard it. The cheer was from some school in Norfolk, Virginia, and it went “We don’t drink, we don’t smoke, Norfolk, Norfolk!” At first it sounds like, um, OK, clean cut kids, until you learn that the local pronunciation for the town’s name sounds like “nor fuck”. Ohhhh. Well then. Now we have a sentence listing three activities these upstanding youngsters do not engage in.

Oh, hey, I have a good idea for a school mascot. The Spiders. Huh? Huh? What do you think? As a school cheer, we could use something like “Tie ‘em up tighter!” Or maybe something more pithy. How about “Let’s get sticky!”

Penn State fans

We are...uh...Penn State!

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Things Will Work Out, People Say, And Who Am I to Say They’re Wrong, But in the Meantime It Seems Like a Shame Angels Don’t Really Exist

Guardian angelThose prone to a sadistic streak in story telling might urge me to talk about what it is like to apply for unemployment compensation, to discover that one part of the agency (whatever that is) says you get it and to start filing claims, while another part of the agency says they are still deciding whether you deserve it after misbehaving enough not to get tenure (which they’ve sort of heard of ).

Do you, though, truly need an example of how inscrutably screwed up the government can be? I’m mean I’m mostly a Democrat, but Jesus Christ. However, I assume you must know this well from your own interactions with your parole officer. Who I hear has been disappointed with you lately, though I still believe in you.

Rather than dwell on Leviathan’s ponderous musings, let us consider how an inclination to tinker with words might be aimed at the acquisition of cash, or at least those slips of paper that allow you to buy second-grade flour and slightly rancid pork at the company store. What actual skills does a writer have?

Well we…think about stuff, if we’re not drunk or asleep or looking at the kind of pictures on the internet that don’t seem intended to provoke intellectual activity. So that’s a job skill. And we know exactly the right way to use a semicolon, and God knows society cries out for someone willing to bear the burden of this arcane knowledge. We also know how to use apostrophes, but apparently that just pisses people off, so that doesn’t go on the resume.

As personal additions to the usual scribal tool chest, I have a good command of margins. And I don’t mind saying, though I know it’s bragging and that’s a sin, that I can fold a piece a paper twice to form three perfect equal sections.

If you have not at this point pushed back momentarily from the computer to catch your breath, to make room in your mental world for the idea that such highly skilled people as I’m describing really do exist, I will continue. How can I apply my delicately refined masterhood in writing to earning a living? In particular, I am fond of medical writing. Perhaps this interest began at the age of seven, when I played doctor with the other kids in the trailer park. [First major medical discovery: there are two genders—and they’re really different.]

I’ve done some medical writing, but in spite of seeing evidence that it can be very lucrative, I’m like the poor street people in some Dickensian story with their faces pressed up against the glass of a nice restaurant, watching other people eat. I’ve written articles for the local hospital, but they seem very content with having concluded our relationship. Another thing I’ve done in the last year was write a health column, for free, for a local monthly newspaper. I thought “free” meant I could write whatever I wanted. Turns out I didn’t get paid. Now I’m going to go see if the daily newspaper wants to pick up the column instead. I don’t know whether they’ll pay, but I will get more of the kind of teeny tiny local glory that most of us fish swim in. The point, however, is to say to people locally, “Look at this! I wrote about ringworm! Hire me!”

Actually, that pretty much exhausts my job skills. Except for chatting. I’ve always been pretty good at chatting. Though this ability was remarkably inapplicable at my last job, where a number of my coworkers valued the English language so much that they kept it to themselves and did not share it.

In addition to writing, per se—but no wait. I have to stop here and comment on this phrase “per se”. Have you ever heard it used correctly? Is there even such a thing as correct? I’ve heard people say things like “We didn’t exactly have dinner, per se.” I think the phrase must actually mean “uhhhhhh” except it’s in Latin and sounds smarter.

Anyhow, in addition to the writing skills that sparkle where I walk like the stars on God’s right hand, I decided to develop websites, as something that combines my wondrous creativity with a blinking rat-like ability to sit for long periods in dark corners. And you know what? Someone PAID me for making a website. If that was to happen about ten more times I might earn enough to live till December, per se.

