Words, Words, Words

I have a love-hate relationship with my new cell phone.  On the one hand, it can do more things — lots more things — than my old one, which solves some of the annoyances of the old model, and the browsing on the new phone is light years better.  On the other hand, it has a touch screen.

I can’t stand touch screens.  They frustrate me to no end, in part because this is where technology is heading, and in part because I can get them to operate properly only about half the time I try.  Even this is a dramatic improvement over a year ago.  It doesn’t have to do with my fingernails getting in the way.  (Everyone always asks about that.)  I just can’t reliably get the screen to respond to my touch.  For my birthday, my friend Margo gave me several stylus pens to use with the new phone, which has helped tremendously, but it’s still not nearly as fast as that tactile-button Blackberry keyboard my thumbs had come to love.

The birthday card read, "One for your purse, one for home, one for school, and one to lose."  What a sweetheart!
The birthday card read, “One for your purse, one for home, one for school, and one to lose.” What a sweetheart!

The upshot of all of this is that my phone is no longer a device of extraordinary convenience.  I used to be able to spend half an hour catching up on emails and text messages while waiting somewhere and feel like that time was incredibly productive.  Now, such an exercise would make me more stressed and irritated because of the clumsiness of the device-user interaction.

So my emails and text messages continue to pile up at an alarming rate, just like they used to before I had a smart phone.  And I have begun to shrink from electronic communication as the go-to method of interaction.  As unfortunate as that may sound to many people, I’m not convinced it’s a terrible thing.

While I kind of hate my new phone, I kind of love the fact that I’m not constantly attached to it.

***

In “The Flight From Conversation,” Sherry Turkle writes, among many other astute observations on the way technology has impacted our lives, that “the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.”  She asserts that we as a society have moved from conversation to “connection,” which in this context means not making a real connection with another person on anything like a deeper level, but rather connecting to our devices with the result (or in some cases, the goal) of pushing the actual people in our lives farther away.  “[O]ver time we stop caring” about this shift in our interactions with the people in our lives; “we forget that there is a difference.”  She likens the way we connect to each other now to taking little “sips” — when really, what we need and have in many cases lost is the gulp of being together.

***

Hamlet, in a moment of snark with Polonius, told him the matter he was reading was “Words, words, words” (II.ii.191).  In looking up the punctuation and citation for that quote, I reached for my Pelican Shakespeare from college on the shelf by my desk rather than open a new browser window and Google it.  I’m not convinced the way I did it took any longer than the electronic way, and something about the silky texture of the pages and the visual flash of years of annotations scrawled into the margins as I thumbed through it comforted me.  There’s a continuity to the physical book that reminds me its contents are more or less permanent, that I can rely on them to be there when I need them, that the only likely user error I might have when interacting with it is a paper cut, rather than a mockingly blank screen or a spinning color wheel of doom.

I am not a luddite, truly.  I use technology on a daily basis, and I’m not half bad at it most of the time.  I’m one of the only teachers in my department, though, who doesn’t have a Promethean board yet.  I keep wanting to make the leap, but I hear such horror stories of technological problems, breakdowns, glitches and the like, that I’m more inclined to stick with what I know works, even if it makes me look like a dinosaur.  At least, I rationalize, I’m a functioning dinosaur who doesn’t waste precious minutes of class time dealing with slow screens and the repetitive process of maximizing and minimizing windows.

But I know it’s a faulty argument.  And yes, I know about what eventually happened to the dinosaurs.  (I think about it every time I grumble about the touch screen on my cell phone.)  Still, something prevents me from spending my summer learning the new device – something beyond the simple fact that I don’t truly have time in my summer for it.  Part of me loves the idea of catching up with my colleagues.  Part of me feels like the choice isn’t really authentic, and so…well, you know.

***

I think one of the problems I have with the break-neck pace of technology is its break-neck pace: the inherent lack of opportunity for people to think carefully about what exactly they’re getting into.  I can’t even tell you how many times my students (who are in high school) have brought up the pitfalls of their “digital age” in class discussions.  They acknowledge that their generation is poised to be more readily adept at social media yet, paradoxically, less equipped to understand its consequences.  Remember when sexting first gained notoriety?  Aside from the utter lack of forethought about the consequences to one’s reputation such an action implies, there’s that little matter of the law against the distribution of child pornography.

Oops.  Now there’s an embarrassing thing to have on one’s record.

But we don’t have to consider frightening near-future scenarios that once would have been considered science fiction to realize that rapid, electronic communication is hurting the way we interact with each other.  We can see this stuff any time, any place; sometimes we don’t even register at first what’s happening to us.

