Thursday, February 27, 2014

Make Sure youse Guys Right Good!

Whitakers Almanack, 1893

Maybe it's my reawakened interest in old books that leads me to wonder about our evolving language. I've been reading lately in a textbook titled Essays & Essay-Writing, an anthology of personal essays selected from The Atlantic Monthly and authorized for use in English classes at the Grade 12 level. It was published in 1933 and my copy comes complete with names scrawled in the frontispiece and flyleaves and the scribbled notes tell me that this copy was read (or, at least, possessed) by a series of senior students at B.L.C.H.S, which may be Blaine Lake Central (?) High School.
      An essay called “The Flavor of Things” by Robert M. Gay chronicling the author's defective relationship to mathematics contains the following sentence about people who love that particular discipline:

Permutations and combinations and the doctrine of chances filled their souls with elation; they would rather wander over the area of a parallelogram than over the greenest meadow under heaven, collecting angles and sides as another would daisies and buttercups, and chasing the unknown quantity as another might a butterfly (p. 17).

One can hardly read this today without visions of quills and inkwells, oak desks and tweed-jackets-with-elbow-patches springing to mind. The written word has changed a great deal since 1933, not only in the abandonment of antiquated diction (word choice) but in the aversion to long sentences, elaborate metaphors and the eschewing of contractions, slang and colloquialisms.
    A present-day version of Gay's sentence might well read, “Some guys really dig math.”
    I worry some days about the consequences of abandoning sensory writing and enlarged vocabulary, about the increasing inability to deal with complex sentence structures. I may be considered a language Luddite for such apprehensions, reinforced, possibly, by the style in which I've chosen to write this essay. Indeed, I've been accused in the past of writing in an archaic style that makes comprehension difficult. (Someone said to me about my book, What I Meant to Say Was . . . that they enjoyed what I'd written, even though they didn't understand much of it!)
    Go back to my first paragraph for a moment. If I had asked you to point to the frontispiece or flyleaf in a book, would you have been able to do it with confidence? These terms are book jargon, of course, and you don't have to know what they mean to be a connoisseur of literature, but I've long been of the opinion that a larger vocabulary is better than a smaller one, especially if being able to understand what's going on in the world and/or participating in significant dialogue matters to you. Likewise, if you want to read past page 5 in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design with some understanding, a broad—as opposed to a narrow—vocabulary is almost mandatory.
    I don't know how the students of the Thirties fared with Essays and Essay-Writing, although I have noticed that some of the easier essays—language-wise—were more marked up than the more complex ones, a pretty good indication that the teachers using the text deferred to the apparent comprehension levels of their classes.
    In these days of the diminishing use of books for learning about the world, the questions, “what are we losing?" and "what have we lost?” seem relevant to me. Are you a bibliophile like me? Do you know what a bibliophile is? Do you share my concerns about language evolution?
    If so, let me hear from you and we can start a Language Complainers' Club! Be a nice change from complaining about the Harper Conservatives.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Ten Reasons to be excited about Sochi (and past and future Olympics)

Satirical Olympic Symbol
The Harsh Light of Day 

Ten Reasons to be excited about Sochi (and past and future Olympics).

