Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Do things signify love?

©2017 By Bob Litton
NOTE TO READERS: Please don’t become expectant just because I am publishing this post. I am still having various physical problems that make daily living painful, particularly degenerative joint disease, sciatica, and general low energy. But at least now I can get out of bed without the excruciating pain I was experiencing since earlier this month; it still hurts, but I don’t have to grit my teeth.
¶No, I forced myself up and to the computer keyboard because it is Father’s Day here in the U.S.—albeit a bit late in the day (6:39 P.M. Central Time). I want to display for my readers some facts about Papa that might make you think about character both obvious and hidden. I have tried to figure my family out for many years without much satisfactory success. I didn’t ask many questions of them, and they are all dead now; so our lives together and apart will remain a strange mystery to me until I too am dead.
¶I hope I have explained enough to make the following post understandable.
* * * * * *
¶Father’s Day is not celebrated as fully as Mother’s Day and, I think, with good reason. The moment of conjugal embrace, from which conception and birth results, is usually a time of pleasure for the husband and for the wife. However, the wife has to endure all the physical and psychological pains of pregnancy for nine months and in some cases longer. She is the portal through which the baby joins the universe.
¶Yes, all the father experiences is pleasure and, usually, pride when he sees the delivery has been successful and the baby is of the gender he had hoped for. Pappy was devoted to pleasure. He was a philandering gallant. That plus his occasional brutal behavior is what led to their divorce a few years after I was born.
¶But Pappy had other problems which I think were due to his limited education. I was told that he got through the second grade. Now, it’s true that many a youth at the beginning of the 20th century did not finish the regular school course, and that did not hinder them from finding a suitable occupation and satisfactory livelihood. However, as the century moved on, education level became a more prominent component in job interviews.

((Excuse me. I’m going to have try and finish this tomorrow. I am just too sore and weary to proceed any further right now. Goodbye.))

Profile #1: Don and the “Bwō Cháng”

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶One thematic idea that has occurred to me was to write a series of “profiles” about people who have deeply affected me during my life, for good or ill and sometimes both. Both good and ill aptly describes the person who will be the first subject of a profile here: Donald L.  I hope you readers will find the portrait below edifying or amusing or, again, both.

* * * * * *

¶Don L. was in the same “flight” as I during our basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. Don was about the same height and build as I, a slender six feet, but he had black, slightly curly hair; while mine was sandy brown with only a cowlick to disturb the front. I wouldn’t have imagined him a cologne model, but he was at least as good-looking as I; anyway, I doubt that any young lady would have declined if he asked her to dance with him or to go out on a date. There was an intensity in him that I didn’t catch onto at first; it wasn’t as primary a feature then as it would become a couple of years later. There were about sixty of us airmen in the flight, and I had minimal contact with Don during that time; he was at one end of the barracks and I at the other. I can recall only three incidents in which he compelled my interest.
¶The first was on base orientation day, when one of our two training sergeants, S/Sgt. D. marched us to some of the facilities we might wish or need to visit: the chapel, the cleaners, the Airmen’s Club, and the bookstore. While we were in the bookstore, Don bought a German language self-study book. A few minutes later, as we stood in formation out in front of the bookstore, Sgt. D. chewed him out for buying the book; I wasn’t sure why, although I surmised it might be because WWII had ended only thirteen years previously. Then there was the conning possibility: the very next year, newspapers reported a scandal at Lackland AFB in which airmen and airwomen had been treated as “pigeons”, i.e. subjects for fleecing by some on-base businesses. However, Sgt. D. wasn’t above fleecing either; he conned us trainees out of fifty cents each to buy some super-duper shoe polish — polish that never appeared, not for me anyway.
¶The second occasion for my noticing Don in a direct way was while we happened to be walking from the cleaners on base back to the barracks. We chatted off-handedly, and he confided to me that he was a Germanophile—fond of German culture, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, and even Adolf Hitler. At the time, the only one of those names I recognized was Adolph Hitler. During our conversation on the Lackland road, I argued weakly with Don about the Nazis because I was ignorant about all the other Germanic figures that entranced him; but before our acquaintance was but a memory I would learn much about them from Don and my own reading.
¶The third event that brought Don closer within my orbit was when Don and I were sent to a building on the base where we and perhaps a hundred other airmen were told we were “the cream of the crop” and were to be tested to determine our language-learning abilities. Based on the results of our tests, some of us would be sent to Yale University to study Chinese, and the rest would go to Syracuse University to study Russian. The week after that, Don and I were told to go to yet another building, where we and other selected airmen spent at least a week being taught some basic Mandarin Chinese and tested. When we were finished, we received our orders to report to Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages to begin our intensive study, in November 1958. I was somewhat disappointed because I had imagined that if I went to Syracuse I would get an assignment in Europe—Parisian cafés, Pamplona bull-runs, etc. China was a very dark place, almost invisible, in mid-20th century American minds. It wasn’t until Nixon and Kissinger visited Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, that China’s colorful culture appeared in American TV, newspapers and magazines.

