blank'/> Mirth, Melancholy, and the Mundane: July 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Strange Creature...

I am a strange creature.

Many of you know this, but let me tell you a little story about my life that will drive the point home. Some of you don't need this to prove anything, but it's still an amusing illustration of the way I tend to go about things.

As many of you know, I have a fascination for the history of my family. One of the things that will thankfully forever be something of a mystery is my father's time in the army and, specifically, his time in Vietnam. He tells very few stories of that time in his life and I don't really push for more. I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it was and I would never ask him to revisit it unless he was willing to do so. I've involved myself in small ways over the years -- I saw the Memorial Wall with him, I ordered him new dog tags to replace the ones that had been stolen, I wear his army shirt, I send him Veteran's Day cards, I signed up for his unit at in case any of his buddies should be looking for him. Little things that show how proud I am of him and how much I wish it had all unfolded differently. Well, my latest passion has been to take his "Views of VietNam" album and scan all the pictures in -- for him as well as for myself and anyone else in the family who might want them. Now, here's where the amusement factor comes in.

First, I was just going to scan them all -- I figured out how to do that with minimal manipulation of the pages so as not to damage the pictures. 92 photographs are in the album. That's a lot of pictures.

Half way through scanning them, I decided I needed to create a database so I could make notes of the ones that had captions. I thought it might be good to have a record of what the pictures actually depicted. In building said database (using Excel, of course), I came to the conclusion that I needed to rename all the scanned image files so that they were in order in the folder and could, thereby, be cross-referenced with the database. I also needed to record the page, the relative position on that page, and any notation my dad had put on the back.

Then, I decided I really needed to have the cover, the money, and the patches all scanned in, too. Six hours later, I had all the pictures scanned and codified and I was pretty proud of myself. Save file. Think.

The next day I thought to myself -- I'll have to sit down with dad and see if there is anything else he remembers that I should include in the database. And then I thought I should scan in the actual notations in my dad's own hand. I wanted to record the image of his notes to my mom in his own handwriting. I also thought that maybe it might be cool to build a slideshow complete with music -- basically, recreating the album as completely as I could in digital format.

So, in the end, one short evening of scanning some pictures has turned into many hours of work and a huge project that just keeps getting more complicated.

And that, in a nutshell, is me.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Friday Events...

What an interesting day this is. It is the date that my grandparents were taken from us, four years apart from one another. As of this morning, however, there is reason to celebrate. I was able to witness the passage of the final stepping stone to my nephew being officially part of the family. In terms of our hearts and lives, this day was not necessary, but states and governments like things to be neatly tied up with signatures and lawyers and witnesses. I knew it would not be a formal event as soon as I saw my sister and her husband standing next to their lawyer, who was wearing a "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" tie. He said if he couldn't wear that one for family court, where else on earth would he wear it? I had to agree.

We moved through the Ontario County Courthouse and as we did it occurred to me that I'd never actually been inside. It's beautiful. The historical character has been preserved -- sweeping stair cases, woodwork, marble, gorgeous carpeting. In fact, it has been so preserved that the accommodations for Daniel's paternal grandmother were a bit tucked away in a corner (she had just had knee replacement surgery). They made it work. As I walked through, admiring, I thought about how many people who go there for far less positive reasons and don't pay as much attention to it. Wrongdoings, workers, those doing their civic duty...they must not see it because of worry or repetition. but I couldn't not notice it. Once we were past security, it was like walking back in time. Especially when the lawyer casually pointed out the courtroom where Susan B. Anthony was tried. Wow. I wish we'd been in that room.

But, we were in the North Court Room -- green and gold carpeting, woodwork everywhere, an impressive judge's bench with emblazoned gold lettering above a high backed leather chair. the walls were decorated with paintings of past judges and high windows with wooden blinds. The prosecution and defendant tables were glass topped and there was something heartwarming and adorable about Daniel's chubby legs on the table. It was a laid back, comfortable affair that felt routine for them in spite of the importance for us. All smiles, all laughter, all memory. I'm sure my sister and her husband won't remember the specifics of what happened in there, but that doesn't matter. I won't either. I'll just remember that on this day, a day of tears and heartache in the past, we were given a giggly reason to smile. One more little munchkin in the family, one who carries my grandfather's name as his middle one.

As I left the courtroom I couldn't help but think of all the history that had happened there....and now our own family history could add to that. The judge said this morning was the highlight of his day. For us, it will be a highlight for far, far longer than that...


