Reclaiming Conversation

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Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation was one of the most important books I read in 2015. Her book distilled to three sentences:

This is our paradox.
When we are apart: hypervigilance.
When we are together: inattention.

I believe it. Sherry’d make a point and I was a one-woman gospel choir, swaying and amening. “Solitude is important,” she calls and my response is Yes, sister. “Support unitasking and deep reading.” Deeeeeep reading, I sing. “Continuous partial attention is the new normal.” Say it isn’t so, I moan. “Make sacred spaces where no devices intrude.”  Not in the kitchen, not in the bedroom, not even in the car, I harmonize.

What Ms. Turkle did not say, however, has reverberated through my brain. She never framed it this way, but I think we are simply selfish. We have zero tolerance for boredom, for discomfort, for anything unpleasant. We now have devices that we can take refuge in rather than discipline ourselves to wait through the boring bits.

Last May, my niece graduated from a large university in California. I’ve been to a handful of college graduations recently, but I’ve never seen the rudeness that I witnessed that morning. Rudeness I participated in.

A thousand names were called and a thousand graduates walked across the stage to shake the Dean’s hand. People pulled out their phones; some teachers graded papers. I, cough cough, tried to get my seating on Southwest Airlines, even while part of me looked upon myself in astonishment.  My husband assumed the tilted coffin pose and took a nap. This wouldn’t have happened ten years ago.

Conversations take work. Conversations take energy. Conversation require me to reveal myself to my friend.

Some of the wealthiest moments of my life have been three recent reunions with childhood girlfriends. We spend a weekend practically device-free. We don’t watch movies. We talk. We listen. We experience deep, focused conversation. (Once, a friend apologized for keeping her phone nearby. She hadn’t heard from her daughter who was living across the world in a country buffeted by a typhoon!) The time and attention is a treasure, all the more so because of its rarity.

Turkle has two time-honored commands to help us out of this murky mess.

Use your words. (what she told her young daughter)
Look at me when you speak to me. (what Grandma always said)

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Besotted

DSC_8169-001Besotted: adj. strongly infatuated.

I do this odd thing for the sheer joy of it. I collect be-prefix words.
All year long, while I read, I stop and copy words to the front
page of my journal. When the journal is full, I look at my
beribboned and bejeweled treasury.

Just in case there is someone else like me, I try to use be-words
in my writing, to bestow on them the joy I’ve betaken.
On an especially good day, I might make up a new be- word.

Now, I am fond of other prefixes.
Enfold, endear, enlivened, encourage…
I might start a new page in the back for en- words.

What does the “be-” do?
It means thoroughly, completely, to make.
It adds intensity.

When I looked it up, I discovered a new be- word:
bethwacked, “to thrash soundly.”
(imagine my hands and fingers flying in excitement)

Two be-prefix words are so common, we almost don’t see them.
Beloved. Greatly loved. More loved than loved.
Become. More than come; to come to be.

What about betray?
Add be- to the Latin tradere,
from trans – “across” + dare – “to give.”

Last year I was beguiled by —
behither (George Herbert)
befogged (Nora Waln)
bedraggled (D.E. Stevenson)

benumbed (Kathleen Norris)
beholden (Anthropologie line)
betokened (L.M. Montgomery)
bespectacled (Leo Marks)

bedecking (Jan Karon)
becalmed (Stewart O’Nan)
setbacks which bedevil modern life (Alain deBotton)
unbeknownst (Joanna Cannan)

bewail (Wendell Berry)
courageous and befitting (?)
bewigged (Elizabeth Goudge)
becalmed (Arabian Nights)

One of my favorites:
befriend, to cause to be friends.

An Exaltation of Larks

     Photo Credit: Dan  Harper (my brother!)

In flight, a group of geese is a SKEIN. On water, a GAGGLE of geese.  Photo Credit: Dan Harper

Initially, I misjudged James Lipton’s quirky and curious book, An Exaltation of Larks, missing the playful and fanciful element. When I read that a group of elk is called a gang, I felt only unalloyed disgust. Perhaps among flabby academicians, elk are referred to as gangs. But, I live among muscular mountain men who would laugh in derision at that term. Or fix you with a questioning stare. We sometimes take ourselves too seriously, precious.

This book didn’t grab me until I started from the beginning.

The dedication: For my mother, Betty Lipton, who showed me the way to words. (Swoon. I want my kids to say that some day.)

A CLUSTER of housecats.

A CLUSTER of housecats. Photo Credit: Dan Harper

I loved the Preface best, packed with collectable, copy-worthy quotes.

The heart and soul of this book is the concern that our language, one of our most precious natural resources, is also a dwindling one that deserves at least as much protection as our woodlands, wetlands and whooping cranes.

And this from Elizabeth Drew:

Language is like soil. However rich, it is subject to erosion, and its fertility is constantly threatened by uses that exhaust its vitality. It needs constant re-invigoration if it is not to become arid and sterile. Poetry is one great source of the maintenance and renewal of language.

This is the sort of book that fits well in a bathroom. Read a page, put it down.

Photo Credit: Dan Harper

A TRIP of goats — from Icelandic thrypa, “flock,”? or a corruption of tribe? Photo: Dan Harper

Lipton encourages the reader to join a game, coming up with new collective nouns. The groups that tickled my fancy the most were the medical professions (a joint of osteopaths) and music (a pound of pianists, a bridge of lyricists). Not to mention a load of diapers or a twaddle of public speakers.

