Language is a spoken art

10 03 2013

Today I spent a half hour or so flipping backwards through the pages of a high school friend’s blog, and I noticed the same pattern with her blog as I do with mine. As you go into the past the writing gets more robust, the posts less structured yet somehow more wont to get somewhere. There’s so much to do and think about in high school. Your eyes are so big, you think so much about the world and about yourself, and as you get older… what happens?

Okay, from the high school perspective, I’ll tell you what happens – you find happiness. You reach college and you have friends and parties and sports and so many other things to occupy your time. Great art, it seems, often comes from great unhappiness.

There’s also this snowball effect of art envy that makes you want to create. Who hasn’t read the Lord of the Rings and thought, “God, I wish this came out of my imagination” ? You read a great book, and suddenly you have this burning desire to write a great book. But it’s a very treacherous sort of inspiration. Even if you open a Microsoft Word file and try to write, or start scribbling on a piece of binder paper, you almost always end up just staring into space, basking in the perfection of the piece of art you just consumed. Because art never truly comes from art. Consumption gets you so, so achingly close to creation… but to truly create anything, you need to distance yourself from anything that’s ever inspired you. And then you need to dig, a whole lot deeper than you think.

We have become quite the society of consumers. Our penchant towards little sound bites and pieces of literature no longer than a rage-face cartoon is annoying, but deliciously addicting. As I’ve grown up, and grown to accept this modern culture, I’ve felt myself become entwined into its melting, sugary strands until I am wrapped up in media like sweet amber around a fly. Today, I read a lot less books in a year than I did in fourth grade. Is that because times have changed, or I have changed? Me of fourth grade was very proud of sticking out; while me of today very strongly believes that going with the flow, accepting your surroundings and your world with an open heart, is the key to happiness.

I study linguistics, and one of the first things you learn as a linguistics student is that writing is not part of natural language. After all, you learn to speak naturally by growing up in a household full of words – but you don’t learn to read and write naturally by growing up in a household of literate people. For that reason, I’ve felt a lack of interest in reading or writing in the foreign languages I’m learning here in Switzerland. And that sort of translates into a lack of interest in reading or writing at all. Because from the viewpoint of linguistics, you realize that the written word is only a way of capturing something on the page that happens in the world.

The world is what fascinates me lately, but I am lost in it. I’ve spent my life expecting to find fulfillment and make a living in the pages of books. Then with college – with the new idea of opening myself to my surroundings – came an endless amount of stimulation and activity. I realized that maybe I liked living more than I liked creating art about living. But living is so much harder to put in a box than writing, and it’s also a whole lot harder to make money off of.

This distinction becomes more polarized in a country of diglossia like Switzerland, where Swiss German is used as the spoken word and High German as the written. They call it a Mundart, a mouth-way, but the word “art” plays with the multi-lingual word association nerves tangled in my mind. To me it’s a mouth-art, a spoken art. I’ve essentially made my choice to focus on Swiss German. But that effort requires writing too – writing exercises and tables in Swiss German so that I can memorize things, truly replacing what would be High German in a real Swiss mind with the dialect I’m trying to learn. Written Swiss German, to Swiss people, is almost like a “fake” language. So effectively, by launching myself into the world of the real and the spoken, I am also isolating myself from the world of the written. To the point that in the end, in the German-speaking world I will be practically illiterate.

I still surround myself with art, but I am paralyzed by how many different types there are. I want to create them all at once. They all have a different style, a different lens through which they see, process and enjoy reality. Blogging, stories, poetry, covering songs, writing songs, the flash and glow of photography, the long labor of drawing.

Now here I am centering my life on the simplest of them, the art of speaking. And I am realizing how empowering and terrifying it is to see the world through no lens at all. When you take a photo, it can be nothing more than a person’s face; when you draw a picture, it can be the most mundane bowl of pears. But speaking – the phenomenon whose science I study, and the slipperiest art of all – is no use unless you have something interesting to say.


