water, dudes -
I'm coveting my pool water. A couple of weeks ago, during a spell of cool weather, we didn't swim. We were lax with maintenance and smug about how the cover kept the water so comfortably warm. The result: algae. Not a lot of algae, but enough to let you know it was there. We mustered our chemical forces and prepared for battle on a microscopic scale.
We won. The water glistens now and beckons with its clarity. The pH is perfect, the chlorine level is right on the button. Everything seems so... balanced. Why go to the beach, the nasty old beach, when here in my own backyard sits Aqua Heaven Itself?
I may end up going to the beach anyway. Josh, the young man across the street who just got his driver's license, has been prodding me to go out and take some more photographs of him and his buddy as they surf. The ones I've already made have been appreciated by the guys and their families, but there's an investment involved which I don't think Josh has grasped yet. When you consider not only what it takes to do the shoot, but the darkroom work of developing and printing as well, if the photographer charged a rate of even $10 an hour, you realize the cost would be in the hundreds, even excluding paper and chemicals.
But it's not the money. It's the time. One print can take several minutes to make. Multiply that by twenty prints and then multiply that by two surfers and somebody's going to be making a sacrifice. So when Josh asked me again yesterday I told him my rates have gone up.
"Uh, so like it went from like totally free to like not free anymore?" he queried through his gum.
I avoided a blunt response by describing the dwindling number of available summer weekends, hemming and hawing about my commitments, and I think I may have even mentioned something about the phases of the moon.
But still, I may end up going to the beach anyway. I'm a softie, sometimes.
Talking with Josh can be agonizing. Listening to his words, I'll wince in disbelief and amazement at how teenage boys seem to be another species altogether, and I get a dull throbbing ache in my optimism (many of them, to their credit, will grow out of it -- one hopes). I've become a master at keeping a straight face when he talks. It doesn't twitch and squirm as it did when I first heard him load a three word question so full of likes and y'knows and dudes that the word count was well into double digits.
Well, this is no surprise. The Common Literature has been television for a long time now and, with visual information supplanting the spoken word, the call for precision in the language ain't what it used to be. But the fact remains that our language is what influences how we think and how we approach the world around us. Much of the music business is television-based so that now when we hear a song we're more apt to remember the video that was produced to sell it rather than have the music evoke something from our own lives (and as any online journaler can tell you, there is no money in telling your own little stories). In the span of a few decades, an enormous percentage of the population has gone from active to passive in its acquisition and synthesis of information.
Large corporations and governments think this is just ducky.
But you already know this. Because you read. This is text and not a Flash presentation.
So many more people now speak or write only for the sake of utility, leaving behind their own efforts at personal style in language in favor of self-expression through association with brands and their logos. There is scant reward for effort in expression. And how can you express your thoughts precisely when your thoughts are imprecise in the first place. And how do you convey your feelings to others when, out of a lack of vocabulary, you cannot give voice to them? How differently do you respond to a young man saying "the world sucks" when what he's feeling, but cannot define, is melancholy?
Yeah. I know. I'm a big old fuddy-duddy.
Even among intelligent people the language is being herded into and bred in a few specific lexicons. E-mail lists of humorous and clever uses of a vernacular (pick a subculture, any subculture, computers, medicine, but preferably one with new and improved career potential) are downloaded into our memories and we recount them at parties or over the water cooler at work. When exercised enough, these anecdotes and the vocabulary they use get a stronger hold on our speech and our ways of thinking, and thus the nuances of "a business lunch" fade in favor of and in service to "the networking meal," and even that is an old example now. Did I say old? I meant "senior."
When the scope of language narrows and its references become specific to the most market-driven segments of the population, or worse, vague beyond discernable "parameters" of meaning, the structure of thought itself changes and spreads and permeates other cultures. There are always pockets of resistance to this change, look at the French and their venerable and loopy L'Academie Franšaise for example, but language, like water, seeks the path, in this case the tongues, of least resistance.
Why am I saying all this? I dunno, dude. Just bummed, probly.
The thing is, dude, if I can't tell you what I want and what I need, and even if I can say it well and maybe even beautifully but you can't understand it, chances are I ain't gonna get exactly what I be lookin' for and I end up walkin' around dissatisfied. The consequence of such a transaction is that out of habit we begin to accept, as par for the course, inexactitude and laxity, and soon it's not just our language that becomes sloppy but the products of our work and the quality of our personal relationships as well. Eventually specificity will lie mostly in the hands of attorneys who will be more than happy to demonstrate how unprofitable vagueness can be.
Nowadays sloppiness is so widespread that whenever I hear language spoken well the experience is almost nostalgic, what with my having been so distant from its common practice for so long. A brilliant conversation overheard by chance in a bookstore will suddenly beckon me with its clarity as the speakers sip coffee and gesture and make their words glisten with inflection. As I listen lurking behind the rack of Cliff's Notes, I'm reminded of how high interwoven thoughts can soar. For a moment, the marching armies of the lowest common denominator are at rest and briefly, very briefly, everything seems so... balanced.
And then there's online journaling. While its practitioners are not a representative slice of western culture as a whole, it can be an interesting window into minds often shaped primarily by commercial media, and, if we're careful, we might get a glimpse of how those minds are stratified and petrified across the spectra of age and class and culture.
But that's really not the fun part, is it? The fun part is taking a look at other people and seeing how much of them is in ourselves (or how much of them isn't), in how we are, how we used to be, or maybe how we might turn out to be in the future. I don't know how loneliness factors into this whole journaling thang, but I know being online has been very helpful for many lonely people, and I find it interesting that here, sometimes, is proof of the power of language well considered. Writing about our own lives gives us the chance to see ourselves slightly differently, filtered maybe, but maybe filtered in a healthy way, finding and sharing small pieces or perhaps even big chunks of our lives which we haven't had a chance to look at lately. Maybe one reason so many people are lonely is that they miss themselves, and doing this brings them back.
That reminds me of a phone conversation I had today. I'll get into that next time.
"Imagining America" -- Everything But The Girl -- THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE
"Language is the dress of thought."
- Samuel Johnson