I’ve read no fewer than half a dozen articles or posts in the last couple of months which were so negative they actually kind of ruined my day.  (I’m not sharing any links to them because I don’t want to spread the ugly.)  In each case, the author excused him- or herself from politeness or the consideration of other people’s feelings with the common disclaimer of “I’m just blunt” or “I tell it like it is” or some other similar sentiment.  The laconic “Sorry.” which sometimes followed rang with the tinny hollowness of inauthenticity, the electronic addition of insult to injury.

As Turkle asserts, “connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.  In conversation we…can attend to tone and nuance…are called upon to see things from another’s point of view.”  Taking the other face out of a face-to-face interaction removes the urgency to do that.  Out of sight, out of mind.

I don’t have a problem with frankness.  I don’t have a problem with email – other than the sheer volume of it – or with other forms of electronic communication or with social media.  Used thoughtfully and responsibly, these things are a joyful wonder and a powerful tool.  But the instantaneous nature of such avenues for expression sometimes, I think, makes it too easy for us not to revise, not to think through what we’re saying.  It makes us too quick to – publicly – judge.

And yes, we all do it.  I’ve done it, but I’m not proud of it.  I’ve tried really hard not to, but I’m no more perfect than anyone else, and probably a good sight less.  That doesn’t excuse me.

***

Anyone who’s been reading my blog or who knows me well or who pays any attention whatsoever in my classes will understand how much words mean to me, how desperately important they are in the way we interact with each other and in the way we present ourselves to the world.  The still-most-viewed post I’ve ever written on this blog, entitled “Because Language Matters,” is about what the words we choose to employ say about us.

Teaching is a difficult profession in the best of circumstances, but it can also be rewarding – if one doesn’t mind delayed gratification.  You know how it goes:  the students who apparently hate everything about you when they’re stuck in your class come back after a year or two of college for a visit, and walk into your classroom just to tell you how important your class was, just how much they learned from you, and thank you so much.  Those are such good days, if you can just hold on long enough to experience them.

I know a lot of teachers who have a love-hate relationship with their jobs.

There’s a poem I read in the early years of my teaching career that has stuck with me ever since.  It was written by a former colleague of mine, Sharon Klander, and I’m reposting it here with her permission.

*

Teaching Composition

When they complain about grammar, commas,
and colons, want to go straight to the “A”
without sweat or rhetorical scope, I tell them

.
how easy it is for language to slip the line
and spill across the boundaries
of another’s feelings, someone you love

.
reading the letter twenty times straight,
finally convinced it must be over.

.
.           Or maybe the address book
falls to pages each time you look for a number
because starting a new one would mean

.
leaving out all the names who died
and you think maybe the letters themselves
make manifest, maybe God really did it all

.
with a word.  What control we have
we find in marks sharp as a look back, going over
and over what went wrong, wondering

.
how could we ever mean what we say?

*

The first time I read this poem, I was an adjunct instructor at Houston Community College, teaching three sections of remedial English.  Most of my students were older than I, and sometimes some of the gentlemen I taught (and I use the term “gentlemen” loosely) thought it was cute to challenge me in front of the class on the finer points of grammar or punctuation or how to construct a decent compound sentence, since they’d “been writing perfectly good business letters for years” using their rules, and they’d climbed up the corporate ladder very well, thank you.  It would have been rude of me to ask them what they were doing in my class were that the case, so I was a good girl and just pressed on with my lessons, perhaps unfortunately reinforcing their ideas that a well-made suit was impressive enough an impression to make.

My students’ abilities ranged from ready-for-freshman-English to genuinely-impaired, and because of the way the standardized testing and scoring worked, these students were sometimes all in the same class.  Klander’s poem appeared on the back of the English department newsletter one month, and it helped me stick out that teaching job for four difficult semesters.

In my last term there, a mentally handicapped student whose parents refused to believe he needed help — a student who’d already failed my class twice before — started to become belligerent, threatening.  He was physically bigger than I was, and he made this point a couple of times after class when he stayed behind to argue over a D on his paper.  He also let it drop that he knew approximately where I lived, because he had an apartment in the same neighborhood.  One night after class, he tried to get me to say my address.

Most of my classes were held in the evening; the department office closed up shop before I did.  Even in April, it was always dark by the time I left work, the walk to my car in the parking garage filled with echoes.  A male colleague happened to be walking by as I was leaving the classroom that night; I engaged him in conversation immediately, and the student left.  My colleague walked me to my car, and the next day I explained to my department chair, Alan, that I felt unsafe with this student.

“What are the odds,” I asked, “that when he fails my course again, he’ll end up in my class, again, next semester?”

Alan appeared to be weighing his words.  Finally he said, “Pretty good.”  Then he added, “He requests you.”

I turned in my notice.  Alan appeared disappointed but understanding.  He didn’t try to make me change my mind.