2a

A 1958-59 seminar at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages. This group is part of Don’s and my class,
but neither of us appear in the photo.

¶Since Don’s last name and my own began with the same letter, we were assigned the same dorm room along with another airman named Dale L., an airman from Pittsburgh. I didn’t like this Dale fellow at all; but the causes of our disconnect don’t fall within the purview of this profile, so I will ignore him.
¶Don and I, however, developed a strange kind of “odd-couple” relationship, sometimes a bit antagonistic but often almost brotherly. We walked around town together occasionally, but mostly had discovering conversations in our room. He related to me his fascination with Thomas Mann, suggesting that I read in particular Mann’s short story “Tonio Kröger”. He also bought an LP album of selections from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Those I could appreciate, but I still found his admiration for Hitler disgusting. For whatever reason—and it was not sexual—a strong affinity was developing between us, although at Yale it was still in its embryonic stage.
¶At this point, I need to introduce a Chinese term that plays a major role in my relationship with Don over the next five years: that term is “bwō cháng” (transliterated using the Yale romanization; in Wade-Giles, it is “pwō ch’áng”; in Pinyin, it is “pō cháng”). The phrase translates as “wave length”. Our class was introduced to “bwō cháng” near the end of our first eight months, when we concentrated on military terminology.
¶ Don was among those who stayed another few months (four, I believe) to learn more Chinese characters; I and several others received our “diplomas” after eight months. (I had contracted chicken pox shortly after Christmas and spent a week or two in the dispensary, so I left Yale a “straight-B” student.)
¶My initial orders indicated I was to go to the Philippines; but by the time I reached San Diego a few months later—after a brief detour to Fort Meade, Maryland, to learn the technical aspects of my assignment—I learned that, no, I was to fly in one of those old twin-engine DC-7’s to Okinawa.
¶I was assigned to the Group HQ on Kadena AFB. My duties, as I soon discovered, had little to do with the Chinese language. I was told that, because there was a surplus of Chinese linguists and no translators were needed at the group level, I was to perform clerical tasks. Initially, that meant stuffing paper burn bags with secret documents, toting them out to an incinerator, and burning them. I was disgusted by the whole bureaucratic mess and wrote a letter of protest, which got some higher-up’s attention only months later. After a few months, I was engaged in cryptanalysis work, receiving reports from the field and trying to extract usable intelligence from them.
¶But back to Don. I really thought I would never see him again, for I assumed his assignment would take him to Taiwan or South Korea. One day, however, he showed up at Kadena, although his base was a field station at the other end of the island. I can’t recall whether he first appeared in my barracks room or at the base library, where I spent a lot of my free time reading.
¶The barracks room visit, I recall, was unfortunately timed, because, although it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, I was on my bunk near the end of a marathon sleep after a long night of wine-drinking and seeing three movies in the nearby town, Koza. I could hear one of my roommates explaining to Don how I had been asleep a long, long time. But I was still too drowsy to want to get up, so I just let Don go on his way.
¶Later, I went up to where Don was stationed, and we went to see a movie about Franz Liszt—“Song Without End” (1960)—at the station’s movie house. Liszt, as most classical music fans know, became Wagner’s father-in-law.
¶But the most memorable incident happened the day I was sitting at a table in the Kadena library reading a book. All at once I subconsciously sensed a presence nearby, and then a hand clapped me on the shoulder. A warmth extended from my shoulder all over my back: it was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced, but I have felt it several times sense when I hugged certain women, and a kind of coolness when I have hugged others. I turned and there was Don standing just behind me. Later, when I read Bertrand Russell’s account of his first meeting Joseph Conrad, I felt confirmed in my belief that two persons of the same gender can have strong affinity without its being sex-based or even inducing physical warmth. It was primarily an intellectual/spiritual connection.
¶Don and I met only a few times on the island, but, unfortunately, I don’t recall the substance of most of our conversations there, just a couple of Don’s remarks. Once, when I had brought up the subject of our odd affinity, he acknowledged it and dubbed it the “bwō ch’áng”. I liked the analogy. Another time, he said to me, “Litton, sometimes when I think about you, I positively blush.” Although I felt slightly flattered by that comment, I didn’t ask him why; it had a certain aura of potential homosexuality about it, and I knew I wasn’t designed that way, nor did I believe Don was. It might, in fact, have been love, but I didn’t think Don was aware of the difference between philia and eros; while I had been in DeMolay, where brotherly affection was cultivated.
¶While on Okinawa I bought an LP album of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I listened to it, in stereo, I was entranced. At least as far as Wagner was concerned, Don had influenced me positively about German culture.
