Saturday, October 27, 2012

Letters and Longhand

The mail carrier brings a daily deposit of disappointment: amid the bills and ads and other junk mail, rarely is there a hand-written letter or card.  Except for birthdays and holidays, there is seldom a touch of the personal. Letter-size envelopes sometimes look promising until I see they are marked "Occupant" or something equally disspiriting.

All this came to mind as I read the book Script & Scribble by Kitty Burns Florey, who is literate, witty and informative as she makes a plea for the hand-written word, which seems about to go the way of the dodo.

It shouldn't be: as she notes, TV didn't kill off radio, cars did not displace bicycles, yet the prevalence of email, along with cheaper long distance calling, has made the art of letter writing extinct.

Of course, as etiquette experts Amy Vanderbilt and others remind us, thank-you and sympathy cards have to be in longhand; even Etiquette for Dummies insists on hand-written notes on quality stationery for such occasions.

But many people I know use the informal email to thank us for cards and gifts: it's cheap and fast. Who, Florey asks, needs elegant handwriting today, the kind the nuns taught her (and me)--except cake decorators?

The underlying educational implications of students who never learn to write but only print, the subject of a previous post, is a more serious and bothersome issue. The day may already be here when youngsters cannot even read longhand, much less write it.  Instead, they must always be dependent on an external power source.  Even in classes or at meetings where jotting down notes rapidly requires the speed of longhand.

As Florey and others remind us of the many authors who, even in today's world, write by hand, we realize how much is lost by the refusal of teachers to teach penmanship or cursive writing.  Even a mixture of the two, as I sometimes find myself doing for the sake of legibility--half-printing, half-writing--is better than no cursive writing at all.

Having puzzled over far too many illegible student essay exams over the years, I know how difficult some handwriting can be to read; but that is no reason to abandon it. 

Florey's solution to the classrooom problem is to teach kids "one good, plain, solid, simple, easy, basic, legible, attractive--and fast--method" from the beginning, rather than teaching printing, then (in many cases) moving on to cursive.

Like me, she is concerned not only with efficiency but with aesthetics. Her elegant book is filled with examples of beautiful handwriting, with information on italic writing, pens, calligraphy and a fine discussion of those many authors, including J. K. Rowling, William Boyd, Martin Amis and John Updike, who have insisted on longhand in the digital age.

For years, I have begun most of my essays and other works on a legal pad, with a ball-point pen (the kind frowned on by our teachers in the 1950s: too messy). Revising, of course, is made pleasant and even enjoyable on the word processor, but nothing can replace the look and feel of my own handwriting: I am inscribing on paper a part of myself. It is a physical act and it focuses my attention on the words as they tumble out of my mind in a personal, intimate way that machines (whether typewriters or computers) cannot match.

So I am glad to read in this book about studies--and teachers who agree with these studies--that good handwriting can influence academic performance for the better; they insist that our advances in technology do not eliminate the need for the teaching of handwriting. We remember what we commit to paper, by hand.

Since writing this (10-27-12), I have discovered news about Philip Hensher's recent book, The Missing Ink, which poses the question: As handwriting disappears, will "some part of our humanity disappear as well?"  According to the reviews, his book is a personal response to this question.

I am glad to see him making his point that handwriting reveals individuality in an age of text messaging and other electronic forms of typing.  (update 1-23-13).

Sunday, October 21, 2012

American Exceptionalism

In an interesting article in the NYTimes, Scott Shane (10-19-12) posed a question: what if presidential and other leading political candidates told the full truth? What if they emphasized problems that need addressing and embarrassing facts that detract from the myth that we are No. 1 in the world in all things?

He mentions our being no. 1 in obesity and in energy use per person; he cites figures on child proverty (we rank 34th, near the bottom of advanced economies), infant mortality (where we rank near the bottom), and education (we rank 14th in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a university degree).

The point is not whether these statistics are correct--some facts can rapidly change--but whether most people in America want to be reminded, as Obama sometimes does, of our problems and failures, or whether we need to be comforted with reassurances that our country and its achievement are extraordinary.

Of course, candidates can talk about problems--but only if they mention concrete solutions in the same sentence; they cannot dwell on chronic problems, like crime in inner cities, without being attacked as unpatriotic.

In wanting our president to be a cheerleader, ever-optimisitic, I wonder if we remain--a glittering generality is being unleashed--immature, naive or romantic in our devotion to our special place in history.  In my study of English history, I know that, in the 17th century, whenever the King or Oliver Cromwell spoke of the turbulent revolution they were part of in overthrowing the monarchy, they not only invoked God's will but reassured their audience (non-voting) that England was destined by God as a special place superior to other nations.  Political myths about being exceptional are nothing new.

