March 12

In the Waiting Room – Reading and Thinking Random Thoughts

I haven’t written anything for a while. Mostly, I’ve been reading and waiting. I read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.I really should have picked it years ago. I love Austen, and Northanger Abbey is a biting satire of Gothic literature which is my academic specialty. Every time I read Austen, though, I close the book in despair, knowing I will never be able to do what she does. She is amazing.  She creates characters you care about, and she does it with this nearly inexplicable combination of subtlety and obviousness. Her genius is enough to make any other writer hopeless.

The Austen book’s pretty short, and I finished it over last weekend, then switched gears completely. I picked up James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia at the Writing Center book exchange. It’s historical fiction which is a favorite genre of mine, and it’s set in post-WW II Hollywood. It’s horribly violent and bleak and crass, though. Kind of like Trainspotting set 40 years earlier. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but it was compelling.

Speaking of compelling discussions,  I watched Meghan McCain on Rachel Maddow last night. She seems like a lovely young lady who is smart enough to keep her mouth shut when she’s not educated on a subject. A rare and admirable quality in a Republican. Evidently, she’s writing for The Daily Beast now, and she’s gotten some rather nasty criticism from neocons who don’t like what she’s saying. She’s been condemning Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, so she obviously has good taste. Listening to her gives me hope that the next generation of Republicans will reject the politics of hate, paranoia and intolerance that has dominated their party in the last 15 years.

I’ve also recently discovered a new hero of sorts – a man named Frank Schaeffer.  He is the son of Francis Schaeffer, one of the architects of the Christian Right movement and one of the founders of Focus on the Family. But Frank’s faith led him down a very similar path to the one I’ve been following. He has now rejected most of the Republican platform. He writes for The Huffington Post, and is both pro-choice and pro-life. (No, they are not opposites!!! Yes, it is possible to be both!!!) I first heard him on NPR a few months ago, and I was really impressed and relieved to hear I am not alone. There are other liberal Christians out there who are finally feeling free to make themselves heard.

Speaking of faith and Christianity and all that, it’s Lent. Like an idiot, I gave up alcohol. I started regretting it less than 24 hours after Mardi Gras. Only 31 days left now. Argh.

And the days are interminably long now that stupid, stinking Daylight Savings Time is upon us again. This whole week has been awful, and DST is mostly to blame. It has my whole family’s sleep schedule off completely. It makes me anxious to see the sun still up at 8pm in MARCH! Heavens! By June 21st, the sun won’t go down until midnight. Do you know how hard it is to get kids to bed at a decent hour when it’s still light outside?!? I guess that doesn’t matter to the politicians and corporate bigwigs who pushed it through the State Legislature so they could get more golf time.

Speaking of kids, I’m worried about my son. He seems to be getting lost in the shuffle at school. He’s very bright, and he’s getting terrific grades. He never gets in trouble. But he complains about school all the time. He hates it. I don’t know what to do about it. My daughter loves school. I loved school. My husband, however, dropped out at age 16. Is it a boy thing? And if it is, what’s the problem? Are boys just bad at school? Or is school bad at boys? I have a feeling it might be the latter…

I’m also worried about my godmother. She’s in the hospital with an ulcerated foot, and she could lose it completely. She’s a morbidly obese diabetic who doesn’t take care of herself at all. I seem to see a lot of people lately who put themselves into painful, difficult situations because they consistently make terrible decisions. I try to be sympathetic, but I get so angry with them for being irresponsible and blind to the consequences of their own actions.

I am looking forward to our annual St. Pat’s party, though. It’s always great to see friends. I’ll be sober this year, so I can enjoy watching everyone else get un-sober!

And I’m looking forward to March Madness, even though my poor IU Hoosiers will not be playing in the post-season. I’ve still got my Butler Bulldogs! And I can always enjoy rooting against Duke and North Carolina. College basketball really is the best sport in the world.

So we’re waiting. Waiting for news about my son and my godmother. Waiting for St. Pat’s and the end of Lent. Waiting for the NCAA tourney to start. Waiting for summer and the end of Daylight Savings Time. I hate waiting when it’s stopping me from getting things done. If I had information, I could make plans. As it is, I feel like I’m in the waiting room of life’s doctor’s office. Very annoying.