¶After I had returned home and been discharged from the air force, I spent a semester at SMU and didn’t do well grade-wise. While at SMU, I read “Tonio Kröger” and the rest of Thomas Mann’s short stories as well as his novel Buddenbrooks. I wrote to Don, who had returned to his home in Seattle, asking if he could host me a brief while as I searched for a job there. After checking it out with his mother and grandfather, he sent me a positive reply. How recklessly carefree that train ride to Seattle now seems to me! I don’t mean the ride itself, but the risking myself into the unknown with very minimal resources and uncertain prospects. Maturing certainly drains one’s capacity for adventure.
¶Don met me at the train station, and we rode a bus to his grandfather’s house, a two-story structure in a block of houses set on a hill. His mother greeted me warmly, telling me that Don had informed her that I was of the same socio-economic class as they, although she didn’t express it so academically. If I recall aright, I didn’t meet his grandfather immediately and can only dredge up a vague vision of seeing him sitting in a chair in a back bedroom; perhaps he was handicapped and couldn’t move elsewhere; I don’t know. That night, I did meet Don’s sister, who also resided there; she was nearly his own age, but whether older or younger I never inquired.
¶One night, Don and I walked to a lake within the city, where we tossed some stones and talked a little about his fascination with Nazism. I asked him why he admired a racist philosophy. His replied actually shocked me: “Litton, you don’t know how much fun it is to hate!” I also asked him why he drank so much beer.
“Do you realize you are going to die?” he asked.
“I know it.”
“I know you know it, Litton, but do you realize it?”
I had never thought about the death question very deeply, and I sensed that I hadn’t enough self-awareness yet to respond, so I just let his question remain unanswered.
¶On a more positive note, one day while we were engaged in a conversation concerning some subject I cannot recall, Don remarked, “I think about these things, Litton, but you will do something about them.” I have since regretted my failure to follow that up by asking him to be more specific.
¶Don was working as a page at the public library. As soon as the next business day (probably a Monday) came, I took the bus downtown to look for a job, carrying a hefty sack lunch which Don’s mother foisted on me. When I told her I could pay for my own lunch, she replied with words I would hear from her a couple of times afterwards: “It just doesn’t add up in dollars and cents.” Seattle’s employment market was a good deal thinner than Dallas’ at that time, so I felt lucky to have found a job within the first couple of days of my search; it was a stockman’s position at a hobby-and-craft wholesale business. The owner, a cordial and honest man in his thirties, told me the day he hired me that he was reluctant to hire anyone right then because he might have to lay me off, and he hated doing that, but he took me on with no guarantees.
¶In fact, a few weeks later, he did let me go, although not personally. However, that was not as unfortunate as the fact that he also let another young man go, and that youth was to have been my roommate in an apartment on which we had just paid a deposit. The apartment owner gruffly declined to refund our deposit. So, I wished my erstwhile “roommate” good luck and went to Don’s house to tell him the bad news: I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
¶I had already checked on the train fare prices. “If you can loan me ten dollars, I can return to Dallas,” I said, as we stood by the bus stop. “If not, then I’m off to San Francisco.” He pulled a ten out of his billfold. When I bent down to pick up my military-issued duffel bag, the handle broke. Was that a bad omen? I wondered. Occasionally since that day, I have fantasized how my life might have turned out differently if Don had not had the ten to loan me or if I had not asked for it.
¶After I had returned to Dallas and to SMU, Don and I resumed our correspondence. But I am a very wordy letter-writer, and Don was brief in the extreme as well as hypercritical. One time, I wrote him a letter using many of the 300 Chinese characters I had learned at Yale. I also included a satirical cartoon depicting a man in a Nazi uniform, holding a swagger stick and looking over a fellow who was sitting in front of an easel and drawing on it. (I was majoring in art at the time.) A cartoon “balloon” above the Nazi’s head contained the letters “Click, click!” (Don had some kind of nervous tic that occasionally caused him to utter clicking noises.) In a separate section of the drawing’s page, I conceded that my artistic ability was not in commendable condition and I perhaps should give up the effort. In his reply letter, Don wrote that I should give up writing in Chinese, too.
¶I haven’t related all the instances of Don’s hypercriticism, but there were several. Finally, after I had sent him a copy of a very brief story I had entered in a short story contest sponsored by SMU’s student literary magazine, he replied by panning my story for its inadequate characterization and anti-intellectualism. He concluded with one of the most cliché-burdened sentences I have ever seen: “For poor writing, your story takes the cake palms down. Hope you can get it back before the judges see it.” In a fit of angry exasperation, I wrote back saying, in part, “I’m tired of your vapid little notes to me.”
¶And that was the end of one of the most interesting relationships of my life. I have softened over the years and now wonder how Don’s own life turned out. He had told me he was going to return to the university he had attended before joining the air force, and probably major in Chinese. Apparently he lost interest in German. Hope he finished and benefited from that education.
¶One question Don asked me while I was a guest in his grandfather’s house—another one of those questions and remarks directed at me throughout my life which I did not respond to—was, “What do you want from me?” I did not answer, and now I wish that I had, for the answer was what I was all about at the time: “I want to discover what the bwō cháng is, but it seems to have faded away before I could find out.”

