Monday, December 8, 2008

My Mother, the Cyborg

"Listen, and understand.  My mother is out there.  She can't be bargained with.  She can't be reasoned with.  She might feel pity, or remorse, but not fatigue . . . and she absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are fed."  

After years of nagging, I and the rest of my family finally convinced my mother to have knee replacement surgery. 

It had been a long time coming - well over ten years, I think - ever since mom hurt her knees after falling on the steps of the Catholic school where she teaches.  In all that time, as the knee pain grew gradually worse, mom steadfastly avoided the surgery option until all other avenues - drugs, injections, etc. - had been exhausted and the agony finally became too much to bear.  In July of this year she finally took the plunge and now she has a pair of shiny, new titanium knees that are likely to outlast my next two or three cars.  Especially if I buy American. 

I was proud of mom for overcoming her extreme fear of the surgery . . . that is, until quite recently, when things really started to click into place.  Oh yes, I can put two and two together as well as the next guy.  Mom, you had us all fooled . . . but I've figured you out at last. 

You are a cyborg.

How did I pierce through your nearly-perfect camouflage and superior programming?  Maybe it was the way you always just pick at your food when the family comes together for holiday dinners.  "I'm just not very hungry right now," you'd say, as you pushed a small pile of mashed potatoes around your plate.  Or, "I filled up on snacks before dinner.  Shouldn't have done that. But make sure you eat.  How about another piece of pie?"  Had I looked more closely at your plate, I'll bet that the small amounts of "food" you did ingest were in fact cunningly-disguised mineral compounds that serve as fuel for your internal reactor core or raw materials for the microscopic  nanites busily at work to keep you running.

Oh, I know one shouldn't build a castle of suspicions on a single pillar of evidence alone. There's also your inexplicable "sleep" habits.  When I was still living at home, I'd grown accustomed to your pattern after returning from school at the end of the day.  You'd fall asleep within minutes of sitting down in the living room, only to wake up again later in the evening and grade papers late into the night.  We thought it was just fatigue that made you do that.  But that really wasn't the case, was it?  No, you persisted in that bizarre and - to a normal human - unhealthy lifestyle because it allowed you to connect to the house's electrical system or open the data ports in the back of your skull to download "lesson plans" for the next day.  And since everybody else in the house was asleep by then, no one was ever the wiser.

Very clever, mom.

Sure, I could go on citing evidence.  Your steadfast refusal to retire from teaching when most "human beings"of your years would have already dropped from sheer exhaustion.  Your inability to alter your own programming that drives you to relentlessly feed and coddle your sons whenever they come home to visit, no matter how much they protest that they can fix their own lunch or do their own laundry.  

And the episode with the knees . . . it wasn't fear that held you back, was it?  It was the danger that the surgery would expose the gears, joints and complex positronic circuit network that lies hidden under that plump, lovable exterior.  Is it simple intimidation that is keeping the surgeons (or should I say engineers?) who worked on you quiet, or is it all part of a larger government conspiracy?

Well, whatever mission you're on, I won't expose you.  I'll go along with the charade.  It's just a pleasure to see you up and about again.  At the very least, your grandchildren will be able to enjoy many trips to see Grandma, during which you will no doubt amuse them to no end by ricocheting bullets off of your titanium kneecaps.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Any Given Sunday (or, "Dear God")


Nate, where are your shoes?  C'mon, buddy - we're gonna be late.  You don't want to walk in late, do you?  Everybody'll be looking at us.

Nate!  Nathan!  Nathanael!  Hey, are you listening?  We've gotta turn Elmo off now.  It's time to go to church, buddy.  Look, you can watch the rest of the show as soon as we get back, okay?

Geez.  Honey, have you seen his other shoe?  Yeah, I already looked under the sofa.  No, it's not there either . . . If you can get his snack and books together, I'll look for the shoe.

Hang on.  Okay, I found it.  Nate, how did your shoe end up halfway down the cellar steps?

Is his jacket on?  Right, you go first.  I'll lock the door.

Hey, Nate . . . little guy!  Nate, please just settle down!  I said we'd watch Elmo when we get back.  Stand up, please.  Nate.  Please stand up.  Nate!

Stand.  UP.

Get his other arm, honey.

Nate, the neighbors are going to think we're torturing you.  Just sit still while Mommy puts you in your car seat.  Here, give me one of his books.  Look!  Nate!  Look!  What animal is this?  Is it a duck?  Look!  What does the duck say?

Nate, what does the duck say?

Nate, please sit still.

Quack!  Right?  The duck says quack!  The horse says . . . Is he in?  Good, let's go.


Here, I'll drop you two off at the curb by the main doors.  Take him in and sit somewhere near an exit.  I'll go park the car

Nate, be good for Mommy.  I'll be right in.


