Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Does, Don'ts and Other Pointless Things

I once heard a story about a new wife who was hosting her first family Thanksgiving. As she cut the end off the ham before putting it in the roasting pan, her husband asked, “Why did you do that?”

She looked at the meat, looked at her husband, and said, “I don’t know. My mother always did it.”

The newlyweds couldn’t figure out a logical reason, so the wife phoned her mother.

“Why do you always cut the end off the ham before you cook it?” she asked.

There was a brief silence, then her mom said, “I don’t know. Your grandma always did.”

Luckily Grandma was still taking calls.

Turns out that when she was first married, her roasting pan was too small to hold a whole ham, so she’d always had to cut off the end to make it fit. What was once a sensible solution had become a pointless tradition.

Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University describes a similar linguistic oddity – the way that English has incorporated “do.” For example, check out how many times in the anecdote above I used “do” and its variants “don’t” and “did.” How many of them actually indicate an action? Or anything else useful?

Instead of asking, “Would you like to go for a walk?” or “Want you to go for a walk?” as I would in, say, French, I ask, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

The “do” isn’t, in fact, “do”-ing anything.

So I wonder how much of my life do I devote to other meaningless “do”s.
Even before I heard Dr. McWhorter’s talk* I had done my best to purge such hollow acts from my life. I don’t vacuum as often as my foremothers did. I don’t feel compelled to wash the dishes after every meal.

Instead, I spend my time more usefully, or so I like to think. I read more. I make up stories. I watch the birds outside my window. I walk to the grocery store, usually listening to music and returning library books on the way. These, to me, are not meaningless dos.

On Monday, for example, I could have wiped down the kitchen cupboards, raked the yard, or run errands. Instead, I saddled up Miss Jean Brodie. I took no saddlebags, no lock, and no agenda besides the sheer pleasure of a bike ride on a sunny September day. I spent an hour and a half whirling through salty air past gardens vibrant with pink and orange dahlias up thigh-burning hills with endorphins singing in my brain. The fact that I didn’t have any had no destination or chores didn’t affect made no difference to the meaningfulness of my pleasure.

In all the world’s 6,000 languages, the meaningless do exists only in an Italian dialect called Monnese that is spoken by a handful of people, in English, and in the Celtic language Cornish.

As it happens, my Goldsworthy ancestors were from Cornwall. So perhaps this little essay is my attempt to expiate the meaningless do that my forebears visited on the world. Perhaps, if we dump it linguistically, it will also fall away from our actions.
I’ll do my part.

Working on it.

*“Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage,” taught by Dr. John McWhorter, The Great Courses, 2012, on DVD

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Rule of Three

My stepson, who was just three when his dad and I married, was a very cuddly kid. He would nestle in close as I read aloud, first Little Black, A Pony, then Just So Stories and eventually Treasure Island and Harry Potter.
And as he curled beneath my arm, or lolled on the sofa with his head propped against my leg, I patted his back or shoulder or ribs.
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest…” Pat-pat-pat.
 “…an Elephant’s Child, who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity.” Pat-pat-pat.
One day he asked, “Why do you always do three pats?”
I was stumped, but my husband answered.
“Three pats for three words,” he explained. “I. Love. You.”
And of course he was right.
Now my stepson has grown up, up and away, but I still give my husband three pats. Even if he’s not within arm’s reach I can say, “Pat-pat-pat,” and he gets it. The familiarity conveys the message intact.
But familiarity is not always so well received.
There’s an old joke about someone discovering the works of Shakespeare and saying that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
“It’s just one cliché after another,” he complained.
And George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, advises us to “Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
One reason to do as George says is that when expressions are over-used, they become trite. They lose their power.
I defy George just a little bit in my heart though, because I love pithy bits of wisdom that strike small chords of recognition or inspiration.
For example, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” and “Love is blind; friendship closes its eyes,” say that each of us cares about our people, warts and all.
Voltaire’s “The perfect is the enemy of the good” tells me that it’s okay to produce something, even if it doesn’t measure up to my vision for it. Because frankly, if we all waited for the perfect story or painting or relationship to appear fully formed, we’d still be waiting for Kipling to get past “A curious young elephant…no, that’s not right. Never mind.”
One of the reasons I love those concise bits of wisdom is because they inspire me to try, try again, and they also show me that my fears, insecurities and hopes do not live only in me. Other people understand them too.
Even so, I hid my affection for small sagenesses. I didn’t use them in my writing or teach them to my journalism students, although once upon a time I did write “watch the path, not the obstacles” on a whiteboard in my front hall. I hoped it would encourage my young stepson and his friends to explore the world a bit – to take a leaf from the Elephant’s Child, I guess.
But underneath my fondness for quotations, I trust George Orwell’s smarts. And while they might not fight in George’s weight class, the Glimmer Twins are pretty clever, too. So I was surprised a few years ago to hear the Stones going on about being once bitten twice shy, and crossing the Rubicon. Couldn’t they have come up with something more original? I was disappointed.
Then one day, on page 341 in a book of Anglo-Saxon poetry, Professor R.K. Gordon introduced me to the historic use of sententious sayings in English literature. (And he used “sententious” in the nicest possible way.)
A burst of dopamine fizzed through my brain. Suddenly my penchant was validated by, of all things, gnomic poetry (no relation to the statues). Then, as these things go, it showed up again when a chapter heading in a novel contained a bit of wisdom drawn from the eighteenth-century Gnomologia. So not only did pre-Conquest bards use adages to pass along life lessons to their audiences, Thomas Fuller collected and published a whole book of the treasures!
My opinion of Mick and Keith bounced up again.
Because here’s the thing. Clichés earn their status because we understand them in our very guts. Proverbs stick in our minds because we believe them. Or want to.
“A mother understands what a child does not say.”
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d.”
And here’s another thing: Just because a thing is trite, it can still be true.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Late to the party

