Whadya know?

The answer to this question is, “I know it takes a big dog to weigh a ton.” This is usually met by a quizzical look, and no one has ever come up with a good retort. I would love to learn one.

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How dry is it?

“Drier than a popcorn fart,” is the answer to that question. My son Steve reminded me of this favorite Grandpa-isms. It can also be used to describe an extreme thirst that normally occurs around 5:00 p.m. and can only be quenched by an extra-dry Fleischman’s gin martini with olives. As in, “I’m drier than a popcorn fart. A man’s gotta believe in something; I believe I’ll have a drink.” The procedure that ensues is to take a large tumbler and fill it with ice, pour gin over the ice while saying, “Goody, goody, goody,” leaving about a half-inch of headspace, add two drops of dry vermouth “just for respectability” and garnish with a pimento-stufffed olive or two. Stir slightly and carefully, so as not to bruise the gin. Enjoy.

Random thoughts on language

A few language-related items that have captured my fancy of late:

1. My friend Lori DiPrete Brown, in response to my announcement at our Spanish book club the other night that I had finally begun to write a blog, proclaimed us “bloguerinas” (I guess that would be “bloggerinas” in English). I love this coinage, and hope it will be widely adopted. You can check out Lori’s blog about Global Public Health at: http://www.globalhealthreflections.wordpress.com. For fun, in Spanish you can also tweak the meaning of the word by adding different suffixes; i.e. “bloguerotas,” (big, strong bloggers), “bloguerazas” (bloggers that pack a mighty punch), “blogueronas” (prolific bloggers).
2. My other book club, which consists of six couples, discussed the book The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes last night. I had never read anything by Barnes before, but found this book while browsing at Barnes and Noble one day and picked it up. It had won the Man Booker Prize in 2011, and it seemed to me I should find out about this author.  I was quite taken with the novel on the first reading and proposed it to the book club. Others had read it already, but were game for a second reading and a discussion. We had one of our liveliest discussions ever, and with this group, there’s never a shortage of opinions and discussion. In addition to the enticing challenge of trying to figure out all the mystery and meaning embedded in this very tightly-written novel (only 163 pages), the use of language to clearly express ideas is awe-inspiring. Here are just a couple of examples: On the malleability of time and memory, two central themes of the novel, Barnes writes, “Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history–even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

On the angst parents feel over their adolescent children’s friends:  “It was the same with sex. Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.”

3. Another book that I picked up recently and recommend to anyone interested in the use of language is Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. I bought this book at the American Translators Association annual conference in October and then had the opportunity to listen to Nataly Kelly give a talk about the book. She spoke beautifully and simply about the experience of gathering all the stories that are recounted in the book. The stories consist of vignettes of true cases in which interpreting or translation have played a key role in world events or in ways that have had an impact on our daily lives. The book is dedicated to translators and interpreters and is meant to honor their largely unseen and unsung work, but it is written for the general public and is highly readable.

 

Whatever you do, don’t call ’em “health care providers”

Talking to Dad today, he tells me that next week he needs to go see the “clap doctor,” and has to take Mom back to the “farrier.” Translations:  urologist and podiatrist. Dad was treated for bladder cancer quite a few years ago, but goes for regular check-ups that involve having his “hobby” violated with “a garden hose,” after which he’ll “piss hot lead” for a few days. Mom has poor circulation and neuropathy in her lower extremities, so goes regularly to have her “hooves” trimmed. Dad has to drive her because Mom has dementia, but he’s thinking about breaking it off with the podiatrist, because “those bastards are getting as bad as the chiropractors. Once they get you coming, you gotta keep going back. They never actually cure you of anything. Just like the damned pimple doctors.”  Last week, Dad saw the “pump doctor,” i.e. cardiologist, another one of the “quacks” that he sees regularly since his heart attack last spring. Dad actually likes the cardiologist, even though it really pisses him off how much medication he is prescribed and the strong admonishment to cut down on his alcohol intake. It turns out that heavy  alcohol consumption over the course of many years will damage your heart and is a common cause of atrial fibrillation. As Dad put it, “Here all along, I thought I was being responsible by not drinking before 5 o’clock, and it turns out I’m nothing but an old drunk.” The cardiologist barely cracked a smile, but Dad keeps trying out his schtick on him, and it appears they’ve come to some kind of an understanding. Dad takes about half the medication the pump guy prescribes for him, and drinks about half as much gin as he’d really like to each evening. As for internists, Dad has gone through quite a series of them over the last few years. “They’re getting to be just like migrant workers. You start getting ’em trained up, and they leave. Can’t blame ’em, really, they don’t pay these guys enough anymore to make it financially feasible for ’em. Kids getting out of medical school and residency programs into debt up to their asses. Come the Revolution…”  Regardless, he will then launch into a diatribe about how the internists are “just there like tits on a boar,” anyway. That is, they don’t really do anything except refer one to specialists, order tests and push pills. “Healthcare providers, my ass! What an offensive use of the English language!”

