Pompous, Petty Pedantry

Occasionally, someone will show me an article, tweet, blog post, or other piece of media where some God of the Mount Olympus of Correctness blasts someone else (or a lot of someone elses) for daring to use language incorrectly.  Such articles run the gamut from smug to downright insufferable, and they are usually written with just enough flashy, stylish confidence that they seem more than superficially clever.  When my friends show them to me or post them to Facebook and say, “Thinking of Jill,” I try to separate what I have to believe (or hope to believe) is a compliment to my love for and respect for language from the apparent belief that I will be entertained by the shaming of some hapless person whose only sin is USING LANGUAGE WRONG.

I hate these pieces.

Here’s why I hate them in two short vignettes from my own life:

First story: Last year, I spoke at a conference to a packed room that was lively and responsive.  They laughed at my jokes, they participated in my unorthodox, somewhat interactive presentation, we all had fun.  There were a couple of hair-raising moments where I had to improvise, quickly sketching out something that would have been demonstrated in a video clip that wouldn’t load.  Afterward, people came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it.  Considering how much time and effort a colleague (who couldn’t join me in the actual presentation) and I had put in, it was extremely gratifying.

Then this gentleman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation, but I also have to say – you said ‘cite to’ – which is redundant. You should have just said ‘cite.'”  The glow of my pleasure dimmed a little.  I felt abashed and slightly ashamed, even though this had occurred during the moments I was covering for the video that did not play and I had been ad-libbing madly, laying the tracks of my speech just ahead of the oncoming train.  His comment, much as I tried to put it in context, stuck in my craw in the way that the one negative comment in a sea of positives always will.

Second story: Today I tweeted:

I was still riding the high of the truly inventive, hilarious show John and I had seen the night before.  I loved that show – I would see it again in a heartbeat.  I want as many people as possible to see it because I think it is Shakespeare for everyone: people who love Shakespeare, people who are afraid of Shakespeare, people who have never thought that Shakespeare could be for them.  Imagine my chagrin when I saw this reply:  

Again, I felt abashed and the glow of my pleasure was dimmed a bit, similar to the first story.  I was also irritated – why the hell does this guy even care?  Then I looked him up and realized, oh – he’s a drama critic.  This definition is crucial to his amour propre as a professional.

Two thoughts on this one:

First thought: If I had been a newcomer to theatre or to Shakespeare, instead of a lifelong participant in theatre as an audience member, a crew member, and an actor, I might have shrunk from ever seeing another show again.  After all, here’s a professional telling me YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.  Shakespeare is scary enough for enough people, after all, that it doesn’t take a lot to spook a person.  But in a context where live theatre in general isn’t exactly booming, I would gently suggest that picking irrelevant nits isn’t the best way to be an ambassador, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on a thriving theatre community.

Second thought: If I am anything, I am a librarian. So after having this grit of pedantry in my shoe for a while, I looked up “opening night,” because I’ve never heard of a more specific definition of this term than “the first night where people pay full price to see a show” (in other words, the performance after rehearsals and previews) and it suddenly occurred to me, “Is this dude even right?“ Every single definition that I was able to find (including in the Oxford English Dictionary) was merely this:

opening night n. the first night of a play, film, etc.

Now… was he wrong? I don’t know. There may be, somewhere, a definition of “opening night” that is more specific than the one I repeatedly found  (interestingly enough, my hardbound Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term).  But the point is, neither was I wrong, and I certainly wasn’t wrong as a member of the audience hoi polloi who might not be expected to know the intricacies of professional usage in a specific context.

People like to treat language like math or a game – there are absolute rules of right and wrong and moreover there are points to be scored.  I find both approaches frankly tedious, but per my first thought above, I also think it’s dangerous.  Similar to experiencing theatre, people need to play with language to learn it and to love it.  If you hem them in and constantly tell them, “YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG” they will cease to love playing with language and that would be a shame.  Or worse.

If you have an age to read something more erudite on the subject, please see Stephen Fry’s essay here, or this kinetic typography video:

And of course there is always XKCD:

“Oh, you’ll hate that.”

I have this funny, perverse mental habit.  When someone tells me, “You HAVE to watch X.  You will LOVE X,” I immediately find myself averse to ever looking at such a thing.

My mother is a very smart woman.

She now precedes all recommendations with, “So – you will HATE this.  You don’t want to watch/read/listen to it.”  For some reason, this actually works.

Funny little thing, brains.

Truly interactive memery

The general run of question-answering memes are pretty much only interesting to the people writing them, I believe.  However, when Harriet posted this one, it seemed more interesting to me because it was more personalized.  The rules follow the question-and-answer session.

1.  Your house is on fire.  All the people and pets are already out and safe.  You can take only one thing with you.  What will it be and why?