No evangelism here! I don't have the charisma or single-mindedness to pull it off, and my friends wouldn't put up with it anyway, but I do get excited sometimes.
What's got me charged up today is that I discovered (albeit six days late) the 21-Day Vegan Kickoff.
Now before you start fretting that I'm going to go all tofu righteous on you, let me say that some of my favourite people are Committed Carnivores. My mom used to have a cartoon on her fridge: Hagar standing in front of a buffet table, loading his plate with salami, ham, chicken, and roast beef, while his wife Helga asks, "What do you call that?"
Hagar answers, "Salad."
And that sums up Mom's love affair with meat.
But as it is created and processed now, meat is really really expensive. It's costly at the grocery store, and the environment and our health (to say nothing of the animals themselves) take a big hit.
I know this, but I'm not vegan or even vegetarian.
Because change is hard, that's why.
Remember my mom? She created my template for food.
Yet I'm excited about the 21-Day Vegan Kickoff because it makes my life simpler. It lays out some meal ideas and recipes that are well within my scope to create and enjoy.
Luckily, I've had a few decades of experience with beans – my roommate at university was vegetarian and I spent some time travelling around Mexico, which is bean heaven, and even my mom used to make fabulous baked beans. So cooking beans and eating them is not a hardship for me; it's doing more of it that'll take some getting used to.
And the Vegan Kickoff makes it easy, with recipes that look appetizing and do-able. I'm not thinking that I'll never touch another rasher of bacon or Rice Krispie square, but I am thinking that I can do myself, my bank account and my local barnyard animals a favour. It's worth a shot anyway.
Please note that being vegan does not mean eating beans all day every day. I think I'm focusing on them because I'm in the mood for, what else? Mom's baked beans.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ruffled heart

He stood stiffly in front of the ruffled red cardboard heart.

Last time he’d seen the box of Valentine's Day candy was the night before when he’d delivered it to her house, leaving it on her porch so she'd be sure to see it this morning on her way to work. Well, clearly she had. And now he was in his office, staring like a Boss-clad dork at that very heart on his desk.

It wasn't beating, but then neither was his, which had toppled onto its side in his chest and felt like a lump of clay, heavy and immobile. He had thought their date last Friday had gone well. At least, he'd had a good time. Obviously she hadn't.

But did she have to send back the chocolates? Couldn't she have said thanks and turned him down next time he called?

Or – his mind joined his heart in lumpen despair – maybe she’d told him she was diabetic and he hadn't heard her. Crap. What a bozo.

And now the entire office could see him standing in front of his heart like a loser.

"Hey," his assistant put her head around his door.

He forced himself to say Hey back.

Her gaze landed on the red ruffles.


"Oh good," she said. "You got it. Some woman dropped it off for you just after you left last night."