Reading is Fun(Duh)Mental: natürlich!

I’m doing my darnedest not to make this a blog about being a parent, but sometimes, you gotta think out loud…

She doesn’t like kindergarten. At six years old, I don’t blame her. I did not like school until I was 25. (And now I teach at one! Ha!) It turns out that her reading skills are below average—again, it’s not necessarily easy to handle when you have a collected eight bookshelves in your home and a M.A. in Literature. And her friends are reading already, so they are moving ahead of her and receive special access to the “purple” folder—a folder that apparently contains special words and privileges for the more advanced readers. So, tonight we slowly read Skip Along—a book my mom learned to read with when she was young. It’s good—you know, “Go, Alice, go” type of stuff. I like it. And then before bed, and the nightly reading, I asked her to grab a book of my shelf and bring it to me.

Blenheim PalaceDiary: A Novel, by Chuck Palahniuk. Not a good start, but she grabbed it hesitantly. In other words, while glancing at me for approval/permission. She brought it over and we skimmed through the many pages. She put it back on the shelf—in it’s alphabetic spot, as I requested. Then she grabbed Haunted, by the same author. “Sheesh,” I thought, “pick Orwell or something.” Nope. Next she grabbed Great Shark Hunt, by Hunter S. Thompson. Possibly cause it’s hardcover and ginormous. Possibly due to her disdain for Richard Nixon. I don’t know. Then, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri. “One of my favorites,” I remarked. She is amazed when I told her I read the whole thing. Each time I flipped through the pages, making sure to note to her the 380, 400, or 282 page length of each book. Then she grabbed part four of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky—hefty reading. We noted the 600 pages, and I read to her about Fyodor’s trip to Baden-Baden with his then wife.

I closed the book and she remarked, “That must be like 500 words!” I smiled and replied, “Well, there about 500 words on these two pages. And there are 600 pages.” She looked at me as though an abacus made exclusively of super-bouncy balls was bouncing back and forth, back and forth in her head. I told her that each author is explaining an idea. That they needed to communicate something to everyone and anyone that they could. And because we can all read, we can understand that idea. Then I told her that she will learn to read. All of us did. I did. Mommy did. Even Grandma Jo did. And she will too, someday. Then I told her she may even write a book this big—still holding Franks’ 600-page biography. Her eyes widened and she remarked, “Maybe it will be like 100 pages! Then the book would be this big!” She motioned with her arms outstretched as far as she could.

German American InstituteI know everything will be fine. At least it is an empathetic struggle. You see, I’m learning (re-learning) German right now. And it’s often a struggle. Whenever my daughter trips on a word while reading Skip Along, I think of that word’s German equivalent. Most of the time I cannot recall it. Sometimes, I want to say out loud, “Gehen, Alice, gehen!” And I know that my problem with learning German is practice. Just like her issue with reading. It shouldn’t be thought of as a struggle, or a standard measurement to which she/I needs to be assessed, or some cool folder that makes us feel worse about our reading. It’s practice. Practice, along with the basic importance of why we read: Verbindung.


The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!

Simulacra and Simile: This Post is Really, Like, Super Important

“That really, seriously just happened, like, literally, two minutes ago.”

As an English major and an adjunct professor of English/Humanities, many people make some pretty classic assumptions about me: I’m a grammar nerd, I’ve read every classic work of Literature you name from memory, and I detest slang. Well, none of those are true: I haven’t, until recently, paid enough attention to grammar, I read more Said, Marx, and Spivak than Defoe, Shelley, or Austen in my MA program, and I love how slang functions and defines a culture.

I want to put this post into context. Over the last one and a half years, I have made three trips to Germany to visit my gf. ZeitDuring that time, I have been listening to Pimsleur German audio in my car to improve what remains of my very limited high school and college German language and grammar skills. I’m going to focus on two characteristics about the German language that distinguish it from American slang, and reveal a particularity about American culture.

First, you have to listen to the entire German sentence to know what is happening! (Because the verb comes at the end. For instance, in the last sentence, the word “listen” wouldn’t come until the end). Second, time is very, very important, and usually occurs before location or the verb. The more specific, the better. So, what does this tell us about American slang?

Well, our discourse is quite general and often hyperbolic. Words such as “really,” “seriously,” and “literally” are attempts to make a language that is general, specific. They are adjectives that replace specific knowledge, or rather, the communication and therefore required memorization of specific times and places. Let’s take the intro quote as an example: the words “really,” “literally,” and “seriously” are added for emphasis. Again, they serve to bolster the non-specificity of general language. But why? Why do we need these words to reenforce the measurement of time?

The first reason is because of the event’s relation to the present. Something that just happened only occurred within a specific time period. SimulacraA phenomenon occurring sixty minutes ago did not just happen. Although, something occurring within 15 minutes may have just happened. To make sure to close that gap we add the adjective “seriously” to emphasis the now-ness of the event. With the advent of “seriously,” the time gap then shrinks to a minute or two of now-ness. The term “literally” conveys a sense of believability, both on the speaker and listener’s part. It is not that we do not trust what the other has to say, but simply that we do not trust that a phenomenon happened to them—something I will discuss later. What is at the core of needing these repeated and quite superfluous emphases? One simple word: “like”.

“You should, like, seriously read this.”

