How progressed we are!

Do you remember when writers knew what their words meant and could use them in a way that produced clarity, even precision? Of course you don’t. Probably because such a time never really existed. Perhaps I should say—Because such a time probably never existed. If you do not see the difference in the two causal clauses, you may struggle a bit with what follows.

We have achieved an unintended consequential situation through almost universal education—a situation exacerbated by the science-technology-engineering-math emphasis in that education. I won’t belabor what I believe is the broadly detrimental effect of that emphasis, but I hope you will be able to discern its complicity in the changes we see in writing today. The situation is that more and more often I see uses of the English language that would have earned an editorial circling in any middle school English classroom as recently as 50 years ago. And yes, in a language that only had two changes of amount in the last 400 years, those being the loss of the second person singular pronoun and the loss of the final “t” on the end of singular third person verbs, the last 50 years represent a recency.

I hasten to add here that 400 years ago, the written English word sprung from an attempt to capture the English spoken word of the day. Greek and Latin came to Tudor England as print, and so were as formal and consistent as the few Greeks and Romans, who were educated enough and had the time to write, had written them. Ben Jonson wrote English words that sounded like the 16th century courtiers among whom he lived and for whom he wrote. William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd wrote a broader language for an audience of all levels of wealth and education in London among whom they lived and for whom they wrote. They spelled and arranged the spoken language as they heard it every day.

And that brings me back to my point: we are now a 21st century loosely applying 16th century spelling and grammar strategies. Unfortunately as writers, many of us lack the command of all the variants of English as spoken by perhaps a billion people around the world. So modern writers cannot match Shakespeare who had only to negotiate English for the several hundred-thousands of Londoners.

On average, current writers probably have less than half of Shakespeare’s writing vocabulary, and of that, many writers are weak in the nuances among our rich vocabulary amalgamated from so many language sources. Writers tend to avoid many of the most precise words, because they haven’t heard them in contexts enough to feel comfortable using them. Worse however, some writers boldly misuse these words, usually to their detriment. Sometimes the misuses result in misunderstandings, more often they result in readers’ dismissal of an entire text as ill-informed or ill-conceived.

Evidence of our current lexical limitations is the trend toward “verbing”. Shakespeare observed that things in the world existed without names. Many of these as yet unnamed things were brought to light by the sciences and explorations of the times. Many of today’s writers have had to respond similarly. Such responses have been appropriate to the evolution of the language. As it happens however, “verbing” new words has become a trend, and trends can create blind inertia. Such inertia has taken us down to courses.

One course trends can take us is to general meaningless, the other to redundancy. Both courses lead to a diminishment of complete lack of clarity. In the first case, a word is applied to a new thing, but failing any prior knowledge of the use of the word, its inertia pushes it to further applications to other more or less related things. Eventually the word’s clarity of meaning begins to wander away from its original meaning into a cloud of impression. An historical expression of this type is the word “wonderful.” In Christianity, the resurrection of Jesus was, as witnessed, wonderful. That is, it was full of wonder, that which is exceptional for which we can have no explanation. We wonder how that could be. So how did it transmogrify into the expression, “I had a wonderful time?” Certainly this does not mean the speaker had a time so exceptional that he or she wonders how it could have happened. Yet It creates the impression that “wonderful,” in this case, is more courteous than the plain word “good.”

“Verbing” exemplifies our penchant for the appearance of creativity with the result of demonstrating a pointless effort. “Verbing” is simply using words, usually nouns, as verbs. There is a long history of it. “Housing” people or things almost certainly took the idea of providing a house or shelter for someone or something into a verb, “to house.” (how-s to how-z) So well established are some of these words that they can take on all the functions of verbs, actions, participles and gerunds, which may then act as verbs, adjectives and nouns respectively. Hence, the gerund “housing” can be a house or shelter provided for someone or something other than the provider, e.g. public housing. “Verbing” is easy; decline a noun. In most cases, “verbed” nouns replace currently used and understood words or phrases, while suggesting that there is some difference from that word or phrase. Is “gifting” then different from “giving” or is it just a stop on a pointless trend? Ironically, the word “give” appears to have evolved from the word “gift” through the dropping of the final “t.” English has a particularly rich vocabulary. It contains roughly 100,000 words depending on how you count various forms of a word. Why would we ever need to invent new verbs from old nouns when there are tens of thousands of old verbs we simply never knew about or used? “Verbing” does not show creativity; it show a poverty of vocabulary.

