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:

Augmentation, not alternative

My mother sent me a link to a piece by Jonathan Franzen in the NYT today, with this quote specifically included (italics hers):

This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

It’s a well-written piece, and the quote my mother cites is lovely, but (unsurprisingly) I completely reject its central thesis which seems to say we can either surf superficially and easily through life with tech or embrace the difficult struggle that is a profound relationship with another person but not do both:

To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

Wow.  It’s like Stephen Fry’s evil twin has come to town.

No. This is not an either-or world. I relate and laugh and disagree on a daily basis with people who are sharing the same air I do. I also am able to connect joyously and articulately with someone who lives in Singapore – a relationship that would not be possible without technology, as Arvind and I “met” one another on Facebook through our discussions on a mutual friend’s Fb wall (and she is someone I initially “met” online in the pre-Fb era and then was able to see in person years later. Rana and I are good enough friends – not “friends” – that she invited John and me to her wedding).

Additionally, I see arguments and hard discussions all over my friends’ walls. I don’t usually engage in them because Fb is something I reserve for fun, but that says more about me than it does about Fb – lots of people go to church to be soothed, only some go to be challenged. But that doesn’t necessarily say much about church in general: it says something about the people who attend it and the reason they attend it.

I see people all over being perfectly likable – striving to be so, in fact – in their everyday lives with colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. That doesn’t mean they’re false or hollow or emotionally crippled – it means they’re being polite. And the majority of one’s friends on Fb are actually acquaintances. But what was Fb supposed to call them, anyway? They could have gone with the prolix: “People I know,” the sterile: “Contacts,” or the twee: “Buddies.” “Friends” is both largely accurate and brief. And I’ve found personally that people still recognize the differing levels of friendship and layers of knowledge that exist in human relationships both online and off (I know X more than I know Y, but I know Y’s sense of humor and mine intersect precisely in just such a way…) The technology of Fb doesn’t have to characterize those differences – the people involved do that automatically.  The organic human recognition of the subtleties of specific relationships doesn’t have to be perfectly mirrored or duplicated by the technology.

Sites like Fb and “sexy” new Blackberries and titanium laptops are not intended to replace – they are intended to augment.  And I reject the idea that I have somehow sold my connection to humanity by extending my reach to other human beings.

Broken – for now

This blogger?  No, this blogger’s not broken – all evidence to the contrary.  But my theme is.  Temporarily.  That’s why, if you’re visiting the site you’re probably saying, “What is up?  This looks ugly!”

Yes, yes it does.  Sorry.  I was dumb and upgraded to WordPress 3.0 without checking to see if my theme was compatible.  Guess what – it’s not!  Whee!  Good times.  My WP wizard Daisy is working her magic as we speak.

And if you’re reading this on an RSS feed, apologies for the confusion…  I am sure it makes no sense at all.

Oh, sweet bandwidth, how I have missed you

We finally have our home internet service back.  It only took a week, a bunch of phone calls, another useless visit to our home (which told the tech that the problem was, in fact, outside — again), a bunch more calls, and a guy named Erroll with a shovel.

Of course, our cable TV box is now apparently busted, so we’re chained to the house this morning in the hopes that Comcast will fulfill its promise to deliver a new one.  We have 46 minutes left in our appointment window – who cares to wager that they’re actually going to show up?  Anyone?

ETA: Well ho-lee cow.  Not two minutes after I posted this, the guy showed up with the new box.  1 point to Comcast.

God help me, I giggled like a loon.

It seems that everyone is writing about that silly cat in Japan who dives headfirst into boxes.

Well, that’s about the level I’m working at this week, so enjoy:

Online classes and the commentaholic

Classes have started, the Trapper Keeper is shiny, the pencils are still sharp.  And I am here to report that online classes are as fascinating as a good comment thread – which for me is very fascinating.

I can tell already that I’m going to have to schedule my online class time rigorously.  Otherwise, I’ll go down another online rabbit hole, my husband will never see me again, and I will get to a stage of weapons-grade insufferability.

Seriously, though – this is a good exercise for me in thinking twice before I open a comment window and express an opinion, and I intend to take it seriously as a tool for personal growth.