Among the things I kept from that job, Klander’s poem, torn from the back of the department newsletter, stayed in my briefcase for a long time, until I taped it up onto the door of the classroom where I finally landed, in the school where I’ve now been teaching thirteen years.

I come back to this poem often, in my mind, when I think about language and teaching and the way we communicate with others.  The power of words, the sheer number of words in our language, the multiple ways we have of expressing ourselves and our intelligence to comprehend such a thing — these all demand our responsibility to use words wisely.  I think we have a moral obligation to treat each other with intention:  we need to pay attention to the words we use with each other, because language is the currency of most relationships.

This means we don’t use text message abbreviations in our academic papers.  This means we use active and interesting verbs or specific adjectives to express just what we truly want to say.  This means we take a sharp look back at what we’ve dashed off in an email or a Facebook post and reread it, think about it, before we hit send.

This has been floating around Facebook for a while now, shared all over the place.  As far as I know, it comes from There is a difference between "geek" and "nerd"'s Facebook page.
This has been floating around Facebook for a while now, shared all over the place. As far as I know, it comes from There is a difference between “geek” and “nerd”‘s Facebook page.

It means I have the time, with my super-slow-going new cell phone, to pay attention to what I’m telling someone before I actually do it, and to change what I’ve said to make sure I’m not coming across badly.  I don’t want my recipient to wonder how I could ever mean what I say.

***

Let’s return for a moment to that last semester I taught at the community college.  I also had several residencies with Writers in the Schools and taught over a dozen gifted students in Johns Hopkins’ distance ed program.  (This was back before those classes were conducted online; we did it all through the mail.)

Everything that spring felt awful.  I was grading about three hundred papers a week.  All of these jobs were considered part-time — in other words, no benefits — yet all told, I was working well more than one full-time job might have required of me.  I had been working so much — teaching all day five days a week, teaching two nights a week, filling in all the rest of the nights and weekends with my distance ed course — that I was exhausted and run-down and really quite sick.  I was also trying to move out of my parents’ house for the first time with someone who would be, in hindsight, the wrong roommate, a process that was going badly.  And everywhere around me, people were dying.

And I mean actually dying.  My friends’ grandparents were dropping at an alarming rate.  My own grandmother had been losing her siblings at the pace of one every seven or eight weeks for several months.  My mom’s aunt became sick to danger while staying at our house.  And my friend Aaron — who would, a couple of years later, become my husband — lost his girlfriend at the time to a brain aneurysm.  She was among the first casualties of our social group, the clue that we were actually embarking on adulthood, ready or not.

April that year sucked.

Another good friend, Brian, who lived several states away, sent me an email to cheer me up in the midst of my nervous breakdown.  He knew how surreal and desperate everything must be feeling.  Text messaging and Facebook did not yet exist.  We did not yet own cell phones.  Email was an actual convenience.

He had gone to the magnetic poetry kit on his refrigerator — though he didn’t consider himself a poet beyond that novelty — and written me a poem, a virtual hug, which I printed out and carried around in my purse with me for at least ten years in a pouch with my social security card, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and, eventually, my grandmother’s obituary.

*

hit me with a rusty chain
I need to have sordid crushing moments
so beat me madly
like a delicate red rose in a summer storm
and then we will go eat

*

It wasn’t the fact that he’d sent an email.  It wasn’t that he’d made a connection with me in a way I could print out and keep and refer to whenever I needed it.  It was that he’d used words, carefully selected and thought-out, to convey something deeper than a platitude of sympathy.  “Yes,” he was saying, “sometimes life is just awful all around you, and that must be really hard for an empath.  But you’re stronger than you think, and you will endure.”  And I wasn’t going to be alone doing it.  This helped me more than a simple “get over it sweetie 🙂 u can handle it xo” ever could have had the capacity to do.

***

Sometimes words fail us all, and sometimes we feel that void keenly.  I have a love-hate relationship with words.  They are gorgeous in their infinite variety, magnificent to wield.  But they also crush, enable, soothe, placate, burn.  Sometimes unintentionally.  How can we ever mean what we say?  It takes thoughtfulness, and that takes time.  Technology seeks to eliminate that time.

There’s an old joke about a poet.  He sees his friend for lunch, and his friend asks him what he’s worked on all morning.  The poet answers, “I edited one of my poems.  I put a comma in.”  They see each other again that night for dinner, and the friend asks the poet what he’s worked on all afternoon.  The poet answers, “I took the comma back out.”

I tell that joke now and only about half the people get it.  A student of mine actually said once, in response, “Did he actually spend his whole day thinking about a single comma?  Why didn’t he just use grammar check?”  The tone of voice implied, “That’s stupid.”  Rather than give a lengthy explanation of why grammar check cannot comprehend the intricacies of poetry, I told another joke.