March 25

Easter Blues

Sunday was Easter, and as usual, it was a problematic holiday for me on several levels. First, there’s the fact that I’m Christian, and my husband is agnostic. He doesn’t object to our celebrating Easter, but he’s not all that keen on it either. He helps us color eggs, and he cleaned the whole house while I was at church so it would be nice for all our relatives who came in for dinner. But he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Then there’s the stupid moving date issue. I’ve studied the process by which the date is set, and it still doesn’t make sense to me. This year, Easter was actually set before Passover! Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover when He was arrested and crucified. How can we celebrate Easter almost a month before Passover starts?! Different Christian sects celebrate it on different days which is weird too, and by the way, it was snowing when we got ready to do our Easter egg hunt. Very festive and hopeful and spring-y. We hunted eggs inside.

Then there’s the problem of Christians being inspired at Easter to say very un-Christian things. I guess preachers realize that many people in their congregation on Easter Sunday won’t be back until Christmas, so they take the opportunity to rain down eight months’ worth of fire and brimstone on them. This year, my parents invited me and my son to attend their church for Easter service. I figured my six-year-old would have more fun there with his grandparents and aunt than going to our little Episcopal church with just me, so we went. The flowers were beautiful, everyone was friendly and the music was great. But when the pastor began speaking, I remembered why I had left this particular church. The minister spent a full 10 minutes explaining how anyone who wasn’t in church celebrating Easter that morning was going to Hell. He went into great detail about Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and atheists spending eternity with the devil because in John 14:6, Jesus is quoted as saying, “No man goes unto the Father but through me.”

I have multiple issues with this whole idea. First, Jesus was a loving, tolerant, inclusive spirit. He said that God loved the world so much, He sent His only Son to save it. I’m sorry, but if God loves us so much, why would He set us up to go to Hell? I know a lot of wonderful Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Why should they be damned just because they never heard of Christ or because they were misled by well-meaning parents, family and friends whose faith is just as strong as mine? And what about people like my husband who was physically abused in the name of God or those who were molested by pedophile Catholic priests? Many of them have had to reject the Christianity of their abusers just to maintain their own sanity. If my husband and non-Christian friends are going to Hell while I have to spend eternity in Heaven with a bunch of perverted priests and my husband’s abusively zealous stepmother, I think I’ll decline.

My second issue with this exclusive statement is that John wrote his gospel about 60 years after Christ’s death. John probably never knew Jesus personally, and he certainly did not have access to a video or audio recording of Jesus’ words. Many Bible scholars have questioned the authenticity of John’s history. As a student of literature, I have to go with them. John wasn’t at the Last Supper. Most of the people who were there were dead by the time John wrote his gospel. John is the only one of the gospel writers who records the conversation at the Last Supper. Isn’t it possible he got the quote wrong? Especially since it contradicts much of the teaching Jesus did prior?

Finally, I just can’t believe that a compassionate God would send only one messenger with His word. If He loves us as much as Jesus said He does, why would He send just one Savior and hope that word got around? Even today, with our global publishing companies, worldwide telecommunications networks and the Internet, millions of people never hear of Christ’s teaching. It’s not their fault. And think of the millions of people who lived before now. Jesus was one man living in and preaching in a tiny part of the world, reaching a tiny percentage of its population. So anyone didn’t get the memo goes to Hell? What a crock! I can’t believe in a God who loves people less than I do, and a God who would condemn good, but ignorant or damaged or deceived people cannot love His children as Jesus said He did. So do I reject God and Jesus or just John, a fallible human being who wrote decades after Christ’s death? Hmm…

Anyway, Easter’s over, and I have to say that the end of Easter is far better than the end of Christmas. When Christmas ends, it’s such a letdown, and all you have to look forward to is weeks and weeks of cold, dull, dark winter. When Easter ends, spring’s right around the corner. Plus Lent is over, and I can eat French fries again!

July 7

The Tyranny of Language

I’m an English teacher, so it’s no surprise that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about language. This summer, however, has been peppered with moments that have heightened my awareness of the many roles language plays in our lives. I’m still trying to make sense of all of them, so here’s just a rough sketch of these events.