  1. The Olympics are the one remaining bastion of unselfishness; athletes compete on behalf of  the nation that raised and nurtured them, not for personal glory. That's why any medals they win are melted down and sold, the proceeds given to the fight against illiteracy, poverty, disease and desecration of the environment.
  2. They are an opportunity for wealthy corporations to express their humanitarian impulses by donating millions, not in the hope that advertising value will come out of their association with the athletes but for the good of all the peoples of all the nations of the world.
  3. They cost virtually nothing because the athletes are amateurs who hold regular jobs and train on the weekends when they're not volunteering in soup kitchens and nursing homes. Sport, they contend, should never be dependent on government or commercial handouts since the participants are the fittest in the land and there are many people who need such assistance far more than they do.
  4. The cost of the infrastructure is negligible as the hundreds of billions spent, for instance for the Sochi event, will leave behind wonderful facilities so the locals can learn to excel in slope-style snowboarding, speed skating and exhilarating mogul skiing.
  5. They are one event in which nations put aside all political, adversarial impulses and put first the pure delight of being part of one universal brotherhood-of-man: everyone equal, everyone empathetic to the needs of others, all swords melted down to make farming implements.
  6. It's a time when all subjective impulses are put aside and the judges—no matter which nation they come from—rule purely on objective criteria so that we always know that the gold medal went to the very best performance.
  7. We all put aside our chauvanism for a time, so much so that it doesn't matter who wins the games but only whether or not they all had a good time and played their best. This impulse so energizes us that we don't even keep track of winners' and losers' nationalities. We eulogize the beauty of the achievements, not the zero-sum, winners/losers obsession that takes place in professional sports fandom. We are better people and much more sportsmanlike for having lived the experience in front of our TVs.
  8. Olympics are and have always been models of pure sport; only athletes who recognize this and don't try to gain an advantage by consuming various performance-enhancing drugs ever aspire to these games, knowing full well that to cheat there is to lose big time, whether one "medals" or not. The games teach their countrymen what we need to know about honesty and integrity as being more important than acquisition and glory.
  9. The games produce an aura of international unity; emotional boundaries among countries magically fade away and for weeks and years following, all peoples of the world lay down their armaments and resolve to live together as one peoples, the children of one creator.
  10. Human rights take on new meaning because of the games; discrimination on the basis of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality or race melts away and those persons formerly despised for their differences suddenly appear as equals to everyone, by everyone. 

    Such is the power of the Olympics, a blessing to be savoured by all. Indeed, can you imagine a world without them?

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Great Grandpa and I go to the Olympics

Jacob David Epp and wife Justina ca. 1864

Chortitza Mennonite Church ca. 1850

My Great Grandfather could have taken a one-hour flight to Sochi, flying over the Sea of Azov, then down the coast of the Black Sea—about the distance from Saskatoon to Winnipeg. He probably wouldn't even have been served a lunch on such a short flight.
      Alternately, he could have traveled over land, taking the M18 from Chortitza down to Dzhankoi on the Crimean Peninsula, stopping there for lunch and switching to the M17 East to Kerch where he'd have to wait for the ferry to cross the Strait of Kerch between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. From Ilyich, it's a pretty long but simple drive on the M25 down the east shore of the Black Sea to Sochi.
      He had only one functioning eye, but he could at least have watched half of the Olympics.
      Or he might, like me, have had very little interest in gatherings of “elite athletes” to see who can slide down a hill the fastest, and might have stayed in his home/hovel in Novovitebsk and written a sermon for the following Sunday, not bothering even to check in on the endless hours of Olympic hype on TV. 
     But he would still have been aware that just a hop over the Black Sea, the world is gathering to be thrilled by the spectacle of professional athletes hitting a rubber puck with sticks, apprehensive at the same time because just a few hours East is the city of Grozny in Chechnya, where rebels know how to make bombs, and suicide bombers are willing to deploy them.
      I'm a Luddite where both sports and independence movements are concerned. Regarding the former, I just don't understand the motivation behind all the time, effort and money that's required to earn the right to slide down an ice chute on a bobsled to arrive at the bottom—hopefully—one-one hundredth of a second faster than the next-fastest slider. And regarding the latter, why would you insist that a province that doesn't want to be a part of the nation anymore nevertheless be forced to remain? Kick them out already! Let's have some peace and quiet for a change!
      And then there's that “Own the Podium” thing that's an embarrassment to any thinking Canadian, or will be after the Americans, the Russians, even the Scandinavians deservedly kick our asses in pretty much every event as they're likely to do. “Own the Podium” indeed. What arrogance. What a waste of millions. What a set up for being shamed when the snow finally settles.
      Do we still call this sport?
      I'm pretty sure Jacob David Epp in his home/hovel in Novovitebsk would have shaken his head in amazement and expended a chuckle or two. Would that I could share the amusement with him!
     I, too, have only one properly-functioning eye. Thanks for that, Great Grandpa.