When I’m not actively engaged in not earning a living, I’m still a Writer with a big ol’ W. Got me a blog, and I can toss around bloggish technical language like “post” and…hmm, I’m sure there’s other words too. And did I mention I’m writing a novel?

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Waiting for Snow

Hands playing pianoIt was raining today at the Food Bank, but still the bags of food needed to be delivered out to people’s cars. By the end water had soaked through to the inside of my shoes. I’m not complaining, just noting. Later I was talking to someone who commented on the rain, saying that it was better than the snow that’s coming later.

About two years ago, in winter as solid and razor-like as our winters get, I was in a poetry mood, which in my case originates mostly from emotion rather than intellect. In that mood I wrote a poem that sets a scene of warmth and intimacy inside, surrounded by the bitter cold outside. The poem also does other things, as it’s a romantic poem.

The title is in Italian, a naming practice that I normally consider incredibly pretentious. Unless you’re an Italian poet. Or unless I do it. It translates as “How the stars used to shine there”. The line is the beginning of a beautiful aria from the opera Tosca by Puccini. The aria is referred to in the poem, which I wrote not long after seeing the opera.

 

E lucevan le stelle

The morning sun shines across the snow bright as God’s glory.

It is bitterly cold out,

as I sit with a cup of tea,

watching the cat contented in her private world.

My lover is playing the piano for me.

She is nervous if I watch her,

so I sit in the next room listening.

From my chair I cannot see her,

but a line of sunlight splashing across the piano

shows me part of her shadow on the floor.

Strangely,

the shadow reveals only her arms and hands on the keyboard.

I listen to the music

and watch the shadow hands play.

From the hours I have now been with her

on a winter’s night and day,

from the intensity of our love making,

when we ceased to be two separate people,

from how much I love her,

that nearly breaks my heart with its fullness,

from her desire to play for me,

to share this pleasure she takes in playing,

my contentment is so great

it is like a physical presence.

But as I watch the shadow hands

play a melancholy aria from “Tosca”,

I remember that I am in a dream.

These moments together have been stolen from the world,

hidden away as the secret

of our loving each other.

Soon we will return to the world.

Then I wonder if her love for me will fade,

with no more substance than shadow hands

playing an aria from the past.

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Yall Make Yourself at Home

Water tower in FlorenceTonight I made a proper southern meal, or as proper as I was going to get without using a piece of pig. I made a pot of pinto beans, and instead of flavoring them with pork fat, I used sprigs of fresh rosemary from the garden. One time I was in a Russian language class when the word сала (sala) was mentioned. Other students apparently thought it was an odd word to have, but I realized it was similar to the southern word “fatback”. This happened in Indiana, where I was in college, and I thought “Down south we can translate that word, but from what I’m hearing, yall can’t.”

The pot of pinto beans I made tonight for dinner was pretty much inconceivable without cornbread, so I made a pretty brown pone in the cast iron skillet. I make cornbread the right way, without sugar. People in the north think cornbread is supposed to be sweet, but I can’t talk about it.

While I was pondering the prospect of the kind of meal I grew up with, I also started thinking about some of the language I grew up with as well. If you happen to be astute with punctuation, which so few people are, you noticed that I spelled the word for “you plural” as yall, without the apostrophe. Since the word is a contraction for the phrase “you all”, and the apostrophe indicates that collapsing of letters and sounds, it is generally correct to use the apostrophe (which also leads to the reprehensible but common misspelling “ya’ll”).

I don’t like the apostrophe. Maybe that’s because I don’t like apostrophes in general, after having spent a stupid amount of effort to get students to use this idiotic mark correctly. The apostrophe was a dumbass invention, and I wish we could get rid of it. In any case, I’ve dropped that flying curl of ink in the middle of the word, because I think the word “yall” deserves to exist on its own, not as a contraction. The fact that the word originated from “you all” is merely etymology, the history of the word.

As I have often told anyone who could not get away fast enough, I spell the word as it is going to be spelled in the future. Someday all English speakers, at least all American English speakers, will use this word as the standard form for “you plural”. In Shakespeare’s time the language still had both singular (thou) and plural (ye) in common use. It seems miraculous to me how two pronouns that everyone must have used every day could disappear, but so they did, and both of them were replaced by “you” (the object form of “ye”, similar to “him” from “he”).

