Monday, July 22, 2013

All Or Nothing, OR: Why Language Might Need More Math

So, full disclosure, I'm not a STEM. I'm a beautiful gorram FLOWER. Which means, I'm not much for the numbers.

Friggin' Lover Of Wondrous Esthetic Realities

I oppose linear progression in all forms -- the unidirectional flow of time, guesstimations of distance/weight/price/etc, making things fit "properly" in the dishwasher -- but not because I chose to fight the ordered human universe. I'm just no good at them.

Do not even get me started on doing math. Impossibru.

But I still think maybe our language, my beautiful fluid complex English, could stand to have some more quantitatively qualitative words. Not following? Yeah, that's to be expected. Let me try again.

Say you're identifying someone as having a quality -- rich, feminist, tall, angry, funny, racist, whatevs -- you pretty much do just that: Say "You're _[that thing I think you are]_!" No modifiers. Now, there's wiggle room on that; some people use modifying words. "Hey, you're pretty funny," or "That seemed a little angry, dude." But mostly, casual language does little more than point at an object and label it a quality.

Tee hee hee, I'm so meta

So when the person receives their label, they can either accept or reject it; and both reactions have their problems. Because no matter what label you just gave them, unless you just told them "You are so exactly you!" they are probably not 100% just that thing you called them. And thus begins the math.

You said they were something -- let's say tall. Except they are not made out of tall. Tall is not an accurate description of their fundamental essence. They are taller than you are/expected them to be/are used to, but this is a subjective quality, not an absolute. Another person might not -- let's face it, with all the disagreeable people we've got out there, probably won't -- agree that they are tall.

He will be behind you in the next long line
So say they agree, or bought into it, or hear it enough that they understand the general consensus -- "I'm tall." And then they run into that disgruntled 7'2'' runner-up from the Tall Man convention, who reacts to their self-description of being tall by screaming "You think you're tall? You think you know ANYTHING ABOUT being tall?? You don't have to duck through doorways! You can stand upright indoors! YOU KNOW NOTHING!" and spitting in their face a bunch. They were not 100% made out of tall, and so in his mind they defaulted to 0% -- i.e., "not tall".

Or conversely, they reject your assessment -- "I am not!" Translation: "I am 0% the thing you just said." This one comes up a lot for the feminist and racist examples included in the list above, and for different reasons (or ARE THEY?).

Fortunately, our fatuous population has come to a popular consensus that "racism = bad". UNfortunately, there's no guarantee that even well-intentioned people will be insightful, proactive, reflective or especially wise; so, it's a bit of a ham-fisted understanding at best, because most people don't want to think about it...and want to talk about it even less. (Myself included.)

So if "racism = bad", then "racist = bad person," right? And they try hard, usually, to keep from actually murdering their enemies or stealing all the cake in the world, and so like to think of themselves as a good person. Mostly. Like, on average. Y'know. So when you accuse them of essentially being a bad person, they reject it, naturally -- but you didn't actually say they were a bad person, did you? You said "racist." You ascribed them as possessing some undisclosed amount of racism, not being made of racism -- a difference that is important but one that I cannot go into further here, because this is already gonna be a looong post. The point is, the presence of some element of racism does not equal 100% racist. So they say "No I'm not, because remember how I _[totally didn't suck that one time about a racial issue]_," and it's totally legit; yet it doesn't undermine how they just totally blew the Racist Horn of Racism right where everyone could hear it.  

They're not an entirely bad person, so they can't be racist; only bad people are racists. So they're not racist. MATH.
Where is the part of a person that says they're bad?
Hint: There isn't one

There's no room in this kind of language for the idea of "some", and that's where casual speech lets us down; you're either all, or nothing at all. If we had more than 0% and 100% to work with, we could deduce more complex sums...and maybe actually SOLVE somethings. Crazy, I know.

This seems to happen a lot when talking about feminism, too -- unfortunately, the public consensus on feminism is "feminist = angry burly lesbian manhater fanatic." So there's an understandable difficulty in getting women and men to identify as feminist, because they don't feel fanatic or furious enough. (I think most people recognize the burliness & lesbianism as optional.)

And now, break it down: Personal Opinion Time. What adds dimension to this particular problem, and part of the reason women's rights weren't met satisfactorily over a generation ago, is that there are vocal minorities, outliers of the cause whose extreme opinions so do not mesh with one another that the main body of this movement's simple premise is now fringed by a corolla of goal-posts, as to when or how equality will be achieved.