We misuse and invent words precisely because we have not been taught the use of nearly the numbers of words necessary to cope with the broad, deep and complex topics with which we must deal. We don’t hear enough words in the crib, at the dinner table, on the bus, in the school or office or laboratory. A hundred years ago, few people wrote anything that received a wide reading. Serious writing was academic or legal, and it was read by academics and lawyers. Journalism was “yellow,” sensational and often misleading. Literature was a luxury of a growing, but much smaller, educated middle class. But now writing is free and easy via the Internet, reading is done by the vast majority of the population, many of whom lack the knowledge or the cognitive skill necessary to distinguish the appearance of the language from its deeper conceptual content. The greatest amount of what appears in print, ink or electronic, is vapid, ill-informed and sloppy, roughly emulating the casual register of speech, applying 16th century coarsely phonetic spelling—for which spell-check is both cure and disease—and devoid of any sense of rhetoric that would make a complex idea comprehendible. It is because nearly everyone can write for the masses and neither the mass of writers nor the mass of readers have been adequately taught their language that our expectations have been so reduced that we can accept the use of ”then” for “than” in a respectable national press article. Perhaps knowing that most readers don’t know the difference, the writers and publishers don’t care about being precise.

The quality of writing has not changed over time, but the numbers of writers and the number of readers to whom they are exposed has mushroomed in the past 100 years or so. Education has changed however. The trend in education and in American society in general has been to broaden into the workers language and away from the language of scholarship. An education in which language, rhetoric, structure, semantics and syntax figured has always produced writing that is clear and precise. A lack of attention to the components of clear discourse or a simple lack of education has left thoughtful writing and reading out of the lives of many. We are left to wonder what would have precipitated from an alternative trend that would have broadened the language of the workers into the language of scholarship, if that were even possible. And assuming that such a trend was not a selected natural mutation, what agenda has promoted and supported the dumbing down of our language?

How handy is curbing the language in which citizens think for shaping the structure of a society. In the Middle Ages of Europe, landed gentry and the Church held wealth and power; aristocrats held the land and the Church held the word. Is it in anyone’s interest in the Post-modern Age not to have most, if not everyone, competently educated in the finer points of our language and its uses? And if it is not in their interest, how might they manage educational affairs to limit who has the access to such a powerful tools?

Perhaps we are progressed just as much as we are meant to be.

 

I paraphrase Camus’s The Rebel

When they have finally gone too far, you draw the line and say “No more.” And “No” to all you have put up with so far. Then you have defined who you are and left behind who you had been told to be. Now you speak for all, in chains and free of chains. This is freedom.
Someone may say, “I have a right to be above you. I am better because I am who I am.” Such a person may believe that, but there is no support for such a belief. We are all who we are; therefore no one can be above another any claim of birthright. Only when we submit to that false belief, and are who it says we are, and thus accept the inequity do we support the inequitable superiority of anyone else. We are complicit in mastery and slavery as we are in government and citizenry.
Leadership and citizenry are not rightful. They are an agreed partnership, and they systematically advantage both the leader and the citizen. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that partnership advance the greatest good for the greatest number and disadvantage the fewest the least. This a common social contract with specified rights and limits, expressed in both letter and spirit.
Mastery and slavery are not rightful. They are a contrived falsity, and they systematically advantage the master and disadvantage the slave. Any actions or situations that precipitate from that contrivance violate our most fundamental human value. This is the basic and universal human right. When any leadership attempts to force itself on its citizens, it violates the spirit of agreement in its social contract. It goes too far and negates the freedom to choose to follow. The actions of even a single rebel then both affirms and negates un-rightful mastery. No counter action is required, only non-complicity in the broken social contract.
This is only my reading of Albert Camus’s essay, The Rebel, which I find quite informing to discussions of right and wrong in modern society, and guiding in my actions.

Ethical Authority

2,500 years ago, Aristotle had it right. There are several ways to make a point and move opinion. At one end of the list is reason. At the other end is passion. And this has been how it has been all this time.

