Hellish Week

10 09 2010

On top of it being a shorter week than normal due to the holiday traveling madness, I’ve been working on the day job issues with interviews and physical ability tests. It’s kind of like there are two me’s running about. The other me has had the floor a lot in the last few days. He ran up an 85 foot aerial ladder on a fire truck on Wednesday morning and had a second job interview yesterday afternoon and that’s occupied most of his thought. Day job me is one busy, busy boy.

This is not to say I haven’t been reading and haven’t acquired a number of things I’d like to react to, but it’s unlikely I’ll get to them in great detail, so here are the thoughts in short form:

Batman: an iconic superhero whose powers are r...

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Superheroes as bad role models for boys? (see here, here and here)

This has been reported everywhere, but here it goes again. At a recent conference of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Sharon Lamb, EdD presented the findings of her study into superhero role models for boys. She surveyed 674 boys, found out what they liked, read/viewed the findings of that survey herself, and determined that comic book heroes offer only two stereotypes for boys to become: either be a narcissistic, aggressive bully or become sarcastic, disconnected slackers. I find this more than a little harsh and, though I have to admit I’ve not read the details of the study or seen the methodology, it’s my contention that in a lot of educational research (or social studies or literary), it’s difficult to attempt to gather real empirical data and, as a consequence, I think studies in those fields can be prone to observer bias.

All I can think is she must be reacting to Tony Stark. But come on, Batman in the Dark Knight offers himself as a villain-figure to save the image of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, as Lt. Gordon says: “Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent gaurdian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.” The message drilled into every single 5 minutes of the Spiderman movies is “with great power, comes great responsibility” and we witness Peter Parker repeatedly sacrificing his personal happiness for the good of others.

I’m not contesting that there’s no validity to the characteristics she presents. I think some heroes are narcissistic. They’re all certainly fallible, because we’ve moved past an age of “perfection” and are now in a phase where we wish to see “human” figures overcome their weaknesses. But they’re ultimately still principled beings. That’s what’s most important. I don’t think their being human and with some fault is a strike against them. On the contrary, I think in our world, when issues of good and evil are understandably far more complex and a lot less cut-and-dry than they were 50 years ago, we need rolemodels who show how to become better through sacrifice, through overcoming and abandoning our faults and through sticking to a code of honor.

That’s why I feel that it’s just a shame that in a social sciences observation, it’s often possible to skip observation and instead proceed to whatever axe one has to grind and then seek evidence to support that. Honestly, no where in comics does she see the archetype of protector? My son Max does. He’s 2. He says that Spiderman saves people. I’m glad he sees that. I do think that there are values there that go beyond the two stereotypes she presents.

Fordson Football Documentary

When the conversation of the week has been about Ground Zero, the wacko Qur’an burning guy in Florida and even here, in Middle Tennessee, the arson at the proposed site for a mosque in Murfreesboro, I’m hopeful that this documentary gets more traction, because racism and religious hatred is stupid. End of discussion:

From the Department of Things I Don’t Understand

Amish romance. Apparently it’s a trend. Somehow I missed that, but having studied and worked in the German Department at Penn State, I know a lot of people who could probably write some pretty convincing Amish love-stories/porn. Imagine me shrugging and shaking my head ever-so-slightly. That’s where I am right now.

Unfortunately, I was hoping that the YA vampire romance would give way to YA ghost or even robot love. Alas, Amish it is.

Man up

Ben Zimmer’s On Language column about the phrase “man up” has me grinning. I think we need more manning up. I might need to man up more myself (although, hey, like I said, I went up an 85 foot aerial at 7am on Wednesday. That should get me some man cred, right?). Regardless, the Zombieland quote: “Nut up or Shut up!” and the Rabbi Polish’s appropriation of “mensch up” has me cracking up. Win.

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Archaisms, ugh

7 09 2010

We made it back to Nashville in one piece and had a really great weekend with my family. Especially the kids had a terrific time swimming, riding horses, chasing mules on the “Noodle Wagon” (the funny name given to their Polaris Ranger, which they use to patrol the property), going on paddle-boats, riding with my mom on her 4-wheeler, playing with the dogs and just generally enjoying the lake, which was at its most beautiful and helped to no small extent by perfect weather. It’s definitely nice being this much closer and able to get down there and we’re already planning our next trip.

And now back to your regularly scheduled websurfing…

I woke up early this morning and, as usual, I started off by just clicking through my emails and RSS reader junk. Among them was a discussion thread I’ve been following on Goodreads where people are commenting on whatever book they’ve just finished and I found myself wincing not at the poor writers (they’re not the most pleasing in the world to see, but my expectations are low anyway) but at the horribly stilted ones:

“I too am loathe to peruse other works whilst reading his book.”

