Thursday, March 03, 2011

Giving Away My Roots

When I lived outside the tiny coastal town of Searsport, Maine, I had a nasty tooth problem and had to hightail it to a dentist. I knew of one in Belfast named — I'm not making this up — Dr. Blood, and his assistant was named Savage. Blood and Savage. Hmmm. I don't think so. I wanted to be cautious. After all, I was living in Stephen King country.

I decided to take my chances instead with a practice I'd seen on the edge of town in Searsport. The office was barely a mile from my house. I no longer remember that guy's name, but at least I'm fairly certain it wasn't Dr. Axemurderer.

This man's office was in his home. His wife worked as his assistant. Presumably she was qualified, but I didn't ask to see a diploma. The dentist recognized me from when I stopped at his door two months before to deliver a special invitation to come to our Kingdom Hall.

They were a chatty couple. But have you ever tried to carry on a meaningful conversation with a dentist while he's working on you?

The doctor took one look and decided to yank out the offending fang. My mouth already full of cotton, I began to tense up as he made preparations to rip a piece of my body off of me. Assuming I might be in a mood to talk about spiritual matters, he asked me: If Jesus Christ was really who he claimed to be, why did he let people do all those terrible things to him?

"Mmmmpfhm mmmph mphmmphph mmmmpfhm" was my reply. But he wouldn't buy that explanation.

Soon my mouth was thoroughly numbed and stuffed with cotton. As the dentist anchored his body weight, readying himself to perform the heinous deed, the dentist's wife-assistant asked me, "So tell me — what part of the Chicago North Shore are you from?"

"Mmmmpfhm?" was my nonplussed reply.

I've always though my speech is as free of any regional accent as can be. Someone told me once that I speak Walter Cronkitese. Besides, I hadn't said very much, but evidently some utterance gave away my roots. (I was obviously in a frame of mind to give away roots on that day.)

When I was finally able to speak clearly again, I admitted that I grew up in Wilmette, which is what I say when I tell people where I'm "from," but of course I wanted to know how Mrs. Wife-Assistant knew this.

The woman had two advantages I was unaware of. First, she had a master's degree in some category of linguistic practice, and considered herself an expert on American dialects. In addition, she got that degree from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, the city that lies between Wilmette and Chicago on the North Shore, so lived there herself for some period of time. In fact, I lived in south Wilmette, within walking distance of the Northwestern campus, where my father also taught for a number of years.

So I guess the lesson is that just about everyone picks up little regionally-based speech idiosyncrasies. But Mrs.  Wife-Assistant never told me what it was that I said that exposed me.
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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Taking Remedial English

Alma Mater statue (Taft, 1929) in front of Alt...Image via WikipediaOne dismal February morning in 1962, near the beginning of the second semester of my freshman year at University of Illinois, I arrived late for my early morning English class, interrupting proceedings while I climbed over students in the crowded classroom in making my way to my seat.[1]

"Tedious journey, Mr. Newton?" asked the instructor, whose voice quivered with sarcasm like Paul Lynde's.

"Not nearly so much as the destination, Mr. Prahlhans," I replied, as I struggled to remove my wet overcoat.

At the university they offered new students two paths of study in basic academic subjects. I chose what was undoubtedly for me the wrong one, called DGS (for Division of General Studies) English. I adjudged the course to be trivial and the teacher to be loathsome. Always more concerned about expending time doing what I thought was interesting to myself than about superfluous abstractions like grades, I limped by, cut most of the time, and in the end managed to squeak out a D, despite having sufficient command of my native language to meet the university's low standards.

The consequence for anyone getting a D or failing grade in their freshman English class, whether DGS or traditional Rhetoric, was being forced to take a class called Remedial English — a disgraceful subject to have to stand in registration lines to sign up for, and while I accept that I'd earned that humiliation for myself by my own actions, still I grumbled about it, and blamed the inferior course and teacher I'd had the previous year.

