Talk to Me, Dammit: A Lamentation

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Disconnected

A wise friend once observed she could live life without ever, or at least rarely, leaving her house if she chose. She could buy groceries and other goods and have them delivered to her, arrange for her car to be serviced, set up play dates for her children, and manage countless other tasks from the privacy and convenience of her home. And for this woman in particular a “shut-in” kind of existence might have held a special appeal: she was mama to young triplets, two girls and a boy. And she was terminally ill.

Her life held so many challenges when I knew her, the logistics of getting everybody where they needed to be—on time and prepared—second only to taking care of herself. Helping her wrangle children and belongings one sunny morning only a couple of days after her routine chemotherapy, I mused what a monumental challenge parenting her brood must be—I don’t know how you do it so seamlessly, I said. Sweeping a gorgeous curly lock from her tired face, she quipped in her endearing deadpan, You’ve gotta have a lot of bags.

I found that so comically reductionist, but it made perfect sense at that moment when we were shuffling towels and children and floaties from our cars to the neighborhood pool for a playdate. Beyond clever life strategies, though, my friend possessed a disposition that eschewed a cloistered life: she longed to be part of a community of people. She made it a point to leave the house and do everything the conventional way, with face-to-face encounters in all our neighborhood venues and beyond. And when she could not leave she brought the community to her home in weekly morning gatherings.

She’s gone now and her children are grown. She made that important observation about community more than a decade ago, when the web had already facilitated so much for so many, and when the emerging smartphone technology was changing how we communicate with each other. In her obituary my friend opined that we’re put on this planet to help each other; when I reflect on her words now, I believe they were prophetic. We pay a heavy toll for crawling inside ourselves and forgetting the real, three-dimensional world all around us. I don’t mean nature, or even the built environment, but the world of people.

Are we losing our ability to talk to each other? My own Millennial grew up with a multitude of devices at his fingertips; they are a fluid extension of him. But there are times I want to reach through the ether, grab him by the collar, and shake the stew out of him. In our almost-daily video chats, despite the magical technology that truncates the thousand miles separating us to two feet, there is sometimes more dead air time than talk. While the line is open he simultaneously texts or messages friends (and even people he does not know) from various platforms; sometimes he says “hang on,” other times he engages without telling me, so I’m confused as to whom he is speaking at that moment. Once in a while I hand him some tough love: I’ll hang up and you can call me back when you’re ready to talk to me <click>. That feels so mom-ish and old fashioned, but still: I can’t imagine indulging him this way helps him develop the skills he needs to become a responsible adult, a road he’s still navigating. Or maybe it does; maybe the mere “presence” of his mom means as much to him now as it did when he was a child, even if there is no meaningful exchange of ideas.

Still, it’s a disquieting habit. I helped raise this kid and therefore presumably own it, along with his dad. He represents others of his ilk, a generation for whom the communication game has changed, and the rules are no longer recognizable, at least not to me. Being brushed off by someone less familiar to you than a member of your own family, when they owed you at least a modicum of decorum or civility but failed to disengage from a piece of hardware, is more difficult to wave off; these people feel damaged to me.

But I also wonder whether our fantastic modern devices are damaging the rest of us, who were not born wearing earbuds. Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I recently observed another couple at a local eatery who were each buried in a device for nearly their entire meal. They did not speak, coming up for air only long enough to shovel down bites of food, then turning back to whatever important thing held their rapt attention. We grinned and shook our heads.

I admit to drinking the Kool-Aid, too, as a compulsive user of small electronics. And I produce digital marketing content for a living, working in an industry that has grown up around this technology and helped shape it: you could say I’m part of the problem on a global scale. But our devices are intoxicating: they deliver the world to us in the palm of our hand. Who can resist that Siren? And paradoxically they’ve disconnected us, I think. To be sure, there are times when that is the better alternative—in a crowded doctor’s waiting room or on a jetliner, for example, when the need to create a barrier is important and real. On more than one occasion I’ve buried myself in a device to avoid an encounter with an undesirable; a book would have stepped up to the plate years ago, still a willing companion from time to time when you remembered to bring it. The phone, though, is small, powerful, and it’s always there. And when you live in the middle of nowhere as I have in recent years, it can actually help you feel connected, that is assuming you can find a signal.