(I made that sentence up, but it’s very close to the original I saw in the discussion thread.)

That’s just painful. I dislike the position of “too” between the subject and verb, a very tacky “I, too” flourish that I noticed the author uses every single time she shares something in common with someone else. I know this because I checked her posting history, which says at least as much about how sad it is that I spend my mornings this way as it does her style. It’s as if she’s incapable of putting “too” at the end of a sentence. For example: I find you to be a really annoying, too. Wasn’t too hard.

More than that, though is “whilst.” Why not “while?” That particular word choice got me thinking about the use of archaisms in general. Now, before I get too pissy about “whilst,” I want to be clear that I’m talking about usage in standard US-English. It could be that a British English writer would feel more comfortable with whilst, but even then, most of what I’ve seen suggests that it’s at best archaic and stuffy there as well. In this case, the person who wrote the offending sentence is an American 6th grade social studies teacher. She has no excuse.

Archaisms, as a rule, just come off wrong and I don’t mean for that to sound like I’m an absolute prude. It can be funny. One of my closest friends frequently uses the word “mayhap” instead of “maybe.” It’s meant ironically, though, because I know the guy and it’s normally so incongruous in every context that it cannot be taken seriously. You can occasionally play up a funny sentence with a funny, out-of-place, William F. Buckley accent. There’s even a chance you can slip one in there occasionally in a witty or clever way, but normally there’d be some clear indication of irony while you did it. Sometimes, instead of saying “thank you,” I might say “Merci.” It’s a gag. I play it up and smile. It’s not serious.

No, no, here I mean the “whilst” coming into play in a strictly non-ironic, faux-intellectual sense. The problem with archaisms, used in that way, is that they’re off-putting and amateurish, so sayeth (ha!) H.W. Fowler in 1908:

The guilt of such peccadilloes as this may be said to vary inversely as the writer’s erudition; for in this matter the learned may plead ignorance, where the novice knows too well what he is doing. It is conscious archaism that offends, above all the conscious archaisms of the illiterate: the historian’s It should seem, even the essayist’s You shall find, is less odious, though not less deliberate, than the ere, oft, aught, thereanent, I wot, I trow, and similar ornaments, with which amateurs are fond of tricking out their sentences. This is only natural. An educated writer’s choice falls upon archaisms less hackneyed than the amateur’s; he uses them, too, with more discretion, limiting his favourites to a strict allowance, say, of once in three essays. The amateur indulges us with his whole repertoire in a single newspaper letter of twenty or thirty lines, and—what is worse—cannot live up to the splendours of which he is so lavish: charmed with the discovery of some antique order of words, he selects a modern slang phrase to operate upon; he begins a sentence with ofttimes, and ends it with a grammatical blunder; aspires to albeit, and achieves howbeit. Our list begins with the educated specimens, but lower down the reader will find several instances of this fatal incongruity of style; fatal, because the culprit proves himself unworthy of what is worthless.

Imagine if you had an American friend who could not help him or herself from slipping into a ham-handed attempt at a British accent anytime the topic of conversation shifted into any part of the spectrum of low-to-high culture above, let’s say, Twilight. Yeah, that. Wouldn’t that be a little annoying? Writing is no different. Case in point:

I am not of the school that says that writers should write in the same manner in which they speak. I think written language really should be more organized, more thoughtful, more correct and even more ornamental than your standard speaking. Ornamentation is pretty dangerous business, though. Go too far and it becomes as gaudy and obnoxious as Dolly Parton’s hairstyle. Less is more.

The real risk is that you alienate the reader. Good writing connects the reader to the words and ideas. It doesn’t have to be invisible, because sometimes the medium is the message. It is possible to write elegantly and even with a little flourish without going over the top and it can clearly be artistic without annoying. Normally, the offense of ‘conscious archaism’ is the result of incongruity of style. If you were writing a poem, you really could go hog wild. If you wrote a literary novel, you could probably be more sophisticated with your word choice. I enjoy just as much about how a good writer writes as I do what he or she is writing about. For a great example, go to Google Books and look at the preview of Franzen’s Freedom there. Skip down to the bottom of page 6 where Franzen describes Carol Berglund and read that paragraph. Franzen is an incredible writer and there’s a lot of depth to not just the character, but the way he describes her. For me, personally, this is a blog and I try not to be too fancy (not that I’m really capable of it anyway) and I’m pretty sure that the standard internet discussion board is not the place for a whole lot of gilded diction, especially when you’re talking about your favorite science fiction novel.

“I’m very anxious not to fall into archaism or “literary” diction. I want my vocabulary to have a very large range, but the words must be alive.” – James Agee