Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Freedom’s Just Another Word for Being Afraid to Give…

We were listening to part 2 of the Freakonomics podcast on marriage, and listening to all the reasons why people choose not to get married. They mostly all boil down to wanting to keep their freedom, or having the option to leave, not wanting to feel “trapped,” etc. Let's face it, in a culture where people can’t stand being locked into a two-year cell phone contract, because something better might come along after six months, that’s almost understandable.

And then there are people like the Gatlings here, who like to keep something and use it almost until it falls apart. We drive our cars to death. When I ran out of disk space on my laptop I bought a new drive for $100 rather than a new machine for $1200…and then I put the old drive in Cheryl’s machine, and her old drive in Sofie’s, so that everyone made out. We don't care that a new model iPad or iPod Touch came out, as long as our old one still does what we need it to do. We don't need the freedom to jump ship and get the new latest and greatest thing as long as the old one is still doing its job.

But my real point, and I do have one, is one that writer Ann Patchett made about finally getting married after 11 years of seeing this one guy and having separate apartments (so that one of them could always leave and they wouldn't feel trapped). There's a certain bonus to being in a committed relationship of some kind, a relationship where you’re reasonably sure that the other person isn’t going to just up and leave because they’re tired, bored, or saw a better model. But rather than talk about what she said, let me just give you her words from the recent NPR piece about her.

…after we got married, Karl loved me more and that was amazing. There was something about getting married that allowed Karl to say, “OK…I’ve been holding out on you. There’s like a secret storeroom of extra love, but because we weren’t married I was always afraid that you were going to leave.” And so that was a wonderful bonus. He was just relaxed because he always really wanted to get married.

I understand this totally. It makes absolutely perfect sense to me. You don’t want to invest your entire heart and soul into something that has a high probability of not lasting. And when you’re dealing with someone who’s always got their eyes on the “Exit” signs, we’re talking about a very risky investment. But once he was finally in that relationship, the relationship where the point was to try to be there for each other, no matter what; and to try to talk things through, rather than stomping off with their toys to their separate homes when things got disagreeable; he was free in a way that the people with their eyes on the “Exit” signs don’t understand. He wasn’t free to leave whenever he wanted; instead, he was free to give more and to love more.

Don’t get me wrong here. I know that not all marriages work out, but most do. Yes, you saw that right. That old statistic about 50% of all marriages ending in divorce is wrong, and I’ve talked about that before. A good 80% of all first marriages go the distance. But in order to do so, it requires a level of selflessness, self-sacrifice, and putting the other person first that the generation that won’t sign a two-year cell phone contract can’t hack.

But once you sign that contract, rather than being free to walk away at any time, you’re free to enjoy that phone in ways that you weren’t able to before.

Just ask Karl.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let "Alright" be All Right

I have a book of piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies by Franz Lizst, and in the introduction it talks about a change that Lizst made to one of the pieces. In the piece, as written for orchestra, there is a fleeting dischord that is quickly resolved. However, in transcribing these works for piano, Lizst changed that one dischord. Why? Because people would think that he had made a mistake while playing, and no one should ever think that the great Franz Lizst made a mistake at the piano. So even though the note may have been right, he changed it.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, it seems that part of the great debate over alright vs all right has to do with not wanting people to think that you’ve made a mistake. But more on that shortly.

I was first introduced to this debate in about eighth grade, when I wrote “alright” to indicate that something was OK (or should that be “okay”). That was immediately marked as being wrong, because “alright” was “not a word,” and what I meant to write was “all right.”

Actually, I most definitely did not mean to write “all right,” because I wasn’t saying that everything was right, I was saying that it was OK. To me “all right” meant “all correct” and “alright” meant that something was “just fine.” In other words, you can do alright on a quiz without getting the answers all right. Logically speaking, they were two different ideas, two different pronunciations, and therefore, two different spellings.

My teacher didn’t agree, and I caved for the moment, although I maintained for years…decades even…that it made no sense, and that we were unnecessarily confusing things by using the same spelling for two terms that mean totally different things.

And what is this “not a word” thing anyway? If you can spell it, and say it, and people agree on what it means, then not only is it a word, but it’s a perfectly cromulent one at that. Selfie is a word, so why isn’t alright considered one?