During the first session of summer school, I had the pleasure of working with a custodian named Raul who has been coming to our Writing Center to improve his English. He’s not a student, but our policy is that we offer language services to all staff of the university, which is great because he’s the nicest person I worked with all summer. His main goal in coming EVERY DAY is to be able to read to his three young children, so he brings in children’s books and reads them out loud to his tutor who provides pronunciations or definitions if he needs them. I’d rather have an entire country full of conscientious, hard-working family men like Raul than the spoiled, entitled white kids who come late to appointments and then expect me to write their paper for them so they can get an A in their Psych class.

Don’t tell me the official English movement is not racist. Perhaps a few English-only proponents are truly not racist, but they are the exception to the rule. Bring the subject up with someone who supports making English our one official language and see what their first supporting argument is. I’ll bet you it involves Spanish-speaking immigrants or Mexican immigrants. They don’t seem to mind other languages or cultures, though. One day at the Writing Center, I worked back-to-back appointments with Raul, our Hispanic custodian, and a Norwegian girl named Astra. A third American student was working at a table behind us. When Raul left, the student sitting behind me said snidely, “I didn’t know you guys helped teach janitors to read.” I took a deep breath and replied in my most Disneyfied voice, “Yes, we help all students, teachers and staff at the university.” The young man shrugged and went back to his work. When Astra, my Norwegian student, came over to work with me, however, the young man tried to flirt with her. Raul and Astra are the same age. They are both immigrants learning English. Raul may be “just” a custodian, but Astra is unemployed. Why did Raul’s learning English bother this kid whereas Astra did not? Hmm…

A few days ago, a student brought in her term paper. Her thesis was that we must make English the official language of the U.S.. Now I enjoy tutoring papers with which I completely disagree. They are exercises in self-control for me, and I’m pretty sure my student had no idea I disagreed with every point she tried to make. Of her four arguments, only one was reasonably supported. I pointed out some major gaps in two of the others, then spent the rest of our tutorial focusing on her poor paragraph organization. Her arguments: we must preserve American history; multiple languages cost too much; we must protect English; and multilingual education programs are ineffective. The fourth point she proved pretty well, but the others relied on faulty logic. First, the preservation of American history does not rely on the English language. I suppose if American history began in 1776, you’d have a decent argument. If we’re going to go the history route, we should all be learning the Native American languages which are in serious danger of going extinct. Or Hawaiian or Aleutian. Second, multiple languages cost too much. Tell Europe that. Some of those countries, including Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Monaco, have several official languages, and they’re doing quite well. Besides, spending all the time and money to make English an official language will cost more than leaving it as is. We already teach English – to immigrants and native English speakers. What’s the difference? Finally, “protecting” English is a nonsensical notion. English is just fine, thanks. It’ll continue to do well if we don’t try to preserve it like a relic in a museum. (See Latin – a dead language – or French – dying language.) Most people who contend that we must make English the United States’ official language speak only English. Because the language is so bound up in their identity, they are terrified when “experts” suggest that our language is in danger from non-English-speaking immigrants who are going to kill it. Immigrant families’ native languages rarely survive past the second generation; in other words, if a Mexican couple comes to the US and has children here, those children will likely learn both Spanish and English, but the couple’s grandchildren will probably learn just English. Anyway, I’d contend that English is in more danger from native English speakers who butcher it on a daily basis than from immigrants who make conscientious efforts to speak it properly.

Which English are we going to accept? Just American? What about British, French or Canadian English? Do we accept only certain terms? Am I still allowed to call all soda “Coke” as we tend to do in Indiana? Or do I have to call it “pop?” My husband’s from New England, and he gets bent out of shape when I call a body of water a “lake.” Evidently, they have specific rules about what constitutes a lake up there. Will the entire country have to adopt the New England definition? Or will we force the Easterners to conform?
Can I still speak French to my children at home? I speak three languages, and I wanted to give my children the advantage of being bilingual. If English is the official language, can I still speak French or Russian when I’m out in public? I usually only do it when I don’t want people to know what I’m saying. After all, most Americans can’t speak a foreign language, so I can say whatever I want if I’m not speaking English. Maybe that’s what upsets so many people. The idea that others are talking about them in a language they can’t understand. Here’s a thought – learn a foreign language so you can understand! You might also broaden your mind, make yourself more interesting and more marketable. If it’s so easy for immigrants to learn English, it should be no problem for us to learn Spanish, Chinese, or Russian. Then when you go visit those places, you won’t have to hear people say, “You’re in our country now, speak our language!” Not that they will. Most of them already speak English.