And so we have struggled with this bizarre hole in our language. In various places local practice has created an alternative way of saying “you plural”, but the words have nearly always been seen as substandard. Running up the spine of Appalachia, from Georgia—where my grandfather used to say this—to Pittsburgh, the phrase “you ones” has been contracted to “yuns”. In southern New Jersey and Philadelphia, the word “youse” (probably “you” pluralized with an “s”) is common. Both of these words are heavily marked as uneducated, and anyone who grows up using them will try to stop doing so when they want to sound educated.

Which makes the word “yall” so interesting in the south. Although people in other parts of the country may not know this, in the south the word is not marked as uneducated, and college professors, doctors, and the governor can use the word without a problem. In southern speech, in fact, “yall” is standard English, the normal way of distinguishing between one person and more than one. I’ve occasionally read the ignorant claim that southerners will sometimes say “yall” to mean only one person. Personally, if I were so inept at understanding how people speak, I would not make generalizations about it. No native southerner will ever say “yall” to mean one person. The Economist magazine gets this point right in an editorial on language in this week’s edition.

There are several reasons to believe that “yall” will someday become standard English. For one thing, we need it. English is a rare European language in being unable to make this obvious distinction. As to why the solution might be this word and not another, “yall” is already very much in common use, not only among southerners, but among speakers of general black dialect, not just in the south, but all over the country.

It is also an elegant word, fitting the pattern of many Anglosaxon native English words, to the sound of Consonant-Vowel-Consonant. The fits our language well, and because it makes a plural ending with a consonant, it’s possible to add the “s” for possessive, as in “Is that yalls house on fire?”

It is a word of the future, unless yall got a better idea.

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Do You Want Your Name On This List?

Newspaper ads for tombstonesIs Shakespeare immortal? No. I’ve been to his grave in Stratford-upon-Avon.

But his name is written on a sign there, telling me it’s his grave, and I even made a point of going to the church to see it, which can lead us to the question of whether he is immortal in a metaphorical sense. Someone might say yes, but not because of that grave. He’s immortal because of the plays and poems. True, but what if his name was not on the the things he wrote?

With my students, we used to read the Mesopotamian literary epic Gilgamesh, in which King Gilgamesh is concerned with immortality, of the walking-around-alive sort. By the end of the story, he has been robbed of living immortality by a serpent. Gilgamesh then has to resign himself to trying to make the best of this life, but I would often have a student point out the fact that we were still talking about him 4,000 years later, because his story was written down. So he did gain a kind of immortality.

How powerful is the act of writing down names? This weekend I took a very pleasant and seriously needed break down in Washington, DC , and while I was there, my friend took me to see the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which I had been unaware of. It’s designed with some interesting symbolism of lions protecting their young, as law enforcement officers protect the rest of us. One feature of the memorial that set me to thinking was the fact that it contains the names of American law enforcement officers who have been killed in the line of duty, beginning in 1791, with a current total of 19,000. The world being the nasty place that it is, new names are added every year.

So many names are on those curving stones, and since we were in Washington, it naturally reminded me of the Vietnam Memorial, which has the names of all Americans killed in the war, more than 58,000. These two memorials, with such enormous numbers of names, are particularly striking for having recorded so many individuals, but these are not the only monuments to record the names of the dead. Many towns have war memorials, where the names of local men and women who died in various wars are placed on the stones.

And of course, what is every gravestone? Imagine, however, a graveyard full of markers, hundreds or even thousands of them, with not a single word on any of those stones. Would such graveyards even exist?

Without language, and moreover without writing, they are only stones. It is the writing that gives these memorials their value. More specifically, the writing, whatever kind of writing it is, represents the name that has identified us in life, and recording our name is meant to provide a kind of immortality. I imagine that the reason the stones exist at all, in fact, is specifically to provide a space for the writing.

I’ve written before in this blog how we have almost a magical belief in the power of language (or more than almost magical). Why is it so important that our names be recorded when we die? Whatever the reason, it is so important that we often do it in stone, which has always seemed like the most permanent way.