Sorry, the lot was packed.  How's he doing?  Nate - look, here comes Father!  Here comes the priest.  What's he carrying?  A big book.  Book!  And the altar boys are carrying . . . what?  What are they carrying?  Big candles, that's what they are.  BIG candles.  Big.  Right.

Nate, stop that please.  C'mon.  Hey Nate, look!  Everybody's singing.  Want to sing with Mommy and Daddy, Nate?  

"For the beauty of the earth / For the beauty of the skies / For the love which from our birth . . ."

Nate, don't you want to sing with Mommy and Daddy?  No.  Nate . . . Nate, we're not going to sing the Cookie Monster song.  No.  We're not singing "C is for Cookie" right now.  No.

Hey, no climbing over the back of the pew.  Nate, settle down - you're gonna hurt yourself. Look, Nate, look!  Who's that over there?  On the wall.  Who's that?  That's Jesus!  Nate, I said get down from there!

Okay, let's sit down quietly.  Where are his books?  Nate, look!  It's The Very Hungry Caterpillar!  No?  What about Barnyard Dance?

Nate, put the hymnal down.  Nate, put it down.  Nate!  Oh, man.  Yeah, he ripped it.  What are these things printed on?   Tissue paper?  Here, put it out of his reach.  You want to hold him for a while?  I'll get his sippy cup.

Uh, oh.  Where's the sippy cup?  No, I just put it on the kitchen counter.  I didn't put it in his bag.  Crap!  Oh, wait.  Here it is.  It was under the books.  Whew.  Here you go, Nate.

That milk better last through the homily.  C'mon, Father, wrap it up.  Wrap it up.  Let's go.  He's almost finished with that milk.  Geez, he's really going long today.  They need to teach these guys the art of the 10-minute sermon.  They could hold competitions for the seminarians: who can deliver the best sermon in five minutes flat?  It could be like a religious sporting event.  Man, we gotta get some bigger sippy cups.

Finished with your milk, Nate?  How about some Cheerios?  Cheerios?  No . . . no!  Don't grab the container, I'll hold it - Nate, no!  Crap.  We're gonna have to clean that up before we leave.

Honey, it's almost time for communion.  I'm not gonna receive . . . I'll just take him back into the vestibule.  No, it's okay.  I don't mind.  He needs to let off some steam.  If he settles down enough, we'll come back in after communion.  C'mon, Nate.  Take Daddy's hand.

Nate, hold on to Daddy's hand.  Nate.  Nathanael!  Buddy, stand up!  Don't lay down in the middle of the aisle, Nate!  Does Daddy really have to carry you?  You're a big boy now, you can walk.  Oh, fine - I'll carry you.

It's okay, you can walk around back here, but you have to be quiet.  Nate, can you be quiet for Daddy?  Let's play the quiet game, Nate.  Shhhhh!  Do you want to look at the pretty pictures in the window?

Who's that?  That's St. Joseph!  No, not Elmo.  That's St. Joseph.  He was Jesus's daddy.  And what's he holding?  A hammer!  Hammer.  Daddy has a hammer, too.  And who's that standing next to him?

Nate!  Nathanael!  You DO NOT push people out of the way so you can see better!  That's very rude, Nate!

Sorry.  He's a little antsy today.  Sorry.  Nate, would you please say, "I'm sorry?"  Please tell the nice lady that you're sorry.  Say, "I'm sorry!"  Nate!  Yeah, we're still working on "sorry" with him.  Sorry.  C'mon, Nate, over here.

There goes the closing hymn.  Okay, let's stand here to the side and wait for Mommy.  Please just wait here with Daddy, Nate.  Nate!  Nathanael!  You're going to get trampled there.  Come over here!

Hang on, we're going soon.  Look, here comes Mommy.  Did you bring his jacket?  Good.

Look, let's just put it on him outside  We're blocking everybody.

C'mon, Nate.  Time to go. 

Nathanael, put that down and let's go.

Nathanael, please listen.  Please.

Want to go watch Elmo?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Importance of Having Your Hearing Checked

Here's a little piece of seasonal humor that I thought I'd pass along.  It's a joke that appears in Mike Carey's wonderful novel The Devil You Know, roughly transcribed with one or two small editorial changes by yours truly.  

This big expert on paranormal phenomena is doing a lecture tour of the UK and he's holding a public talk on a Friday night.  When he gets to the lecture hall, it's packed.  He shuffles his notes, clears his throat and says, "Let's just see where we stand.  How many people here believe in ghosts?"

Every hand in the room goes up.

"Excellent," says the professor.  "That's what I value: truly open minds.  Okay, how many of you have actually seen a ghost?"

Half the hands go down, half stay up.

"Good enough," says the professor.  "And out of you lot, how many have spoken to a ghost?"

Maybe twenty hands stay up and the professor nods.