Perhaps it is part of the myth of the modern nation-state that its citizens must be told of the glories and unique status of their inherited land. But nothing is gained by being simplistic, and much damage is done if political leaders, in refusing to face problems, avoid solving them.  As Allan Lichtman of American University is quoted as saying, there is more avoidance of wrestling with real problems now than in the past. "It has a pernicious effect on our politics and our governing because, to govern, you need a mandate. And you don't get a mandate if you don't say what you going to do."

Does this sound familiar in the exchanges between Romney and Obama, each accusing the other of not being specific?  Yet the people are thought to want what Ronald Reagan gave them: soaring rhetoric about a city on a hill, a new morning for America, after the humiliation of our hostages in Iran (1979). So Jimmy Carter was seen as a one-term failure who talked soberly of an American malaise, to the horror of the politicians, and Obama is attacked for not being sufficiently optimistic about the greatness of America.

No wonder people get tired of these much-too-long campaigns; it is not only the negative ads but, for the intelligent voter, the avoidance of real issues, the emphasis on superficial debates and poll numbers and donations along with political slogans, at the expense of an honest, serious examination of the many problems we face and what can be done so that the great American experiment can always move toward being more perfect.

We are not perfect, never have been and never will be since human nature is imperfect. Where in history is there a perfect society? Why do we want to be flattered about our greatness when the business of politics is to make improvements so that we become a more just society?

I can be proud of my country and its achievements without claiming its exceptional status, beyond criticism. We criticize what we love and want to improve.

Perhaps many Americans agree with T. S. Eliot's dictum, even if they never heard of him: "Humankind cannot bear too much reality." It is easier and safer to escape into a fantasy relationship with politicians and the political process, to simplify issues into black and white, pro or con, and to go on the attack.  It is easier to lie and demonize one's opponent than to raise questions that seem to deny the pre-eminence of our country in all things.

But then, as George Orwell wrote in 1946, politics is a mass of lies. A lot of people like living with them, it seems.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Who(m) do you trust?

To keep my mind off last night's sprightly debate, and the coming election, I am focusing on grammar today. Or rather usage.

"Whom is not a real word," a 4-year-old told her mother when she had used "whom" correctly in a sentence. Kids are sharp; they know that language has to sound idiomatic. (This comes from a piece in The Economist.)

Years ago, when Johnny Carson was getting started on TV, he hosted a show called, "Who Do You Trust?"  There was a mild uproar in the media, with grammarians complaining shrilly that who should be whom (the direct object of the verb), as most of us over 35 were taught.  Just recently, when VP Joe Biden asked, in his debate with Mr. Ryan, "Who do you trust?" nobody, as far as I know, paid any attention to the normal/informal usage.

WHOM has mostly disappeared, except in formal usage.  Most users of English, says Geoffrey Pullum, using Normal English, steer clear of WHOM. Kids are rarely exposed to Formal English (found in books and highbrow journals) and so have never heard the word.  "Whom did you invite?" sounds stuffy; so today WHO is a standard way to start certain sentences, as in "Who are you talking about?" (or to introduce a relative clause: "Marge is the neighbor who rings my doorbell each afternoon").

The former example involving WHO is an interesting example of language change, of the way usage alters grammar. It takes place slowly.

We live in a culture that prizes spontaneity and ordinary, everyday talk, over the polished and old-fashioned. Who can blame them?  The problem is that, when people write, they carry over the highly informal style of speech they are accustomed to into their academic work, making it sound awkward, immature, or trivial. "History is not much of a turn on," one of my students wrote.

Many would say that the use of WHOM over WHO makes people uneasy, and so they avoid the standard form. Some misuse it when striking a formal prose, as in "He's the candidate WHOM I hope will win the election."  Here the "I hope" does not make WHOM an object; the clause (modifying "candidate") is "who will win the election." The "I hope" is merely inserted, an interpolation.

WHOM will probably remain with us in print, not in speech, where it has been slowly dying. No great loss. More problematic, as in the above election example, is the over-correctness of some people, leading them to make the non-standard grammatical choice.

A friend often says, "Mom gave Judy and I a Caribbean cruise," when he means "me" (the indirect object of gave: she gave to Judy and me). Even worse are the college students who develop the habit, uncorrected at home or school, of saying (and even writing), "Me and Judy are going on a cruise."

First, as I tell them, be polite and put yourself second; then think about the subject of the sentence:  I, not Me is used in the subject spot: It's "Judy and I."