My artsy-fartsy ego would like me to say I would grab a painting, but knowing myself the way I do, I’m afraid I would probably grab my laptop.  We only do local backup, y’see, and my MacBook has all of my schoolwork, finances, photography, personal writing – a lot of the stuff I value.

2. A benefactor has agreed to fund you for a year. There are no strings attached – you can do whatever you’d like for 12 months, practical or frivolous, and have it all paid for by this person. What will you do?

This is a really hard one, I have to say.  At this point, I can only think about it in pieces, and those pieces seem to be: Europe, art, knitting, eating.

I guess I would fund a pan-European trip involving learning language(s), lots of train travel (knitting time), museums, and cuisine.  Not very inventive, and certainly not practical, but it sounds lovely.  If I could manage to wangle a tour with Rick Steves along the way, that would be fun.

3.  Tell me about your favorite place (you can take this any way you like it — a cozy chair, an interesting continent).  Why is it your favorite?  When did you first go there?  When did you last go there?  What is your favorite memory there? Is there someone you would especially like to take there?

Wow – I don’t really do absolute “favorite” because so many things appeal for very different reasons.  But one of my favorite places is actually our den at home.  It’s cozy in a slightly cluttered way, it has a fireplace, and it has a tendency to contain my favorite people and animals.  Some of our favorite art is also on the walls there.

4.  Of all the things that you have made or done in your life so far, what are you most proud of?  Why does the thing you picked mean the most to you?

I think I’m proudest of being smart enough to seek John out after a breakup and absence of over six years (see #1 and #2 here for a brief explanation).  I was pretty sure he was The One, but our initial timing wasn’t right for a bunch of reasons (we first dated when I was in law school and John didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life).  It was scary to try to find him again (I feared he would be happily married with 2.7 children, a Volvo, and a golden retriever), but it was definitely a gamble that paid off.

5.  What made you decide to go back to school?  Was it a gradual realization of wanting to change directions or more of an epiphany?  Was there someone who inspired you?

It was sort of a gradually sudden epiphany.  At first, I think I subconsciously ignored the idea because it seemed like I was “copying” John instead of paving my own way.  But when I consciously confronted that notion, it seemed absurd.  There’s plenty of room in library science, and me taking this degree enables us to contemplate a lot more geographical possibilities down the road.  John inspired me, as did Marie – I envied the fact that they liked what they did and it seemed like something I would like also.  Actually making the decision to go to school now was one of those spooky instances of a bunch of things independently clicking into place: my job got outsourced, Maryland started a program at the campus closest to me, and they also waived the application deadline.  I don’t go in for the phrase “it was meant to be,” but if I did, this would be an instance of it.

Thanks, Harriet – that was fun!

If you want to play along, leave a comment and ask to be interviewed and I’ll think of 5 questions to ask you. After I email you your questions, post your answers on your blog, then link back to this post.

I’m back…

I’ve spent the last week in the great State of Maine (since Milo is busily making himself at home on my lap, I first typed that as the "Great Sate of Maine," and when you consider the amount of good food that was consumed, it’s just as appropriate).

It’s awfully pretty there.

John near Bubble Rock

And we had a very good time. Brother Brian also took some great shots, which you can see here , and we also talked about restarting Literagraphica , which has been on hiatus since Bri’s spent the last year and some doing piffling things like starting new businesses and winning awards and silly things like that. He says he’s got things sorted now, and wants to restart the project, so that’s very cool.  I took a pretty nice shot of him also:

Brian at Bubble Rock

And an arty shot of my own:


That’s pretty much it. We’re trying to get back into the swing of things here – which is always easier if you take an extra day at home before jumping in to real life.  In our infinite wisdom we… didn’t do that.  I’m already really looking forward to the weekend.

True story — sort of.

"She told it to me, and… like Genghis Khan or Alexander the Great, I occupied it.  It was real estate that I wanted to be part of so I just marched in and became part of it."

How fabulous is this?

A cat playing a theremin.  God, but there are some days I just love the Internet.

My favorite bit may be the end, though watching the moments when the instrumentalist plans his next move are pretty fabulous also.

“You’re the only one who can get my truck the right kind of shiny!”

My flickr friends are having a ball with flickr’s new video hosting service.

My friend Kim, for instance, put together this little gem.  The only downside to the flickr video thing at this point is I can’t seem to make its embedding feature play nice with WordPress – when I tried to embed, it broke my page’s template.  While I’m sure this is a PEBCAK error (that’s “Problem Exists Between Chair and Keyboard,” Mom), it’s a bit frustrating, since I can get flickr’s photo hosting to work just fine.  Time to consult my WordPress Guru, I guess!

Oooh – trying again, now that my new installation seems to be so much better…

Ah, Spring – flowers, birds singing, and heads in bags

Spring is truly upon us here.  We may get a few weather surprises in the next few weeks, but the trees are budding, pansies are blooming, and bulbs are forcing their way toward the sun.  Landscape crews have been out in force for the last couple of weeks, prepping gardens and medians for the floral explosion that is not far away.

