Thursday, May 1, 2014
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Staying with the language theme, however loosely I may be following this supposed thread, I was reading today about the latest plea from pediatricians for parents to prevent their young children, those under the age of two, from watching television. They claim that watching television harms the development of language. Parents talking to and with their children apparently is better than television. Obviously, given my age, I watched much less television than children growing up today, in fact I watched precisely no television until about the age of four when mom and dad finally scraped together enough money to buy a set. You see how old I am? I still call it a television set, not just the television. Clearly my language skills are greater than those who had a television in their first two years because I use more words. I imagine that many years ago pediatricians and academics were pounding out papers telling us all that allowing our children to listen to excessive amounts of radio would soften their brains. Soon we will unearth a scroll in which various high ranking courtiers were predicting that excessive reading of the products of Guttenberg’s printing press would lead to the death of conversation and a diminishment of listening to the lute. None of these doctors and experts can explain to me how listening to and watching television is worse than listening to parents. I gather that it’s that awful word “interactivity”. The child will, I am told, be more linguistically adept if the activities in which it is engaged involve some sort of back and forth. None of these doctors seems aware that what goes on in a child’s head is entirely opaque. When my daughter watches a television program she laughs at the jokes, she covers her face at the scary bits and she switches channels when it’s boring. This indicates at least some form of thought for which we must now use the word “interactivity”. She is reacting, she is thinking and she is probably listening to people with better grammar than most parents. The only reason parents want the television turned off is because they want to talk to their child. They want to know what is going on in their child’s life, at their school, with their friends. Here’s what’s going on in your child’s life: everything is more interesting when she is watching television and less interesting when she is talking to her parents: school is dreary and utter drudgery: she does not want to discuss her friends because that’s private stuff and interesting precisely because you, her parents, know nothing about it. As for the younger than two year old, she likes bright colors, she likes the songs and the songs teach her language better than you do.
I am contemplating earlier generations who had much less television, including my own. Without going back too far let’s list a few of the things that these linguistically adept people have given the world. The First World War. Soviet Communism. The Second World War. Vietnam. Trickle Down Economics. Rupert Murdoch. Apartheid. Need I go on? Had earlier generations been watching more television there might have been greater harmony. I have stood in a pediatrician’s office and been told that my child should eat low fat food despite massive evidence that eating less fat is about the worst thing you can do for your health. The same doctor told me that we should play Mozart to our child. There are no words in any language for how utterly fatuous this notion is. I have conducted a study recently that took me about thirty seconds and involved precisely one participant, myself. I asked a simple question: Which is worse for your child, watching television or doing what pediatricians tell you? All the evidence I have gathered in the thirty seconds of the study suggests that your child should watch television. It’s funnier, it’s better written, it actually is intended for the child and not for you or your child’s doctor (and to sell lots of toys, as opposed to your child’s doctor who is trying to sell you lots of drugs) and it is utterly harmless.
Friday, October 14, 2011
It seems I have been bitten by the language bug since my now ended silence, I cannot stop analyzing what people are saying. Today I read about another political misstep by Scott Brown, soon to be former Senator from Massachusetts. It’s not that I am particularly focused on this man, it just happens that he embodies a certain approach to both political turmoil and the language he and his associates use to try and extricate him from his difficulties. What people forget in their times of trouble is that others do not forget. The political chattering classes will always tell us that such and such an incident will be forgotten “come voting day”. What actually happens is that the arc of the story of any given individual allows us to set aside certain mistakes, foibles and peccadilloes. We all knew Bill Clinton was a philanderer but it was his very success as a philanderer – his charm – that made him so appealing (cries of shock and horror at such a notion). No, we did not take to him because he was good at seducing women, he was someone whose ability to charm translated into what we call charisma. Others were notable seducers (Gary Hart, John Edwards) but lacked whatever it is that transforms good whisky talk into overwhelming public approval, though Clinton’s very small electoral victories seem to belie the notion of the extent of his skill. Part of what Clinton did, or John Kennedy in his time, was subtly alter the message depending on which constituency he was aiming at. Clinton was more Southern in the South, Kennedy more Catholic in the Northeast. Obama has that same skill, though his charm is not as warm as either Kennedy or Clinton. Clinton, like Nixon, looked straight into a camera and lied to the entire population of the United States, yet he left office still very popular. How? Clinton winked.
