Tuesday, October 23, 2012

shorter words

Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.

-- 1984*

We are blessed in our English by a multitude of words.  We are a Germanic people who ate a Romance language for lunch, and have two vocabularies for everything; we juggle the words of Saxons with the words of Norman aristocrats who conquered them.  Hastings has been refought for a thousand years as these alternate vocabularies compete for influence, and perhaps that is why the English, accustomed to muddle from the beginning, have shamelessly borrowed words from all over the world, while other peoples (the French most notoriously) created academies to protect the purity of their argot.  At any given moment you and I may be speaking German, French, Urdu, Iroquois, Nederlands, Spanish, Welsh, Cantonese or Irish, all within the playing field of our own language.  How dare we?

Shakespeare could sing like a Norman when he wanted, saying what Macbeth's hand would do ("the multitudinous seas incarnadine"), and in the next line could turn Saxon on us ("making the green one red").**  This double-turn of English consciousness has to be one of history's richest folds of thought, encompassing the worlds of master and slave, and their respective powers of domination and subversion.  Four centuries after Harold's defeat, Chaucer brought English back to court, and our language has always been biased toward the underdog.

The Irish virtually lost their language under English domination, but their authors, rather than reviving it, followed perhaps the wiser course of capturing the master's tongue.  Even Padraig Pearse wrote his poems in English.  The children can make a living in English, and the masters now can't speak their own language without quoting Irishmen.

And America's involuntary immigrants from Africa, robbed of their languages, have so inflected English from below that, like it or not, black and white in America are one people.  In a tradition from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison, and from Bert Williams to Fats Waller to Lead Belly, the formerly enslaved have mastered the master's language, changing it so that it travels around the world in a liberative culture-wave.  It's not for nothing that tyrants fear American slang.

And that's why it breaks my heart when I see that some communities of the poor, people for whom the theologians have declared a preferential option, have despaired of language, their own and mine.  In a subway car I once heard the long rant of a beaten man: "Ain't no f*****g book can make a n****r go free!" he shouted.  What a failure of leadership, I thought! from all directions! Someone should have sung that man a better song, and with better lyrics.  Frederick Douglass was groaning from his grave.

Ayn Rand was right about one thing: if you can't say it you don't know it.  A person lives in the world that his vocabulary describes, and if you know only three adjectives, all of them excretory and thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, then you're fouling your world faster than help can arrive.

And yet, it isn't just a matter of knowing nicer words.  There's a self-improvement product sold on talk radio stations that promises to make you successful by enlarging your vocabulary.  Their slogan is "People judge you by the words you use."  There's no short course to eloquence I say, with a humanist sniff.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," said a famous bore who could not stop talking.  My teachers taught that if you could say it shorter, you should.  Not just shorter sentences but shorter words.  They taught me the Hemingwayan preferential option for Anglo-Saxon words (love over affection, height over altitude, shit over excrement).  Four times a week for four years, our English teachers made it clear that those who thought they could rise to the top by implementing schedules for the utilization of resources, driving their Cadillacs purchased by credit on streets that cash-bought beamers ruled, would be caught in the headlights and exposed as parvenus.

Yes, people do judge you by the words you use.  I was one of the judges.

Grandiose verbiage is a power play of the insecure.  Doctors say "ambulate" rather than "walk" because "ambulate" means more than "walk;" it means "the patient was walking and I'm a doctor."  So the other clinicians, nurses, social workers, technicians, also say "ambulate."  But not this clinician.  I also am a health care worker.  I also have a degree and a certificate.  And I shall never say the patient ambulated, I will say he could walk.  Nor shall I say he "verbalized," I will say rather that he "spoke."  It's my job to make sure that Reality appears at the worksite.  Death and Suffering fight dirty, and they laugh at big words.

I was born and shall die genteelly poor, an oarsman mortally vulnerable to the next big wave or eddy, and our high-priced politicians have made sure that, to all of us for whom money must be an object, the seas shall be stormy.  But the theologians remind me that I was born with privileges, advantages that others lack in the storm.  Among them is that for four years I was made to write something each week that would be judged as writing.  I have sometimes thought that to teach writing is the noblest profession of them all, and wished that the course of my life had placed me in that work.  But I know that I haven't the patience for it.  Now I realize the enormity of the gift my teachers gave me.  Every week they applied their sensitive eyes to handwritten sludge, fresh from the minds of privileged male adolescents.  They undertook this suffering for love of the mind, of our particular minds, and of me.  So now, too late, I thank them.  I cannot repay the debt I owe to Frank House, Maurice Brown, Spencer Grey and Alan Wise.  I am one of a precious few who were given such a gift.  And if more of my fellow-countrymen had received such a gift, my beloved nation might not now by sliding quite so fast down the slope of idiocy and instantaneous forgetfulness.

Learning to write and to speak is learning to think.  And if you can't say it, you don't know it.  No, there's no short course to eloquence.  It takes a lifetime of hearing and speaking, reading and writing.  Heavens shield us from those who have learned new big words and can't wait to show them off.

*George Orwell, ed. Sonia Brownell Orwell (Orlando, FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1987), p. 125

**II. ii. 61-2.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

egg helmet

In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth.