First world problems

21 03 2012

First of all, I have to point out, at risk of being pompous, that “third world” isn’t really a thing anymore. First world refers to the U.S. and Western Europe, Second World refers to the Commies, and Third World is everyone else. Since the Cold War is over, we’re not really the “first world” anymore, and third-world countries are just developing countries.

We think that people in developing countries are forced to do a lot of things they don’t want to do, but that’s not true. Really we are the ones who do things we don’t want to do. We comb Facebook for hours, hours, hours, and when it changes into Facebook Timeline we complain about it, howl about it… but we won’t stop. We can’t. “Addiction” isn’t the right word. We just lack a certain zest, a certain oomph, the ability to do something that in the split instant doesn’t sound appealing but that we know we would rather be doing. The ability to get out of bed. The ability to stop eating and go on a bikeride even though it’s cold outside and you have to put on your shoes.

It’s a bizarre, bizarre handicap, and even though I can see it clearly now that doesn’t mean I think I’ve wholly lost it. I guess our world is like a deep squishy mattress, impossible to gain purchase on, so that you can’t stand up and you just roll around uselessly in the satin blankets. I wish there was a way to blame it on  more than the world though. Because in Peru life wasn’t like that, and I really liked it.

When somebody says “Do you want to go swimming?” and you’re sitting on the couch watching TV and you glance outside at the overcast sky and you say “no”… some part of you knows you want to. You know. It’s like we don’t know how to listen to that inner voice.

I don’t know what to make of this thought, and that’s all. Just that now the First-World Problems meme has extra special importance to me. I’ve always said that there’s a certain mania for being the underdog in the human psyche; that the rich and powerful will do anything to convince themselves that their problems are quirky, down to earth and loveable. First-world problems is just an interesting manifestation of that. Now that I’ve been to The Other Side the memes seem not offensive, just a little sad, like a cry for help. Like you want to believe that you’re a loveable, set-upon underdog, but it’s a last-ditch resort. So you post a joke about your problem, and in the silence before your computer you wait for the drums to go “BADUM-CHHH!” and the people to laugh and cheer, wait forever maybe. Because if you truly admit that it’s not funny… you’ll have to fix it. And nobody’s laughing yet. But people “like” it, maybe. And if they do… what? you don’t have to feel bad you didn’t go swimming, that’s what. That’s what you tell yourself.

I think people want adventure. In a twisted way, people want serious problems. And yet they want success too. Like Batman and the Joker, like D’Artagnan and Rochefort; archenemies who can’t stop fighting and can’t live without each other.

In Peru, I seriously thought of deleting my Facebook. Back here that seems a little more needlessly drastic. But small steps. Like deleting some of the “friends” I really, honestly don’t care about and will never talk to. Like keeping a backlog of things I’ve been wanting to do, so when I’m listless I don’t just sink into Facebook. Playing guitar. Walking to the mall, riding a skateboard. Internet things too – looking up this or that on Craigslist, doing some research on a travel forum. Like doing things. Living in the moment.

Small steps.

Chevron with Techron

9 01 2012

I got gas today at a gas station brandishing the name, “Chevron with Techron.” It’s not the gas station I usually go to, but my parents used to go to it all the time. So I was surprised by how easily the phrase “Chevron with Techron” jumped into my mind, like something quoted so often that you’ve forgotten the source. And suddenly I asked myself the question: what is Techron?

It’s so indivisibly part of that phrase, but it doesn’t mean anything. Like, why is Chevron always offered with Techron? Has anyone ever walked in to pay at the cash register and been like “Hi, I’d like my Chevron without Techron, thank you.”

I have never seen Techron with my own two eyes. My first thought is that it’s some secret formula, some chemical they put in the gas to make it extra-effective. So saying “Chevron with Techron” is like labelling a food item, like, “Orange Juice with Vitamin C” or “Brownies with Pot”. I’m pretty sure that’s what I passively believed Techron to be when I was a kid. But that doesn’t make much sense. So then I thought, maybe Techron is a mascot. Like Tony the Tiger. There are, after all, a lot of drawings of animated cars in Chevron propaganda. Maybe one of them is Techron, so when you get gas there it’s like, “Get Chevron with Techron! [TECHRON smiles and winks a windshield wiper at the camera. Cut to black.]”