I was honored to be nominated and accepted for a weekend-long seminar for associate faculty a few weeks ago. We had a great time, and on the last day, we got together to talk about what we had gotten out of the weekend. The discussion was very positive until the last person spoke. He said he was happy to have made so many contacts in other departments because they could help him with a “project” he was working on. His theory is that our intro composition class does not prepare students to write in other schools because we do not concentrate on “the basics” – grammar, style and classic essay form. He wanted to use the cross-discipline contacts he’d made to gather assignments from other schools to prove that we need to change the structure of the course. Having worked in the Writing Center for five years now, I felt more than qualified to refute his argument. After looking at countless assignment sheets from every school, I know for a fact that most instructors, regardless of discipline, are more concerned with content and thought process than grammar. This was not the appropriate forum for me to challenge him, though, so I’ve been stewing over it ever since.

I love grammar, and I was raised by an English-teacher mom who loves it too. I know it better than most people. But you don’t have to know grammar rules to be a great writer or speaker. You certainly don’t have to know them to be a powerful or successful person. I guarantee you George Bush does not know what a dangling participle is; I know Donald Trump can’t diagram a sentence. Shakespeare probably couldn’t either since he had very little formal education.

Bringing up Shakespeare reminds me of something else. Language changes. If Shakespeare did learn grammar, he would not have learned the rules we learn now. His English included thee, thy, and thou forms of the word “you.” His English included words that are foreign to us now. Heck, I learned rules just 25 years ago that no longer apply. You know that comma rule about items in a list? Do you put a comma before the “and?” Not anymore. Why bother learning a bunch of “rules” that have many exceptions and are likely to change anyway? If students haven’t learned grammar by the time they graduate from high school, it’s not going to happen. I know dozens of college professors, including many in my English department, who do not know grammar and they have PhDs.

Personally, I love language. It can be empowering, but it can also be a weapon of tyranny. When I was 18 I went to France with my family. A bum on the streets of Paris came up to my parents and started asking them for money. Not being able to speak French, my parents were at a loss. The vagrant got angry with them and started berating them and “les Americains stupide.” I was a fairly sheltered teenager, and I was just as frightened as my parents until the guy started talking about how American tourists were invading his country and couldn’t even speak the language. At that point, I got mad. And I realized I could speak his language, and I could use it to berate him just as he was berating us. So I did. I told him off, not with a swear word, but by using the informal French “you,” a usage that I knew would linguistically reduce him to an animal. And this big, street-wise, intoxicated jerk gave up and took off. In the face of a size 6, 18-year-old girl. I know language, and I know how to use it. And when I hear people insisting on immigrants speaking English or making students learn grammar rules, I know what those people are really doing. They’re asserting their superiority. I know because I’ve done it. Whenever someone makes me mad, I use words like daggers. I start pulling out every multi-syllabic vocabulary word, every convoluted sentence structure I can think of, and I’ll correct every split infinitive and every improper verb form my opponent uses. I don’t do it often, though, because it’s rude. I never correct my friends’ e-mails to me; I don’t often correct my husband or my kids’ speech. Language should bring us together, not enforce some kind of linguistic caste system.

Making English the “official” language of the U.S. won’t keep smart companies from offering their websites, marketing materials and forms in other common languages. Just as making homosexual marriage unconstitutional hasn’t stopped companies from offering same-sex partner benefits, outlawing Spanish, French, or any other language will not stop corporations from doing whatever they need to do to make money.

    This is rambling, I know. Like I said, I think about language a lot. And it is important. After all, no matter what they say on the playground, words can hurt just as badly as sticks and stones.

    April 17

    Virginia Tech

    Human beings naturally want to make sense out of senseless things.