Our devices make us feel evolved, but I question that condition when they appear to isolate us from each other instead of drawing us together. Look at me when I’m talking to you, your mom once insisted. Wouldn’t it be something if this one familiar refrain, forgotten in some circles, may finally be so important it saves us as a species? After all, maybe we really were put here to help each other.

Tower of Babel: A Lyrical Reflection

Tower of Babel, M.C. Escher, 1928; woodcut
Tower of Babel, woodcut; M.C. Escher, 1928

 

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.—Albus Dumbledore

She is ugly, irksome, annoying, galling, reprehensible…I could go on. She is instantly recognizable even from a distance, satisfying to mock, deride, and pelt with stones. She is worse still when she stands before you. And on that day you let the rock fall from your hand and tolerated her, you suffered a fool gladly.

I admit to it: I submitted to her and she sank to the lowest depths of my expectations. She answered me at the end of a horrific transaction, bit me in the ass while I was still licking the wounds on my face. I let it happen, I watched the transaction unfold like the train wreck it was. The passerby could not avert his gaze, saucer-eyed, clicking his tongue, relieved it was not he entangled in the wreckage. Occasionally he made an observation about the cause of the crash, but most often he was wrong.

I put myself in harm’s way because of a vulnerable creature who stood between us, listening to her with my mouth open but without a voice while she roared on like a massive diesel engine, nonsensically, diabolically, stating her case without merit. She did not care about the damage and suffering she left in her wake, only that her own needs were satisfied, licking the greasy bits from her chin, a loud belch issuing from her gullet. I recognized the stench, I have smelt it before.

Then before she took her leave she flexed her muscles in a menacing way, and looking over her shoulder warned me not to test her.

So I set about sweeping up the shards from the wreckage a pile at a time, knowing I’ll be stooped to this task until my back is breaking and my hands are calloused. I’ll bag up the detritus and kick the remaining bits and pieces to the curb, resolving to be ever watchful, to read the fine print. She will be long gone by then, already surveying the landscape for a new prospect.

Together with others (there are most assuredly others) I enabled her and in so doing gave her confidence and power. But she lives in a fantasy realm, surveying the outside world through a distorted lens: she has only to tempt the wrong fate before her imagined world crashes down around her, and in that instant the truth will come into crystalline focus: she will suffer losses and they will be monumental. She will lash out angrily, as she is wont to do, and heap blame for her lot in life everywhere except the one place it belongs.

Beware her: she will beseech your charity and goodwill, she’ll wink at you and call you a kindred spirit, touching her hand to her brow. But when you shine a light on her she will transform, revealing her true self, and then she will vilify you to satisfy her own delusions.

Entitlement, I will be watching for you: never again look to me for goodwill, nor charity. Leave, and take your needy minions with you—Self-Righteousness and Greed—and feed your hunger elsewhere.

Licking Our Wounds: Hindsight, You Win.

Hindsight
Hindsight

I once had a dog who destroyed the back seat of my brand new car in under ten minutes, reducing it to softball-size pieces of upholstery foam; a friend was with me and the two of us had darted inside the grocery for a moment. The dog, a beautiful Siberian Husky gal named Chaika, was all giggles and grins when we returned to the car. Chaika was a love, and that is all. But she came to my family as a shelter dog with an unknown past. One thing was clear about her: she was anxious as hell around food. Mealtime was the only time to be careful around this dog, who would as soon take your hand as she would the bowl of food you placed on the floor for her. In hindsight the food anxiety was probably symptomatic of anxiety in general, including separation anxiety. At the time I considered myself a seasoned handler of dogs; Chaika proved me wrong. Dogs will shame you that way.