"Yes, that takes some courage, doesn't it?  And how many of you have touched a ghost?"

All but three hands go down.

Finally the professor says, "How many of you have made love with a ghost?"

Two hands go down, but one right at the back of the room stays up.  It's a little old guy in a grubby mackintosh.

"Sir, you amaze me!" says the professor.  "I've asked that question a thousand times and nobody has ever answered yes to it.  I've never met anybody before you who's had sex with a ghost."

"Ghost?" says the old guy.  "Oh, sorry.  I thought you said goat."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Better than Toilet Paper?

A colleague of mine at work recently told me that I was “better than word-of-the-day toilet paper.” Were the roles reversed, I might have used the “Word of the Day Desk Calendar” for the sake of comparison, but I’ve taken this comment in what I believe was the spirit in which it was meant. Even in a worst-case scenario, compared to other scatological comparisons that people have thrown at me in the past, this one is pretty benign.

Still, this kind of comment does give one pause for thought. Do I gravitate, deliberately or otherwise, towards vocabulary that reminds people of an SAT preparation manual? Do I speak and write clearly, or do I simply sound like William F. Buckley’s idiot love child? The question is of considerable concern to me professionally. Working, as I do, in the marketing department of a philanthropic organization, much of my value as an employee centers on my ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences. If I do my job right, people should be left reaching for their checkbooks, not their dictionaries and/or reference manuals. It’s pretty much the same attitude I have towards sex.

All the same, it is true that spending any significant amount of time in academia throws you directly into the path of words that might otherwise swerve safely around you in the course of a normal day. In the short term, this isn’t too much of a hazard, and in my own discipline (literary studies) at least I’d like to think that most people come out rather the better for being sideswiped by Chaucer and Shakespeare. No, the real danger arises when one comes into close and prolonged contact with what I consider to be the bane of clear and understandable language: academic scholarship. 

Sustained exposure to academic language is like getting hit by a gigantic snowball rolling down hill very fast. Either you’re going to get flattened when it plows over you, or it’s going to pick you up and keep on rolling, getting larger and larger as it goes. And you’ve become a part of it, adding to its momentum and squishing other people unlucky or unwise enough to stand in the way.  A very few will see it coming and will have the presence of mind to step aside, but my observation is that most people simply get blindsided. 

Okay, not all scholarly writing is bad. I’ve read plenty of clear, edifying and engaging pieces of scholarship in the course of my studies. But there’s also enough material out there that would make Strunk and White consider a suicide pact. Here’s an example of what I mean – taken, sadly, from a book that I otherwise respect as a valuable resource.
“The limitation of a purely subversive interest in didacticism is that it confines itself to interpretation on the plane of the texte, the level of diegesis, while it leaves out consideration of the hors-texte, or those eventual postdiegetic moments lying outside strict questions of textuality.”
Huh? Hors-texte? You know . . . it’s like hors d’oeuvres except . . . um, with words. Okay, I’m still trying to unpack this one, but the sense in which it’s used here links back to the writings of Jacques Derrida, the literary theorist and philosopher whose weighty pronouncements have been used by legions of scholars to slice and dice texts the way a tableside chef handles his knives at your favorite Japanese restaurant. More on him later (Derrida, I mean, not the chef). In the meanwhile, I think I can safely say that I know what most or all of these words mean individually. But when they’re stacked together like this the overall effect I experience is not unlike a particularly strong neurotoxin administered directly to the brain: paralysis, loss of consciousness and finally suffocation.

(Look, before anybody invokes the case of Kettle vs. Pot, I know – I know, I KNOW – that I don’t have much room to criticize, given that the very title of this blog is in a language that few people outside of academia read. Still, I’ve tried to undercut my own pretentiousness by explaining clearly what the title means. And if it makes anybody feel better, my Latin is in all likelihood incorrect anyway.)

Academia, of course, doesn’t hold a monopoly on this problem. The world of nonprofit communications can be just as fraught with danger, or maybe even more so. The philanthropic organization where I work has close ties not only to certain segments of academia, but state and federal government as well. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of bad style, into which clear and understandable English all too often disappears without a trace.

It can be hard not to lose one's way in the swirling clouds of words that lead to phrases like “implementing initiatives within the service continuum to create systemic change” when that’s the kind of stuff you’re exposed to on a regular basis. Pretty soon, you begin to catch yourself translating simple, clear and uncomplicated language into unnecessarily complex, grammatically-tortured equivalents . . . just for fun.

Here’s one that came out of watching Sesame Street with my son. It’s the lyrics to the “Elmo’s World” theme song, run through the filter of early childhood development-speak, a hot-button topic where I happen to work.