Someone whose name has been lost to me — and Google search fails me now in my efforts to look up who it was — once quipped that he couldn’t get a Ouija board to work for him because of its lack of punctuation and inability to convey irony.

My students just stared at me.  Crickets.

I’m starting to feel unfunny.

***

How many times will I revise this essay before I post it?  It’s already taken me a week longer to write than I thought it would.  If you’ve gotten to this point, I’m proud of you and utterly grateful, because so few people, I’m told, read anything online this long.  I thought about serializing this post, but the fragments don’t work so well on their own.  They need each other like most people need each other, more intimately than the conventions and stereotypes of technology allow for.

I remember the very first post I made here, an essay that was longer than the proscribed 2,000 words.  I sent the link to all my friends and family to let them know I’d launched Sappho’s Torque, with the hopes that at least a few of them would subscribe.  I remember my dad saying a few days later that he’d seen it, but the thing was just too long for him to keep reading it.  He was too busy in his job (he’s a financial consultant — a Managing Director, in fact) to sit and do that.  In his eyes, this didn’t mean he loved me any less or cared any less about my writing or that he was any less proud of me for whatever it was I was doing.  But frankly, I knew, the world is too much with him.  I remember when he used to read for pleasure, whole magazines filled with scientific articles and speculations about the universe.  Now he reads his email and his reports and laments his lack of time for reading for fun.

Short stories have become popular again among my students.  They’re like bite-sized chunks of literary gratification:  something they can read in a night and have a discussion about the next day and be done.  Check that off the list.

How many books have you read this year?
Well, I’ve read about a dozen stories.
Oh, that counts for something.
Yes, and it didn’t put me out at all.

I’m going to have to split the novel I’ve written into two books because it’s over 200,000 words, and agents keep telling me that my query is excellent and the story sounds awesome, and if I can just cut out about 80,000 words, they’d love to read it, but 200,000 words is just too much of a commitment.  (Fortunately, the story can be split in half, and this is what I’m working on now.  The bright-side way to look at this is that I’ll have two novels under my belt by the end of the year.)  I suppose if I wanted to I could self-publish it as an e-book, and then its length wouldn’t be an impediment to its being read, but that’s not my first choice.  I have a love-hate relationship with being in the writing industry.

But what else am I going to do?  I’m a writer.  My brain hums in the patterns of Story.  Apart from recalling memories, more often than not, I think in text rather than images, words forming rapidly across the pale canvas of my mind.  My friend Mary tells me I need to be what and who I am.  “You’re trying not to be you for all the best reasons,” she says.  “But not being who you are is a tragedy.”  It reminds me of a line from the movie Dead Again, where Robin Williams’ character tells Kenneth Branagh’s he needs to figure out what he is and be it.  Good advice.  I’ve tried not being a writer, and that’s not good for anyone — not just for me, but especially for the people who have to live with me.

Before I embraced my fiction-writing self, I tried to be a poet.  I wasn’t terrible at it and had a lot of poems published, won a few contests.  I still write poetry now and then and love it, enjoy it, love teaching it more than most other things.  I wrote this villanelle about eleven years ago, when I was going through a little bit of a crisis with my work.

*

In-Betweens

I hate and love poems
As I hate and love myself.
Guilt wraps around my bones.

I drain my whole self slowly
Into the shaft of a pen, then spill a mess.
I hate and love poems.

Ecstasy creeps to bitter in the knowing
This luxury cannot support itself,
And so guilt wraps around my bones.

I’m ashamed, hesitate to go
To that heady cliff of self-expression:
I hate and love poems.

My husband wants to know
When he can read the next poem, and the next.
Empty-papered guilt wraps around my bones.

There is no filling bread in poetry,
Only the impoverished nectar of ephemera.
I hate and love poems;
Guilt wraps around my bones.

*

But, of course, I didn’t actually stop doing it.  And so my love affair with words continues.

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7 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words

  1. In the essay, I note that Sharon Klander gave me her permission to use her poem on my blog. I should also mention that my friend Brian gave me permission to use his poem, too. And in Klander’s poem is looks like there are lots of extraneous little periods; this is because I couldn’t get WordPress to format the poem corrctly any other way. Ah, technology!

    Like

  2. Lauren Nagel

    I just finished and loved the poem at the end. It’s funny because I had a love/hate relationship with my phone before I got the iphone with its touch screen. I’d had it for 18mos when my teenaged neice showed me how to edit photos. She’d had her iphone for 3 days. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      Yeah, I’m getting used to it, but slowly. Part of it is that I don’t have or make time to just sit and play with it. So when others tell me they don’t have time for x or y, well, I still understand.

      Like

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