Why, as Henry Higgins famously asked, don't the English learn to speak? Why are we so careless about our valuable inheritance, the rich English language? If we are to communicate effectively, we must listen carefully to the way words are used both in educated speech and in writing.

Tomorrow I am giving a talk, "Fractured English," on the many ways people can stumble in our complex language: the results are often unintentionally humorous, even hilarious.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Boredom and Prayer

I have always been intrigued by the meaning of boredom.  Kathleen Norris a few years ago, in a book on acedia, seemed to connect it with mild depression.

For me, I think of the fear of running out of things to do, as experienced by many kids facing a long summer; or the fear that the present event (a dull talk) will never end. It has to do with time and so we cannot say that our pets are bored (in the way we are) since they lack an awareness of time.

Noah Millman in a recent post (Oct. 8) in the American Conservative gives his own take on the subject: boredom is "a painfully acute awareness of time passing without being filled."  He connects this with his personal reflection on the prayer experience he has had in synogogues, where the long, repetitive chant seems almost unbearable.

But it isn't really boring, he says, if it is done well; attempts to enliven the traditional prayers make the service truly boring. What he finds in the liturgically structured prayers of the synagogue is a "quasi-meditative mental state that really isn't on the boredom-excitement spectrum."  There is comfortable familiarity in the repetition, leading to a trance-like state.

Many say such ritual praying is merely mouthing words and going through the motions of prayer, with the mind elsewhere. And that, says Millman, is just what he wants--not to think about what he is saying; if he did, he would be bored out of his mind.

Whatever intellectual or emotional experience he has happens "on a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the activity of prayer."  Now and then words hit you with their meaning, but by and large, the mindless repetition allows you to float above yourself. It takes you out of the usual pattern of time. So the prayer itself is a means to an end.

This familiar pattern--so familiar it requires no mind--reminds me of what I know of Buddhist chant and, to a lesser extent, of the Catholic rosary: it takes a certain amount of boring practice to get to the point of transcendent meditation where we are no longer aware of ourselves and focus our attention on a scene from the Bible.

When I think of the monastic tradition of contemplative prayer, the use of repeated Psalms that leads sometimes to silence, I wonder: are the Catholic monks who pray this way five or more times each day, every day, paying attention to the words (as I assume they are) or have they become so accustomed to the daily practice that they are in a no-mind state that takes them beyond time and place to union with God? That would seem to be the goal, albeit seldom realized.

If so, there might be a connection between Jewish, Buddhist and Catholic chant and meditative practice; but this may be too simplistic. My liturgy friend Ned might comment on this: do we in the Chrisitian world use the repeated words of the Psalms to move beyond verbal prayer? When we pray the rosary, do we ignore the words of the repeated prayers? Or do we remain conscious, while meditating on the glorious or sorrowful mysteries, of the meaning of what we say? Are we in two places at once--here and "there"? Is that why it is so hard?

I agree with Millman that we must go through the often boring practice of repetitive prayer to move to a higher level so that the concept of boredom becomes irrelevant. And I am grateful that his brief post provoked so much reflection on prayer, the subject of an ongoing struggle on my part.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The new anti-Semitism

A friend shocked me last night when she said that a third of British Jews have left England for other places (Israel, USA) because of growing anti-Semitism in Europe.

My friend said her rabbi, just returned from a three-month sabbatical in Europe, is telling his congregation that Jews should leave Europe. This is a chilling statement, recalling the horrors of the 1930s, as if history is repeating itself.

I did a quick Internet check today to see if what the rabbi calls the most under-reported issue of our time is accurate.  What I have learned so far is that in France, Germany and Sweden, as well as Austria, a marked increase in anti-Jewish graffiti, verbal attacks and crimes have been occurring, mainly due to radical Islamic immigrants, since 2000.

In March of this year, in Toulouse, France, four Jews were senselessly killed by a Muslim who was proud of what he had done.  When a teacher in the town asked for a minute of silence to honor the dead, some students walked out, saying the victims deserved to die.

One news story from Israel contained a photo of Muslims with a banner: "God Bless Hitler."

Stories of the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or synagogues sometimes get mentioned in our newspapers along with other laws in France and elsewhere restricing certain religious practices by both Muslim and Jews.  Tensions in the Middle East are blamed as young disaffected Muslims take to the streets. But I can see why my friend calls this an under-reported story.

Many of the figures I found--from Holland, Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Germany and Austria as well as France--were from 2006.  If any of my readers knows more about this alarming situation, or has recent evidence to suggest that my friend's rabbi is exaggerating the facts, I would appreciate a message:

It is very easy for extremism on both sides to escalate; it is also easy for old fears and prejudices to turn into angry hatred and violence. But the lessons of the Holocaust, so well known, must not go unheeded.  As a Christian with no personal involvement in what happened seventy years ago in Europe, I nevertheless have always felt very keenly the horror of those events.