Finis

Shade and Shadow

Green park

A scene where both shade and shadow are equally illustrated.
Photo Credit: Bing Images/ciis.edu

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  Formerly, as an instructor in rhetoric at a community college, I assigned the students a weekly essay topic.  Each subject was intended to be an exercise in some aspect of communicating through the written word, e.g. describing a house or a room, interviewing someone about their vocation and then writing about it, explaining how to perform some fairly complex task. The first exercise I imposed on them was to describe the differences between shade and shadow; the point of this one was to acquaint them with an exam type they were likely to encounter in other humanities courses: “compare and contrast”.  I eventually developed a slight guilt complex about this assignment, since I had never written about shade and shadow myself.  The following essay is an attempt to assuage that guilty feeling.  I believe it is timely to publish it on my blog today because Halloween is just a few days away. While there is nothing “spooky” in the essay, I am sure most of you can recall or imagine times in your past when some shadow made you shiver. So, happy Halloween!
—BL

¶Shade and shadow, although at first glance apparent synonyms for each other, are in fact nothing of the sort. They differ not only denotatively but connotatively.
¶Shade and shadow are alike only in one particular: they are created by the obstruction of light in its journey toward a final destination. The first and most definitive differences, indeed, derive from those light sources. For shade results only from sunlight, despite what one might suppose from such a misnomer as “lampshade”; while shadow results from artificial light as well as sunlight (including that reflection of the sun we call “moonlight”).
¶Shade and shadow also differ in that the former can serve as an aid, as is implied by its name: It can protect something from the annoyance or even harm which too much sunlight might inflict. Here we also note that shade moves—or rather changes position—as the light source moves; while shadow moves according as the interfering object, such as a person walking at night under a lamp-post or a plane flying overhead on a sunny day, moves. Nor is shade as sharply delineated as a shadow; the shade created by a tree in full leafage is a diaphanous phenomenon with bits of faint sunlight jostling with the spots made by the leaves on the ground. Shadow, on the other hand, occupies a more outlined area, which might be exemplified by the tree’s trunk as opposed to its leaves. While I suppose it is comprehensible to speak of a tree’s canopy at night as providing “shady protection” for a pair of lovers on a park bench, who have sat there in pursuit of privacy, actually at that time even the leaves are creating shadows, because lamplight does not move around or even penetrate a leaf the way sunlight does.
¶Again unlike shade, shadow is not limited to the daylight hours. In fact, with “shadow” the connotative contrast becomes primary. We have invested that word with mystery; I won’t insult your intelligence by specifying the ways we have done that. Suffice it to say that while, when we hear of a shadow during the daytime, we imagine the darker grayness left by an object, such as a building, on the sidewalk or of the undulating gray trail left by a plane as it passes over some hilly landscape; and when we hear the word “shadow” at night the image that passes before our mind’s eye is that of a skulking figure with a dagger in its hand moving against a wall. Obviously there is nothing inherently sinister about the word “shadow”; the connotation which has become attached to it is just another example of how our language is impacted by our emotions.
¶Shade, then, is a comparatively static phenomenon that is often thought of as beneficial. It is a product of sunlight and some interfering non-mobile object. Shadow is a denser darkness which may appear either during the day or during the night, and is created by either the natural lights of the sun and moon or by artificial light. Also, shadow is not restricted to static objects; it accompanies mobile objects just as frequently as does shade and, perhaps for that reason, has developed a slightly sinister reputation.

Finis

A Child’s Song

©2016 By Bob Litton

¶Can you play this? I’m serious, because I composed it and yet can’t play it. 

