Tag Archives: tradition

Slaying Shakespeare’s Holofernes with a series of tubes (and cat pictures)

“Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.”
– Stephen Fry

 

During our morning commute, my wife and I discussed – what else? – internet memes, because we are those kinds of people, I guess. I mentioned how a friend on Facebook wrote a status asking anybody else if they have also felt the feeling of reinvigorating enthusiasm in an art they had long become complacent in. I left a reply with a picture of Pikachu patting a Caterpie on the back with the caption, “I know that feel bro,” because I am that kind of person, I guess.

I proceeded to tell my wife how “I know that feel bro” is one of my new all-time favorite Internet memes, how it seemed to perfectly encompass that feeling of deep resonance with someone else’s obstacles, plights, or victories. I struggled to capture the words in describing this to my wife, when she patted me on the knee and told me straight-faced, “I know that feel, bro.”

This is why I love my wife.

But on to more meme-ish matters, what about “I know that feel bro” captures my heart so? A lot of people have complained that the Internet has broken English, and no better place to see this than the battlefield known as Internet memes, wherein lies a hundred thousand million broken letters, words, phrases, and sentences, where weapons of mass grammatical destruction are deployed on a regular basis. Or, that is how the pedants wish to portray the state of the English language on the vast plane we call the Interwebs. But I would beg to differ.

What is it about terribly written English and the Internet? One cannot blame simple ignorance – while the leakage of Internet memes into places like Facebook have certainly diluted the demographics, for a while now, the vast majority of people who created memes were 20-30 years old and educated, if not a bit cynical as a whole and underachieving. The use of broken English may have originated in the first of the memes – cat photos with captions – because the idea of a cat (and, subsequently, dogs, frogs, penguins, and honey badgers) mastering the English language is only slightly more absurd than their daily adventures and mishaps. But there is something joyful, even pleasurable, in manipulating the English language, in breaking it and bending it and reshaping it to fit your own whims. This activity is what poets have enjoyed for centuries.

In a way, the Internet has become a collective Shakespeare, not that epics of masterful insight into the human condition are regularly produced from the keyboards of a million bloggers (though the Internet has certainly produced some epic things, see also: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, The Guild, the Woot.com product descriptions, et al). Rather, the Internet collectively imitates arguably Shakespeare’s most lasting legacy on the English language – the popularization of completely made-up words. Some words he just mashed together, some he stole and bastardized from other languages, and others he just made up completely. That’s the kind of English maverick he was. He didn’t care about the current rules; he broke the rules constantly and made you like it.[1]

But back to the Internet – over the course of a decade, it’s spawned a cavalcade of new words. Email, for example, or log on, blog, and (shudder) webinar. But the meme community has also spawned some very sticky catchphrases that have, (perhaps) against all odds, conquered the general American English landscape. Perhaps most noticeable is the word “fail,” once a verb, now nouned into existence (often found with the superlative “epic” attached to it). This new usage of the word “fail” has become the new “-gate” for many journalists (think goodness). Even people who have only a perfunctory access to the Internet are familiar with the term. And now, as memes continue its expanding pervasiveness, an entire generation of high school students now say things out loud like “I can has x?” or “y all the z!” or “like a sir” or “why you no x!” Even popular phrases such as “true story”, “I lied!” or “oh God why” have taken on new meaning thanks to the Internet memes of the world.

Yes, some people will look at this as some wholesale genocide against the English language, but I would counter that the pure joy and appeal of using such phrases is its subversive nature against the English language. People began employing terrible English because they well understood the rules of language. It’s why turns of phrase like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” or “The play’s the thing, to catch the conscience of the king” or “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try” tickle the fancies of English lovers everywhere. These sentences bend and break the general syntax structure; they play with grammar and vocabulary and connotations of words. They defy general expectations of what English is supposed to look and sound like. And that’s why poorly written English memes have become so popular as well.

