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Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Because it's best to have a sense of humor about these things:

And an opinion on the Oxford comma (also called the Harvard comma, the serial comma, or the series comma, used in lists of three or more):


Now, just as a word to the wise, the Oxford comma is actually optional. Technically, you can omit it if you wish. But with this illustration in my head, I generally use it!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Glories of Professorship and University Life

A few weeks ago I sent out a request asking for reading recommendations for the summer. While the Barnes & Noble in Manchester is sadly inadequate, it did have one book on the long list I received: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl (Thanks for the suggestion, Marisa Wolfe). I'm only 60 pages in, so I'm reserving judgement, but so far there have already been a number of passages that made me wish I had a pen or pencil on me. Here's one of them for you. The father of the main character is a university professor, and very much in love with his job, as the following passage indicates:
"I'm serious. Is there anything more glorious than a professor? Forget about his molding the minds, the future of a nation -- a dubious assertion; there's little you can do when they tend to emerge from the womb predestined for Grand Theft Auto Vice City. No. What I mean is, a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life -- not the whole thing, God no -- simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order -- simply divine. The symmetry of a semester course. Consider the words themselves: the seminar, the tutorial, the advanced whatever workshop accessible only to seniors, to graduate fellows, to doctoral candidates, the practicum -- what a marvelous word: practicum! You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voila -- looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one's deepest understanding of giant concepts. No wonder so many adults long to return to university, to all those deadlines -- ahhh, that structure! Scaffolding to which we may cling! Even if it is arbitrary, without it, we're lost, wholly incapable of separating the Romantic from the Victorian in our sad, bewildering lives..." (11-12)
Besides the fact of his being entirely correct about us needing order and structure (I confess, I'm a little bewildered at the thought that if indeed I am successful in getting a job as a book editor, I'll no longer live within the context of a "school year"), I think he's hitting on something deeper. What astounds me about atheism is the courage that it has to take. I would be absolutely terrified if I thought there was no higher being than myself. Sure, I'm responsible for a lot, but there's someone up there infinitely more intelligent and powerful who has things under control. Not that professors are God or anything, but weren't there certain teachers or professors you've had that you could sit and listen to all day long, whose store of knowledge and experience and understanding of the world was monumentally impressive? Humans like having a reliable authority, someone they can go to for the answers, someone they can always trust to explain what's going on. I remember my mother telling me once, "I have no advice to give you. You already know everything I would say." I was horrified! Outraged! Really, really scared. I experienced a similar feeling of shock when I went to an old professor of mine saying, "I've just finished Wise Blood, and I need help understanding what's going on here." He responded, "I've never read it, but I've seen the movie." Well, I was dumbfounded. He's supposed to know EVERYTHING. He's supposed to have read everything. Luckily, based on his knowledge of Flannery O'Connor and the movie, he was still able to help. So, like the speaker above says, professors can't frame all of life for us -- though we might view them as deities at times, they are only minor ones, each with their own sphere of knowledge. But if you have a good university, guess what? All spheres will be covered! And it will be organized and neat and tidy, and the constant evaluations would keep you on your toes, help you understand the world, and, ultimately be a superior form of yourself. Life would be better. So, the conclusion? EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO GRAD SCHOOL!!! Who's paying?

Monday, June 18, 2012


Forgive the brevity of today's post. I'm going to plead wrapping up my job, moving, and enjoying three days of wedding festivities (congratulations, Deirdre and John!) to excuse my shocking lack of reading and literary conversation over the last week. With that apology...

I don't know how many of you are familiar with the Liturgy of the Hours. If you aren't, it is, very much in brief, Catholic monks and nuns chanting the psalms and doing scripture readings at particular hours of each day. Of course, you don't have to be in a religious order to pray the psalms like that -- us ordinary folk get to do it, too. I've never done them all regularly, but in college I did routinely chant Compline, the nighttime prayer, with a group of friends. Long story short, one of my favorite verses came up yesterday, but in a translation to make any English teacher ridiculously excited: Be sober and watch, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. Whom resist ye, strong in faith; (1 Peter 5:9)

Now, because I've heard other like-minded people correct those sinners among us who say "who" when they ought  to be saying "whom", I imagine I'm not alone in reading that verse and saying, "Hey hey!! Yes! Whom resist ye! Cool!" Anyway, hope you appreciate it, too.

And for one final bit of silliness on a very serious grammatical issue threatening the stability of modern society, please note the angry eyebrows of the second owl.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Word "Nice"

Last night I had a discussion with some friends about what I had thought to be an innocuous word: nice. I actually like it, but I was surprised by the vehemence with which most of the room condemned it as bland, and even insulting in that if you can't say something legitimately good about a person (presumably because they either have a bad personality or none at all), you call them "nice" and leave it at that. It covers a multitude of faults, but in a way that alerts its hearers to the unspoken presence of those faults in the person it describes. Or, at least, I found last night that this is what most people think when they hear it. My first inkling that I might have an unusual appreciation for the word was in my senior year of high school. I remember trying to compliment a Polish class mate of mine, in the midst of a round of less-than-friendly jokes, by saying that all of the Polish people I had met were really nice. Let's just say he wasn't very nice in his reception of the compliment. Well, gee, I thought, I'm sorry. I've always used it as a legitimate compliment, and when, during the discussion last night, I gave an example of how I might use it, everyone granted me leave to continue in my albeit naive and somewhat singular appreciation of the word. Phew.