Immortality of the name—as recorded in writing—was taken very seriously in ancient Egypt. During the Middle Kingdom there were several rulers, including Hatshepsut, the first female ruler, who were hated by later pharaohs. In consequence, the later rulers attempted to eradicate their despised predecessors by locating their names carved into stone, and having it chipped out.

Thousands of years later, we are still making an effort to see that our names will be recorded, so that we will live on after death. I don’t know why we care, but so many of us do. Isn’t desire for the name to live often cited as one of the reasons why writers write?

Carving of Hatshepsut

Go get a chisel

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4:30 a.m.: Time to Get Up

Basket of tomatoesI’ve wondered for many years why a small farm that grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, maybe raises a few animals, is called a “truck farm”. I always kind of thought it must have something to do with, you know, a truck. I’m not positive about that, though. I mostly grew up on a truck farm, as we lived next door to my grandparents on their farm in Georgia. There was a great variety of vegetables and fruits on the farm. I still recall the bushel baskets sitting in a row across my grandparents’ back porch, filled with large tomatoes as red as God’s blood, and huge baskets of fat strawberries as sweet as Satan’s kiss.

I was a child and had no clue what remarkable bounty surrounded me, what amazing food we had access to. In fact I was a stupid, distorted child, wanting to eat from the grocery store. As kids, we had to work on the farm, though I clearly remember how lazy I was, and it’s not a proud memory to recall how unwillingly I picked strawberries, plucked peanuts from the harvested plants, or carried buckets of slop down to the pigpen. I preferred to be in the house reading a book.

And there was a truck on the farm, an old truck that wasn’t very large, with running boards on the side such as Chicago gangsters might have used for a shootout in the fields. With my brothers and my cousin we helped my grandparents gather fresh corn from the field, and then we would ride into town to sell the corn to merchants at the farmers’ market. Because we were country kids, we sat happily in the back of the truck, riding on the corn.

Now I live in an area of remarkable beauty, in central Pennsylvania, and one of the great attractions for me here is that I am surrounded by both large and small farms. I love the visual appeal of agriculture, rows of corn rolling across the fields like the green stripes of modern art. Obviously I’m romanticizing it, since I’m not actually doing the work. Here in our small town I know of four farmers’ markets, one of which is run by a single Amish family.

Recently a friend who I trust with any recommendation gave me the book The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. It’s a true story about her change from living as a writer in Manhattan to living on a hard-working farm in New York  state with her boyfriend (later husband). Part of the attraction for my friend who recommended the book, and for me, is that the book begins here in State College, as Kimball met her boyfriend Mark here where he was farming.

Most of the story takes place on a farm near Lake Champlain, and Kimball describes in great detail how they worked to create a farm of such ambition that it sounds strange to think about it. Their idea was to run a farm that would supply everything people needed to eat for the year, with no need to ever buy food in a store, and to do this for dozens of members who would pay a yearly amount to the farm. Although the book describes some of the difficult, early years, apparently Kristin and Mark made it work.

Kimball uses details well, so that we can be there as she trudges through a snowstorm after taking care of animals, we can practically smell the shed where she is boiling down maple syrup, or watch as frightened horses tear away from her down a road, dragging a farm implement.

An aspect of the book that gets attention, as the subtitle implies, is the relationship between Kristin and Mark. She does not appear to sugar coat it, and she makes clear that this is not entirely a bucolic portrait of the farm maid and her rural swain. There are some problems out in the country, though in the end it works out.

The relationship part of the book I sometimes found offputting, when Kristen shows the reader that even though she went to live on a farm with Mark, after agreeing to marry him, she was sometimes emotionally distant and hesitant about getting married. I was sometimes disturbed by what I felt was her coldness, though Mark could also be rigid sometimes and insistent on doing things his way. So maybe he wasn’t a picnic every day.

By the end, though, including their relationship adds a second sort of “plotline” on top of whether or not the cow will live and the onions will grow. And that’s probably an aspect of Kimball’s skill as a writer, her ability to make a book that can be rather compelling. And I learned more about cows.

