Fiction, Vol. 6.1, March 2012
I am not given to be huffy over proper diction, or for that matter, labor over semantic interpretation of any variety. Words are often used differently, sometimes downright incorrectly. I grant that. Language is fluid, constantly changing, and I know my house is but glass.
My employer, Mr. Woodrow, however, is less willing to cede anyone anything apropos of “mistaken” word use. The language-game, as Wittgenstein called it, is just that to Mr. Woodrow — and games have rules, rules free from anarchy, for otherwise a game could not exist, and, in the specific case of words, no one could be understood.
What is strange to me is how, when viewed from the large, sprawling panorama of things, Mr. Woodrow does not make too much sense in his own right. Ah, but allow me to explain.You see, Mr. Woodrow is an education consultant, one who will sit in on classroom lessons and critique the teaching habits of various instructors (usually at the secondary and, in specific, high school level), so that these instructors might convey their heuristic messages to pupils more effectively in future lessons. He has written quite a lot on the subject. He has a fairly wide following in the world of academia. Such a wide following, it happens, that he requires an aide to sift through all the miscellanea of his work, which is where I come in, as his personal assistant, an aide-de-camp who specializes in the organization of miscellanea.
One of my most pressing duties is to coordinate scheduling with the various school districts Mr. Woodrow visits. These visits are not cold calls but carefully planned proceedings, of which the observed instructor or instructors is or are given much forewarning. Whether this has an effect different from what might otherwise have been, had the instructor no prior knowledge of Mr. Woodrow’s looming visit, is anyone’s guess. (Although I’m inclined to believe there is some difference in the quality of planning and teaching, yes.)
One of the things it has become achingly clear Mr. Woodrow enjoys is the fanfare incumbent with his visits. This is one of the things about him that does not, also, make much sense.
I say that because there can be no well-reasoned diagnostic evaluation for a set of circumstances that have already been compromised by their experimenter. Certainly soft science like that of any sociological derivation is subject to some human influence, “a personal touch” shall we say, but not to the extent of a meddler like Mr. Woodrow. Not like how it is when the desired result is put into motion before any other element can organically reveal itself. I think even more so, the problem isn’t that this is the way Mr. Woodrow will do things but this is the way Mr. Woodrow will do things unthinkingly. He does not any longer, if he ever did, see the incongruity of his actions, i.e. on the one hand he believes language needs to have its clear and concise meaning (those properly placed antecedents, duly affixed prefixes and so forth), but on the other his professional interpersonal conduct needs nothing of the sort, can be of a rote kind and empty of thought, what’s worse. Can exist without the reasoning so essential to a game and rules.
It’s like when my overweight doctor finishes my physical by explaining to me that I could stand to lose a few pounds. Yes, it’s hypocritical for him to say this, but that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is that he doesn’t seem to care about what he’s saying, like he says it because, you know, he has to. He’s a healthcare professional in wind-up mode. And there’s nothing else there, nothing more to it. His spiel must be spoken. You must be told by your doctor to lose weight, which he couldn’t care less were you actually to lose it. He might manage not to notice, even if you did. He might say it anyway.
Nothing more clearly and succinctly embodies this idea than the chiefly American greeting, “How’s it going?” (or any of its many derivations). It’s not that people who use this expression do not care how the person they greet is actually doing; it has become so commonplace that no one really thinks about the question anymore. No one thinks of it as a question, really. It’s a greeting like “hello” to most, to be met with another “hello” or an affirmative like “goin’ good,” or the more non-committal, “can’t complain.” Negativity is usually to be avoided, even when one is feeling in some way negative. Because it sounds like complaining to others’ ears, which in general is what it is. Complaining is never greeted with much sympathy, as a rule.
Mr. Woodrow annoyed me in particular with publication of an essay that centered on a personal anecdote involving his expressing the term “very unique” to colleagues. He was mortified by his use of it, since “very unique” is not from a prescriptive grammarian’s standpoint an allowable expression (you see, it’s understood unique is an absolute term that cannot be modified by an intensifier like very). As the anecdote went, he wasn’t able to correct himself in time. One of his colleagues seized on his mistake, deriding him openly to the riotous and embarrassing amusement of the others in attendance, so had Mr. Woodrow later explained it. For this, he’d first wanted to “sock [the colleague] in the mouth.”
Not written by Mr. Woodrow is that he and his fellow academics were supposed to have expressed bemusement at the inchoate problems of contemporary students’ grammar, those foibles which have always bemused their highfalutin likes. They were also to have marveled at the wonders of technology and the risible new problems technology presents. “Spell check is a great tool, but not when its positive effects are so easily made impotent by individuals convinced ‘chimerical’ looks, and thus must sound, enough like ‘commercial’ to fit in its place. The two terms are rather different, are they not?” And at this the badinage would have commenced, sluice gates slid generously open, Mr. Woodrow and his colleagues directing their mirth at the correct target: imbeciles, youthful as well as not.
In private he often insisted to me that he had realized his mistake, grabbing my collar very hard and dragging me closer to him during his dramatic retelling, each tawdry detail, exuberantly pleading his case – a case which he needn’t have made, as I am quite indifferent to the whole matter and cannot be swayed, even when grabbed by the collar and shaken.
Mr. Woodrow eventually decided he would make a “teachable moment” of the debacle. A useful if superficial emollient, concealing his real purpose. I knew his insecurity ran deep, but I sensed he felt that if he could present it as an experience in which he’d been profoundly humbled, then in a certain respect he could take ownership of it.
Here, an excerpt: “[The instructor who’d mocked Mr. Woodrow] glanced around the table as if expecting a round of applause, not only on his erudition but his benevolence as well. Like I’d been saved, and it was he who saved me” [emphasis mine]. The latent religiosity (or antipathy for religiosity) of the text notwithstanding, a case could fairly be made that evident in Mr. Woodrow’s wording is a clear and demonstrative effort to contravene. Not only does Mr. Woodrow reclaim his mistake and his humanity but likewise he castigates the faux pas of his colleague, recasting the scene as one in which the colleague earnestly meant to correct his mistake, for if drawn in a completely literal fashion this is an acceptable, though disingenuous, recapitulation of what had occurred. Thus humbled, our Mr. Woodrow is able to magnanimously recede to introspection, rather than outwardly seek his vengeance against the man who had wronged him, i.e. “Why had I been so quick to rage and embarrassment? What does it say about me, an otherwise peaceful man, that striking my colleague was what first entered my mind? For his calling attention to a commonly used illogical statement like ‘very unique’?”
But don’t you see? In this telling of things vengeance has gracefully, artfully, been achieved! And it is as conceivably pitch perfect as it might have otherwise been, delivered in any other form. His colleagues know who they are, and in specific, his attacker knows who he himself is. They will recognize their roles in this published piece of scholarly writ, except that in print the words and letters loom large with dissemination’s pall. It is, likewise, merely an illusion, i.e. print too shall pass — but no matter. Time eternal will outlast the sum of its players. But from the vantage of here and now, Mr. Woodrow’s printed piece is as stalwart as the lifetime of the sun, moon, and the universe at large. From this vantage his colleague is cast as a malevolent character from Chaucer, as anyone’s fool — no sweeter revenge could exist.
And what of it, then, to reveal my potential bias, that Mr. Woodrow recently severed my employ? Mine is not an axe to grind but a truth to tell, because Mr. Woodrow’s house is but glass — just the same as anyone’s. Posterity, of a different facet, needs to know.