The diversity puts the "Show Our Colors" Pride Parade to shame

And so there are feminists that would tell you that, simply as a person who thinks we're still living in a world geared towards men as the aftermath of a world that was made for and by men in the past, that you aren't feminist -- at least, not feminist enough -- because you are not the"flavor" of feminist that they are. ("WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT BEING TALL?") Which only aids the average person's knee-jerk mental image of feminist extremism...a nasty one-two combo for hindering the gender equality effort. If to even speak about continued gender inequity is going to be associated with extremism, then we are silenced -- not by some final-boss-battle called The Man -- but by everyday people around us, those who'd need to support change if it's ever to occur. And hoo boy has that been effective.

So now hopefully I've now hammered it home; the 0% vs. 100% of You Are or You Aren't is not serving us well.


I'm so glad you asked! Allow me to shift more comfortably upon my soap box; there, that's better. And off we go again.

Did you know English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn? We keep inventing new words; it's like Sisyphus with the boulder to those poor saps with the Rosetta Stone tapes. We also use way more euphemisms than most of the other Westernized nations.

(I had a Japanese teacher who studied English as her major while in Japan. She became an expert before ever arriving in America. Her first day, she walked into a diner and proudly ordered breakfast in perfect conversational English. The waitress said there was a special on bearclaws, and asked if she wanted one. My teacher fled the place in horror, totally traumatized.)
"These people are monsters; I have made a terrible error"

But we haven't seemed to come up with many middling descriptors; we like hyperbole and superlatives. (Was it funny? Call it hysterical or hilarious. You found their argument unimpressive? Let's call it retarded, and force the parents of mentally disabled children find yet another thing that isn't being used as an insult to refer to their children. Then we'll take that one, too.) It's like we're supersizing not just our burgers and our trucks, but our language as well...and, therefore, our thoughts. No wonder we're politically polarized; we can only think in bright colors.

There's no Threat Level: Mauve. Think about it.

I say it's time for better middling words! Bring back some context and a sense of scope to our day-to-day lives. How about a word for something that you found disappointingly dull? Not shockingly dull, or appallingly dull, or a coma-inducingly dull...just more dull than you had reason to expect, and you felt let down. I would use the shit out of that word. Or a word for when, even though all the elements of a good event are there -- the good food, your favorite people, in your preferred venue -- for some reason, it's just not kicking off. Whether someone's mad at someone else and trying not to bring everyone else down but the group is picking up on the strain, or everyone had individually felt they were too tired to go but had sort of made themselves come anyhow for the good of the group, is immaterial. That feeling of everyone feeling slightly put-upon and aware they aren't having fun, and that isn't anybody in particular's fault, would be so much more useful to me than "It sucked." Then we're back to the ol' 0% -- no fun at all.

How about something that indicates 45% fun-potential? I mean, come on! NUANCE.

I'm fairly certain I'm not alone on this -- though tackling racism and feminism in one go might have lost me some readers about halfway through -- what words are you wishing for? What unexpressed concepts would you give voice, if you could? A living language changes through common usage -- "suspicious" used to mean "behaving in a suspect manner", not "suspecting someone of something", did you know? It changed because everyone misused it the same way! I think that's totally linguistically hot. If we want to use our own specialized vocabulary, and if we used it pithily enough and it caught on, it would be real linguistic change! So, tell us your words; let's change the world for the better reasonable.

Shout out to Jenna, whose post on being feminist was the catalyst that finally made me write about this all-or-nothing phenomenon.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Night-Owl's Views On Sunshine

I woke up today when my b.c. alarm went off at noon, but couldn't quite scrape myself off the mattress for another half an hour -- in which to put on a bikini and go lay on a towel in the yard, which you know is so very different. That's tanning. And since Alaska gets about 12 sunny days during our 2 months of summer, and those seem to mostly happen during business hours, you gotta carpe that diem. So I dragged my night-owl ass out into the sun while it was still around, to do something that I -- as a born and raised island girl -- never thought I'd ever do. SUNBATHE.

Thinking: "What have I become???"

I've been laying out on our lawn so often, the grass is starting to pale in my basking area because I'm intercepting so much of its sunlight. As I lounged out there today, I stared lazily up at the trees and watched the sunlight shine off the leaves in the height of the day's heat. I reflected on the way each leaf glinted, the sun bouncing so brilliantly off each tiny facet in the canopy. It's a harder kind of light, the full force of the sun's light at high noon -- my favorite is the later light when the afternoon ripens, but before it declines into dusk. The light has a syrupy golden quality, and saturates the leaves; a positive sponge of photosynthetic light.