The answer has to do with our friend Franz Lizst. It’s not so much that it’s not a word, but that certain people in the language world will consider it to be a misspelling of all right, or worse, a misspelling that we’ve sadly allowed to finally have some legitimacy. Already (as opposed to all “all ready”) it’s considered a legitimate word in the game Words With Friends, and in the spell check function of Microsoft Word. Some language mavens say that it is a perfectly acceptable word for the circumstances I’ve mentioned, and is gaining more currency, but one should avoid using it so as not to upset those who still insist that it’s wrong, and have them sneer at us.

In other words, we are to be Franz Liszt, and change what is actually a correct note, so that people won’t think that we’re wrong.

But wait, something new has been added. In scouting the Internet for information on the Alright/All Right wars, I came across a page with an interesting question: Is it “alright” or “allright?” Aha! Maybe we’re onto something here, and this is where the real debate lies. Perhaps it’s not between the very different alright and all right, but between the easily confused alright, allright, and all right. In fact the answer on this page states that alright is an alternative spelling of all right, and allright is a common misspelling of both…sort of as if you couldn’t make up your mind which way you wanted to write it.

There are two types of lexicographers in the world (and I’m gonna make you look that word up): descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive lexicographers describe the language as it is, making note of changes as they happen, and accepting them easily once they reach a certain critical mass. Prescriptive lexicographers are the ones who are always fighting the battle of defending the Queen’s English against the encroachments of ungainly terms that people have been using for 100 years, but just not the “right people.”

Three guesses which type of lexicographer I am.

What would settle this issue once and for all would be if one of the “authorities” of language in this country…say The New York Times…would stop playing to the Franz Liszt crowd, and simply say in the manual of style what the rest of us descriptives already know: That alright and all right are two totally different terms, and both spellings are kosher when used properly.

Now…if we could just deal with the abhorrent practice of using women as an adjective, when it really should be female.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's Not Go There

Theoretically I was the Computer Literacy teacher. In reality, however, it was a cover for me teaching my students about life. Just ask any of the many students I taught over the course of my 19-year teaching career. Sure, some of them will mention learning certain keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word, or how to create a computer dating program that took into account the sexual orientations and gender identifications of the clients, but they’ll also talk about the things that weren’t really part of lesson plan for the day (although, I’ll have to say that we learned an awful lot from that computer dating program).

One of those lessons came the day that one of my students asked what afro-centrism was. It had absolutely nothing to do with that day’s lesson on spreadsheets; but Zach wanted to know, and as I looked around the classroom of mostly white faces, I decided to answer.

I explained that based on my experience growing up in the 70s, at the height of the Black Pride movement, afro-centrism was the idea that “we” black people invented everything and that “you” white people either stole it from us or took the credit for it. I explained with a bit of sarcasm that it was sort of like Soviet history, where in their official history books, you could see that they had claimed to invent things long before we had. It was sort of like that line in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where Gorkon says, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you’ve read him in the original Klingon.”

I mean, I’m all for being proud of your people and what they’ve accomplished, but some things are just going a bit over the top. The particular manifestation of afro-centrism that I grew up with was one of them.

But wait, there’s more.

You see, one of the key points of the afro-centrism of the 1970s was that we were all descended from kings and queens in Egypt. Well…OK…yeah, Egypt is on the African continent, but regionally, most people consider it to be part of the Middle East. Also, most African Americans are descended from sub-Saharan Africans, not Egypians. Furthermore, if you asked any Egypians if they were related to us, they’d turn up their noses and say, “Yeah, right.” But we chose Egypt as our rallying point because it had one of the most advanced civilizations in the region with much to be proud of…the pyramids, the Sphinx, the ancient hieroglyphics. Who wouldn’t want to claim that as part of their heritage as an alternative to 250 years of bondage and another 100 of institutionalized mistreatment? But it was a false, or at least mistaken, heritage.

Besides, there was something else to consider.

As I looked around the room again, and at the one black student, and many Jewish students, in the room, I said:

But if we’re gonna say that we’re descended from Egyptians…and not just from regular everyday walking around Egyptians, but from kings and queens in Egypt, the people with power; then there’s a dirty little secret that we need to own up to.

We owned slaves.

And not only that, but we owned slaves that we treated so badly that God had to rescue them. Quite frankly, I don’t think we really want to go there.

Really. Think about it. The whole reason for the exodus is based on the idea that the Egyptians were horribly cruel to the Hebrew slaves, and that God raised up a leader in Moses to get them the heck outta there.

And as I said, all that wonderful culture aside, I don’t think I’d want to be taking responsibility for that.

However, whether it was “us” or someone else, the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt, and that’s why my…our…Jewish friends are celebrating Passover this week.

And to them I say, “Chag sameach!”