Anyway, thinking back to a college class from which I remember that it once used to mean someone overly prim and proper, I decided to look it up this morning and find out how the meaning of this word went astray. Can I just say, etymologies are awesome. From the Online Etymology Dictionary (emphasis added):
late 13c., "foolish, stupid, senseless," from O.Fr. nice "silly, foolish," from L. nescius "ignorant," lit. "not-knowing," from ne- "not" (see un-) + stem of scire "to know." "The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj." [Weekley] -- from "timid" (pre-1300); to "fussy, fastidious" (late 14c.); to "dainty, delicate" (c.1400); to "precise, careful" (1500s, preserved in such terms as a nice distinction and nice and early); to "agreeable, delightful" (1769); to "kind, thoughtful" (1830). In 16c.-17c. it is often difficult to determine exactly what is meant when a writer uses this word. By 1926, it was pronounced "too great a favorite with the ladies, who have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness." [Fowler]

Of course, always unfailing, Jane Austen has a few words to say on the subject as well:

"I am sure," cried Catherine, "I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?" "Very true," said Henry, "and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything." (Northanger Abbey)

 And, while we're on the subject, it's time for one of my personal favorites: The English Are So Nice, by D. H. Lawrence:

The English are so nice
so awfully nice
they are the nicest people in the world.

And what's more, they're very nice about being nice
about your being nice as well!
If you're not nice they soon make you feel it.

Americans and French and Germans and so on
they're all very well
but they're not really nice, you know.
They're not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?

That's why one doesn't have to take them seriously.
We must be nice to them, of course,
of course, naturally.
But it doesn't really matter what you say to them,
they don't really understand
you can just say anything to them:
be nice, you know, just nice
but you must never take them seriously, they wouldn't understand,
just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
not too nice of course, they take advantage
but nice enough, just nice enough
to let them feel they're not quite as nice as they might be.

Amazing, right? "Just nice enough / to let them feel they're not quite as nice as they might be." Ouch. Anyway, I suppose this poem does of course deftly and elegantly derail any reasoning behind my fond attachment to "nice", but, of course, based on the remarkably evolutionary etymology of the word, who knows? Maybe my use of it will rise to the top in connotation and eventually become the primary meaning of it over the next hundred years. Ah, language...

PS. I am well aware of the geekiness of this post.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Suffering and Human Restlessness

I recently found out that one of my students is very sick, and while I won't go into details, I have been very confused and stricken on his behalf, thinking of the hard road that lies ahead of him. I watched him struggling today, and was so sad for him, and so overwhelmed by the seeming senselessness of what he will have to handle. One of my friends is also going through a really awful time, and also in a way that I can't understand or help. Over the weekend I heard of 3 more people whom I know personally who are having severe and debilitating struggles with health. When I came home from work today, one of the girls I'm staying with (I moved out of my apartment last week) told me an awfully sad story. She is also a teacher, but at a different school. One of her students, a 16 year old boy, just hung himself. I just don't understand. None of this is happening directly to me, and yet I feel entirely undone, entirely unable to handle it or help with any of it. We read so much about suffering and pain, and we hear that prayer helps all things, and I suppose it will eventually, but I don't understand. I just don't get it. I know I'm not the first one to feel angry and powerless about it, and I don't have anything profound to say to make it make any sense or be any better. All of the theological explanations and philosophical justifications that might make it seem logically more sensible don't help with the fact that ultimately, when it comes down to the actual experience of it, it's awful and horrible and nothing we say or do makes us like it, or, worse yet, makes us like watching others go through it.

Sonnet on Human Restlessness
I stopped, when I began to be at peace.
The reason known but distantly, I raged
And cursed at our flightly human ease,
Always, only, ever, or merely staged.
I know, each hour I see another sink
To a fury of despair and sorrow,
This incensed soul is not the first to think
On unrest waiting for your Good Morrow
To quiet this lacerated longing
Of all your weary creatures. Fled from your
Gentle love, though to it still belonging,
We despise, ache, for entry of that door.
And will this restless strain be here, always,
And life seem more than a transient phase?

From a letter I received recently: " 'Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.' I find it amazing, and beautiful, that behind the eyes of the hundreds of people we may meet every day, behind the windshield of every car we pass on the highway, and on the other side of every window of every office building, there is a human person with his own family and his own history and his own consciousness, who may be rejoicing, or suffering deeply, and if we aren't sensitive and receptive we may never know it."