Archive for January, 2011

The Malignment of Ain’t

Friday, January 28th, 2011

As children I think we all learn at some point to cut our losses in arguments with our parents. They are so used to being our teachers that when we learn correctly something which they have learned wrong, no amount of reasoning that we can present will allow them to relinquish their false position.

For me, one of the earliest memories of my learning this lesson was over the word “ain’t.” My mother was of the opinion that it was not a word, that there was no circumstance in which its usage was correct. She had failed to learn that it is a perfectly valid contraction for the phrase “am not” taking its place beside the contraction “isn’t” for the phrase “is not.” Instead she had learned not that it was often, nay, usually, incorrectly used, used where “isn’t” would have been the correct choice, but rather that it was just flat out wrong, wherever and whenever it appeared.

I can also recall another losing argument against my mother where, in fact, I was the correct party. I was pointing out to her that you could not get lead poisoning from pencils, because the “lead” was not lead at all but merely graphite. Today, of course, we’d run to the internet to find some impartial purveyor of facts, but in the days of my youth we had no such option. By the time of this argument, though, I had learned my lesson. This time the argument did not end with my mute frustration at being unable to convince an otherwise intelligent individual that they had learned something wrong; this time it ended because I recognized that there was a blind spot here that I would not be able to move out of, so I didn’t even make a serious attempt, I just changed the subject and moved on. This self-realization was liberating in its own way. I may not have learned to recognize that some people just don’t care if what they know is right or wrong, but at least I’ve learned, sometimes, to recognize that for some people, no amount of facts will show them that they are wrong.

But let’s go back to “ain’t.” My mother did not develop her antipathy for this word in a vacuum, she came by it by way of millions of other true believers in the untruth of its existence. It’s actually a fairly common non-belief. I no of no other commonly used contraction that receives the same vile and scornful reactions. Even when I use such a rare contraction as “t’other” (“the other,” as in “on t’other hand”), the most I get is surprise, or a moment’s puzzlement; I never get told that that isn’t a word. Can this simply be because “ain’t” is so often used incorrectly, or is there something else at work? Of course, after I got to thinking about this I could hardly wait for God to stop by so I could ask him what he knew about it.

So I asked.

His response was to ask me if I knew that there is no “I” in “team.” At first I was perplexed, but I knew that he wasn’t just being flip, this wasn’t one of those times when he tosses out a non-sequitur just to get me to look at something from a new direction. Then I realized what it was. There is no “i” in “am not” but there is in both “ain’t” and “is not.” So at first blush there is a visual clue as to why “ain’t” gets used where “isn’t” is the correct word, besides the mere substitution of one conjugation of “to be” for another. But why is that “i” there in the first place? Apparently it’s there just to get rid of the contraction “an’t” which was a reduced form of both “am not” and “are not.” If the goal was to get rid of the ambiguity of that contraction it obviously failed, since “ain’t” gets (incorrectly) used not just for “is not” but also for “are not,” so it would seem that its indistinctness only worsened as a result of the change. Perhaps then, the reason to abandon “an’t” was to avoid being mistaken for an insect, “I an’t” could have been perceived as “I, ant” in the same vein as “I, Claudius” or “I, Robot.” Or perhaps the reason was that people were offended by the dropping of the “m” when contracting to “an’t” without replacing it by an apostrophe, but were not willing to go so far as to suggest that a word consist of forty percent punctuation, as “a’n’t” would be.

I suppose I could pursue the issue further, but really, why bother? There are days when God doesn’t seem interested in saying more but when I can cajole him into going on anyway. On many days, knowing that, I might be inclined to press an issue such as this, but today, today I ain’t.

Training Myself

Friday, January 21st, 2011

I ride the train to and from work every day, well, not every day, just weekdays, or rather just weekdays that aren’t holidays. You probably knew that’s what I meant, but still, I like to say what I mean not just something close enough. I’ve been doing that, riding the train, for about five and a half months; ever since I moved to the Bay Area. In all that time I’ve been prepared to be productive, but I haven’t gotten around to actually being productive.

Until yesterday.

It was just a small thing. I switched apps in my tablet, went away from reading the morning’s news for a few minutes and made some notes on a project I’m developing. I’ve been sort of productive plenty of times. I’ve read work-related email. I’ve read computer books, but both of those things while important to my ability to produce are in and of themselves consumptive, rather than productive. There’ve been two impediments that have kept me from being productive until now. The first is that I’m often standing, although that’s mostly on the way home, not on the way in. The second though is the more relevant excuse; the second is that I’m just not very comfortable in crowds of people that I don’t know.

So I’m not sure if it’s a sign that I’m getting more comfortable with the crowds on the train, or if it’s just that this particular project was strong enough in my mind to cut through the chatter and get me to take notes. Assuming it might be the former, I waited for a good opportunity to bring it up when talking with God. I was all keen to brag to him about the little bit of progress I had made. My chance came up and I told him. He told me that was great, that if I kept up this rate of progress I could have the whole project specced out in a decade or two. Sometimes I get the impression that God has bigger things on his mind than my petty little foibles.

The Things We Say

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Hanging out with God can make you think about your own mortality. Of course, there are other things that can get you thinking about your own mortality, too.

Take email for example. This week on the same day I received two emails from friends. In one of them I learned that a couple I know are on the verge of having to live out of their car. They actually manage to sound reasonably upbeat given their circumstances. They lost their house early in the mortgage crisis, they’ve been out of work for many, many months, they’ve moved from one temporary situation to another again and again, and yet they still find things to enjoy in life and manage to communicate that in their email updates. I am in awe of their spirit and zest for life.

In the other email I learned that a dear friend I haven’t seen in a couple of decades is in the final stages of cancer, to the point where they’ve had to give up on treatment and move to hospice care.

It’s times like this that we say things like “count your blessings” and “there but for the grace of God go I.” Unlike most people I got the chance to ask God what she feels about little homilies like these. She told me that for a fairly intelligent species we can say an awful lot of really stupid things.

I have to agree. But beyond muttering trite aphorisms, this is one of those times when you have to find something to laugh about, because if you don’t laugh you’ll have to cry. Unfortunately, I’m not laughing.

Wait for It

Friday, January 7th, 2011

I’ve recently had some experiences that lead me to believe that maybe Limbo is worse than I would’ve thought, that it was more of a punishment than it was perhaps meant to be. I say “was” because, of course, in official Catholic dogma Limbo doesn’t exist anymore.

I spent a good number of months on either side of last year’s New Year’s looking for work, having been laid off for the first time in my life and having reached an age where jobs that are appropriate to my level of experience and my level of specialization aren’t exactly flooding the market. This left me a lot of time that could have been spent doing something more productive than looking for work but also left me in a state of mind that wasn’t much conducive to doing anything more productive than looking for work. If I could have just known when I would have been getting back to work, I could have budgeted my money and my time and not only have done something productive but also have had a fair amount of fun on the side. That waiting game, that not knowing, that sense of being in limbo, it’s not good. Not good at all.

Then, more recently, I spent, oh, say eighty percent of my waking hours between the day after Christmas and the day after New Year’s lying in bed, wishing the slipped disc in my back would slide back where it belonged. Now thanks to the medications I was taking there were fewer waking hours in that week than I am accustomed to, but even so that was a lot of time to again be waiting for something, waiting in a way that pretty much consumed my consciousness, and not being sure when or if the thing would ever happen.

All in all, these two experiences taught me that waiting for something that you know is coming is a lot better than waiting for something that you are not quite sure is coming. I give Tom Petty a lot of credit for pointing out that “the waiting is the hardest part.” He was definitely on to something there.