English Well Speeched Here

(If you're not familiar with that book - a collection of signs from around the world about ladies with nuts and suchlike - you should check it out; it's quite hilarious. As is Anguished English, a history compiled from student writing, in which Socrates dies of too much wedlock.)

There are two parts to this whole English language thing I'm thinking about: one has to do with making English the national language, and the other has to do with how well native speakers speak (and write) it. I'll start there, because it's more clear to me what I think, which is: spelling matters! And commas! And apostrophes! And knowing how to use them correctly! I laugh at all those cartoons and books with funny examples, but really it makes me sigh inside. I tell my students that all those other traits of writing they're taught - organization, content, voice, etc. - have to do with what people think of their writing. But the conventions affect what people think of them. I am incredibly judgmental of restaurant menus offering "onion ring's" or a van with painted sides promising to Get Your Windows "Clean"! (Is that code for something?) And especially newspapers with errors. They actually have people who are paid to make sure there are no errors, even if they're just typos that spellcheck missed. Do your job! Yes, I make what are probably unfair assumptions about the intelligence of people who make these mistakes. Suck it up and learn how to write right.

My favorite example of why commas are important: Let's eat, grandma! Leave that comma out and we're suddenly talking to Hannibal Lecter. The kids always get a kick out of it. That said, I support poetic (mis)use of the language. It's like what I was taught about painting: you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Once you can draw a good still life, you can go nuts with your spatter-painting and call it art.

The other part, the idea of making English the national language, well, it's a little more complicated for me. My initial reaction to the folks who propose that is that they are prejudiced and backwards and generally can't speak English all that well themselves (have you seen the signs at Tea Party rallies?). But once I get over it and start to think about the idea, I find that I'm not so sure. When I travel, or if I live abroad, I don't expect people to speak English to me. Yes, the reality is that in a lot of places people do, but that doesn't mean they should have to. Maybe folks in the tourist industry, but not the general public. I consider it my responsibility to figure out how to communicate with them, to learn the local language, even to say my name differently. I wouldn't expect to be able to get a job if I couldn't speak to the natives. So why wouldn't that be the same for people coming here?

And yet. It doesn't feel right to force people to live a substandard life because they can't understand English. To have a hard time getting good medical care. To be labeled stupid because they fail a test at school. To be unable to feed their kids because nobody will hire them. I don't know. I'm running up against my socialist libertarian tendencies again. Isn't there some kind of compromise that allows people to live decently and hold onto their own culture while also assimilating and acknowledging they're in the good ol' US of A? Can we celebrate our diversity and communicate clearly?

Of course this issue is tangled up in the immigration issue, which I won't get into except to say: when I taught in New Mexico, my students didn't realize there was such a thing as legal immigration. They'd only ever heard of illegal immigration. That kind of blew my mind.

Now I'm off to join Lynne Truss and her posse of guerilla grammarians, ninja mask on and sharpie in hand. All ye who err, beware!



I had a conversation yesterday about feeling unmoored now that school is out, even though I was only teaching two afternoons a week, and how it's important to have something to hang my days on - if not a job, then a yoga class, or a baby date, or a women's circle, or something. Something on the calendar, to anchor the otherwise aimless space. It's not aimless, of course, it's filled with the most important work of all: raising my boy. Nevertheless, especially after 7 months (!) of it, it feels like time to get out and do something else. I'm starting to hit my wall of going round and round with the baby toys, how can we entertain you now, what can I do to get that heart-melting grin and giggle, constant energy and attention. It's exhausting. And when it's nonstop, it stops being fun, and I don't want to stop having fun with my baby. So the time has come to bring in the babysitters and work out a balanced parenting schedule (I always wince using that as a verb. Well, a gerund here, I think, but still) and go dancing.

The other piece of it had to do with working and how we undervalue the work of being at home and raising a kid. (and I get the double hit, with my "real" work of teaching being undervalued too! Oh sure, we say education is the most important thing, but we don't walk the walk.) As I live it, even in an enlightened and progressive area, I feel how unfair it is. If you can't define yourself with money, you don't count. You don't get the benefits of being retired (think palm trees and daiquiris) and it's almost like you're not a real person. Yes, I know this is not news, but it is new for me to feel this way, to feel like I have to justify what I'm doing somehow, to fight for the recognition that I am working more now than I ever have before. No, it's not a "job" that pays me money, but I don't have a union guaranteeing me a coffee break every 4 hours either. (Sorry, kid, you can't get up from your nap yet, it's not time for me to clock back in) Ok, this isn't totally fair, a lot of people celebrate this time in our life and clearly do value it. They're not the ones I'm talking about. (I get a lot of props for teaching, too, but my microcosm isn't matched on a national level)

I don't know exactly what I'm trying to say; I'm not feeling particularly articulate at the moment, but that conversation has been bubbling around in my mind and I needed to get it out somehow. And I may not be getting drinks from the cabana boy, but I do have something way better, a most incredible little man that lights up my life and lives up to all the hype. So there, world.


Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult

That's what a magnet on our fridge says, and it feels pretty true. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the things we're supposed to do, as dishes and dust pile up around us. Isn't there some cleaning gene that kicks in when you reach a certain age? I don't seem to be any better about it now than when I was a teenager with a messy bedroom. But it seems to come naturally for the adults I know. The real ones, that is, not like me. Maybe it's a generational thing. All I know is that we'll finally get so frustrated (or the smell gets bad enough) that it motivates us to spic'n'span the place, and then there's this optimism that it will stay that way, and it does for a few days, and suddenly the mess creeps back in. Then we swear we'll never cook again, and that will fix it! I hold on to a notion that if everything just had a proper spot, it would end up there and stay clean. But it expands to fit the place, filling whatever surface area is available; we're equally messy in a 1600-square-foot house as we were in a tiny campervan. Actually, I think we were better about it in the van, so maybe we need to downsize again. I also thought moving into a new house would make it easier to keep it clean - you can't blame the crud in the corners of the bathtub on the last residents - but no. I'm reminded of the argument I used to use against making my bed: it's just going to get messed up when I sleep in it tonight, so why bother? I just swept - how is there dog fur all over again? Why bother? Well, actually, unless we want to star in a Hitchcock film about deadly dust bunnies, that's worth doing. Especially now that the boy is starting to scootch around and get his face in it.

I'm looking at a pile a foot high of newspapers that I haven't (or have) read. Why is that still there? And the bag of outgrown baby clothes to take to the consignment store that's been sitting there for a few weeks? Who even knew that you had to dust your window blinds and stair railings? And your plants?!

One of my students tried to sell me a plant for a fundraiser, and I told her I have enough things to keep alive these days. Ice cream for breakfast, anyone?