I've already shared my little linguistic invention heliotransfolium; well, as the sun reclines closer to the horizon, every leaf becomes radiant with a heavier golden glow, the maximum of example of the term. But in the heat of the day, when the sun is high, what I saw would have to be called helioepifolium -- sun on leaves, as opposed to through.

Helioepi(c)folium - every tree a jewel with a thousand sparkling facets

Mornings are terribly unpleasant for me, and I find the cold light of the morning sun unwelcoming. I like to join the day after it's been well-broken in by earlier risers. (I'm not even people at work until it's almost noon. But I've got them pretty well fooled with the heels & earrings and whatnot.) The blazing hard light of high noon has its perks, including its tanning power -- but give me that ripe honeyed light of late afternoon every time. Maybe this night owl is becoming crepuscular?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Uh-Oh, Poetry: A Well-Respected Me

To the tune of  "A Well Respected Man" by the Kinks

I’ve found a boy to be good to
I love him very much
If you knew him, you would too
He’s bright and sweet and such
I’ve made a home with him
With each paycheck earned & spent
We filled all the rooms therein
And we pay the bills and rent

And I’m all grown up
And I’m just fine
And I’m responsible
With my money and my time
A child who grew too tall
Made to work
And act appropriately

I have a steady job downtown
Filing papers in the State’s employ
Because it’s fairly well-known
There’s no pay in work you enjoy
So I repay my debts with interest
Earning money with every turning page
Seeing what will last the longest
My self-identity or my wage

And I’m all grown up
And I’m just fine
And I’m responsible
With my money and my time
A child who grew too tall
Made to work
And act appropriately

It’s a little life, I’m first to admit
But it’s well and cheaply made
Fame goes to those who don’t submit
But comfort for those who stayed
With no need to soar, I fledge my nest
Trying to balance the means and ends
I live for the things that I love best
Good stories and food and friends

And I’m all grown up
And I’m just fine
And I’m responsible
With my money and my time
A child who grew too tall
Made to work
And act appropriately

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Tragic And Unlikely Tale Of Herbertina

It was a restless day, which never bodes well when you hang out with Fancy Phil...and then the boys got hungry, and it was all over. We were now about to have an adventure.

No run to the local supermarket for Fancy Phil. We found ourselves trolling around the warehouse district in midtown, looking for seafood wholesalers. At last we found one monolith with a faded silhouette of a crab painted on the side. Reluctantly leaving the safety of the car, we wandered in a side door and found ourselves in a cavernous dimness hung with pipes and thick hoses. The floor was strewn with hip-high vats/above-ground swimming pools full of bristling, dark, nightmarishly large live crabs. A disreputable Eastern European man helped us pick out a crab, make our purchase, and threw in a weird philosophical discussion to boot.

We escaped with our prize, and brought home our new bouncing baby sea monster. We had no idea how to turn it into food yet, so we deposited it in the bathtub with some ice water -- you know, to reinvent its natural environment. They googled ways to kill and cook giant crabs without an appropriately sized pot, and I named it Herbert. Because its mouth fringe looked like a mustache, duh! Then they found out how to sex a crab -- because somehow, part of killing your food is getting to know it better? -- and we amended that to Hebertina.

It was such a distinguished mustache
We couldn't boil her without killing her first, because she was big enough to take us on, so talk turned to how to kill her. It was decided that the most merciful way would be to stab her through the brain before dismantling her into the relevant bits. The only problem with this is that crabs don't have a centralized brain, a thing we learned only moments after my dear sweet darling ran the thing through with a giant kitchen knife.

My effort-intensive Paint skillz
Her time in the bathtub had not been good to Herbertina. Perhaps we'd sprinkled too much Morton's salt into her artificial sea, or perhaps the kitty's hate-stare-daggers were starting to take effect, but Herbertina's continually gesticulating giant jagged limbs had taken on a distinctly more languid motion. It's hard to tell with a giant crusty sea-spider monster, but she seemed to be flagging. So when she became a living kebab on a kitchen knife, she just couldn't seem to muster the energy to care. Her nervous system, such as it was, didn't seem to have communicated the urgency of the situation appropriately. She casually sort of waved it off, with leisurely gestures that lasted a disturbingly long time into the killing process.

Needless to say, I didn't join them for seafood that night; even though they assured me it was delicious. Alaskans are hardcore.