Reason tries to get at the truth, because truth like justice should be the best of all conclusions. To get there, the reasoner puts together all the available facts, the evidence. He then presents these facts that anyone can see for themselves in an order that shows how one fact leads to the next and finally gets us to the truth of the point. However, this process takes time, even a lot of time. We have to sort through all these details to get to a point which, if it’s true, ought to seem right on its own. This is where passion comes in.

Passion tries to get at our feelings, because as good and fair people, our feelings should tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. To get there, the empassioner tries to determine what our strongest feelings are. He then lines up his point with those feelings. That point then looks like what is right because it feels right. However, this process does not show anything about how good the point is; it simply ties the point to our feelings about things. That conclusion we blindly take on faith, and faith is good for what is beyond human knowledge. Most of what we make decisions on however is not beyond our knowledge. So, there needs to be another way.

We need something between the pointy-heads’ information-overload and the snake oil salesmen’s slick talk. There is something. In the middle of the making-a-point list is the voice of authority. When we go to a friend we trust, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a butcher or grocer who sells good products, we are going to a voice of authority. When we go to a licensed doctor or pharmacist, we are going to a voice of authority. In each case, we go to these people in good faith, knowing about their history or their credentials, and we accept what they say as right. However, authority is power, and it can be misused to deceive or mislead us. There needs to be some way to tell if a voice of authority is really trustworthy.

There are two keys to deciding if a source of advice, a provider of services or a seller of products is deserving: having a good track record and showing little or no benefit to himself.

If the authority has a proven track record, he is more trust worthy. If we’ve done business with him before and the outcome has been good, that’s a good track record. If he has the regular legal certificate or license, and puts it out where we can see it, that’s a good track record. If he’s been around a long time and not received bad reports in the past, that’s a good track record.

If the authority shows little or no benefit to himself in our decision, he is more trust worthy. If the authority offers to share the sources of his information, that shows little or no benefit to himself. If the authority offers ideas on both sides of a question, that shows little or no benefit to himself. On the other hand, if the voice of authority asks us to join him, that shows some benefit to himself. If the authority tell us what we should do, that shows more benefit to himself.

If the supposed authority talks a lot about why we should believe him, we should doubt him. If the supposed authority talks a lot about us rather than someone or something that is neither us nor himself, he may be trying to play on our feelings. If the supposed authority buries us in an avalanche of details, he may be trying to hide something under all that manure.

The voice of authority should sound calm and clear. If it is not, it may be pulling the wool over our eyes or firing us up to do what he wants. An ethical authority tries to help us figure out for ourselves what’s best, because an ethical authority trusts that we can.

 

To Be a Goldfinch

The goldfinches gather at the feeders by our kitchen window.

They cling to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

They must eat nearly their weight in the diminishing seed

To provide the heat to endure the cold

In the eight windy, sub-zero hours of daylight.

 

They cling and peck and eat and peck and eat and peck and eat.

And they will start all over again at dawn tomorrow

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

And they will do so the day after, and the day after,

Until the weather warms and they begin to molt.

And soon come the eggs and the young.

 

Then they can flit and sing into summer’s warmth,

When their melodic songs trill out

And their yellow plumes light up the days.

They cling and peck and eat only sparingly now,

Awaiting the harvest of autumn when they will begin to prepare

To survive another winter of deep cold and bitter winds.

 

They will come around again to where they were before and before and before.

Gathering at the feeders by our kitchen window,

Clinging to the metal netting surrounding the nyjer seed,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

And when they fail to find enough,

And they drop to the ground,

To be eaten by cats and rot and time,

They next generation will carry on,

Clinging and pecking and eating,

Day after day, year after year, generation after generation,

Pecking and eating, pecking and eating.

 

January 2017

Trumped? No.

The worse thing has happened, but it’s happened. We feel hurt, depressed, afraid. We have grieved or are still grieving.

When I witnessed my students lose the girls’ basketball quarter finals, I was unhappy too. We grieved, but we all recovered and went back to school. It was a game where both sides played well using similar tactics, and both sides had exactly the same objective: winning the game. Elections are not games. It’s not about win or lose; it’s about what’s next.

The election of Mr. Trump was not a game, and he did not win. He may see a world of winners and losers, but we see a world where all can rise higher. He may believe that the world is all about zero-sums, but we know it’s not. No one has won and no one has lost here, except the gamblers. So what’s next?