The first thing of any consequence I ever taught my daughter was how to wink. With this wink I also taught her to pucker one side of her mouth and use the side of her tongue to make a clicking sound as she winked. I told her that this would carry her further in life than anything else she would ever learn. Why, then, was Sarah Palin’s winking so abjectly unsuccessful? Well, take my daughter’s wink and click. She turns out to be a natural. Had I discovered that my daughter simply looked like someone with a facial tick I would have discouraged the winking. Sarah Palin is not a natural winker because she uses it only when the camera is on her. Clinton winks through life. Palin’s wink is a self conscious “see, I’m just like you” sort of activity while Clinton’s is a “wouldn’t you like to be a member of this club?” motion. Nixon was incapable of anything remotely associated with winking. I have noticed that the people who wink more than any other are the Irish. We consider the Irish to be very charming but, as I like to say, you don’t have to live with them. So, Clinton’s, or Kennedy’s or Obama’s story is what attracts us and we choose to set aside the less comfortable aspects of their personalities or styles. Recently Scott Brown made an insulting remark regarding his likely Democratic Party opponent in next year’s Senate race, Elizabeth Warren, specifically about her appearance. This will not be forgotten because it is the opposite of Clintonian. Remarking on a woman’s appearance is the least charming thing you can do and cannot be set aside because it indicates how you will regard women’s standing in the legislative process and how slightly you regard the effect of legislation on women. Whatever it was that Clinton exuded it reassured us that he would not slight women, no matter the position of his pants while talking to them in the Oval Office.
Scott Brown has been caught plagiarizing the text of another politician’s website for use on his own website. When this copying was brought to his attention he had this to say: it was the fault of one of our interns. That sound you hear is a hammer blow to the coffin lid of Scott Brown’s short political career. “The Intern Did It”. If you scoured all the dictionaries of the world and commissioned speeches from all the great wordsmiths of the political universe you could not have come up with a string of more politically fatal words. Even under normal circumstances this would not be a good response but when thousands are camped on Wall Street and at City Halls and outside Federal buildings demanding that ordinary people get a fair shake, ordinary people who would be glad to have a job even as a lowly intern, you really have shoved a blade into your own artery. What possesses people in such positions to say these things? As I like to say in regard to Afghanistan or Iraq, why didn’t they just ask me? I could have told them. And if a sometimes employed actor in Echo Park Los Angeles could have told you, you know you’re in trouble.
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
“Ralph’s”. That was the first word I have spoken in two weeks and it was said not to my surgeon or vocal therapist, not to some close family member, but to a parking lot attendant near the University of California Los Angeles in the parking lot of a grocery store. This was another instance of the deference we pay to complete strangers, as I mentioned before when recalling the accidental clipping of someone’s heel in a movie theatre. One of the most despicable elements of visiting a medical facility in the United States is that you have to pay for parking. In the case of UCLA the rate is exorbitant. However, nearby is a Ralph’s grocery store that offers free parking for two hours. Usually this lot is unattended, you simply take your ticket from the dispenser, go about your business and, as long as you stay within the two hours, away you go. For some reason – almost certainly the likes of me who use the Ralph’s lot to avoid paying the UCLA fee – there was a uniformed Ralph’s employee (an understated lightish burgundy vest over white shirt and black pants) asking people as they emerged from their vehicles where they were going. In my guilt I stated “Ralph’s”. Had I payed UCLA’s wad of money there would have been no question asked and even if there had been no guilt would have forced me to be polite, compensating for my criminality by appearing wholesome and well mannered. My silence would have lasted until my appointment with my surgeon. So, there ended my odyssey in the last of the morning shade on the rooftop parking lot of a Ralph’s grocery store in West Los Angeles in the presence of an entirely oblivious but neatly dressed employee of a large grocery chain, whose sushi counter, by the way, is very good.
I have noticed something else in all this. I refer to the woman who removed the cyst in my throat as “my surgeon”. Why do we become possessive of the people who treat our ailments? She is just as much the surgeon of the person next on the appointment calendar and yet I, and almost certainly that next person, call her “my surgeon”. Illness breeds an awful sort of dependence and sometimes a dreadful resentment. I can remember my father being gravely ill in the nineteen seventies and the futility with which he attended his frequent appointments, the quiet rage and frustration that accompanied the apparent dying of his lungs. When he changed doctors a new diagnosis cured him almost miraculously. This past Summer I went to that doctor’s practice, where my parents still go, and was told that the doctor who re-diagnosed my dad is still alive, in his nineties. Without hesitation or sentimentality I said “Dr. Williams saved my father’s life”. I imagine my father is very possessive of Dr. Williams. What that experience taught me is that doctors are mostly guessing. Informed and educated guessing, but guessing nevertheless. This is not to be resented but it should be understood and the best doctors will tell you this themselves. I am ever grateful that one doctor guessed correctly. I also discovered that the cyst that was removed from my vocal chords was unusually large, possibly freakishly large, thus the very long enforced silence. Now, the surgeon, my surgeon, had told my wife while I was still unconscious that the cyst was “bigger than expected”. Do I regard this as a lie, perhaps a white lie, used to keep me calm and collected while I healed? Is it, perhaps, simple medical conservatism: nothing is so strange that it cannot fall within the parameters of “bigger than expected”? I appreciate my surgeon’s discretion, rather like my own with my daughter whose most frequent question is: “Daddy are you lying?” To which my usual response is: “Sweetheart, all parents lie to their children all the time”. Like the wonderful medical people at UCLA I am in favor of a mixture of the deceptive and the brutal. It breeds relaxed patients and world-wise children. Though my child almost certainly knows there is no Santa Claus she’s too smart to say so or she’ll miss out on an extra present.
