Several (probably nigh on a half-dozen) years ago—when I was first applying to grad school, actually, a round of applications that were all rejected (edit: I think it was before this, but really I have no fucking idea—who remembers shit like that? Not me)—I’d purchased a few cases of Jones Soda for some party or other that we were having.
A bottle of Jones Soda has a fortune printed inside the cap, but since cans don’t have bottle-caps, Jones prints (or printed at the time—I think the packaging has changed?) the fortunes on the cardboard case the cans come in.
On this day, whenever it was, two of the fortunes jumped out at me as particularly significant (though I know, of course, that their significance is primarily a function of my decision to see them as significant—as relevant to my specific situation, &c, whatever).
They were: “You are headed in the right direction” and “Ask yourself why.”
I cut them out. They went, as a pair, onto my corkboard. They helped me get through the application process and the soul-crushing stack of (six) rejection letters that the process resulted in. They were, also, a factor in my decision to go through the application process again—successfully, this time.
At some point, I took the corkboard off the wall, took everything off of it, and bagged it up: the wall space in the room it was in had been … redistributed.
When I got (more-or-less) permanent office space on campus—in the fall of 2010, a full nine months before I started writing this post, and more months than I want to count before the actual posting (with some revision) of this post—the corkboard had a new home, and (almost) everything went back up on it. New things, too, as I acquire or unearth them (like a one-armed LEGO ninja that I found on the sidewalk, and a Return-of-the-Jedi-era stormtrooper action figure from my childhood).
One thing that didn’t make it was the “You are headed in the right direction” fortune: it disappeared somewhere, into the æther, into nonbeing, into the trash, who knows. I no longer know if I’m headed in the right direction—most days I’m not even sure what direction I’m headed in at all. I still have the other one, though, and it’s still on my corkboard. “Ask yourself why.” I try to, and I try to teach my students to do the same. Never stop asking, even when you get answers—the answers should just produce new questions. Ask yourself why.
It’s fucking exhausting, just like when a kid does it to you.
“Never use seven words when four will do.”
I hate clichés. I hate them with the fire of a thousand suns. I hate them with an unquenchable hatred. When I find myself employing them, in speech or writing, I wash my mouth out with soap and put a dollar in my cliché jar. Then I take the rest of the day off, drink too much, and pass out on the bathroom floor.
There is a picture of George Orwell in this post because, in 1946, Orwell published an essay — “Politics and the English Language” — which contains a paragraph that captures quite nicely how I feel about clichés:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
I wasn’t entirely sure what that first one — ring the changes on — meant, so I looked it up, and it apparently has something to do with bells, but I don’t exactly understand what: the long and short of it is that ring the changes on is a stupid cliché, which is sort of my point about all of them.
The English language is capable of amazing and ridiculous images and metaphors, and settling for dried cans of beige paint when you can have the love-child of Jackson Pollock and Henri Matisse throwing liquid color at your face is just sad.
Of course, sometimes things get out of hand.
I’m tempted to pull the sort of thing with this phrase that I pulled with “hobby” a few weeks ago – or, rather, I was tempted to do so, until a bit of poking around in the vast soup of knowledge and nonsense that is the internet convinced me reconstructing the history of this idiom was going to require looking in actual books in a library somewhere, and I’m just not up for it tonight.
Not up for looking in books, that is: I’m just going to make this shit up as I go along.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the “tracks” are train tracks. The definite article in the idiom implies that there is only one set of tracks passing through the town – although there we’re assuming that the “wrong side” exists only where the tracks pass through some sort of community, and that the sides are neutral with respect to one another in those places that the track runs through the open countryside. I think it’s a reasonable assumption to make, but we need to be clear about it.
So. Train tracks. One set in town. I think we’ll have to assume that, especially if the town had a station, there must have been a few small spurs of track associated with the station, because practicality seems to necessitate such things. For the sake of the idiom, though, we won’t consider these separate tracks, but part of the tracks.
So. There’s one major set of train tracks running through town. How do you tell which side is the wrong side?
This is, I think, the crux of the matter. We all know that the “wrong side” is the “poor side” – the question is, as it seems to me, whether the less-than-nice side of the tracks was wrong or poor first. That is, is there something inherently undesirable about the wrong side of the tracks which means that the poor people have to live there because the bougies won’t, or is the poor side of the tracks “wrong” precisely because that’s where the poor people live?
One explanation – which I find highly dubious – is that the wrong side is wrong because it’s the side that all or most of the train exhaust ends up on, due to “prevailing winds.” It seems like, for this to be the case, the train tracks would have to run perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Right? Maybe not.
Furthermore, the immediate vicinity of the tracks on both sides are subject to air pollution and noise and hobos and stray railroad spike impalements and who knows what else – so why is it that one side is right and the other wrong, and not that both sides get “righter” the further from the tracks one gets?
This is all more or less pointless, as most places don’t just have one set of tracks anymore. Which particular set of tracks here in Sherman is the set that has a wrong and a right side? Wait, shit – if each set of tracks has a right and a wrong side, how does that work where they overlap? Can one area be really wrong, or both wrong and right and therefore neutral, or the right side of a lesser track and the wrong side of a major track and therefore wrong, but not as wrong as it could be?
Sorry, I got myself sidetracked. Wrong-tracked. Whatever.
We live only a few blocks from a set of tracks. It’s a relatively minor spur, but in the absence of an official pronouncement on the rightness or wrongness of sides of various sets of tracks, I’m going to say it’s the one. The one. And so: our house is on one side, and the Montessori pre-school Jack goes to is on the other side, and the tracks are roughly the halfway point. Either we live on the wrong side, or he goes to school on the wrong side, but either way, we visit both sides of the tracks five days a week – seven, actually, as the park, our church, and my parents are all also on the other side of the tracks from us.
So, dear Book, fuck you. I win this round.
“Today solve that eternal problem by looking it up in the dictionary.”
Not just any dictionary will do, of course – there is only one dictionary that can be called “The Dictionary,” and that’s the OED. (Sorry, Dr. Johnson.)
The entry for “life” in the OED runs to five pages (with another three pages of compounds): big pages, with three columns and very small type. I’m not going to reproduce the entire entry, but here are some highlights:
I. The condition or attribute of living or being alive; animate existence. Opposed to death or inanimate existence.
1. a. The condition, quality, or fact of being a living person or animal; human or animal existence.
1. d. The condition that distinguishes animals, plants, and other organisms from inorganic or inanimate matter, characterized by continuous metabolic activity and the capacity for functions such as growth, development, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimulation; (also) the activities and phenomena by which this is manifested.
That’s quite helpful, I think. Life is being alive. Mystery solved. What’s next?
Of course, if it were that easy, a lot of folks would be out of a job: philosophers, religious teachers, novelists, poets, painters, gardeners, advertising executives, fashion designers, bartenders. If the meaning of life is just “continuous metabolic activity,” then one of the Big Questions is off the table for people whose “job” it is to “explore” or “manipulate” the “human condition.”
“What is the meaning of life?” is not a question that can be – or ought to be – answered. Or, at least, not answered in a “the meaning of life is X” sort of way. There are many answers, but they’re all partial, local, tentative, provisional. The value of the question is in the asking, in the searching and exploration and reflection that come before the answering. The answer itself is useful, I guess, but only as the starting place for more asking.
The body is alive because it exhibits “continuous metabolic activity” – the mind is alive because it never stops asking the big questions.