We’re all thinking about words this week–what we should have said or not said, which conversations we should have walked (or clicked) away from, or how we could phrase something differently from now on. Anyone who’s not asking that question of themselves, even casually, anyone who doesn’t bother to reflect for even a second on how they participate this latest version of “How did we get here?” I have to assume is pathologically arrogant. We all tacitly allow stuff to go on that should probably stop. We all say things that could be said differently.
57 percent of the country thinks that political speech had nothing to do with what happened on Saturday and I’m going to bet a good chunk of that 57 percent would spontaneously combust at the thought of restricting that speech. There’s a contradiction in there: the words didn’t matter, but then again, they do and they have and they will, so back off. I don’t think you can have it both ways. I’m not advocating for restricting any speech, I’m advocating for fearlessly acknowledging the awesome power of that speech, bowing humbly before your dictionary.
Consider the questions the statistic itself raises: Who wrote the survey that enabled someone to arrive at that statistic? Who made the choice that allowed that number to become part of the conversation? At its roots, speech is about choice. There’s almost nothing involuntary about language once we get past the most basic stages.
I once read a horribly boring book about the evolution of language that I still have and still think about all the time. It was an argument about what role language plays in the formation of power and leadership and class. It was a book about hierarchies and how they’re both formed and undermined by language. To say any more would make you all go someplace else, but it was great, even as I groaned at every page. The words we choose describe and reveal our status, membership, access. Even to deny it or turn away from that power structure, whatever it is, we still have to engage it. To escape it entails a silence as difficult as choosing not to breathe.
There are a couple of words out there that I can’t stand to hear; words that intelligent, thoughtful people use all the time. Useful descriptors, they’re generally accepted in the casual conversation of even the most cautious speakers. They drive me bananas because of the weight they carry that we’ve all forgotten about, or have chosen to look past. They’re easy–they get the job done–but they’re cruel. I’m not listing them here because I’m not willing to give anyone the opportunity to try to defend their use, nor am I interested in shaming anyone out of using them. You’re all smart people–you can make your own decisions. I probably have a few in my vocabulary that have the same effect on someone else. In fact, I know I do. It’s statistically impossible for me not to.
Recently a friend told me a story and dropped in one of those words I can’t stand. This is a friend whose compassion I admire, but hearing that word felt like taking a really good stretch and getting poked in the ribs. Did I say anything about it? Nope. I’ve had that conversation often enough and I come off sounding like a loon. Also, sometimes it distracts from an otherwise great conversation. I’m lazy, too.
Let’s all think about something–and I’m not asking for comments, I’m asking for silent contemplation: Which words do you not need to use? Which words do you use and defend with a weird ferocity? Which ones do you claim you have a right to use no matter how other people feel about them, but that, truthfully, there are a dozen others that would still get the job done? Let’s say some of those words fall into both categories–what could you replace them with? And why don’t you make the effort? What are you afraid to lose?
Deranged. Exsanguinated. Conniption.
These are my favorite words of the last week. I like the way they sound. I like that they describe extremes.
I have no reason to use them in my regular life, thankfully (although it may not seem that way, depending on the hour), and some eager writing teacher would tell me to make a story out of them. Create a scene…That would be a damned awful story, but still, I don’t want to forget them.
Over the last week, I’ve cleaned out one email account, abandoned another, made an exhaustive list of projects over the next three months of my life, called the plumber, the washing machine guy, the eye doctor, and a whole bunch of other people. This is “new year” stuff, things I’ve been muttering about for months but somehow couldn’t act on until after that nice, quiet, final week of the year. These are items on the list I made in the fall.
One of the other things on the list is to figure out what color to paint the room that serves as an office in my house. Right now, it’s painted in the same wide blue and yellow stripes that have been there since we moved in three years ago. I can’t stand it, but I’ve figured out a way not to look at it, even when I’m in there. There are yards of space on those walls we haven’t used, and it drives me quietly insane. It’s time to paint it and stick a bulletin board in there for all the other words I can’t find a place for.
There’s something here about clearing away one kind of chaos to make room for another–a more productive chaos, a chaos that’s more fun. It’s not something that happens on the first of the year, either. It’s a project we chip away at, isn’t it? It just feels more like an event when we do it in early January, so we think we’re crawling over all the old junk, leaving it in the old year and moving forward. It’s arbitrary, but it feels nice.
So here’s to chaos–the good kind. The kind that gives me a chance to put my conniptions in the right place.
So last week I wrote a post about a joke I didn’t bother telling and I talked somewhere in there about how I hate the thought of being misunderstood. My friend and steadfast supporter, Heather (who approved this message), commented (I’m paraphrasing) that she thought that sounded limiting. I tried to explain what I think I’m doing here. An exchange ensued…in her last comment she asked me a whole bunch of questions. They were good questions, but not easy ones, about why I write the way I do. In order to answer them honestly I had to run the risk of sounding as if I was criticizing every process that wasn’t like mine. (I’m not going to repeat them all here, because y’all can just go there and see how it all plays out.)
I had a whole mess of choices: I could have answered her in an email and said, “Damn, woman…I don’t give a sweet flaming goddamn how anyone else writes or why.” She would have laughed. But I had to answer her here, too. I could have answered her here that way, but the person landing here out of nowhere (and it appears there are a couple of those) might have read that and thought: “Wow, tough room…” Also, I had this weird sense that if I answered Heather instead of Heather’s questions, it would all start to feel like a private discussion. That’s not what we’re doing here. So I aimed for the middle: I answered the questions, while trying not to sound like two pals chatting alone.