La la, La la
Social, emotional and cognitive environment in which Elmo lives

La la, La la
Social, emotional and cognitive environment in which Elmo lives

Elmo receives the benefit of an emotionally positive and supportive relationship with his goldfish 
He also uses his crayon as a tool in positive early learning experiences

That’s the social, emotional and cognitive environment in which Elmo lives!

Better than toilet paper? You make the call.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Indecisive Me

Those of you who have followed this blog with avid - I might even go so far as to say intemperate - interest since its inception two weeks ago may be feeling (a) slightly short-changed, (b) deeply affronted, or (c) ethically and morally rudderless due to the infrequency of my posts.  To date, including the inaugural post below, the total number of entries amounts to . . . more or less . . . one.  Rest assured that your bemusement/contempt/psycho-social disorientation is wholly justified.

The fault lies not with me, but with the original premise behind the blog itself:  "A medievalist confronts the modern workplace."  By confining the blog purely to observations on my professional life, I've also thoughtlessly limited the scope of wisdom that I have to bestow upon an anxious public.  So rich is the field to be plowed, restricting the discussion to a single area seems increasingly unjust.

Clearly, this cannot stand.

Therefore, I have resolved to open up the discussion to include not only the weighty affairs of commerce and industry, but more domestic concerns as well.  Said another way, dear reader, you are to be treated to my observations on the culture of the modern workplace, communications, technology, visual arts, literature, and the pooping habits of small creatures (toddlers and dogs, mostly).  All this served up from the perspective of a person whose idea of practical knowledge up to this point included the major highlights of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).  

It's a heady feast, sure, but all are welcome at my table.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome: The Peasant Revolts

I think that I really began circling the drain when a colleague of mine casually mentioned during a graduate seminar that he had lately begun to dream in iambic pentameter.

This alone should not have had an enormous effect on me.  After all, my friend was then in the throes of his dissertation and . . . well, let's face it, that kind of full-contact experience is going to leave a mark.  And didn't my seventh grade Spanish teacher (the guy who always wore novelty ties shaped like freshwater fish) tell us that, when you can dream in the language you're studying, you've really started to master it?  And didn't the Anglo-Saxon scops so thoroughly absorb the rhythms and patterns of formulaic poetry that they could spin elaborate swathes of metrically-correct verse on the fly?  There were plenty of precedents - most of them quite admirable.

All the same, I felt an unexpected lurch of vertigo.  An unpleasantly cold sensation slid greasily down my back and the conversation in the classroom faded to a muffled buzz.  I didn't know why, but for the first time since beginning graduate studies, I seriously questioned whether or not I could teach Medieval literature as a career.

Now, this colleague of mine was (and is) a fine, upstanding, socially conscious, family focused, fiber eating individual and a scholar of uncommon brilliance to boot.  No doubt he could have dreamed in dactylic hexameter without feeling any ill effects beyond, perhaps, a mild headache and an occasional urge to wade through piles of the Greek slain outside the walls of Troy.  Nor was he an isolated case; the English Department was fairly swarming with energetic, clear eyed, glossy coated students on their way to rewarding careers in academia.  Those who knew me well, however, could already see the signs that I was becoming mentally and emotionally unmoored, not unlike several other students and professors of my acquaintance - the ones with the haunted, dark-ringed eyes and the furtive, rodent-like movements as they darted through the stacks in the dark, less frequently-visited corners of the university library.

After all, I was stalled out on year five of what should have been a two-year MA program.  Unable to organize my thoughts constructively on paper, I had begun to hold forth on fourteenth-century complaint poetry at Christmas parties, children's birthdays and even the occasional funeral.  I'd squandered precious hours dragging my bride up and down the Thames on our London honeymoon, looking for the church where John Gower (1330-1408) was buried. All I needed now was to begin dreaming in Middle English couplets, and that would seal the deal.

In short, it was time to come up for air.

I had help, of course.  My wife obliged through an effective mix of steady encouragement, loving support, and threats of extreme physical injury.  These persuasions were enhanced by the arrival of my son - a tiny, exquisitely delicate creature for whom, I soon began to suspect, the narrative structure of the fifth book of the Confessio Amantis was of peripheral concern at best.

So it was that I girded my loins, took up my staff and wandered back out into the desert that is the modern business world, the carrot of filthy lucre dangling in front of me every step of the way.  This blog is about, in large part, where I've ended up and what I took with me when I turned away from Medieval studies as a full-time pursuit.  In part, it's about what the practical effects might be on one's non-academic, professional life after swimming about for several years in the words of people who returned to dust long before one ever entered the scene.  It's also about whether or not I can look back long enough to finish my MA thesis while escaping the fate of Lot's wife when she looked over her shoulder to see if she'd left the iron plugged in.

But most of all, there will probably be a lot of complaining on the subject of whatever my current gripe happens to be.  Vox queritantis in deserto:  "a voice of one whining out in the wilderness."  Off we go.