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fun with Language, I

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I love language and all the fascinating things people do with it. Somewhat related to this is the fact that many people seem to think that just because I teach English, I must be an expert at all things related to language and its use (including spelling, typing, and sentence construction). Now, there is certainly some overlap, but I love language above and beyond teaching students how to write a paper. I've always loved language -- from winning a contest in early elementary school for a short verse about Thanksgiving, to reading books out loud to people who will listen. I love how it sounds, what it can do, how limited it is, how powerful it is, how utterly paradoxical it is.

That love is not always tampered by my teacher-self. So, if you think I'm quietly critiquing your use of grammar, your spelling, and your general mastery of the English language...well, I'm not. What I might be listening to is how you use words, the accent or dialect you have, how you pronounce a word here and there. Do you say soda or pop? Crick or creek? Coo-pon or que-pon? Does the region of your upbringing slip through when you are tired? Do you fulfill the linguistic stereotypes of where you hail? It is all part of the everyday music of the human voice that surrounds us in almost all that we do. That's what I'm listening for and to...not whether or not you split your infinitives or dangled your participles. There are things about language that always catch my ear and get me thinking about how language is formed, what it means, and how it comes to mean what it does.

The two most fascinating things about language is that it is arbitrary and it is defined by the people who use it. So, if once upon a time 'nimrod' meant 'hunter' and now means someone who has less than a firm grasp on intellect, then that's now what the word means. Times and people change -- the socio-political structure of a society sometimes dictates that a word will no longer mean what it once did or new words need to be created. 'Unibrow' didn't exist before the late 80's. 'Gastric bypass' was added to the dictionary in 1972. 'Decimate' once meant to destroy one out of every ten things. Now it seems to mean utterly destroy. Words sometimes retain their meaning but get so bogged down in history that they fall out of favor. We saw it with 'colored' (how many generations do you have to go back before someone you know uses it still?) and we can see it now with 'retarded.' The A-R-C is now just The Arc - a word that does not carry the same emotional baggage and troubling history that the acronym does.

Language changes and evolves all the time because somehow we decide what words will mean and we sustain the emotions that the word and its use have birthed. Sometimes, our usage and our history attaches emotions to those words that are so powerful that they change the very meaning of the words. It's not a bad thing to be discriminatory, but 'discriminate' has come to be inextricably intertwined with race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnic background, religion, political party and any other category by which we often judge others who are not 'like us.' As a result, you will rarely hear someone discussing their discrimination in regards to toothpaste, though it would, technically, be a perfectly legitimate use of the word.

And there's where the fascination lies -- with (no surprise) one word. Legitimacy. What a word has meant and is recorded as meaning is what we often use as a guide. Those, too, change, but far more slowly than the meaning used by the general populous. So, we have people who 'could care less' when they really mean they couldn't. We have perfectly calm and happy people who have 'mad skills'. The rapid rate of technology has increased the speed of this change and I see the new language bleeding into the papers of my students. U no wut i mean. That is a whole other (or is that nother?) entry...

What makes it even more interesting for me is when I realize I'm witnessing the transformation of a word. We often don't stop to think about this, but it happens around us all the time. Sometimes we lock on to one word and it becomes a beacon in the sea of communication; it is a word you seem to always be on high alert for... just so you can hear how it's used. It may not even be for any particular reason -- though sometimes it is. I have three words that are currently on my radar; two have a larger, greater purpose and one is just because.

The first two are 'gay' and 'retarded' -- I have taken it on myself to try and correct the usage of those words whenever I hear them in contexts that seem inappropriate. They are both words that should not be used to hurt others and often are. Names can hurt. The third word is just one that just amuses me. It is so often used in a way that I just don't get when considering what the word has traditionally meant and I've been trying to figure out its new role. Actually.

"That movie was actually good."
"I'm going to work, actually"
"I actually like tea."

Now, traditionally and logically, this word corrects a wrong that is implied, inferred, or assumed. It can be tied to an element of expectation and reality. If you expect that you won't enjoy the movie, and you do...then you actually enjoyed it. It's simple. That isn't how it's often used, however. It's used in sentences that aren't refuting anything that is obvious and do not seem to be expressing the revelation of something about which the opposite was expected. I hear it all the time and I'm still working through why it's there. Maybe you can help...listen for it. I'm sure you'll actually hear it. Then come tell us about it.