Over years, and then decades, I’ve had dogs who peed and pooped in the house seemingly for sport, who destroyed thousands in books, furniture, and other objects, who behaved badly at the end of a leash in spite of diligent obedience training, who were antisocial around people, or antisocial around dogs, or both. I’ve also had well-mannered dogs who were a joy to be around. You could say dog problems are really people problems, and I’d be inclined to agree, but most every dog in my life has been complicated in some way, just like we are. Still, each one has enriched my life immeasurably; my last German Shepherd Dog, Clarence-the-Canine, was mine alone and came closest of any to being a “soul dog.” When Clarence died in 2013 I could not imagine my life without him, and the void he left was every bit as horrific as I guessed it would be and then some.

Teddy was my first shepherd and came to us (my ex-husband and then-seven-year-old child), as something of a rescue. His past was known, but problematic, his bloodlines a mystery. Turns out he had an intussusception—a dangerous “telescoping” of the colon that’s often fatal. The surgeon who repaired him also removed an entire plastic bowl from his gut during the surgery, an indicator of big problems in his previous life. He came through it all fine, healed well, but emerged a changed dog, one who was no longer recognizable to us. And while he remained loyal to a fault, he could not be trusted around other dogs or people because of his aggression. One afternoon he escaped an obedience exercise and bolted across our front lawn, laying into our next-door neighbor, whom he damaged badly. Things could have ended worse, thank the universe they did not. There can be no shelter in a family for a biting dog, period. In Teddy’s case, we foolishly believed there was hope for rehabilitation; he proved us wrong time and again, and because we cleaved to this silly notion people were hurt.

Warden bit me in the face Monday night in an episode I’ve replayed too many times to count. There was nothing impressive about the circumstances, no warning (or there was and I missed it), only a lightning-fast but powerful bite followed by a toothy snarl after an episode of affection, leaving a gaping hole in my nose, an anguished chef, an upset dog, and ending with a prolonged visit to the ER and a sleepless night. I bear Warden no ill will; he has no recollection of biting me and has spent the first few days of his mandatory ten-day quarantine with us confused about disruptions to routines we were already establishing, but also affectionate and friendly. I am sad he bit when he might have reacted to whatever was bothering him another way—with a warning growl, or pulling away, for example. But in that one moment he sealed his fate: he is forever ruined now as a family dog, nor could he ever be trusted in the office where he was to go with me every day—this was to be Warden’s important work. And he certainly can’t live here with us now.

Could I or we have seen this coming? Initially the answer was emphatically, no way. In hindsight, there were red flags reaching into this dog’s past. Our thinking was clouded by our emotions, so determined were we to welcome Warden into our family. He is a beautiful animal with distinguished bloodlines, and that is where our affinity for him must end. He will remain here for the duration of his quarantine period and then we shall foster him for the time being; he will not be euthanized.

However heartbroken we are for this awful turn of events, we are as awakened by it. Will we have another dog eventually? I hope so. Will it be a shepherd? Probably not, but maybe: it’s too soon to decide.

Five years ago I resolved to trust my gut when surveying the landscape around me, because I’ve been right every time I suspect something’s up; I did not stay true to myself in Warden’s case. I hope hindsight will not bite me next time around.

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Writing with Precise Language: Why it Matters

Precise Language
Precise Language

In my professional life writing and editing copy for a digital marketing agency I read a lot of other copy floating around the ‘net. And while the volume of trendy, quippy, or just plain prosaic writing in the cyber sphere may come as no surprise to many, what surprises and disappoints me is how much of it falls under the mantle of elite publishing houses, a phenomenon that somehow gives it more credence. If you’re thinking I should climb down off my high horse, rest assured I don’t adhere to the philosophy that all published copy should be scrubbed clean of colorful slang or modern conventions, far from it: I find the evolution of the spoken and written word through history fascinating. And of course the intended audience of any piece of writing matters. But our language is a barometer for who we are, after all. And using imprecise language (because it’s easy, it’s recognizable, and everybody’s doing it) is a trend that mirrors the bigger, more disquieting habit of indifference we’ve embraced collectively for a couple of generations now; it reaches into most aspects of our cultural experience as Americans.

I’ll use clothing as an example. When I was a kid I recall my mom dressing for routine doctor appointments. Visiting the doctor was an occasion: she piled her hair into a beautiful French twist, pulled on her stockings under a tailored skirt, and left the house in a pair of pumps and a blazer with a string of pearls around her neck. It’s what you did when you visited a professional in the 1960s; dressing up was a show of respect for a trusted expert who you hoped would in turn deliver sound advice. This relationship was precisely defined, and my mom’s attire—and presumably her doctor’s—helped to clearly demarcate its boundaries.