in-my-sleep-p-1

in-my-sleep-p-2

¶Of course those two sentences above require some explanation. You see, I was ten years old when I submitted the lyrics to a poetry contest jointly sponsored by the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At the time, 1951, Walter Hendl was music director of the DSO; and he was an enthusiastic promoter of children’s music programs.
¶Our music teacher, a young woman whose name I don’t recall, announced the opening of the contest and gave us the rules for it. The competition was divided into two parts. The first was to write a poem about one of five subjects: homeland, school, play…and I forget the remaining two. The second contest was to compose music for the winning poem.
¶Now is the time for a bit of full disclosure. I couldn’t read music; nor could I play an instrument, even though I had a guitar my father had bought for me, and took a couple of lessons from a man who tried to switch me to the violin. I did enjoy listening to the popular music of the day, but my only acquaintance with classical music came from listening to the themes of radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger”, “The Shadow”, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, etc. And I wasn’t even aware that those themes were not composed for the radio shows but were instead segments from famous classical music compositions. I didn’t even know what classical music as a “genre” was.
¶However, I often wrote little two-page stories which I also illustrated, so writing and drawing were already “in my blood”. I still find it odd then that one or two days after I heard the announcement for the contest, I busied myself in art class not with drawing anything but with writing a poem on a large sheet of manila paper, with crayons. I think now that I actually believed that the variety of colors would give me an edge in the contest.
¶Several weeks later, the music teacher informed me that I had won the poetry contest. Now I was faced with the ordeal, for me, of trying to contrive some music for it. At the end of the school day, the teacher sat at the piano, with my poem and a sheet of music paper before her, while I stood by a corner of the piano feeling like an idiot. I don’t recall how she managed to lure some tune out of me, but she did and scored it; and the result is what you see above.
¶After a few weeks had passed, my music teacher informed me that the contest judges had considered my music as “too jazzy”. That surprised me because, although I too viewed the music as too lively, in places, for its theme, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it as “jazzy”. However, I wasn’t crestfallen, for I hadn’t been very fond of my melodic result either.
¶ Fortunately, a fifth grade class at a school clear across town, in Oak Cliff, won the music composition part of the contest. When I heard their music set to my lyrics I was very much pleased with it. Although that class was credited with composing the music as a group, I supposed that the actual composer was the little girl who waited in a stage wing with me; we walked out on the stage together at Maestro Hendl’s invitation. That was a big day in my life, at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin auditorium, hearing the DSO play the music and children from schools all over Dallas sing my lyrics.
¶I carried that music among all my other belongings for most of my adult life. Three times I asked friends who were adepts on the piano to play my version of the song for me. They tried but gave up. Too easily? I don’t feel qualified to say. Once, I called the DSO office and asked if they might have the “Oak Cliff version” in their archive, but the woman on the other end of the line acted as though she thought I must be some kind of a nut and said they don’t retain stuff like that.
¶One day a couple of years ago, I got disgusted because the music is way below par and apparently unplayable. I tore up the sheet music; but I keyed the lyrics into my computer, so it was not lost entirely. (Well, actually they  were pretty much embedded in my memory, but at my age memory is not a very reliable repository.) Recently, an acquaintance of mine in Dallas informed me that, while reorganizing her files she had noticed a photocopy of “In My Sleep”, and asked me if I wanted it. “Certainly!” I said, and she sent it to me.