    April 16, 2007 was a senseless day. It was a nightmare that unfolded so slowly, we didn’t realize how horrific it was until it was over. For me, I happened to notice a headline on Yahoo news in the morning: 1 dead and 1 wounded in Virginia Tech shooting. Sad, yes, but I kind of forgot about it as I got my son off to kindergarten and headed off to work. In the afternoon, as I was walking from the library to my classroom, I passed a TV surrounded by students watching CNN. The death toll was up to 21. I called my husband to find out what had happened. “Some crazy guy just started shooting people,” he said. By the time my class was over, 33 people had died.

    My students weren’t talking about it much. They are busy getting ready for finals, and many of them hadn’t had time to look at the news all day. Now that the full magnitude of what happened has set in, though, people are subdued.

    Since I work on a college campus, I can’t help but wonder: what if it had happened here? Would our police have reacted differently? Would they have closed the campus after the first two shootings in the morning? Would a gunman be able to trap students in a building and pick them off one by one? The truth is, this tragedy could probably have happened at all the universities I’ve known.

    The campus where I currently teach is large and urban. If someone had shot a couple people in the dorms a quarter mile from the building where I teach, I doubt if our police would have closed the whole school down. There are a lot of buildings between the dorms and my classroom. Police would probably not have considered it necessary to lock down my building. I probably would not have considered it necessary.

    Would a gunman have been able to trap students in my building? Sure. It’s six stories, three stairwells and one elevator. Each classroom has only one door as most classrooms do, and the upper story windows are unable to be opened. It wouldn’t take much to pick us off – just a gun and a lack of conscience.

    And I’m sure my school has a loose cannon or two just waiting for their fuses to be lit. Once in a while, I hear scary stories from my colleagues about students who write disturbing papers or even threaten their professors or classmates. I have been lucky enough never to have such a student in my own class. Yet.

    So now the investigations and the debates have begun. What set him off? Why did he wait two hours between the first shootings and the later ones? Why did he have the words “Ismail Ax” on his arm? Why didn’t the police lock down the campus? Why don’t we have tougher gun laws? How can we make schools safer? Why is the United States experiencing so many school shootings?

    The very sad thing is that most of these questions just cannot be answered. Not in any useful way. We may be able to make some changes; we may be more aware, but it will probably be temporary.

    This tragedy was senseless. That may be the hardest thing for us to come to terms with.

    March 8

    If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

    Although this blog has been quiet for a while, I have been thinking about some things I’d like to discuss. One thing I’ve been deliberating on lately is the notion of politically correct speech. I’ve heard some of my right-wing friends and family criticizing the concept recently, and I was considering writing a blog entry on it, but it didn’t seem all that relevant right now.  How ironic that in the midst of my contemplation on political correctness, Ann Coulter would step up to give me something to which I could respond. I suppose I should thank her, but since good manners are lost on her, she would not appreciate the gesture.

    Prior to Ms. Coulter’s nasty comments on March 2nd, I had been thinking about why so many conservatives have a problem with politically correct speech. One thing I’ve noticed is that they just dislike the term. “Politically correct” suggests some kind of federal consequence for saying the “wrong thing.” The idea is unpleasant, like something out of Orwell’s 1984: Say the wrong word, and Big Brother will come for you!

    I guess some people have forgotten the genesis of the term. “Politically correct” originally applied to politicians who have to be worried about offending voters. Like many words and phrases in the English language, however, it evolved, adopted by the general public which co-opted it to mean “any expression that might be considered inappropriate or insensitive.” Perhaps we should simply change the term to something more suitable, say “human decency,” “cultural sensitivity,” “social awareness,” or even “Christian morality,” after all Jesus would never have called anyone nasty names.

    No matter what you call it, though, rudeness and inappropriate language has historically been and should continue to be punished. When I was little, there was a kids’ show on the local TV station that ended with Cowboy Bob reminding us all, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” And the message was reinforced in elementary school. I got in trouble once for getting mad at my playmates and calling them “faggots,” and I remember being confused when the fifth-grade boys got in trouble for playing a game called “Smear the Queer.” They were allowed to continue playing the game, but they weren’t allowed to call it by that name anymore. Since I didn’t really understand the words “faggot” or “queer,” these situations seemed very strange to me. That was 1981, years before anyone ever spoke of political correctness, but we were still facing unpleasant consequences for calling people rude names.