Some terms are so familiar we don’t see them as collective terms, as in Shakespeare’s a comedy of errors and a sea of troubles (from Hamlet). The book of Hebrews gives us cloud of witnesses. Does that joggle you linguistically like it does me?

The greatest challenge facing me is that of identification. Before I learn the collective terms [murmuration, charm, exaltation, murder, unkindness and dule] I need to learn to distinguish starlings, finches, larks, crows, ravens and doves.

A GIGGLE of girls

A GIGGLE of girls

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

DSC_8942My husband, home sick from work, was fixing to fascinate me with stories about locks at the hospital. My responses cycled between “Hmmm” “Oh?” “yeah” and “wow.” He shook his head in exasperation and complained, “I’m trying to impress you and you aren’t responding!”

“Babe,” I lifted my head and made eye contact. “I have three pages left of this book.”

“Oh?” he said. “What are you reading?”

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog … a book about diagramming sentences.”

We dissolved into laughter at the absurdity of diagramming edging out locksmithing.

When I was a student, I was not gripped by grammar. Caron, my camp friend, used to amuse herself by counting the spelling and grammar mistakes in my letters. The fun flattened when the error count declined to three or four. I still stumble over less and fewer, lay and lie, hopefully and I hope.

Kitty Burns Florey is a fun look back. Moderately fun. To those who suffered through grammar, it has about the same nostalgic power as a teeter-totter has to two chunksters in their fifties. (Have you noticed that teeter-totters disappeared from playgrounds? Hmmm?)

Relax! Florey’s acerbic tone spices up this bland subject. She calls Eats, Shoots & Leavesa “popular scold-fest.” I enjoyed her prose and reveled in her side notes.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

I learned details about words, a bonus she couldn’t resist throwing in. (When Kitty isn’t writing books, she is a copy editor.) I learned that enormity means a very great wickedness, not a very large hugeness. Likewise, infinitesimal means endless, not very, very small. She explained that a Lion’s share is 100%, not a majority. Ain’t, don’t you know, exists because we don’t have a contraction for “am not.” So ain’t used with the first person singular (the pronoun I) is technically correct.

My opinion is that English grammar can be taught with more ease and more adhesion through the ear rather than the eye, with vocal chants/songs such as those used in The Shurley Method or Grammar Songs. But, I enjoyed the refresher course on sentence diagramming.

The visual delight of the book are the diagrams of unwieldy sentences by James, Hemingway (whose sentences are normally spare), Fenimore Cooper, Twain, Proust, Oates, Updike, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty and Powell.

I couldn’t resist trying a long sentence myself. Above is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Corrections are welcome.

15 New Words

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In writing I am seduced by the sound of words and by the interaction of their sound and sense.

— Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History

I read all books—even borrowed ones—with a soft-leaded pencil in my hand. When I come across a word I don’t know I put a √ in the margin. When I copy quotes into my journal, I add the words I’ve learned. I also add to my collection of be– words (beguiled, bewhiskered, betake, etc.), but that’s a story for another day.

Here are a few of my favorite 2013 additions to my treasure chest of words:

taradiddles — lies
shrammed — benumbed with cold
virago — loud, overbearing woman

flibbertigibbet — silly, flighty person
semaphores — visual signaling with flags or light
boulevardier — man who strolls on Paris boulevard

billyho — unimaginable large amount
fortnight — contraction for “fourteen nights”
carnival = carne vale = goodbye meat

aptronymic — suitably named
debouched — to cause to emerge
snuggery — a snug, cozy place

smeddum — spirit, energy, determination
plaint — expression of grief
puling — whining, whimpering, crying plaintively

Gorging on gorgeous phrases

…capacity for conjecture…
…this barbwire twist of my career…
…clamped to a book…
…a barely audible aria of whistling…
…bridal train of dust…
…a granary of learning…
…a dervish of vocabulary…
…toxin at one end and a tocsin at the other…
…the specter of the inspector…
…lack of budge in budget…
…our impatient patient…
…trying to be harmonic, not philharmonic…

I’m slowing my pace, enjoying the feast.

Holy Toledo!

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This morning, reading a reference to El Greco’s stormy sky over Toledo, I was taken back ten years.

Holy Toledo! somebody exclaimed. My son, in the neighborhood of eleven years old, asked “Why is a city in Spain holy?”

His grandpa stared—the laser beam—at him. “City in Spain?” He looked away, sighed, shaking his head. “Try city in Ohio.”

Now it was Collin’s turn to demonstrate incredulous. We had been reading about the Auto-da-Fé. If he knew anything, he knew that Toledo was a city in Spain. He’d never heard of Toledo, Ohio.

They both looked at me.

Steady, I thought, steady. I smiled.

You are both correct! Toledo is a city in Spain and a city in Ohio.

That neither of them knew both facts surprised me.  Americans, I think, tend to speak only English and be familiar only with America. But many classically-educated kids know details of the Peloponnesian War but not a rudimentary fact about their own state. (That, my friend, is not a theoretical example.)  

It makes me curious? Did you know both* locations of Toledo?

 

 

*Per Wikipedia, Toledo is a also district in Belize, a municipality in Brazil, a town in Colombia, and a city in the Philippines, in Uruguay, in Illinois, Iowa, Oregon and Washington.