¶Now, since the lyrics are slightly difficult to read in the photos above, I will present them here:

When the clouds have hurried by,
And the evening moon is nigh,
To my bed I fairly fly,
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders,
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed to and sleep.

¶Obviously, the song is more descriptive of a boy’s day-dream than of something he is likely to experience in his sleep. Let’s just grant it the excuse of “poetic license”.

Finis

Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to WBUR.org.’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.

Finis

Fragile Civilisation

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.

My description of  this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.

But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.

Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.

I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.”  He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.

Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.

At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.

Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.

Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.

I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.

For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.

Finis

 

 

Pomp and Circumstance

© 2016 by Bob Litton.  All Rights Reserved.

The two theme ideas that have been hounding me lately are quite different from each other, one being the ultimate in the grandiose (“The Idea of God”) and the other so bland as almost to amount to trivia (“Academic Regalia”). Naturally, being the lazy and cowardly person that I am, I opted for the latter.

It all started this way: Last week our hometown university published a notice in the local weekly announcing who the guest speaker at this year’s graduation ceremony would be. There was a fairly lengthy description of the speaker in the paper; but, because he was an alumnus of the same university as I, I wanted to know more; so I used a search engine. Unfortunately but naturally enough, this year’s speaker hadn’t been announced yet when the program was published online. However, serendipitously I happened upon some information that was just as intriguing.

Firstly, I was surprised to see that college administrators can be just as dictatorial as the Misses Grundy’s we encountered our first year in grade school — when they separated us into “blue birds” and “red birds”. Here is how the university organized the commencement (the blue and red highlightings are my addition):

IMPORTANT DOs and DON’Ts for graduates and guests:
• Attend rehearsal at 2 p.m. on Friday, May 13th so you know the marching order.
• Arrive by 9 a.m. on the day of graduation, Saturday, May 14th.  The ceremony will begin at 10:00am.
• Leave valuables with family members during the ceremony.  There is no secure place for your belongings.
• Wear proper academic regalia.
• No selfies, hijinks, or inappropriate behavior as you cross the stage.
• Cell phones should be turned off or placed on silent.
• Students are expected to return to their seats after the on-stage presentation. The last person is just as important as the first.
• Diplomas will be mailed two weeks after commencement.  If you choose to pick up your diploma, please contact the Provost’s office.
• Guests should arrive early as seating is on a first come, first serve basis.
• Use of air horns, noisemakers, or other disruptive items is strictly PROHIBITED.
• Guests are expected to remain in their seats during the ceremony.
• Photos are allowed in the designated area only. To avoid congestion, please limit the number of guests on the venue floor.
• Guests should sit in the designated areas only; seats on the floor are reserved for faculty and graduates only. Do not stand in the aisles.

