Wednesday, October 27
So the other day I got a full-time job at the University of Nebraska Press.
"Ode to American English" is a good poem, the way that most of Keillor's Writers Almanac selections are, but I've got to think Barbara Hamby never listened to any British English to be able to say (tongue in cheek or no):
... because British English
is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opera
is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their dahlias, but what about doowop, donuts,
Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U. S. of A. ...
I love American English, at least half the time. We have Mark Twain and Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and Ray Bradbury and Bloom County. We have Woodie Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and the Beastie Boys. We have a vocabulary so inclusive it's downright kleptomaniac, and enough mutant forms to fill in the blanks of sanctioned grammar. (Y'all, ain't.)
But the English (+ Welsh, Scots, Irish, and countless divisions/strata thereof)? It's like the language just rolls over you and bounces off of everything. Dahlias and Oxford haven't got much to do with it.
But then I've got other problems with Hamby's take on American language: After all, half the so-called Bible Belt is in love with the KJV, which says a little for the fundamentalist taste in language and rather less for their scriptural scholarship.
And here I hit a tangent thought: American ain't just Ingles any more. 'course it never has been, quite - but I grew up in rural Nebraska and I never knew my German great-grandparents all that well. (I remember their accents - liquid and strangely beautiful.)
Last night I talked for a while with a guy who's turned his text editor into a central organizing principle. He has a huge stack of text files named after different terms and a set of Emacs macros for navigating them. Sort of a homebrewed personal wiki. Or like one of those people you read about with a physical filing system where there's an index card or a manila folder or a knotted string for everything, only you can jump around in it without getting papercuts. He's pushing 10000 entries.
He's clearly insane, but I was kind of inspired.
The better part of October just rolled by over my head while I followed lawnmowers across the tiny front lawns and massive corporate grounds of Middle America's neighborhood associations and insurance companies. I picked up cigarette butts in front of department stores and navigated around little concrete statues while composing things in my head like
somewhere in a subdivision of hell
sisyphus walks eternally behind his mower
the wheels slipping on the wet slope
of some indifferent minor deity's little
patch of green; after every pass the
bag is full and by the time he returns
from emptying it into the truck
the grass is tall again and a fresh
layer of dead leaves has fallen.
I started fresh every day, but I never got much past the first line. Especially after the lawn equipment and the greenery took over my dreams.
Fortunately, I'm not doing that any more. Not that it was without its rewards.
today i skipped work
to attend the funeral of a young
man i met only once
according to the bulletin
they gave us at the door
he would have been 24 tomorrow
he seemed, it's true, remarkable enough
when i met him - visibly, audibly dealing
with the car crash damage that
i guess finally brought his body to a halt
but still alive, maybe more than most of us
like so many people i meet
he slipped my mind
until molly called the other night
to ask if i would go with her
to the service
it was a baha'i funeral
different scripture and verse but
perhaps the same message as the rest:
your beloved believed and lives
some times it rings truer than others;
there was not much pretense or dishonesty here
only a series of people reading,
a song, some stories
and a room full of other peoples'
grief, held suspended a little by
other hopes than i have most days.
friday afternoon, sweet relief:
i may dream about cutting grass tonight,
but in the morning i can do just about
to elaborate on a thought from the other night:
if all you're working for is living
and you spend most of your living working
then why the hell
would you want to be living?
that's what i was thinking anyway;
i know it's a little narrow,
a little too selfhelpbook.
Eric writes perceptively on a topic I've thought a lot about:
Non-Christians are uncomfortable around Christians in social situations because they're afraid any details about their lifestyle are going to lower the respect those people have for them. It's the same going the other way, too. Because once you've decided you like someone and you might want to be friends with them, finding out that they likely won't respect the way you live your life can be devastating. How can you be friends with someone who disapproves of your life on a fundamental level? If someone thinks premarital sex is evil, how do you talk about your current sex-related relationship problems? How do you talk about your crisis of faith if the person drinking with you thinks you're deluded for believing in a god in the first place?