Like is a simile (“a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of different kind; method of comparison”); it is also “similar to” and “in the manner of,” “appropriate to,” “as though,” and finally, informally, “used in speech as a meaningless filler or to signify the speaker’s uncertainty” (all definitions from my Mac Dictionary). The last one is my favorite, yet it does not convey the true cultural significance of the word like. For that, we need another example. This time with a verb.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit.”

I know you’ve heard this conversation. You may even have had this conversation! No worries, though. Slang is a significant method of socialization when eliminating those not, um, biologically speaking, the most fit for secure reproduction, e.g. “cool”. Ahhemmm… Now that we got that out of the way, I ask you: What did Gill do today? Did he throw the football around? Well, technically, no. When Gill uses the simile “like,” he states that he did something like throwing a ball around. He performed a simulation; therefore, he may or may not have thrown the football around. We don’t know. So, he didn’t throw the football around. So what? Well then, smarty-pants, if Gill is stating to you that he didn’t do something that he says he did, then how does he reverse that negative “not doing”? He uses emphasis. Now watch.

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

Finally! Gill has provided some much needed emphasis in order to substantiate his earlier claim that he was throwing the football around. The words “really” and “superfast” provide hyperbole that negates this nothingness of simulation, proving to his friend that he actually did do something! He did so much of something that he really did this something! And it was amazing! Really!

What’s important in this post and our understanding of slang is not to dismiss it as insipid, stupid, useless, or a tripe form of communication. Rather we should notice that those overused adjectives betray the postmodern value of a simulation—as nothing really happening directly to us; as the televised launch of the Gulf War; as Jane Austen updated with zombies. The point is: you don’t need anything to actually happen to you (although it does make events richer). You don’t really need to read Pride & Prejudice to get the zombie version, and you don’t really need to hold a gun to be cynical/sympathetic of war. So, when our state of non-being and non-experiencing bumps in to reality, we swing the pendulum back and must overuse hyperbolic adjectives in order to prove that we actually lived…

Thanks for reading everyone. I would love to read your comments. Really, I would.

Cultural Mythology at the German Laundromat

“At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat.”
-English drying instructions posted in a German laundromat

First off, the laundromat down the street from the apartment I am staying at with my gf in Mainz, Germany until Oct. 17th is pristine. I’m from the American suburbs. I haven’t the need to go to laundromats. But in my mind there lurks a very specific image of what a laundromat must be like: dirty, smelly, unkempt, with pushy people lounging around smoking cigarettes or blabbing away on their cellphones. Not in Deutschland.

Before you start to think this is some First World rant by some privileged, white, suburban male who decided to use the dryer at a laundromat, let me draw your attention to the purpose of this post: the German-English translation. It is a beautiful thing that causes riotous laughter on my part, which often shocks the average German standing next to me.

Example: To the immediate left is a photo of the Drying instructions in my local German laundromat. On the wall to its left is the Washing instructions, which I will get to in a bit. Don’t get me wrong, these instructions are very helpful; but they are often hilarious.

I’ve blown up the photo and made a vignette so you can better see the area to which I am referring. The last red bullet point above the “Safety advices” reads: “At the end of drying time the laundry is very fluffy and flat. You can obey crinkles, if you will get out laundry at once and fold it directly. Oftenly you can spare ironing of this laundry.” Huh? 😀 Even through the translation, the point is clear, and yet I can’t help hearing a very loud German man in mauve green lederhosen yelling at me “You must obey crinkles!” whenever I read this passage.

The washing instructions carried a similar translation, but in its silliness revealed a difference between the cultural responsibilities of American and German citizens. I’ll let the picture explain.

On the immediate left is the vignetted  image of the Washing instructions, highlighting the area of interest. The fourth blue bullet point above “General washing advices” reads: “Please do not use more detergent than issued. The washing machine will foam too much, which will bring out a bad washing output and of course a worse washing effort.” Now that we are past the whole ‘this is a crazy-bad-funny translation thing,’ let’s look at these two words: “of course”. I’ll ask this question: upon first read, what do you think of those words? My gf and I were engrossed in conversation about these words all the while our clothes were drying. We agreed that the words “of course” signify a level of personal responsibility that is mitigated by overall good of the German state.

The “huh” you say!?! At first, I thought “of course” was an inherent condescending insult to a person’s intelligence. I then realized I’m American, and I think I already know everything. I relaxed and considered that the “of course” was a sweet pat on the head by the German state saying, “Of course you know this my child, but we want to make it perfectly clear for your own good and the good of Germany.” The American label, if it was still legible from cigarette burns, graffiti, and the bored peelings of the teenage mind, would have clearly stopped at the action and its consequence. “Don’t do this, or this will happen!” Beyond that simple message, it is up to you.

Gratuitous Patriotic Cookie Image

In America, we don’t really care if your overloading the machine results in a “bad washing output” or a “worse washing effort,” as the translation relates. Your clothes, once they go in the machine, are your problem. It seems here in Deutschland the simple fact that possible mistakes are considered and, hmmm, not exactly, prohibited, but simply stymied from occurring is a metaphor for what distinguishes American culture from German culture. The German state does not want its citizens to fail, while America could care less. One could even argue that American mythology is based solely on the overcoming of odds by a single individual against a larger, more powerful entity. Falling from grace and getting back up is America’s mythology, while ensuring that a citizen will not fall is Germany’s mythology.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

And remember to “obey your crinkles! Jawohl!”