To make matters worse, no credit was given for Remedial English, attendance was mandatory (cutting twice for any reason whatsoever meant automatic failure), and no person would be permitted to graduate without having earned at least a C (I think) in that course. A person could repeat it as many times as necessary to accomplish that end. I was in academic debtor's prison.

One relief was that there was no homework. We simply had to be present every session and listen, and we were required to write a series of six increasingly complicated essays in class, which the teacher then critiqued, graded, and returned.

For the very first exercise we had a choice of writing either about some issue of student politics on campus, about which I knew absolutely nothing, or about something having to do with Lyndon Johnson, who was then Vice President, and I cared equally little about him.[2] Being angry about the choices, in addition to having to be there in the first place, knowing that the best I could do was make something up, and so was bound to fail, I submitted an altogether stupid @#$! off-topic rant about having to write this stupid @#$! paper on this stupid @#$! topic about which I knew nothing, and having to take this stupid @#$! class. I didn't include the expletives, but was thinking them.

To my surprise, the teacher graded my paper thoughtfully and intelligently, as if it were just another badly written assignment from a clueless student (which it was). He included some written advice on how I could cope with the rest of the semester's work.

I no longer remember the name of the graduate student instructor, but for his calm handling of my tirade he deserves highest marks, perhaps even a meritorious service medal, when he could have reprimanded me, and might have griped equally from his own side of the divide about having to teach such a class to mostly morons and losers unqualified to do university level work who all needed to go get jobs pumping gas and stop spending their parents' money by being in college.

He never knew that his thoughtful comments probed a Good Attitude button in my head and triggered a permanent change in my life. Shortly thereafter my whole stance became transformed. I began to listen attentively to his carefully prepared and enthusiastically presented lectures, which constituted in toto a formal review of English, from basic grammar through advanced composition, over the course of a semester. As I listened and learned, the quality of my own writing escalated assymptotically.

As a result, despite the no-credit shameful status of Remedial English, I have always looked back on taking this course as a highlight of my undergraduate experience, and in some respects a turning point in my life, because it imposed a need for me to come directly and intelligently to grips with the techniques of writing, today one of my deepest everyday concerns. What I learned then has served me well all my adult lifetime. And it's worth noting, too, that for the rest of my academic career I never got anything but A's on term papers.

[1] Note on the image I used here. By coincidence, the classroom in which this episode took place was located in the building entered through the door under the outstretched arm of the figure in the statue.

[2] I have since learned a great deal about Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose greatest importance came after the period of this story, and find him to be a fascinating character in US history.
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Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Running Only Four or Five Hours

View looking towards the Black Elk Wilderness ...Image via WikipediaLong ago I considered running the Mickelson Trail Marathon. It sounded like a good race to me, and besides, I hadn't run a regular marathon in years; but running it would have required me to travel from Arizona to South Dakota.

When I proposed the idea to Suzy, her initial reaction was: "It seems like a lot of trouble and expense just so you can run only four or five hours." Because I knew exactly what she meant, I just started to laugh, then so did she, as she quickly caught on to the double meaning of what she'd said.

Doubtless some non-running spouses are of the opinion that spending time and money traveling to races constitutes a questionable use of resources that could be better used in another way, which in some cases may be true. Not Suzy. What she meant was that it's not worth the cost for me to travel to any race that will take me less than 24 hours to finish, preferably a whole lot longer, so I get more miles and hours per dollar for the experience. And that way she gets more shopping and sightseeing time. She's an economist.

The result of that discussion was that I scrubbed my plans to run the Mickelson Trail Marathon, and instead ran the Leanhorse 100-mile trail race a few years later, which is also run on the Mickelson Trail, albeit on a different part of it. Despite my almost-made-it DNF, I got to mile 96 in 28 hours before falling down in the bushes twice in twenty yards. Therefore, I definitely got almost my money's worth out of that trip. Suzy loved it, too, because she spent the race afternoon getting a massage in town.

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