My, my! I innocently had thought that by the time one graduated from college, he or she would have grown out of pranksterism, but here we are with the graduates being warned not to engage in “hijnks” or any other sort of “inappropriate behavior” as they cross the stage. And I was curious whether anyone during any previous commencement had blown an “airhorn”.  The wording reminded me of our current political caucuses and primaries. Of course, most of the other instructions are moderate and understandable, assuming the exercise is going to exhibit any organization at all.

Well, I said “moderate”, but I don’t know if that is really the true case or not. For, look at the blue-highlighted item: “Wear proper academic regalia.” Elsewhere in the instruction pages the graduates are informed where they can “buy” the caps and gowns — at the campus bookstore — but the cost is not listed. When I was graduated from high school in Dallas in 1958, we didn’t have to buy our caps and gowns; but, then, that was presumed to be the only occasion we were to use them. When one gets into the levels of “higher learning”, there can be multiple occasions for wearing the cap and gown (or the gown at least) unless the graduate changes his/her academic field along the way, the reason being that the gowns are color-coded.

I counted twenty colors in the local university’s regalia, but the number of colors will vary from school to school depending upon how many degree programs at the school; the maximum number is eighty-five, but I don’t know of any university that offers that many degree programs.. We are way beyond the “blue bird”/”red bird” stage, folks! I won’t burden you with all twenty colors and their particular fields, just the few that caught my attention for different reasons.

The first one (on their list and mine as well) is Agriculture with its maize gown. According to its Wikipedia article, the term “maize” can be applied to “a variety of shades, ranging from light yellow to a dark shade that borders on orange”. Of all the colors on the gown list, this color — that of our American corn — best matches the academic field it signifies. Hurray for the farmers and county agents!

The next one I noticed (their third on the list) was Accountancy, Business, Commerce: drab. Now, I realize that business majors are often the butt of campus jokes, but isn’t this carrying the humor a bit too far? Drab? Drab is “a dull, light brown color, the color of undyed wool”. I won’t say any more about it.

The colors for Education (light blue) and Philosophy (dark blue) intrigued me because they are both blues; but is there any significance, other than a limited number of colors to draw upon, in their intensity difference? My imagination hints the answer: “Yes!” For, Education can be a light-hearted field, particularly if the graduates are going into elementary school teaching; while Philosophy, as I discovered too late, is usually way too dark for safe living, especially if you concentrate on Schopenhauer and the Existentialists.

A little further down the list we come upon Journalism (crimson). Being a former journalist, I was naturally curious about that color and why a shade of red was chosen, the color often associated with anger. I would have expected to read “yellow”, not out of any association with cowardice but rather harking back to the historical period of “yellow journalism”. On the other hand, such a choice would have been almost as bad as the drab tacked onto Accountancy, etc.

As for the students having to purchase their caps and gowns, I suppose at least some of them will end up donning them again on a few later occasions, when they earn higher degrees, even honorary ones. And, of course, those who become college professors will have to don theirs at least twice a year for future commencement ceremonies. As for those who entertain no further academic ambitions as such, they can just box their caps and gowns and stow them away in their attics with other memorabilia.

I don’t have any problem with old academic regalia myself, for I did not attend either my bachelor’s or my master’s graduation ceremonies: I had my degrees mailed to me. My memory of that tedious high school graduation with 494 students marching up to the stage at Dallas’ State Fair Music Hall to receive our individual degrees while a band doggedly played Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” over and over again was too vivid a memory.

Finis

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