When I still thought of myself as a Christian (in a strong, denominationally oriented sense), I had friends whose faith was built on a radically different set of precepts. The problems with using a term as broad as "Christian" probably can't be better illustrated than by the differences in attitude and orientation between a Missouri-Synod Lutheran and a proselytizing evangelical/non-denominational. Some of the language was superficially similar; the underlying ideas were mostly not. To them, I was not a for-real Christian. And the problem was the same: How can you be friends with someone who disapproves of your life on a fundamental level?
To put it another way, how can you communicate with someone whose bases for judgment are different from your own, not just slightly but in some fundamental way? There is the matter not just of my (a)theology, or of my recreational drug use, but also of the age of the universe, the origin of life, the nature and purpose of art: What kind of intellectual traffic can I sustain with someone who believes not just that I'm guilty of blasphemy or that I worship the principle of evil in the guise of nature, but that Earth is roughly 6000 years old, evolution is a fabrication of conspiracy, and all valid art must be didactic or devotional?
The manifest irrationality and empirical blindness of those ideas are important, but almost beside the point (except inasmuch as a pro-reason or good-empiricist kind of attitude is a very important one of those fundamental bases for judgment, a meta-precept): I have had the same problem communicating with explicitly unreligious friends who can't (or wouldn't, if I mentioned them) understand my faith, my moral assumptions. The same problem over again: If you believe in the sacred, how do you talk to someone who attaches no meaning to the concept - or worse, who would only perceive it as a weakness, a liability, a piece of insanity? Is there anything better than holding your silence?
I guess one answer is that, after all, we are human and share a set of attributes which cannot but give us a shared vocabulary, some level of common experience. What we have in common can sometimes overwhelm what separates us, or I would never have made connections with people who believed in my damnation so strongly.
Maybe too often, my answer has been that it just doesn't work. I'm not satisfied with this.
So I lied. Yesterday was going to be a coherent essay, until I realized that I had less than six hours to sleep and panicked.
This evening, I came home from eight or nine hours of push-mowing and went downtown to meet people. An hour later I realized that everything had become vague and warm and unpleasant, and that I had to concentrate really hard to understand anything that was being said. I'm fairly certain that a crazy person sat down next to Molly and started saying really incoherent things about Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. It was weird. I felt drugged out, food poisoned, and/or senile. I mostly still do. Maybe I'm getting strep throat or maybe the plate of spaghetti I wolfed after I got home did weird things to my blood sugar, or maybe I am just weak and soft and ill-suited for life.
I got the job with the mowers because I need to make some money in a way that doesn't commit me to being here in three months, and it seemed infinitely preferable to, say, a job transcribing dictated insurance audits of car dealerships. Also I guess because, theoretically, cutting grass is the kind of thing any jackass can do. Or, in the case of my current short-term employer, any jackass who can pass a drug test. Or maybe not so much. Because I sure as hell don't keep up.
Tonight's realization that my financial desperation is writing checks my body can't cash goes well with this afternoon's realization that I'm really bad at mowing. (For no discernable reason, having spent thousands of moderately enjoyable hours on or behind a mower since the age of 10.) Together, they cry out "You are not cut out to work for a living!"
I may later elaborate on or repudiate that thought; right now I just wanted to offer some explanation for why p1k3 will probably be empty of newness for the next couple of weeks. Topics for discussion when I have the energy: Gut-level economics, food, drink, apple orchards, big lame sports bars, and ways to slowly alienate everyone you care about. Also: New Zealand.
Yesterday afternoon, we headed to an apple orchard south of Lincoln for a little folk festival. There was a guy in a tipi whose name I never caught, who played "The Bristlecone Pine" for us on a handmade four-string guitar. He'd carved the top of the guitar, I think using some kind of green-wood technique, and built the back from bent strips of wild cherry. It was a beautiful object.
John McCutcheon played, a good solid kind of folkie set on five or six instruments, ending with "Get Together". Afterwards we talked to him a little - clumsily, as usual - about the Saturday night set he played at Winfield a few weeks ago.
(There's been a lot of good music around here lately. I've been missing most of it on the basis of just not having any money. The Pixies played in Lincoln last night, which I guess is pretty unlikely to happen again. Matt Sharp was at Knickerbockers the night before that. Of course, this stuff is going on all the time.)
I promise this is going to be a coherent essay before the day is over. Maybe.