A Gain: Lessons Learned in Language

The schoolmarm gets schooled.


| Spring 2016


Some years back I was passing through southern Arizona, taking in the stately saguaros and sweeping skies, when I came across a water tower with the words SATIN LIVES spray-painted in large, spiky letters across the face of the tank. I’d done some skateboarding in my youth, sullied my share of public space, but this was impressive. Here a determined believer had climbed all the way to the top of a water tower on a narrow maintenance ladder, risked life and limb and jail time, all to proclaim his or her passion for ... a textile.

Today there is an easy, reasonably satisfying response to this sort of thing. Simply snap a photo with your phone, post the photo to the web with a snarky caption—COTTON MAY BREATHE, BUT SATIN LIVES—and get on with your life. Maybe the post will draw a comment or two, maybe it won’t. Either way, you’ve done your part. You have submitted this SAD/LOL/WTF thing for consideration. You can move on.

In the early ’90s, though, phones weren’t quite so clever. They weren’t even very ambitious. Few of them could leave the house, and none of them would have dreamed of taking up photography. The notion that a phone might record an image hadn’t even occurred to Star Trek, a show that brought us interstellar time travel. When I came across SATIN LIVES, the snap-and-post instinct wasn’t yet coded into the circuitry. What was coded in, what had been coded in since early adolescence, was the itch to record this sort of curiosity on paper, in writing. SATIN LIVES. What the hell? It was funny, it was sad. Above all, it was worth noting. And so I did. I pulled over, slipped my steno pad from the glove box, and noted.

That should have been the end of it. I should have then gotten on with my life, or at least on to Tucson. I should not have sat there on the side of the road wondering how I might get my hands on a can of spray paint. (Copy-editor blue, say.) I should not have been able to envision, with perfect clarity, climbing up the narrow maintenance ladder, risking life and limb and jail time, to rectify the situation. I could see it so plainly: a single slash, resolute but not malicious, through the offending I; a kindly caret pointing to a corrective A.

There are moments in life when a tendency starts to look like destiny. Throughout my teens I’d taken up assorted causes—dolphins, El Salvador, DIY water-bong construction—but sitting there on the side of the road in southern Arizona, a ballpoint pen in my hand and visions of emended graffiti in my head, it was clear what really mattered to me, clear what would, for better and worse, always matter to me: language.

The implications of this are varied. On the one hand, I am easily impressed. When the captain of a fishing boat I’m working on invites me to a “bombfire” out in the woods, I celebrate the brilliance of the colloquial. (After four days on a wintry ocean, reeking of cut-bait, diesel, and other men, would you rather go to a bonfire—or a bombfire?) A year or so on, after I’ve traded in my deck boots for a teaching gig at the local high school, an oysterman’s daughter will write, The eyes have been called the porthole to the soul, and I’ll get all misty-eyed, thinking, They have now, dear. They have now.






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