All I can say now is the familiar warning: Never again!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The future of handwriting

As I have watched the progress of the young man I tutor, now 16, I continue to be amazed that he still prints.  He says his teachers haven't the time (or interest?) to teach cursive writing. His sister, graduating from college soon, also never learned to write cursively.   I find this amazing.

I recall some of the exams from my university teaching days, not long ago, and how many of the male students, it seemed, printed everything. I was glad to be able to read their work, but I would think the demands of time would force them to write.  I never investigated the issue or thought much about handwriting until recently.

I can remember clearly moving from the infantile printing stage to cursive, then at age 12 or so, my efforts to improve my handwriting and make it more sophisticated: a statement of my unique self. I continued practicing in high school until I got the form I now use, which is legible, if not elegant.  I can't imagine taking notes in class without knowing how to write cursively.

A recent article by Philip Hensher in the Guardian, based on his new book, The Missing Ink, brought all this to my attention.  He  does not mention this shortcoming in American education, which I gather is widespread over here; instead he focuses on what he calls the vanishing practicing of handwriting in an age of texting and email, when nearly everyone types.  He laments the slow death of the personal, the idiosyncratic, the sensuously rounded shapes of writing by pen; in short, the personal element.

Hensher, who teaches at the Univ. of Exeter, laments the omnipresence of cell phones and other gadgets that make communication less human and personal, more mechanical, than the traditional method of writing with ink.

It is true, of course, that sloppy handwriting has cost business millions, as countless pieces of mail get returned each year by the postal service because they are illegible (not to mention doctors' prescriptions that are indecipherable).  If it's bad for business, I guess, the message filters down to the educational establishment that teaching cursive writing, at least in this country, is one of those frills we can dispense with.

Writing mechanically as I am now enjoying doing is faster, and speed is important in modern society. So is clarity. But, as Hensher points out, what about slowing down a bit and being thoughtful as we write?  What about our writing as an expression of the individual's inner self, his or her personality?  Nothing can replace for me the first handwritten draft of an article, with all of its cross-outs and erasures; it is an artifact, a tangible sign that, like my ancestors, I have inscribed something onto paper.  The physicality of writing is a hard thing to dispose of. Unnatural.

Typing on the word processor is wonderful, but are we to write sympathy notes, greeting cards, and thank-you messages electronically?  If someone fills out a lengthy application in a medical office, must he print it laboriously, like a third grader?

Handwriting used to be essential in communication; now it is becoming marginalized. This is not a major tragedy, just another sign of depersonalization.  In the U.K, apparently, at least half of the teachers still devote some time to teaching handwriting (according to a study cited by Hensher).

Prof. Hensher would be appalled at the printing that the students I have encountered call writing.  If he revises his book, he might want to include a look at classrooms on this side of the Atlantic. I hope I am wrong--that some American students are being taught to write in that flowing, mature, possibly elegant thing called cursive.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Changing Names

A recent online article caught my attention: Nicknames are declining since fewer parents are relying on Biblical and saints' names for kids or on old family names, as when Roscoe Fiddleworth III names his first-born son Roscoe IV. (My own name, Gerald, was chosen as a proper saint's name at the time of my christening, at the urging of the parish priest, since my parents named me Jerry, as I am always called.)

"Fiddleworth" is borrowed from P. G. Wodehouse, whose Bertie Wooster has friends with wonderful nicknames like Tuppy, Bunky, and Catsmeat--prep school monikers, presumably, that live on in the perpetual adolescence of their owners.  On this side of the Atlantic, we have Scooter, Dot, Skip and other friendly tags I will miss if nicknames gradually disappear.  This is hardly a tragic occurrence, but I lament the loss nevertheless, like the option of calling an Edward "Ted" or "Eddie" or "Teddy," or all three.

There is something warm and homespun about such nicknames, but we are in an age of trendiness and tattoos.  Tradition is in decline.

I grew up with a lot of kids named Mary Ann, Judy, Bob, John and Dave. These are being replaced by an exotic selection of names of questionable taste, as in the pervasive Brittany and Tiffany that I noticed in my classes a few years ago. I know a young man named Bristol, which I had early associated with Sarah Palin's daughter, so unisex names are in.