I think that idea is my personal favorite for Techron, even though there are other possibilities (insurance policy? special automated pumping system?). If I ever get a dog I might name it Techron, so that I can bring him in the car and say I’m going to get Chevron with Techron.

Well… maybe it would be too dorky to say. But I’ll think it.

Techron would be a good name for a dog, actually. You could call him Tech for short, which I think has a nice ring to it. It sounds like one of those douchey 50s names, like Skip and Rush and… I dunno, Mitt. (Why do Republicans always have douchey names?)

The gas was so that I could drive to Santa Cruz and tie up a few loose ends with the registrar and my rock climbing membership and so forth before I leave for the Amazon in two days. I know that where I’m going is a place of sweltering tropical languor and heat, but for me driving over the summit of Highway 17 is driving into endless summer. It was a clear day in Santa Cruz; the green was starting to creep back into the meadows; the sun was crisp and bright; and from the linguistics offices in Stevenson I could see down the green sweep of the town all the way over the blue, blue waters of the Monterey Bay to the land on the other side. The Moss Landing smokestacks 40 or 50 miles away, usually a hazy silhouette of a thing, were in sharp relief. I don’t know when I last saw such a clear day. And it was… well, I’m going to miss it. I went to Bry and Annaïs’ place in the Porter apartments and they were there along with a bunch more of my friends, and we had salad with blueberries and pot stickers for lunch, and hung out. Everything was all clean and bright from people having moved out and then moved back in. And… I’m just going to miss it a lot. Going to miss them  a lot.

On my way back I was listening to a mix CD I just made. Now, before I tell the rest of this slightly embarrassing story, I need to say that songs almost never make me cry. Maybe I’ll be listening to a sad song for a specific reason which is making me cry, but for a song to emotionally create something out of nothing? It doesn’t happen to me. Maybe this wasn’t “something out of nothing” because it had to do with the trip I’m about to take, but the song “3×5” by John Mayer came on, and to my own bewilderment I started to tear up. I have to stress that I’m honestly not mentioning the I-never-cry thing to be all macho, it’s just that the first reaction I felt was “Wha–?!?! whoa.” When you think about it, 2 minutes really should not be time enough for you to build up enough emotion to cry. It’s weird and abrupt. That’s how it felt: abrupt.

But anyway. This song, this song is so perfect, and something about it caught me by surprise. Part of the reason I’m so excited to go to Peru is because lately I’m feeling dizzied by the crush of technology and staying connected, and the pace of life when some important news about my 992 friends on Facebook breaks every twenty minutes. Five different passwords. Three different e-mail accounts. Keep in touch via Skype with your friends from this class, and that class, and that summer…. I just want to get off the map and really live. And this song, the title is after a common print size for photographs – 3×5 – and it goes, “Didn’t have a camera by my side this time/ Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes.”

Yeah, I’m bringing a camera to Peru, but the camera isn’t the point. Some combination of the experience I’m looking for and what I know I have in Santa Cruz – friends that are always there to share food with you when you show up at their door; something that can’t be photographed or quantified in Facebook posts – really hit me. The friends that are really worth something have a connection with you deeper than what you can share and describe. Just as I know that my time in the jungle will mean more to me than any blog or photo could ever share or describe. The magic is in realizing that, and not trying too hard to share and describe it anyway. As the song goes, “You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes/ it brought me back to life…” The idea that stopping to really see something, even something ordinary, can save you. I heard it as if for the first time. And I… well… sort of…. um. cried.

Yup, that was embarrassing. I’ll be going into hiding in Peru now. Be back in 2 months.

(P.S. John Mayer is hot, isn’t he? That’s not a rhetorical question; i’m staring at him and I honestly can’t decide… but. don’t look at the video while you listen to the song. Hot or no, John Mayer’s smoldering Zoolander lips will not reduce you to tears. but this song might.)

