Wednesday, December 29, 2010

You have a man on the inside joke

I like to think about language. i like to think about languages also. And dialects. And sub-dialects. They interest me because they unite us and divide us constantly. One of the terms I learned in grad school (or maybe after grad school, in grad school) was "code shifting," the need to switch sub dialects seamlessly as we move from one cultural context to another. After speaking with my kids, I turn to my wife and speak with her. After writing this blog post (is it ironic that this interface underlines "blog" as a misspelled word?), I have to write a formal letter to someone. Each social interaction requires a subtly different language/dialect, so I have to be able to assess the need and adopt the write vocabulary and tone.

One of life's challenges is being able to code shift as quickly as the world demands. I work in a school with over 600 students and about 100 faculty and staff. With each one, I have crafted a dialect based in the words, expressions and experiences I share with each one. That isn't particularly unique -- people in any workplace have to flip in and out of conversations and code shift. But some of the extremes here can be difficult.

When one student comes up to me and expects me, while I am in mid-sentence with another teacher, to remember the 3 minute conversation I had with him or her the day before, and be able to flip over to that, answer the issue and switch back, that is tough. When 15 students surround me while I am on the phone with a parent, and each wants me to solve a particular issue, it isn't about the issue, it is about lacking the foundational context to process each, but being able to jump to that scenario in the middle where I left off, speak to the student as if we are the closest of friends who know exactly what we mean, and then move to the next. This the inside joke theory. You see, everything is an inside joke, and most of the time, only two people are inside. I think that the definition of crazy is that you can't understand that no one else is inside (or that you imagine that others who don't exist are inside).

One thing which makes my job tough is that other people seem to think that their universe/context is the only one anyone else knows or should know so they jump into it with no explanation or pause. Even if I share that context, I can't always know what they are working on. When I don't share that context, the task becomes even harder.

The moral? I'm rarely if ever in your brain, so don't yell at me that I didn't wipe my shoes off.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The greatest words never spoken

One thing which fiction writers have done is imagine the incredible conversations which would have occurred had some of histories greatest minds ever had the chance to sit and talk. Bridging both time and space, these writers pull together personalities from disparate cultures and areas of expertise and consider the kind of deep and meaningful cross pollination of ideas which could have taken place had the two sat together. I too have been thinking about such an event and would like to present what I think might have transpired so that others can benefit from the natural flow and progress of the hypothetical brilliance.

I imagine what would have happened if an incredible composer who shook the very foundations of music were to sit down with a leading scientist who, with his inventiveness and revolutionary vision, changed our physical world.

Edison: What?
Beethoven: What? [but in German]

Wow. Just wow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


For a long time I have wanted to be like those people on television - the men who surprise their wives with boxes wrapped in pretty ribbons, full of shiny rocks set in shiny metal, or the women who blindfold their husbands and walk them outside to a driveway occupied by a fancy car in an oversized box and with a Paul Bunyan-esque bow. We have the blindfold and the driveway, but that's where it ends.

Thing is, the wife and I have an understanding about that. First off, my taste in jewelry doesn't really exist. If it is shiny, I think it is adorable and want to buy it. This explains the basement full of tin foil. Well, that and the alien satellites. Foil hats dent so easily. The wife, thoughn is the one who has to wear the jewely so she wants a say in its shape or design. And, she doesn't to wear jewelry anyway.

Additionally, the money I make is ours as is the money she makes. So when I buy a gift for her, effectively, she is buying a gift for herself - there is no sacrifice on my part; I'm using her cash. Same with that car. We both drive and we both earn the money to pay for insurance, gas, upkeep etc. If she surprises me with a car, shouldn't it be a car I have vetted and we both can enjoy? And considering that the financial hit is shared, shouldn't she have consulted me? Didn't I have to sign something?

The entire idea of gift giving once you are married and have a joint account seems ridiculous. The better gift is to say "I haven't spent on myself recently so you have access to more to spend on yourself." Or maybe we should tell the IRS that we are "married filing surprisingly".

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mythed again

I have spent more time thinking about myths and have come to what could be a startling conclusion. I'm not saying that what I have come up with is all that revolutionary, but that I'd be shocked if it ends up that this concludes my thinking about it.

I was in a meeting today and my co-worker made reference to the "myth of the pioneer." Note that this does not recall a specific event or person who lived on the prairie. The stories about life way back then have sort of come together and provided us with a general summary or shorthand to help us think about an era or a group. And a quick look online shows that the phrase "the myth of" is used online some 28 million times. Somehow, if you remove the word "Greek" from the results, the phrase is used 108 million times.

Everything, it seems, is a myth.

Charter schools, alzheimers, Lilith, fingerprints, independent voters, mean girls, Samhain, racist Republicans etc.

It seems like everything is a myth. And this leads me to my conclusion.

Nothing has actually ever happened and nothing actually really exists. It isn't my fault you believe in the myth of Descartes.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Friday, December 10, 2010

mythos (pl, sing mytho)

I was sitting in the car this morning, explaining to my daughter about the word narcissistic and its connection to Greek mythology (didn't I know all this stuff already by the time I was her age?) and a thought hit me. Bam, it said.