At five I was to fly across my erstwhile home state of Tennessee alone to visit my grandmother, who would be there to greet me at the gate; I was a little terrified, considerably thrilled. Getting my fancy new travel outfit was as much an occasion as the plane ride itself. Have you seen anybody dressed up on a jetliner lately? How about at the theatre? Many folks still observe at least a modicum of decorum for an 8:00 curtain, but I guarantee you’ll find at least a few who look like they grabbed a rumpled something off the floor for a night out, even in a highfaultin venue. As a former classical ballerina and ballet teacher, I assure you the artists on the stage appreciate the effort you made to come and see them in the first place, but also the show of enthusiasm in your deportment and behavior (read: you dressed to the nines, turned off your devices, and applauded like crazy during the curtain calls).

The clothing metaphor may be a stretch, but you get my drift: indifference, thou hast congealed among us—in our manners, too. For example, when did ‘no problem’ come into common parlance as an acceptable response to ‘thank you?’ It’s what most of us say, but comes across more as a retort than as true politesse. Say I’m nitpicking, but quipping ‘no problem’ after an expression of heartfelt gratitude implies whatever act of grace preceded it might have been a problem, and don’t you forget it. This trend bothered me for years until I finally gave in and assumed there were no strings attached for most—it’s simply what people say anymore: your waiter sets a beautiful bowl of steaming pasta on the table before you and you thank him; no problem, he says. But the rarer ‘you’re welcome,’ still catches me off guard. And to be fair, ‘you’re welcome’ had its own day as a new expression in England in the 1300s, but with distinctly friendlier underpinnings than its modern-day “problematic” replacement.

Which brings me to writing. Every year Lake Superior State University publishes a list of banished words; it’s worth a gander if you’ve never looked. If one could distill useful writing tools to a short list for a newbie, this little gem might top it. And were you to find a common thread among these words and expressions, you could call it banality. (Can’t you hear your prep school English teacher’s echoing admonitions about hackneyed language?) An expression or turn of phrase that no doubt seemed clever and appropriate—even precise—in its original context, is now besmeared across the ether, rolled around, moused over, used to pieces, until it is beaten beyond recognition. It is destined for the waste bin—or at least the laundry, like the rumpled clothing on the floor, only we’re too lazy to pick it up and put it where it belongs: instead we press it into service time and again because, well, everybody’s doing it. Sounds like indifference to me.

But imprecise language can also make you sound stupid. You can call a thing iconic without knowing the word ‘icon’ comes from the Greek for ‘likeness’ and has specific connotations within the Greek Orthodox tradition, and through time has come to mean a standard that represents a larger group, but you’re more likely to misuse it as ‘renowned.’ You can say something was literally the last thing on your mind, when you meant to underscore it was the last thing you were considering on a longer list of thoughts, not that an object called the Last Thing was perched on this other object called My Mind. Or you could say it’s literally raining men, when you meant it figuratively, unless men are actually falling out of the sky like rain. Or you could start a sentence with the expression, ‘there are no words to describe,’ but chances are many perfectly good words can describe whatever thing you were about to name—in this case using imprecise language gets you off the hook and requires exactly zero effort on your part.

One has only to turn to the 2016 presidential campaigns to recognize the ill effects of imprecise language: not only have our candidates set the decorum bar very low in this election (practically scraping the ground), but the candidates themselves, or their speech writers anyway, insist on using the same words and expressions time and again, until they play on continuous loop on our screens, across the airwaves, and in our heads. Speaking only for myself, I’ve stopped listening; time to sweep those words into the waste bin.

Why does precise language matter? Because words have meaning. You can pull on your day-old jeans with the sweatshirt you peeled off before you climbed into bed last night. Or you can open your closet and choose something more refined. Or thumb through the dictionary or thesaurus for the word that means precisely what you meant to say. The path of indifference is well traveled, and expected—and that is one compelling reason not to take it.