Things may get worse, for some very much worse, and those of us who care need to and must help support and shield those we care about, those who are in fear and those who are in danger. Of equal importance is to support and shield those who for whom it has been bad for some time now, and for whom we have failed to be supportive or shielding. Yes, I’m saying that we, whose candidates were not chosen, need to do better about helping those, whose candidate was. I’m not talking about the malefactors and sociopaths who will jump on any excuse to exercise their distorted thinking. I’m talking about people who have been left behind in their work, in their position in the community, in their understanding of what it is to be an American. They didn’t “win” by this election. If any of the campaign promises bear fruit, they may win the jobs and the respect they seek–maybe, but they will certainly be left behind in the frame of the 1950’s white America, because they are more “useful” to some interests in that frame.

Those of us who believe we are of the “enlightenment” of the 21st century, who look for a better life for everyone in America, for a better world, not just for a better job and a better house–we need to help those who feel left out to see that we can have all of these. We could all be winners. This we must believe. It means we’ll have to actually do something.

We have long and loudly complained about the division and the stalemate that it creates. We need to actually do something different, or we will have the same division and the same stalemate. We will remain a nation of winners and losers trading off our roles in a zero-sum mindset, us and them, always at odds, always at war.

Who will be the better persons; who will be the peace makers? Can we not step forward to say, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening, but I want to listen now. Let’s talk. Let’s work together to find solutions.” Coming together doesn’t mean leaders must come to my position. It means I must give up my idea of just my position. I must articulate what my interests actually are. Then I must seek out and listen to the interests of people who feel staked to other positions. And together, we must work to find solutions that help us meet as many of our interests as we can, many of which are likely shared already.

The problem with slogans and donations is that they are surrogates for real action. We can do better for everyone together if we act on things together. We must talk with one another, not at one another. We must open our hearts and minds, not close them. We must seek solutions, not oppose them. And it may be hard.

Let’s get to work.

White Right!

There is something I find intolerable: white nationalist, right wing racists. The very idea that anybody is better than anybody else is simply the arrogance of ignorance. But to compound this perspective with the acceptance of violence as an expression of that blatant distortion is frankly bestial. I have long held an intolerance for the intolerant, but the rise of supremacist organizations and threats to more, and sometimes less, recent immigrant people re-plumbs the depths of inhumanity which genuine Americans and indeed all fully human beings deplore.

Whose place is this anyway? The first whites arrived as invaders to a relatively sparsely occupied continent. Later they were joined by other immigrants, and captive or coerced African slaves and Chinese laborers who were brought here, generally against their will and then nearly universally refused repatriation. Simultaneously, the real original occupants were being systematically exterminated through officially sanctioned genocide, or imprisoned onto reservations.

Using the white nationalists’ argument, white, black and yellow people must all pack up and leave the place to the scant few remaining native Americans. But where should we go? Our original homelands are now overcrowded. I suggest other planets, preferably unoccupied by sentient life, lest we wind up booted off those planets too, in three or four hundred years.

Or we could accept that we are all humans living on one planet which we should all be trying to save before we face global self-destruction.

Divided We Fall

The political expedient of offering a free lunch leads government authorities to make commitments they cannot support in the long term without assessments and tax increases–both political suicide. The get hit in their campaign funds and hit at the polls. The American wealthiest and their corporate empires assume a 19th century uber-privilege, owing nothing to the societies that fed their greed and freely buying the politicians to insure that. American voters meanwhile have been convinced that they deserve to have the amenities but not pay for them.

Then, when the bills come in, the authorities, beholden to their wealthy benefactors, look for excuses and scapegoats rather than biting the bullet, correcting tax law, and convincing tax-payers to pay up or give up the things they’ve come to expect. So the result is that they go after two of their own big expenses–the public workers, who make our society civilized, and the neediest, who don’t pay much tax and often don’t vote. Breaking the life-long promise of a pension to public employees, cutting funding to schools, and reducing the public work force, government chews off its own leg to free itself from the trap of its own design. Cutting off the needy is simply barbaric.