This could not happen in France, which tries, through the Academie Francaise, to regulate the language, and apparently local officials there will not approve birth certificates using certain creative names that here, in the land of the free, include such bizarre choices as the following names that have burdened some recently born infants whom I pity:

     Aria, Lyric, Shadow, Trinity, Genesis, Sparrow, Sunday, Apple, Goodluck  and, in my own classes, students named Sky Rocket and Forrest Stump. I have seen the name Storey Book as well as Stormee Skye and Dwain Pipe. If I had such a name, I would grow tired of being laughed at and have to spend money to have it changed.

With such names as Apple, Sparrow, and Sky, who needs a nickname?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Francis and Frederick

I am thinking today, on his feast day, of one of the most remarkable men in Christian history, St. Francis of Assisi, in part because of a solid new biography of the saint by Augustine Thompson, who tries to find the real man beneath the legends that have surrounded him.

Francis, a troubled man who changed history, presumably met Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor, before the saint's death in 1226. Whether or not this encounter between two radically different men occurred, it is interesting, as Richard Bressler notes in his recent biography of Frederick, that the worldly emperor, with his love of Eastern (Muslim) customs and language, saw in Francis a condemnation of the worldly corruption, power and wealth of the Catholic hierarchy of the thirteenth century.  Although we can say little with absolute certainty about a man of those times, Frederick believed that a church closer to the simple Franciscan model was necessary.

One point in comparing these two divergent figures is that being a Catholic is, and never has been, as monolithic and uniform as it is often portrayed, as I, in fact, was educated to believe--not even in the Middle Ages.  The diversity and independence of each of these men, combined with their respect for the spiritual power of the pope and the church, makes them important representatives of an important era in the church's emergence as a world power.

Frederick, called in his time a heretic, even the Antichrist, for oppposing several popes, nevertheless remained a faithful Catholic Christian. At his death, he wore the habit of a Cistercian monk, renouncing the wordly glory he had pursued.   What emerges from the books I have read about Frederick, called in his time the Wonder of the World, was that he was a highly energetic and independent thinker, interested in languages, science, poetry, law, and kingship and open to both the Jewish and Islamic worlds as he encountered them in the cultivated kingdom of Sicily, which he inherited in 1197.

In believing that the spiritual aspect of Christendom should be in the hands of the papacy, but that the church should not be about land, money and power politics, he may be seen as a forerunner of the Reformation. Francis, too, disturbed by the worldly excesses of the church but always respectful of its spiritual authority, is an interesting counterpart to his contemporary, the emperor.  I would like to think they met and respected each other.

I am glad that both men, revered for many reasons by many people, have found biographers able to sift through the myths of the centuries to try to find out what they really were like. In doing so, we find some amazing correspondences between Francis, the least aggressive reformer of all times, and Frederick, who fought the church for the sake of an empire that never succeeded yet who is valued nevertheless for his tolerance of non-Christian cultures.  Both were sons of the church, which like all vast institutions, needs criticism and ongoing reform.

I am glad that I happened to discover books about them at the same time.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Waking Up Dead

In preparing for two comedy presentations in October, I find that I am laughing out loud, even at material I have read before--a healthy thing to do. I hope our audience is equally amused. . . .Especially by the program called "Fractured English," a collection of amazing, often hilarious blunders and bloopers from students and many others: sign makers, printers of menus, hotel owners, newspaper editors, and more. . . . Even from the medical world, reminding me of Mark Twain's quip: Be careful of a book giving health advice. You might die of a misprint. . . . Thanks to Richard Lederer and his great books (Anguished English), as well as the internet, I have unearthed a few bloopers from the medical profession. My favorites from doctors' files: "The patient refused an autopsy." Another(from coroner's report): "Patient went to bed well but woke up dead. Cause of death unknown, had never been fatally ill before.". . . . I don't think such things can be fabricated. . . . Like everyone else, I have made many typos (not, as one student wrote in a recent email, "Type-O's") but none are funny enough to share. . . .In the days I had many papers to grade, I would be grateful for any glimmer of humor in a student essay or exam....Like the student (not mine) who thought Michelangelo had painted sixteen chapels in the Vatican; as if lying on his back for years to paint the Sistine Chapel was not enough! . . . . A Facebook group, formed by Sharon Nichols, has many followers, I am glad to say, concerned enough about careless editing to take pictures of signs and other public displays of mistaken English: my favorite sign from this group: "Please knock. Buzzard is not working.".....If I start listing the bloopers made by politicians in the past 50 years, I will be writing all night......Suffice it to say that our language easily lends itself to errors and that we can get a much-needed laugh from the innocent errors of others without ridiculing the person. "To err is human..." Of course, I could connect this to the point of a recent post: hurrying is the cause of much carelessness and confusion.