Reason #147 why the art of conversation is dying

8 08 2011

This is one of 2 blogs I have. The other one is a Tumblr, and as such, anytime I use the website I get to (have to…?) scroll through a long news feed of what other people have been posting. And it drives me crazy how whenever people reblog things, they add reaction comments that are maddeningly non-specific.

I just saw a reblogged post containing four pictures of a small dog with a lemon. The original person had included a caption about how their mom took those pictures on the blogger’s laptop or something and left them as a surprise. Ha ha. Cute story. Okay. So the next person to reblog it added: “omfg”. no punctuation, no nothing. OMFG what? Oh my fucking God, that’s such an adorable dog? Oh my fucking God that’s hilarious? Oh my fucking God, what kind of mother would do that to her child? I mean, I suppose I could make an educated guess, but the education of the guess (as it were) isn’t given to me by context. It’s just given to me by a basic idea of how anyone would be expected to react to a cute picture of a dog with a lemon. How people are expected to react to that picture, because the reaction is expected. It’s Internet hive mind.

In my Sem I class, nestled among a lot of boring semantics equations involving whether or not Noam Chomsky has a mustache, we had some fascinating discussions about the different ways that people use words to create meaning. Most of the art of conversation, it turns out, comes from implicature. There’s implicature by omission, where Person A says “Did you guys get sunburned?” and Person B says “Andy was the only one who brought sunscreen…”. There’s implicature by changing the object, where Person A says “What happened to Simon’s birthday cake?” and Person B says, “Simon looks like he’s not feeling too well.” And so on. Thinking about things like that comes in useful for translations because in some languages you can’t phrase out all the same little tricks of implicature, and you have to translate the second part of an exchange like that into “No, I believe Simon ate the entire cake, which was a bad idea because it made him sick” and find some other way to make it funny.

So the point is, witty use of language is naturally averse to stating the obvious. But I feel like on the Internet, English is devolving into some sort of shorthand meme hipster language built for people who are so determined to outwit stating the obvious, they don’t actually end up stating anything. Every time someone reblogs a post all they say is “THIS” or “I CAN’T!”. this what? Like, maybe “this” would be sort of witty if you spelled it the way you would say “This guuyyyy…!” with the douchey finger point and the ellipsis implied in the way you said it. But people are too hipster to use punctuation, so it just isn’t witty. And don’t even get me started on “I can’t.” You can’t what? Breathe from laughing? Believe that this is happening to the guy in the GIF? Go on living anymore? Put together coherent sentences? Because I inferred the last one, but that’s about all I inferred.

I want to make my point perfectly clear so I don’t sound like a grumpy old man: I’m not trying to be a grammar snob. I’m not saying that people are too lazy to use grammar, or too dumb. What I’m saying is that they’re too hipster. In other words, I don’t care how badly you’re misusing English; I don’t care if you’re running around speaking in third person like Golgi or whatever-his-name-is from “The Black Cauldron” — I only care if you’re doing it on purpose. Hell, I don’t use correct grammar in all of my posts. just like the rest of the wit-hipster Internet generation, I believe that grammar is meant to be misused. but for the love of god people, misuse it WELL. Otherwise we’ll have a world of people going around and pointing at anything mildly interesting and exclaiming “THIS!!!!” because they’re too cool to say something dorkily plain and obvious, like “This is remarkable!” or “This made me cry” or “This is hilarious”, or even “This rocks!”.

I’m not saying “I CAN’T” is never funny. But usually things that are completely contextless are only funny because they’re not expected to be completely contextless. And when you use them all the time, they’re just… not funny anymore. And I know I didn’t write this whole thing to beg the cyber-universe to save a few implicature-fueled jokes from overuse, but it just drives me crazy that when I scroll down Tumblr I feel like people are really beating this horse until it’s dead, and at this moment in the history of our language I don’t know where the living horses are.