    Now, I grant that our government should not punish us for being rude. We cannot make words illegal. Freedom of speech is too important; however, the First Amendment of our Constitution does not exempt us from being polite; it simply means the government cannot make us be polite. Sadly, no one else wants the job either these days. Parents and society don’t police language much anymore. Cursing in public seems to be far more prevalent than it used to be. In fact, for all the whining and worrying about the dangers of politically correct speech, people seem to be saying whatever they want more than ever. With the advent of cable TV, satellite radio and the Internet, we have infinite outlets for our freedom of expression. Anyone can say anything and get an audience. And they are often rewarded for being rude or outrageous. (See also Rush Limbaugh, South Park, Jerry Springer, Anna Nicole Smith.) Pushing the envelope of acceptable language and behavior has become the great American pastime.

    Still, as a society, we do get rankled now and then about something one of our celebrities says. Mel Gibson’s chauvinistic and anti-Semitic tirade got him a lot of bad press and lost him thousands of fans as did Michael Richards’ now-infamous “n-word” rant. Grey’s Anatomy star, Isaiah Washington, faced a similar firestorm for calling a gay co-star a “faggot.” (Sorry, gay friends.) Gibson, Richards and Washington all went to rehab because when a celebrity gets caught being stupid, hateful or criminal, the fashionable thing to do in Hollywood is to go into rehab to show remorse. (See also Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.)  It seems American society does still have a little common sense when it comes to name-calling. Freedom of speech or not, it’s still rude. Just like we learned as kids.

    Enter Ann Coulter. As might be expected from a woman who makes her living with hateful language, Ms. Coulter takes issue with people being held accountable for rude speech. So on March 2nd at the American Conservative Union’s Political Action Conference, she used her prodigious linguistic powers to kill several birds with one stone. In one fell swoop, she managed to be insult liberals, Democrats, homosexuals, John Edwards, Hollywood celebrities, advocates of cultural sensitivity, and anyone with good manners. Pretty slick.

    But I have a bit of advice for her and all those who denounce political correctness: Be careful of whose team you’re playing for. Do you really want to speak like a bigot? Like a chauvinist? Like a homophobic gangsta rapper? Like a 10-year-old playground bully? People who defend Ms. Coulter’s right to use the f-word, who support Mr. Richards’ use of the n-word, who bristle at the public reaction to Gibson’s anti-Jewish speech need to beware of the company they are keeping.

    Of course, Coulter is not going to change. Like so many people who take freedom of speech to its ridiculous extremes, she’s mean-spirited, greedy, and self-serving. She chose her words very carefully to take on the many groups she hates so much. She does not believe that Edwards is gay. (After all, he has more evidence of his heterosexuality than she has since he is married and a parent, and she is neither.) She wanted to shock people, garner more attention, sell more books. She claims to be smart, and one would assume she must be since she has a law degree and several published books to her credit. With such language skills, one would think she could come up with something more clever than resorting to name-calling that I can hear from any bad-mannered little punk on the street.

    Still, I wish we could disarm hate-mongers like Coulter and Limbaugh, Gibson and Richards by ignoring their words. Words do, after all, get their power from those who hear them, not those who speak them. There is nothing intrinsically evil about the sounds “fa,” “g” and “ot.” We use the sounds in lots of decent words like “fashion,” “goblin,” and “hut.” But when we string the sounds together and add a lot of personal baggage and cultural experience, we end up making the resulting word into a potent expression.

    When my son was two years old, he started quoting entire speeches from the movie Toy Story. One of his favorite lines was “My ship!” Unfortunately, he had trouble discerning the hard “P” from a hard “T,” so it came out “My shit!” People would gasp and look suspiciously at my husband and me, and we would have to explain it to them. We hesitated to correct our toddler, though. We didn’t want to embarrass him, or, worse, alert him to an inappropriate attention-getter. We just kept repeating it back to him properly, emphasizing the “P” sound at the end. I wish we could do the same with people like Ms. Coulter. Contrary to her behavior, however, she is not two years old.

    If we could ignore people like her, if the hearers could pretend words don’t matter, she and the other name-callers would have no ammunition.  But no matter what the little ones say on the playground, words can hurt even more than sticks and stones. Those of us who were lucky enough to have good moms and dads, though, were taught that “If you can’t say anything nice…” I guess Ms. Coulter missed that lesson.