America has been effectively marketed a dream that everyone deserves a life that is fun and feels good. Watch almost any TV ad. Americans are discouraged from thinking about how that could be true when we know that life includes effort and pain. Only when enough of us look around and think will we begin to reverse the seemingly inexorable trend toward a country of 350,000,000 individuals, each at the center of her or his own universe, and start to reestablish America as a united society, who share common needs despite individual differences. If “divided we fall” has not been apparent before, certainly watching the human pieces of our civil society fall away over the years should alert us to the future we will leave our children and grandchildren.

Every thoughtful person must stand up, speak out, help out and vote. 

Gates

The world convulses once again.
Stunned, we watch in horror as
Bloated dragons careen across her flesh.
Homelands are swallowed in hatred and despair,
As All,
The mighty and the frail,
Are devoured in vapors and flames.

Wave after wave of bewilderment
Sweeps toward us and over us,
Crushing our complacency into fear.
We see the monster at our door.
Panic runs like acid through our veins, and yet
We must not hide inside our walls.
We must not shut out the terror and the pain.
We must not close our Selves behind our gates.

Shutting ourselves in, to be free of terror and risk,
Is to doom ourselves to the other side of chaos.
Hiding from Grendel has always been an arrogant delusion.
Famine, war, disease and murder are
The rampaging agents of
Vicious persecutions,
Wanton bigotry and
Deranged greed,
And we must sally forth to meet them.

Hiding in our enclaves,
Closing our eyes and ears,
Shutting our lives away
In the illusion of security
Is consigning those lives to
Isolation,
Stagnation,
Desiccation,
Desolation and
The death of the selves we might have been,
Entombed instead in anti-life behind our gates.

Beowulf sought out Grendel and his mother, and slew them.
So we too must come from inside our walls.
We must come out into the light of the world.
We must seek out the monsters and dispatch them.
Then we can join the human festival of the living,
And set aside our lethal fear and crippling timidity.

Our world clamors with exciting diversity.
We must reach out to the teaming dance,
To the brilliant colors, to the ringing songs.
Humanity is a glory, and we must remain part of it.
We must throw open our doors to the vast adventures of living.
We must taste the startling honey and pepper kaleidoscope of life,
Inhale the inebriating fragrance of far ranging gardens, and
Join the choruses of the world’s joyful songs.

We must be our most incredible Selves.
We must throw open the gates and
Be of Our world

July 2106

grendel

Job Satisfaction – a Homily

Much advice is given about ways of reaching satisfaction in life these days. Do we feel good in the morning when we get up? Are we convinced we are eating the right foods? Do we make enough money? All the things that spring from our satisfaction with how we’re doing in the job of living. It makes one wonder how much Cro-Magnon worried about job satisfaction.

A phenomenon of the modern age is our concern with job satisfaction. The equivalent of concern with how the hunt is going for me, or how the berry picking is working out for you. How excited are we to go in to work in the morning or afternoon or evening? How likely are we to want to just get up and leave? What’s in the evaluation this time? Am I doing this in the easiest, fastest way? I hope I did that well enough. It isn’t surprising. You spend a major part of your life engaged in whatever your work is, including time spent thinking about it. And when should you start to think about this? Or more importantly, when do you start to do something about it?

Well, here are some things to think about. Everyone connected with your work has an idea about what that work is and how it should be done, each has his or her own agenda which informs that tangential understanding of what you do or should be doing, and each has her or his own way of exerting influence on you involving your work. And then there’s you; you probably know what your work is and how you think it should be done, you have an agenda, and you have unique, and more or less effective, defenses against the negative influences of others.

Now take a minute and think: Who’s trying to influence your work, what are their agendas, and how are they trying to influence you? Influencers, beside yourself, may be people down the chain, such as customers, students and clients; they may be peers; they may be multiple levels of people up the chain, such as bosses, principals and parents; and they may be funding sources, such as government, stockholders and owners. Funding source agendas of course may be influenced by feedback from the bottom of the chain, such as sales figures, recovery rates and test scores. Yes, this is pretty much a graduate thesis research topic, except no one teaches this in grad school.