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Master of Time and Space

Time and space imageryI firmly believe that everything around us is a type of illusion. Our spirit or soul, or whatever it is, exists (read “is trapped”) within a matrix of matter and energy, which are themselves too complex to really be understood, as quantum physics shows us.

So here we are. Damn it. What we perceive as time and space are primal aspects of the grand illusion.

As an expression of our perception of the world, our literature—and in fact language in general—also treat time and space as basic ideas. In writing, to move gracefully through time and space, to use transitions that is, is an indication of a skilled writer.

Let’s say I have a character sitting in a room, and now that a conversation in the room has finished, I would like for the character to leave the room, go downstairs, get in a car, and drive to a town 40 miles away. In that town, I want the character to wake up the next day and look at the ocean. I need to move this character through space and then through time. How can I do this?

Oftentimes, the word “then” is useful. Yes, it is useful, utilitarian even, prosaic in its functional ability to proceed. It is also inelegant, unimaginative, and clumsy when repeated. In a similar vein, we might cite such functional words and phrases as “afterward”, “after [the protagonist did something]”, “the next day”, “a few minutes later”—you get the idea, I suppose.

So useful. So functional. So dull.

Do I, therefore, write without these words and phrases? Hell no, I use them all the time. Avoiding them might be possible, and it might always make the writing more graceful and interesting, but frankly, it can be really hard to come up with alternatives. In the first paragraph up above, I might have written “I need to move this character through space and subsequently through time”, avoiding the word “then”. I actually like the second version much better, but it took the effort to actively focus on that word to come up with the alternative.

Transitions I find to be almost inevitably dull on the first pass. I think this may partly be because when I’m writing a first draft, the greatest concern is at the level of broad action or ideas, simply getting the basic events down on the page. When thinking at that level (should he drive to the town or take a train? should the house be near enough to see the ocean or is it farther away?), almost any transition will do as long as it moves the thing along.

Afterward [did you notice that one?], if I’m the kind of writer who takes the trouble and cares, when I’m revising I might shift my attention to transitions. Because they are already functional, and certainly not terrible, it would be easy to pay no attention to them. In my experience, it can also take a remarkable amount of time and effort to produce something the reader will surely never know I did.

Here’s an example: Henry and Belle sat for a while on the couch, each waiting to see whether the conversation might start back up. After a few minutes, Henry stood up yawning and left.

You probably know I’m going to focus on the phrase “After a few minutes”. It’s working, so why fool with it? Because I’m a serious writer and this is my art. That’s why. So what I might do in this case is go back into the previous sentence for ideas. Of all the nouns or ideas in that sentence, let’s randomly take the word “conversation”. Suppose Henry is thinking about the conversation he had with Belle, which seems to be over. We don’t see that conversation here, but since we are just making all this up, we can go into Henry’s thoughts for a few seconds, as he sits silently remembering a bit of their conversation. Henry had already been losing interest as she told him in detail about her father’s work as an accountant.

The very best transition is like a bridge, with a foot on each side. One foot of this bridge is the phrase “she told him”, referring back to the noun “conversation”, and the other foot is the phrase “been losing interest”, looking ahead to his yawning (and personally, I’d cite the bit about the accountant as a yawn inducement). So let’s put it all together, with a slight change to make it flow.

Henry and Belle sat for a while on the couch, each waiting to see whether the conversation might start back up. Henry had already been losing interest as she told him in detail about her father’s work as an accountant. Now he stood up yawning and left.

OK, I could probably do better, but it’s just a quick example. My point is that it took a bit of work, but it flows a little better, gives a little more connection between the sitting and talking and the getting up to leave. When this kind of thing is well done, the reader will read easily through and never know how hard you worked. This is true of all writing, not just fiction, as I used to try to teach my science writing students.

Longer transitions can be much more effort. I think of the beginning of a chapter as potentially such a spot. The idea of transitions also applies to logical connections of ideas, so that the mind of the reader is not forced to jump abruptly to something that seems unconnected. But because literature can also involve the pleasure of surprise, a sudden jump in subject may be the very thing we want.

Chocolate, though, chocolate is real. That’s not an illusion.

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