Then this morning I get an email from Heather, the gist of which was: “Did my comments make you mad? You sound mad.” Had I been standing in front of her I would have burst out laughing, but you can’t do that in email. The same woman who had suggested I worried too much about how other people “read” me was totally misunderstanding my writing. See the gag there? It’s not that funny, but it does prove my point.
What I was trying to say was what I do here and why I do it has no bearing on anything else that’s ever written anywhere. I don’t think I’m all that good at this, nor do I think I’m right about much. I do know I like to write, so I practice it, at least on the days when I don’t feel like writing is sucking my ego down some giant drain pipe. I’m never going to be that person who will bear my soul on here, nor will I be someone who lays out huge philosophical thoughts worthy of long, heated discussions. That’s why I click away from here, so you all can do that, and I can watch from the safety of my house. I’m doing my thing, you all do your thing and we’ll all read each other wrong together. It’s got a strange and horrifying beauty to it, don’t you think?
The joke was about Snooki. Yesterday, I saw a post on Yahoo about “popular Halloween costumes” and saw a woman dressed as Snooki from Jersey Shore (big hair, boobs merely framed by the neckline of her dress) and I almost posted this line on Facebook: “This year, for Halloween, I’m going to dress up as Snooki.” The joke was on me, on the mathematical impossibility that I would ever wear something that short/tight/low-cut, or do that to my hair, or any number of other things that characterize Snooki. The joke was that there are few women I am less similar to. I hate dressing up, I can’t stand being in costume, even. And I really go berserk at the thought of calling attention to myself on any physical level beyond being recognizable as a human. I’m kinda shy that way. I was all set to click “Share” when it occurred to me that what could happen after I clicked and walked away for a couple of hours, was that someone would take that as an invitation to talk about the details that make Snooki, well, Snooki.
I don’t actually know anything about Snooki, I’ve just seen her photo and heard a few things about her. Her name’s fun to say, as long as I’m right that it rhymes with “cookie”. I’ve never heard it uttered. Okay, I read the interview with her dad in The New York Times, mostly because I was wondering what the hell the Times would do with it.
At any rate, the joke. What I imagined, just before I decided not to post it, was a string of comments about Snooki. Nasty comments. Evil comments. Because at this point, she’s an easy shot. (Maybe she’s always been an easy shot, who knows.) So I didn’t post it. And maybe some of them might have been funny, if they weren’t attached to an actual person. (Yes, I contend she’s an actual person, no matter how she behaves on camera.)
Every once in a while I hear myself say something I wish I hadn’t. I take a joke too far, just because it’s there–the wordplay–and I can’t resist it. It’s either too dark, too blue, and very rarely it’s too personal. When it is, I can’t stand it, and when I’m the one who’s made it, I immediately wish I could fall into a hole. I can talk my way out of the ill-timed gallows humor and the sex joke, but I get truly squirmy when jokes are about real people. Unless it’s about me; I can handle most jokes about me.
The thing is, had I made the Snooki joke to someone in person, I would have had some control over it. The minute the conversation swerved in her direction, I could have stopped it, made it clear it was about me, not her.
Lest anyone think I’m fretting over something completely inconsequential, let me make this clear: the point here isn’t about protecting Snooki’s good name, it’s about relinquishing control over my intended meaning. In fact, as I’ve been writing this, I’m wondering about all the ways this could be misinterpreted and it makes my head hurt. The other day I went on some snooty little vocabulary tirade that I usually never do, but I was cranky and felt like writing and I take full responsibility for being a brat. I’m not actually proud of that post, but it’s there. I don’t need to be proud of everything, do I? Maybe sometimes I need to teach myself a lesson: take my fingers off the keyboard. I didn’t the other day, and I’ll live with it. Sometimes I’m a real jerk, so there. Writing is weird that way. Or, writing this way is weird–unpredictable. A little scary, even. Scarier, even–some days–than Snooki.
I hate lists, but I need to make one:
- This sketchbook thing may be the dumbest idea I’ve ever had, but now I feel like I need to do it. Also, whatever I do will leave whoever looks at it believing I’m completely insane in a not-so-harmless way.
- I finished that Stephen Asma book On Monsters. I don’t feel like I learned anything and I kinda feel like he was grasping for both relevance and ideas at the end, especially when I saw the photo of bin Laden. I’m now reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and I’m totally freaked out. You want to scare me? Wipe out most of the human race. Also, it kind of inspires me, writing-wise. See first bullet point.
- Can we discuss a picky language thing? Apologies to readers who do this, but I wish members of the English-speaking public would stop using the word “hysterical” when they mean “hilarious.” For the love of the English language and out of respect for the truly, clinically hysterical, cut it out. It drives me crazy. It may even drive me to actual hysteria one day. In fact, it actually sounds like hysteria in my head when I hear someone say, “You’re/That’s hysterical!” as a compliment. (Not knowing other languages well enough, I can’t scold non-English speakers, and yes, there are more heinous offenses, but this is the one I’m talking about now. It’s my blog. Sit tight.) I’m not even comfortable with something being “hysterically funny.” I mean, picture it: someone says something we find funny–I mean funny–and one or all of us laughs so hard we’re screaming and running down the street in a mob, completely oblivious to behavioral norms, rational thought, and other social cues. Really? No one’s that funny, I don’t think, but if it turns out there’s someone out there who is they should be discussed in the next edition of Stephen Asma’s book and carted off to prison, because they’re a threat to society. Okay, I’m done now. (Readership deflates to approximately one.)
- Honestly, that last bullet point is the only one I wanted to write, but I kind of felt like I had to keep up with the other things I’ve thrown out here lately. Next time, less ranting, and more attempts at intelligence, coherence, and other qualities that might bring you all closer rather than drive you away with a stick.