In the short run, try this. In the center of a blank piece of paper write what you really want from the work you do in your life. Think long and hard about this. Whatever this goal is, it is what you really should be living by. This is what you’re trying to do with your life. You should be able to say this to anyone who asks without hesitation, and be willing to stand by it. It doesn’t mean you should leave your job if your situation keeps you from achieving this goal, and you shouldn’t stubbornly follow your own lead to the point of getting fired. Cro-Magnons’ goal was to provide for their family and community. Hunting and berry picking weren’t their jobs, they were tasks necessary in completing their real work. If you don’t have the means to carry out your tasks, you won’t be able to complete your life’s work. This comes with the understanding of what makes a life’s goal that matters.

But first, let’s get back to your paper. On the bottom half of the sheet write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence against your achieving the goal of your life’s work. On the top half of the paper, write all the events, conditions, people, etc. that can or do impact or influence in favor of your achieving the goal of your life’s work. Some may be the same.

Now a cliché: know your friends, but know your enemy better. The people and things on both the top and bottom of your sheet you must know best of all, and make them your best friends. Ask their help and advice, and take it with an understanding of their agenda. Then leverage that understanding to influence them as a source of support and resource. Use the same Sun Tzu strategies on top, positive, influencers and bottom, negative, influencers. Understanding negative influence agendas and finding ways to at least appear to meet their demands, while continuing to work toward your life’s goal, dilutes and deflects the negative impact. Meanwhile, understanding your positive influence agendas lets you capitalize on cooperative return. Cooperative return occurs when you contribute to a joint effort or project and ultimately enjoy more return than your equivalent effort would have yielded had you worked alone. This calculus applies to goals as well, and helps us understand what makes a goal matter.

Goals that matter are not easy to set and not easy to reach. We know that goals ought to be challenging, but achievable, and rewarding but acceptable. Of these, reward is the most often short changed. Goals that matter are life goals, and they should provide a life-long reward. If the reward goes only to the goal seeker, in the form of money, praise or class standing, it generally is not as rewarding as one might expect, perhaps in part because the pursuit of the goal has now ended and the seeker is a little purposeless. If reward goes to the work of the goal seeker, the sense of reward may be even less satisfying. The work is done, the worker passes off the ball to someone else who runs the goal, and as with a reward for the worker, life goes on with no further life’s goal. A truly rewarding goal is one that is achieved ultimately. It requires continuous pursuit and earns ongoing reward. And that reward is almost always enjoyed by something larger than just the person doing the work. Truly rewarding goals make the home, the community, even the world better places. The life’s worker collects the cooperative return of living out life in a home or community or world made better by her or his having been part of it. This is why one’s life’s goal is so important to get right. It makes life what you do with it, not just what you get from it.

Your job satisfaction, I’m afraid, is going to have to be up to you to determine, because it will depend on what you choose for your real life’s work, not just your job.

The Iconation of Everything

The abuse of the word “iconic” has become absurd. Its overuse indicates either a depth of ignorance on the parts of speakers and writers or a callous corruption of language inflicted on the ignorance of listeners and readers.

An icon is a thing inhabited or imbued with the spirit or meaning of something it represents. As a religious object, it might be inhabited with the saint or god of which it is an image. Thus, to speak to it is to speak to that saint or god directly. In a more mundane life, it may be an image that not only represents an action, but is actually a connection to it. Thus to click on a computer icon actually initiates a process in the computer system, such as starting a program. So an icon is a sort of vehicle or portal showing its purpose in its appearance.

In more recent usage, an icon has come to be a representative of a broader set or greater domain of sense or meaning. Thus Mt. Everest, whether it is the tallest mountain in the world or not, is an icon representing all that is majestic about the Himalayas or about great mountains around the world. Leonardo de Vinci is an icon of the Renaissance man as the ultimate of that ideal. However, all the mountains of the Himalayas or all Renaissance men cannot be icons of what they are. They do not represent anything other than just what they are.

If a thing or person is renowned, it does not make it iconic. If the person or thing does not particularly represent some greater idea, whether a characteristic of a greater set, a spirit of some power, an action of some result, a tradition of some group, or some other greater meaning than the thing itself, it cannot be thought of as iconic.

It is enough that we use Latinate suffixing rules to create trendy lexical redundancies at the expense of enriching our discourse with a powerful vocabulary. It eviscerates a rich language to serve up ground scraps as Salsbury steak. We are turning our prime lexicon into the haute cuisine of a fast food drive thru.

Iconate that Madison Avenue!