Sure, over time, the memes will lose their punch and soon people will use them as everyday language, even when they don’t understand where the phrase derived its meaning, or why it was so popular in the first place. Many of Shakespeare’s manipulations and innovations within the English language are also duly employed by many everyday English speakers everywhere without a second thought to their originator. Many strange phrases in English are like that, such as “turn of phrase” or “bee’s knees” or “between a rock and a hard place,” employed by many, its history and implications understood only by a few. That’s the way English evolves.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Internet memes is the accidental nature of it all. I doubt that the very first person to utilize the nounified version of the word “fail” did it deliberately, savoring in the delicious, poetic deviance of it all. In fact, this very popular usage most likely was born out of ignorance or, ha, an English fail. But the English speaking community in turn appropriated it for their own as a flagship of Internet speak, if you will, a dialect that created a sense of identity and belonging that mutated into a widely popular new usage of a very old word. The War on English that the Internet is waging (which many assert is happening) is not necessarily a wave of barbarians beating on the Hadrian’s Wall of the English-speaking Rome (this metaphor just got weird). Rather, it is the age-old war between dialects, a verbal rebellion against the authorities-that-be who seek to control and preserve language for their own purposes while rarely understanding why.

But sweeping, romantic linguistic ideology aside, if anything, the vast popularity of the Internet meme (and its ability to invade the English langauge offline) has proved the old adage that a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the works of William Shakespeare. While, perhaps, we have not seen the exact wording of Shakespeare produced by the incessant pounding of a billion bloggers at their keyboards, we have seen the spirit of Shakespeare and his adventurous, subversive use of the English language emerge from the ruthless environment of billions of memes competing against each other until the very best (or, at the very least, the most infectious) rise to the top and proliferate into our language. It is, you could say, an almost beautiful accidental poetry.

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[1] In fact, that’s how you could term all of Shakespeare’s career – a giant love affair with the English language. In his first play, Love’s Labours Lost, he fires the warning shots with the character Holofernes, a side act for the main story, involving a bunch of over-educated pedants dicussing the English language and how horrible everyone is and how awesome they are. Holofernes, the most pretentious of them all, talking about someone else’s English speaking:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer
than the staple of his argument. I abhor such
fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and
point-devise companions; such rackers of
orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should
say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt,–d,
e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf, cauf;
half, hauf; neighbour vocatur nebor; neigh
abbreviated ne. This is abhominable,–which he
would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of
insanie: anne intelligis, domine? to make frantic, lunatic.

The true irony (which Shakespeare may or may not have intended) is that Holofernes’ practice of pronouncing the ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and so forth have fallen mostly out of favor, even though he would swear up and down until he was blue in the face that we are mangling the English language. Such is the way language goes.

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Ash Wednesday and Lent

Thanks to a timely reminder from By Common Consent, I will be celebrating Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, tomorrow. I’ve always meant to celebrate it but always forgot when it was time to do so until half-way through Lent.

Like some Mormons, I’m jealous of other religions who have a liturgical calendar. I consider myself a very spiritual person but I’ve never been good at adhering to strict religious practices within the Mormon church. It may seem strange that a person like me wants a liturgical calendar, but there’s something about a religious structure that reminds you of various religious topics at the same time year after year that become a tradition bigger than itself, and there’s something incredible about a prolonged, shared communal experience (and I’m not talking about those horrible marathon testimony meetings). I do my best to read my scriptures and pray every day, but there’s something said about a portion of the year set aside for the same thing every time which you as a global Church consciously experience.

Maybe I’m a Law of Moses kind of guy. I like daily reminders of the gospel scattered throughout my life. And call me an elitist, but I like cultural markers that help demarcate us from the rest of the world. However, our culture is, when compared to other religions, quite silly. Disaffected Catholics still generally go to church on Easter and Christmas. Disaffected Jews may still gather together for their various feasts and fasts. What do disaffected Mormons do? As Scott B. wonders, “Wouldn’t that just be the nerdiest thing ever if a huge crowd of disaffected Mormons gathered together once a year to celebrate their cultural Mormonism by partying without coffee, tea, and alcohol while consuming ridiculous quantities of Jello and funeral potatoes. They could call it a Linger-Less-Longer.”