-- Elisabeth Rosenthal, "To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets"*

In the United States, it's a tenet of the national faith that there is a solution for every problem.  We have no tragic sense whatsoever.  What we have instead is The Church of American Exceptionalism.  No bad things should ever happen.  If something bad happens, it's because somebody didn't work hard enough, or did the wrong thing.  The person who didn't do (whatever) right must be identified and punished.  Or educated.  And if he was not taught what was right, we must blame his teachers, find the person who knows what's right and put them in charge.  And if no one knows what's right, we must have a crash research program to find out.  And when the answer is found we will apply a new technology that will fix things forever.  This American characteristic sometimes makes us very smart and brave, and inspires us to do things that no one else can do.  It also makes us very stupid, inspiring us to do things that no one else is dumb enough to do.

One of our National Idols is Perfect Safety.  Today as I read the Times I learn that, in order to prevent rare injuries to bicyclists, American cities require the use of helmets with their bike-sharing programs, thus dramatically increasing resistance to the use of bicycles, and preventing the many health effects of bike travel (for cyclists and their fellow citizens) from taking hold.  The world's most successful bike-sharing programs have no such mandate.  Bikes are safe, particularly when there are many cyclists in a dense and slow-traveling urban environment.  But somebody somewhere knew somebody who had a serious injury, and therefore technology is required, in the form of a helmet.  And so the easy and normal activity of biking takes on the appearance of an extreme sport, a contest with death for trained daredevils, not to be undertaken by regular people on their way to customary activities like work and shopping.  And people who might have used a bike stay in their cars, losing the exercise, getting fat and diabetic, and making life more dangerous for the few remaining cyclists.  Not a safe life style for anyone.

"If we wear helmets for cycling, perhaps we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath," says a professor of actuarial studies.**  Perhaps I shall live to see the perfection of the Walking Helmet; after all, I might encounter a crack in the sidewalk, or stumble down the subway steps.  Or the Sitting-at-My-Desk helmet: I might nod off and hit the keyboard with my head.  (I needed one of those in a meeting I recently attended.)  In recent days I've seen kids stuffed into helmets in order to ride little scooters that might take them to the mind-rending speed of eight miles an hour.  How many days must I wait for the unveiling of the American Child Helmet, that will encase the noggins of our progeny throughout all activities and inactivities from birth to majority?

This afternoon my TV is showing the national sport, a game much adapted in America from one of the world's simpler Ur-games.  We have improved rugby into what we call football (although it has almost nothing to do with the relationship of feet and balls).  Rugby is a rough game, with a lot of crashing and bashing, and a century's worth of American exceptionalistic thinking has been applied to make the crashing and bashing of American football safer.  There are, as far as I know, no specialized items of equipment for rugby players: they wear what soccer players wear.  But the unmediated risks of flesh-on-flesh collisions were not tolerable for Americans.  Over decades, specialized items of equipment were invented: pads for the shoulders and shins, the chest and the ribs; sophisticated helmets with face protection and shock absorption.  Today's football player looks pretty much like the robot in a mid-century sci-fi flick, or -- even better -- he looks like a Transformer in one of those movies named after a toy for boys with accelerated testosterone.

And how has that been working for us?  Well, football is in a crisis.  The injuries are as frequent, and more horrific, than ever.  It's suddenly common knowledge (how could we not have known?) that football players frequently get concussions, and that repeated concussions bring on early dementia and death.  The national game, whose very object is to knock people down and "hit them hard," is seriously embarrassed.  But how is this possible?  We're Americans, and we've spent research, ingenuity, and serious money to protect our assets.

If we had a national sense of tragedy, we'd bring to mind more easily the Law of Unintended Consequences.  We'd know that solutions can become new problems, and that measures intended to keep us safe can pose new dangers.  The helmet, so cushioned, so hard and unbreakable, becomes a weapon.  The sense of invulnerability spurs greater speed, recklessness and violence.  The sport seeks out the gaps in our planning, and penetrates the limits that new equipment cannot contain.  Like Pogo and Oedipus, we have met the enemy and he is us.

No, you can't be perfect; and you can't be perfectly safe, even if you're American.  All you can do is trade some risks for others, running from one danger into the grasp of another, the greatest of which is never to have chosen the risk on which you wager your life.  And thus does the Idol of Perfect Safety seduce us us to surrogate living.

"You're on earth.  There's no cure for that," says one of Beckett's characters.  If you're still alive, you're in danger.  I might have choked to death on my eggs this morning.

After all, it happened to somebody, somewhere, sometime; or to their neighbor; or to somebody their neighbor knew; or to somebody their neighbor's friend saw on television.  Somewhere.  Sometime.  Or other.

"Shall I dare to eat a peach?" asks Prufrock.  I like my eggs.  They help me to feel alive.  Shall I wear an Egg Helmet?

*New York Times (September 30, 2012)

**"There are lots more injuries during those activities:" Piet de Jong, Dept. of Applied Finance and Actuarial Studies, Macquairie University, Sydney, Australia (see Rosenthal above)