“Come the Revolution…”

The Revolution is one of Dad’s favorite themes, and he’s been longing for it for my whole life and probably his, too. He tends to end every rant about what’s wrong with this country, with the rather hopeful, if bellicose refrain, “Come the Revolution…” You can’t just chalk it up to an old man’s discontent with new-fangled ways, the youth of America, etc. In Dad’s mind, we’ve needed a revolution for a long time, but I’m not sure exactly since when. Since the New Deal? His politics are decidedly conservative and his moral compass points to individual responsibility, love of family, hard work, a general tolerance toward others as long as they adhere to the same set of values and don’t cause problems for anyone other than themselves. He fancies himself a working stiff and has a great empathy for the common man, although he himself was college-educated and had a successful private dental practice for 35 years. So, this mythical Revolution that Dad refers to, I guess, would return us all to the halcyon days of the past when the American Dream of hard work leading to just rewards, with no help or interference from the government or the social engineers, was again possible for all who were willing to get up and go to work every morning and take care of their personal responsibilities. Dad worries that there aren’t enough jobs for those who aren’t endowed with the smarts or the opportunity to go to college, not enough mill jobs that pay wages that folks can live on. That may not sound like your stereotypical conservative, but Dad is not a stereotype of any kind. He’s way too smart for that. And, he is a great humanitarian in his own way. He worries that his grandchildren will suffer for the profligacy of his and my generations, that they won’t enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that we have enjoyed. He worries that there will, indeed, come a revolution that will pit the social classes against each other and cause blood to run in the streets. Given the current state of politics and leadership in this country, he might be right.

A little bit more about the title and why I chose it

According to The American Heritage Dictionary, the noun “vernacular” is defined as, 1. “The native language of a country or region, esp. as distinct from literary language.” (I’m not sure where that leaves Faulkner, one of Dad’s literary heroes.) 2. “The nonstandard or substandard everyday speech of a country or region.” (It’s definitely nonstandard, but more like superstandard than substandard.) 3. “The idiom of a particular trade or profession.” (I’m pretty sure most retired dentists don’t talk like Dad does.) 4. “An idiomatic word, phrase, or expression.” (Or, manner of speech in general?) 5. The commonly used name of a plant or animal as distinguished from the taxonomic designation.” (While they don’t necessarily pertain to plants or animals, Dad’s got dozens of unique terms in his vocabulary, so much so that I find myself interpreting his speech into ordinary English for the uninitiated. For example, in explaining to a cardiologist the chain of events of a heart attack a few months ago, Dad talked about how the “gut wagon” had taken him to the hospital. Blank look on the doctor’s face. Translation: ambulance.) 

As many of us did, my parents received innumerable phone calls during the recent election campaign cycle, and Dad was kvetching to me repeatedly about these political calls. I suggested he not answer them, since he has caller ID and can choose to answer a call coming from a unfamiliar number or whose identity is clearly the RNC or whoever. No, no, no passive aggression for him. He would answer, hoping it’s a warm body on the other end and not just a robo-call, so that he could “lay them out in velvet in the common vernacular.” What, exactly, he would say to the hapless volunteer on the other end of the line, he never specified, but I can imagine it went something like, “Sonny, (or Honey, depending), have you no self-respect? Working for those whores in Washington, pestering decent, elderly citizens in their homes at all hours of the day, trying to scare them with misinformation and lies so they will vote for your candidate? Do you think we can’t read, can’t make up our own minds about the issues? You know, most of us worked for a living and paid our taxes and kept our noses clean so that we could enjoy a comfortable retirement and pass along some of that prosperity to our children and grandchildren. But now, because of the irresponsible, no, criminal actions of those sons-a-bitches, your candidate included, in Washington, we are leaving our grandchildren a legacy of debt from which they will never extract themselves without great deprivation, or a bloody revolution. And you want me to tell you I’ll vote for that prattling fool who’s nothing but a damned politician that would say anything to get elected?” You get the idea. So, “lay them out in velvet” (think, corpse) is a phrase Dad uses for slaying someone with words. The “common vernacular” is not so common, but it is particular to him and the rest of the world be damned. Of course, his approach didn’t stop the phone calls or even slow them down, but it served to amuse him and fire up his passions, which is what keeps life interesting for all of us, at any age.

Other acknowledgments

Like I said, my dad is the inspiration for this blog. He has always encouraged me to write, and at various points in my life, I have attempted to do so. But, mostly, I have avoided writing because I find it to be such hard work, and I didn’t think I had much to write about. A blog seems like a relatively painless and low-risk, maybe even fun, way to get going–finally. For several decades now my siblings and I have been listening to our dad expound in his inimitable way. We have absorbed his vocabulary and speech patterns and can recite them pretty much verbatim by now, especially since he has always tended to repeat himself. This tendency is even more pronounced now that he is almost  80 and not really acquiring new material. We have often commented that someone should start writing his stuff down, but my same old approach-avoidance toward writing has kept me from attempting it. Then my dad’s friend (and grade schoolmate of mine) John mentioned that I should read the book Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern because it reminded him of my dad and his unique discourse. I had heard of that book, but figured it was just going to be sensationalist drivel because of the title. Nonetheless, the writing bug had been buzzing pretty loudly in my ear, so I gave it a try, seeking inspiration. And, it worked. Although, I must say, my dad’s shit is a lot better than Halpern’s. Showing that is my challenge.