The search to escape tired old synonyms is as old as storytelling itself. Intelligent people have spent the last few thousand years pursuing it. Usually people find new words, invent new slang, slip a term cleverly in sideways to mean something much more colorful than its old meaning. I’m not sure where it’s going, but only in the Internet generation have people started using this drastic new method: instead of finding new synonyms for tired old words, we just stop using them altogether.

Google Plus

12 07 2011

It’s funny: as I go along in my life, more and more I realize that things I learn seem to divide themselves neatly into chapters – units, if you will, like in a textbook, where during a few consecutive months all the areas of my life seem to converge on one subject and run into each other, conspiring to teach me a single lesson.

Right now the common thread is the tech industry. It’s weird: I get this fantastic internship at a PR company, and around the same time I watch “The Social Network” for the first time, and around the same time everyone starts talking about Google Plus as the next big thing. And around the same time I start running across articles about Google+ in my internship and seeing all this stuff about social networking platforms and how they compete.

I got a Google+ account, and I really can’t decide whether or not it’s going to catch on. The one thing which may turn the tide, I think, is the fact that all the data on Google+ is rescuable – meaning you can take anything from your profile and save it on your computer. That, in my opinion, is Google’s stroke of genius. The thing about Facebook is that our generation – every generation alive during its reign, really – has put a lot, and I mean a LOT, of time and energy into it. Facebook is a witness to our lives. Our statuses, our notes, our comments – they were all written with thought and care.

I’ve always wondered about the Internet as a medium of expression, and how it will pass the test of time. It’s kind of weird and also kind of scary when you think about how much time people spend lavishing attention on art which exists only on the Internet, and how impermanent that art is. Once a domain name goes inactive, that website disappears. It only takes a year or so. But the thing is, each of the websites that have commanded our attention have come and gone before we could get attached enough to care. MySpace came and went, Xanga came and went, et cetera, et cetera, whatever, whatever. But Facebook has been around for a long time – long enough for people to pause for a second before they abandon it. Not that they won’t abandon it. But the point is that websites aren’t going to stand the test of time like the Domesday Book or the Rosetta Stone, and very soon the world is going to start realizing that. Whether that works for or against Google+ remains to be seen. Will people abandon Facebook for something that claims to be more “permanent”? Or will people choose to stick with Facebook in order to satisfy a thirst for permanence?

At the end of the day, I think Facebook has one advantage over Google+ : it’s fun. Dividing all my friends into circles? It’s a chore. I still haven’t finished making my Google+ account and honestly, I don’t really feel like it. Can’t I just put my party photos on Limited Profile and be done with it? Must I decide which circles to select every time I want to say something witty about what I did today? I don’t want to decide who’s interested in my status about Pilates. In fact I don’t care if anyone’s interested, they’re damn gonna read it anyway because that’s how the Internet works.

I’m not sure if the Internet is ready to grow up yet. I’m not sure if I am, at least. A more mature social network like Google+ means less stalking, less pointlessness, less self-indulgence. Facebook is a titanic machine fueled by the twin human impulses of voyeurism and narcissism, and it’s going to take more than a good product to stop it.

But look at me, blabbering about good products and social networks. Yuck. If anything, this internship has taught me that I honestly find no enjoyment in the world every adult I grew up with is immersed in. The tech industry makes me feel boring, and old, and non-earthy, and out of touch with what’s really important in life. Whatever. It’s only until the end of the summer. If Google+ has taken over by then, maybe I’ll swear off the Internet altogether. Or maybe by then another titan of blogging websites will have overtaken WordPress and rendered these words obsolete.

I guess in a sense that makes blogging sort of Zen, like drawing lines on the beach that will be soon enough washed away into cyberspace. I have no problem with that being part of the art I create. Part.

But at the end of the summer I’m taking $12 an hour’s worth of sellout all the way to the bank and going to Europe, and I am packing in my luggage a leatherbound, bona fide travel journal. And not Google, not Facebook, not my internship nor any of the companies I’m learning about through it, will ever know or touch what I write within its pages.