The cultural myths from many cultures seem to share a particular theme -- explaining elements of the natural world by tying them to events or people in the myth. How did the elephant get its trunk, the giraffe its long neck, or the zebra its stripes? Read the cultural myth. How did Devil's Tower come to be? Read the story from the Native Americans. Why is that constellation shaped that way, or does that flower grow that way? Read about the mythological characters who inspired that natural thing.

So I aimed that lens at my own culture and I discovered something -- Jewish cultural myths do not seem purposed to explain elements of the natural world. They aim to explain the behavior of people. What is the Amaleki mindset? Why do liars act the way they do? Torah stories rarely give the origins of things, but of nations.

Now I could be wrong, and if you ask certain people, odds are I am wrong, but what's important is that I'm not wrong. Unless I am.

Behold the beholder

Sometimes we run into people who are truly beautiful - model beautiful. These are the people who leave others on campus with their mouths hanging open. The ones all the mortals are afraid to approach and whose entrance into a room forces conversations into jealous silences and makes stolen glances legal tender. In the workplace they inspire a combination of fear and lust and at school they become the focal point for a thousand excuses. Why take this class, join this club or sit in that part of the library? Because maybe, just maybe, that divine being will see me and lightning will strike and somehow I will connect with him or her. They are the objects of myriad Mitty-esque fantasies and yet their true personality remains a mystery. And then, years later, people sit around and wonder "where are they now?" "How did someone so perfect fit into everyday life?" "Did that model find another model and have model babies?"

So for those who wonder about that, I just want you to know

I'm right here.

by the way, this was
Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

Monday, December 6, 2010

I mall tired out

I found myself at the mall today. I guess I didn't find myself there. I drove myself there intentionally. Anyway, while I was there, I realized a few things. First, time spent wandering at the mall could be better used doing most anything else. Second, mall time is dangerous for me because it gives me time to let my mind wander and get cynical impressions about most everything and this leads to sneering and nasty comments. And when I'm alone, and I start mumbling, eventually, security has to get involved.

Next, if you aren't buying something for your cell phone (or aren't a cell phone yourself) or don't need clothes or mall food, the mall is pretty boring. A huge chunk of the stores sell clothes and upscale accessories for parts of my body I didn't know I had. I saw the massage kiosk (because when I want to relax, i go to the mall). I saw the navel piercing station (nothing like an Orange Julius and a hole in your body). I saw fancy cars parked indoors, stores selling nothing but perfume, or Legos or hats (or some combination of those three). I saw the mindless consumers weaving in and out of retailers who were all selling the same things just with different labels on them. I saw conformity personified selling itself as individualism.

The sad part was that I didn't want to buy anything. There I was, with cash in pocket, a checkbook handy and 3 credit cards, all ready to be amazed and driven into a frenzy of spending. I bought a bargain book and a replacement set of earphones, plus a little plastic screen cover for my phone. Woo-hoo.

I can't figure out if it is that the stores have nothing for me or that I simply am at a point where I don't really need much. Or maybe I'm just cheap. I'm not sure, but the whole experience was really worthless. I could have stayed home if I wanted to feel empty.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I'm a tame and sane guy

I write this as a fan of Steve Martin so I cannot lay claim to being unbiased, but what happened recently at the Y is ridiculous. Mr. Martin. Pardon me, Mr. Steve Martin, was discussing his latest book with Deborah Solomon when the web audience decided that he wasn't being the Steve Martin they wanted so they tweeted or emailed or did whatever it is that they did to send him a message demanding that he talk about something they wanted to hear about. Now, I am fully conversant with the consumer based economy and I know that we all get sad when we shell out eight million dollars for tickets to the Dinosaurs of Rock and they don't play our favorite hit from forty years ago, but at some point we will have to admit that WE DON'T OWN CELEBRITIES. Sure, they make their living making us smile, laugh, cry, move or think but we can't expect them to respond to our every whim like some sort of marionette. The true Steve Martin fan has one of two choices: either go to every performance and appearance and love him for his ability to change and grow, or stay at home listening to his LP's over and over and laughing at all the same jokes which , I heartily admit, are brilliant and funny. One can either read his new book and follow him around the country as he promotes that which makes him new and different, or watch The Absent Minded Waiter. Yes it is genius, and if that's what you want, then go for it, but don't demand that he stops being a real human being.

Now clearly, Mr. Steve Martin does not need my defense of him. His recent OpEd in the NYT makes his case brilliantly ( And surely I could rant about how the technology which we have access to is not only shortening our attention span but giving us a false sense of control over our world but I am simply going to end by pointing out that Picasso was brilliant through many stages and it would have been a real loss to the world had someone who was a fan of his early work stood over his shoulder as he moved into more adventurous work and demanded that he stay within a tried and true style.

Yes, we run the risk of not liking everything our idols touch, but the return is well worth it when we discover a talent which is not locked in by time or limited by two dimensions.