Our old friends the Carolina Wrens have resumed their annual twiggy assault on the canoe.  We pulled out the detritus of avian house-building the other day, but I would bet they already have a cozy little base-camp reestablished by now.

Last night, we got out to the aforementioned Folger Theatre production of Macbeth.  It’s the second time I’ve seen the play – the first time was in London, in 1990, and that production was pretty crap.  The script is so much larger than life, contains so many famous lines that have morphed into cliche, the themes and ideas are so huge – one man’s descent into inhumanity and madness infecting an entire country – I suppose it takes some really extraordinary acting to keep the whole thing from lurching into absurdity and pantomime.

This production had that extraordinary acting.  It also had really scary witches, stage magic that was seamlessly and beautifully integrated into the action, buckets of fake blood, and lots of heads in bags.  The Folger itself is a beautiful, tiny theatre, very Tudor, making you feel like you’ve entered a little bubble of time and space in downtown DC.

There was a light, misty rain as we walked back to the Metro, and the moisture brought on springtime scents of mulch and ozone.  Murder, mayhem, and flowers – ah, spring.

…But is it art?

Fear not – this isn’t going to be one of those posts that wafts about the idea of whether knitting is an “art” or a “craft” and what that particular semantic exercise means in terms of intrinsic or perceived value of the pursuit or of the finished object, the role of gender differential in determination of worth, etc. etc.

Actually, from my postings of late, probably nobody expects me to talk about knitting at all any more (is this a knit-blog?  Well, no.  Actually not.  It’s the blog of someone who happens to knit and goes through various fits of actually writing about it.  I think the first three years or so of the blog was almost entirely knit-free, as a matter of fact.  Interesting, that – well, to me.  Stop with the parenthetical digressions before you lose your readers, J.  Oh.  Okay).

No, what I meant to dash in and link to and dash away again was more about two ideas I’m sort of holding up next to one another and seeing if they have anything to do with one another or if they’re just two things I happened across yesterday.  One is the re-thinking and re-crafting of an art* form, introduced into my current thinking queue by Steve Martin’s biographical essay in Smithsonian about his early career.  Here is a guy who took the idea of “joke” and turned it on his head.  In my humble opinion, he and some of his contemporaries (Monty Python in particular) enlarged the entire idea of comedy.  Instead of the ordered logic of: setup, punchline, laugh, this group went along with something more along the lines of: setup, pick one or more of the following:

  1. random digression
  2. oddball silliness (e.g. a fish-slapping dance, banjo playing, nonsense words)
  3. OJARIL**
  4. any combination of seeming opposites (stiff authority and silly walks, superheroes and suburbs, scripture and instruction manuals, etc.)
  5. taking a complete and utter absurdity of a premise and carrying it solemnly up to and past its “logical” conclusion (Cf: The Parrot Sketch or Upper Class Twit of the Year, or Martin’s “I gotta get me a pair of cat handcuffs and I gotta get ’em right away. What a drag…I found out my cat was embezzling from me…He’d go down to the bank, disguised as me—little kitty nose and glasses, little kitty arrow through the head…”)

…and in the case of the Pythons, then off to a Terry Gilliam cartoon/fever dream that would end up morphing into the next sketch (because they never could end their sketches, or so it seemed).  I seem to recall that Martin’s bits tended to either trail off or ram straight into the next one as well (not having a cartoonist stashed somewhere on his white-suited person). 

Oh, and by the way, insert “laugh” wherever you like in the above.  There’s no punchline to wait for.

Compare that (or not – like I said, I’m still holding these ideas up next to one another and seeing if they have anything to do with one another) with these “reviews” of milk at Amazon.  It strikes me that this is almost the creation of a new form of expression.  Coleridge poems reimagined as odes to milk, neo-noir vignettes featuring milk, extended absurdist plays on the notion of “jugs” somehow wrapped into a sweetly nonsensical story of a couple’s engagement, and of course the inevitable haiku.  All written as a response to the idea of how innately absurd it is to write a review of a commodity item.

Is there a connection here, apart from the temporal one of my having seen both of these yesterday? 

*Humor is so an art form.  Work with me here.

**The Python’s term for Eric Idle’s rambling and yet rapid fire monologues.  It stands for “Old Jokes and Ridiculously Irrelevant Links.”

I don’t do resolutions

But recent discussion with friends has shown me how much I’ve fallen away from some things I used to enjoy. Namely, creative stuff. Yes, I do this, and I twiddle with sticks and string and come up with (mostly)wearable stuff. But once upon a time I used to fiddle with watercolors and other fine art stuff.

So, today I bought this


And looked at this


And made this

Art.  (Sorta)