So I’ll be borrowing heavily from others’ liturgical calendars this year. The wife and I will probably try and celebrate Passover to the best of our ability, as well as other Jewish holidays. We might even take a stab at Ramadan this year, though we’re both technically not allowed to fast for long periods of time for medical reasons. General Conference is nice, but when it only comes twice a year, with large gaps in between lacking of any regular, yearly important dates of purely Mormon celebration (with the exception of Pioneer Day, which I don’t celebrate as it’s not really a part of my actual heritage and the wife’s hatred for anything folksy pioneer-y), sometimes you feel disconnected from the greater communal experience.

And for those who are wondering, I’m giving up eating out for Lent this year.

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The complexity of femininity

Growing up in Seattle, I was indoctrinated with great oratory on the glory of women’s rights. It was never anything like the militant feminism many conservatives fear today; they were very practical and, as far as I’m concerned, true statements concerning what a man’s proper relationship with a woman should be – no means no, women are people and not property, women should be able to work and go to school if they so desire, women deserve equal respect in the workplace, etc., ad nauseum. If you look at the history of the world and the state of many women around us today, you cannot help but shake your head at the sickening repression women have faced. To me, women’s rights had never been opinion or theory – it was simple fact.

This has two repurcusions – one, I feel I’m a big proponent of women’s rights, and that it helps me with my marriage as I treat my wife with respect and dignity. Two, because I am a big proponent of women’s rights and consider myself progressive in this area, and I have thus become smug (note: smugness is a byproduct of any zealous ideology, not just feminism).

My wife and I have a very balanced relationship. But, to be truthful, that balance need to be calibrated in the beginning, and a lot of that required calibration was because of my love of women’s rights. When I moved to Utah, I rejected a lot of the more conservative, traditional views on women. It would, from time to time, make me sick. The marriage frenzy of the BYU sub-culture always seemed to put a greater toll on women than men, and it was generally women that seemed to compromise themselves more in effort to fit into what society demanded.

Because of that, I intentionally nurtured various non-traditional female roles in my wife. For example, I encouraged her to play some video games. She loved Katamari Damacy, eventually moving to Okami, and recently just finished her first video game in the form of Persona 4 (true ending and all). Some days, to relax after work, she would sit on the couch for an hour or two (or sometimes even three) playing video games to de-stress and unwind the springs her workplace tightly winds. When she lamented that she felt lazy and ugly, sitting on the couch in her pajamas playing video games all day, I merely reminded her that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that I felt she was attractive, and that because she had a high stress job, I didn’t mind if she took an hour or two to just relax.

We would often share the workload of household chores. When Dantzel came to the realization that she hated the never ending laundry piles or dishes, I cheerfully picked up the slack, mostly because I find the monotony of daily household chores to be incredibly Zen and almost relaxing. When Dantzel lamented that she felt somewhat useless around the house, I merely reminded her that such gender constructs, while useful, are not universal, and we should adapt to our individual family needs.

I was, in my mind’s eye, the paragon of the progressive, non-oppressive husband that encouraged his wife to think outside the box and broaden her horizons. She had a career, she attended school, I didn’t chide her to do housework all day and I allowed her to do traditionally non-female activities such as video games. I felt she was on the track to become a confident, well adjusted female in today’s modern-day society.

Except the opposite was happening. Her self-image plummeted. She began to feel completely useless when I would do the housework and she couldn’t help and would sulk or go to her other tasks listlessly. She began to feel pigeonholed into her job. My wife became incredibly depressed.

For the longest time, I couldn’t figure it out, and perhaps a little bit of resentment creeped in. Why was my wife sulking when I was doing the dishes and laundry? Didn’t she feel grateful that I didn’t make her do this? Why does she feel so ugly all the time? Don’t I foster and encourage an environment where she could feel comfortable no matter how she looked? I didn’t understand, because I couldn’t see how I was contributing greatly to the problem.