And so, off into the world of speech, little by little. I have photographs of my vocal chords, Before and After, and I shall keep them close.
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I am assured this will be my last silent day. At the very least it will save the paper I have been using to scrawl my notes and I will no longer be posting my ramblings here. I can go back to wasting my time in the ways I always have. I am now faced with the question of what might my first word or words be after almost two weeks of silence. It’s a little like the opposite of a dying remark, famous first words. My daughter’s first words were incomprehensible though we did distinguish the word “Daisy” fairly quickly, the name of the dog who still lingers. She also wandered about saying something like “skoowonday” and we finally realized she was reciting a line from “Mary had a little Lamb”. She was saying “school one day” as in , “It followed her to school one day”. It’s only when you have a child that you realize what a monumental achievement the learning of language is and what a strange hybrid creature we have in English. All that mixing of the Angles and the Saxons and the Romans and the French and the Germans. Even some Chinese (Ahoy and Ketchup and, occasionally, Gung Ho). If you are foolish enough to hang around in the places I grew up you’ll hear odd grammatical constructions that are born of Irish usage and torture of the language of the oppressor. Oddly there are very few Irish words in English though I believe “brat” is one instance. One of my favorite linguistic moments was on a bus in my home town, Birmingham, in England and it demonstrated the future better than any gadget or academic study. A young man got up from his seat and was greeted by a fellow passenger who had not seen him earlier. Their conversation was in Urdu since the vast majority of my neighborhood is now Pakistani. The young man who had stood was surprised to see his friend and rattled of a greeting in Urdu in the middle of which were the distinctly spoken English words “fucking wanker”. So, the quickly spoken greeting went something like: “Urdu, Urdu, Urdu, fucking wanker, Urdu, Urdu”. What was so marvelous about this was that Urdu clearly has no equivalent of the delicious and demeaning phrase “fucking wanker”. It also highlighted something about the adaptation to culture. I have no idea if Pakistani personal interactions are similar to those in England, where English people deliberately distance themselves from any sort of intimacy by deliberately insulting those they most love and like. Here was, probably, a young man who had been born in England to Pakistani parents, much as I had been born to my own immigrant parents, and he had adopted the English way of dealing with friends. Insult them. I wonder if there are any good Urdu phrases that could be adopted into English for insulting people.
About ten miles from where I grew up is the Black Country, the original industrial belt in the middle of England where the modern world was created in the Industrial Revolution. It’s where James Watt put the steam engine to practical use and out there they speak a dialect of English which is almost incomprehensible even to those of us who grew up close by. Now, technically, a dialect is a grammatically distinct form of a language and must not be confused with the way dialect is often used, to mean “accent”. For instance, Black Country folk (if you are looking for where this strange people live find Wolverhampton on a map and you are there) asking you if you wish to do something, for instance, go to the pub, will ask: “Yam gooing down pub?”. The word “going” here is pronounced as I have written it, a long “oo” sound. “Yam” means “are you?” This use of the word “yam” for “are you” has resulted in people from the Black Country being called Yam Yams by those nearby. While being derided as bumpkins it should be pointed out that the great James Whale, director of “Bride of Frankenstein” was from the Black Country as is Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. Here’s a link to how to speak Yam Yam. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrIqSlt9PXg
Now that we’ve all learned a little more about the varieties of English I must contemplate my first words from my reconstituted vocal chords. Should they be purely medical? “Did you biopsy the thing you removed?” is one possibility. More likely is: “This is harder than I expected”.
“I can speak again, my family will be disappointed”.
“How soon will I be able to yell at my child?”
“I am really sick and tired of this. Can I go now?”
My mother is dependent on hearing aids and cannot hear me when I call her on the phone because the hearing aids seem to present difficulties that neither of us understands. Though she will not be able to hear me much, if at all, it will be lovely just to have her at the other end of the line.