Hard on the heels of my story yesterday about a drama school classmate using a live snake in Cleopatra’s death scene, it appears the Shakespeare Company of DC is doing the same thing in their current production. (And I have to go with Scott Simon’s assessment of these critters – they are cuter than the average run of such reptiles.  Still not sure I’d like them coiled around my hands, though.)

I’ve had two such coincidences in as many days in my colossal online media empire. What’s going on here?  Am I plugged into a heretofore-unknown outlet of the zeitgeist?

You know what there aren’t a lot of?

Female movie reviewers.

I admit to a certain fondness for reading movie reviews, especially for movies I may never see.  I’m an unabashed fan of Roger Ebert’s, and generally appreciate his insights.  That being said, however, I predicted that his first words on the "Sex and the City" movie would be something to the effect of, "I’m not the target market for this movie."

Bingo .

Curious, I scanned the Google roundup page for reviews of the movie.  It seems that there’s a definite gender split between the men and women – women mostly appreciating the movie for all the things the show brought us: witty dialogue, a return visit to characters we had grown to love, and a hefty dollop of high-fashion wish-fulfillment.  The men mostly found it shallow (that word shows up a lot) and admitted that since they hadn’t been viewers of the show, they weren’t privy to the back story.  I may be reading too much into the reviews I have read, but there seems to be a sense of unease in those writers – the sense that manliness has had to take its fingers out of its ears and stop singing, "Lalalalala – I don’t hear you!!" and listen to girly stuff that might… Do Something to them.  I don’t know what, exactly: make bits fall off?

Should I mention that I am the target market for this movie?  Need I mention that I have watched every episode of the series (and on afternoons, home with flu and feeling low, watched again) and enjoyed the series through its ups and downs, its storytelling strengths and weaknesses, the outfits I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and its nuanced and touching portrayals of female friendships?  I don’t know.  I do know the constant obsessions with shoes and labels always seemed to be more of a running joke in the series than anything else, and yet that is what is deemed "shallow" by so many critics.

So, let’s review.  Shoes/fashion: shallow.  Cars/guns/robots/spaceships: serious.  Besides, what is meant by the label "shallow"?  You could also possibly describe these same things as "light" or "entertaining."  But those are positive adjectives – ones that the reviewer might use to say, "Hey – go see it.  It’s fun!"  Instead, we get an adjective that says, "Save your money – this is unserious content, unworthy of your notice or money."

Shallow implies waste.  And waste implies guilt.  And woe be to you who enjoy such frivolity.

My friend Jacob has gone to town on the term "guilty pleasure" and excoriates it in a way that I have been chewing on ever since I first read it:

I hate that phrase "guilty pleasure" more than anything, because it’s a contradiction in terms and seems really self-hating and self-defeating to me, but more than that, I think the one thing you will always get crapped on for is honestly loving — much less rigorously reading — something that’s so heavily feminized, because to be blunt, we devalue women’s experience.

Yes.  Yes, we do.  Women will never be criticized for enjoying a "Die Hard" movie (heck, the first one has Alan Rickman in it – who am I to cavil at enjoying that?), but the term "chick flick" is a derogatory one, and not one a man wants to be associated with.  It’s a hoary cliche, and it’s frustrating.

So we’re back to the split: the ones who enjoy are women.  The ones who don’t are men.  And unfortunately, it seems that there are a lot more men who get paid to watch and opine than women (need I wait while you recover from your shock?).  Do the male reviewers have to like it?  Heck no – I don’t know if I will like it.  But the tediously predictable reasons for why they don’t like it is disturbing, and it saddens me.

As for me, I haven’t seen the movie yet (see here for why).  Will I?  Pass the popcorn.

Oh. My. God.

I have a real fascination with Rube Goldberg machines.  I don’t have the right sort of brain to come up with them, but I love them.  When I was out visiting Marie and her family, and her kids were playing with their Mousetrap game (as opposed to playing Mousetrap, which is a very different thing), I totally understood what they were on about.

That being said, this is mind-boggling:

I am in awe.

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.