Eventually, I began to suspect that perhaps I was supressing her in a completely different way. Dantzel, despite being somewhat of an iconoclast amongst traditional Utah Mormon women, still had a feminine side. I quickly realized this when, as my guilt nagged at me, I bought her lip gloss from Target. It was from the bargain bin for $1. It purported to taste of orange colada. It had some sparklies. But Dantzel was amazed – shocked, even – that I would get it for her. Her expression flustered and somewhat embarrassed, she graciously accepted the gift, and I realized that this whole time, I was acting with zeal, but lacked knowledge.

Femininity is a complex concept, multi-faceted and especially hard to understand from the straightforward, one track mind male point of view. My wife was strong-willed and independent. What initially drew me in was her penchant for challenging my world views, opinions and ideas if she saw them confusing or logically unsound. But I realized that also drew me to her was her stereotypical, traditional feminine side – her flirty hats and cute pigtails, along with her ecclectic fashion. I had nurtured all aspects of her – except her feminine aspect, which arguably is her most natural.

When I denied her the ability to contribute in household chores, I wasn’t doing her a favor. She felt useless.  I encouraged her to play video games – and she enjoyed the pasttime – but it wasn’t until later in our marriage that I also encouraged her to knit, her more traditionally feminine hobby, because I was afraid of forcing a traditional stereotype on her. When she sat all day in her pajamas playing video games and complained of feeling unattractive, I carelessly and insensitively shooed away these thoughts as lingering malfeasance from living with an oppressive, over-sexualized and physical image obsessed society domineered by uncaring men. Of course, if I sat around in pajamas all day doing nothing, I would feel nasty, too, but I never seemed to make the connection with my wife. And when I focused on helping her advance her career, she felt trapped in trying to please her husband while maintaining her grip on everything else in life as work became more complicated.

I became like Julia Robert’s character in the movie Mona Lisa Smile (yeah, I referenced a Julia Roberts movie. What about it?). Like her, I enforced my own view of what a woman should be, rejecting all “traditional” views, and in the end, became just as oppressive as the more “traditional” oppressors. What if, her students cry out in the movie, I want to be a traditional housewife and mother? What if that’s what they actually want and Julia Roberts is preventing them from doing so because of her own pride, stubbornness and inability to realize people are diverse and different? I was doing the same thing. My wife is much too modest to agree; however, while a woman’s self esteem and self worth and body image is a complex composite of a vast recipe of thoughts, attitudes, experiences and horomones, my overbearing zeal in promoting a “progressive wife” (whatever the heck that is) also took its toll.

Now, I try to do household chores together, and she loves it, even though she constantly expresses dislike for them still to this day. I bought her a knitting basket to hold all of her knitting materials, which she stows right next to couch and the Wii. I encourage her to do what is best for work, even if it means cutting hours so that she can devote more time to other pursuits. And, yes, sometimes I will go out of my way to look for something nice for her, whether it’s an eclectic turtle carving necklace or even the $1 lip gloss in Target’s bargain bin, to show that I respect her feminine nature.  Even if it means supporting that evil, oppressive, overly-sexualized, physical image obsessed society controlled by domineering, insensitive patriarchs. Sometimes, my wife just wants sexy lips with sparklies. And, well, as an occasionally domineering, insensitive patriarch (without intending to be one), I can’t say I hate it either.

True freedom for the woman is not achieved through any type of dogma; rather, the dogma is an anathema to female agency. A strict, dogmatic anti-establishment feminism quickly transforms into the very shackles the movement strives to o’erthrow. In the end, we become the enemy. We should celebrate all types of women with their myriad of personalities. But traditional feminine roles seem to be based upon natural instincts that our ancestors found best to propogate the species and protect the herd. Even though she hates it, Dantzel still feels a need to act domestically from time to time. While today, it seems to hinge more on her feeling of usefulness rather than fulfilling any internal domestic agenda, it is a good reminder for the feminist (male or female) to remember that tapping into traditional feminine roles may become some of the most liberating activities for today’s 21st Century, modern woman.

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