A Gain: Lessons Learned in Language

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“Cotton may breathe, but satin lives.”

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.

On the other hand, in situations where people should know better, I’m easily disappointed. When the writers at Breaking Bad had a character order Jesse to stand “upwind” after he fell into Port-a-Potty sewage, I found myself in the curious position of hoping I was being made a fool of, that the writers at Breaking Bad were baiting hopeless schoolmarms like me. Maybe? 

To say nothing—OK, something—about my favorite weekly podcast, which tirelessly serves up the most compelling reportage around but has a penchant for using I as an object, as in The captain took Wendy and I to the back of the ship. This is more and more common in informal speech, but because we’re talking about an award-winning, carefully produced radio show, it breaks my wordy-nerdy heart, so much so that whenever I make a donation to the program I consider attaching an earmark to the subject line: TO PAY FOR OBJECTS.

In the end, I don’t do that. I take a deep breath, and another one, and another one. I count to ten. Fifty. One thousand. I remind myself how ridiculously privileged I must be to have at my disposal both the time and the psychic real estate to care about this sort of thing. I know: raising a stink about usage is, well, stinky. (Don’t stand downwind.) It is fussy, reactionary. After all, the English language owes much of its success to flexibility. Doth begets doesolde turns oldbreakfast meets lunch for brunch. Chaucer sought mercie, we seek mercy. Indeed? In deed. (Oh, pleas. Not a gain.)

So I send in my donation to my favorite weekly podcast sans comment, and I utter nary a peep on the Breaking Bad message boards. I move to another country, take up residence in another language, whose rules and regulations I freely if inadvertently flout. I refer to dresser drawers
(cajones) as testicles (cojones), confuse my local butcher (carnicero) with an ashtray (cenicero). Shopping for cellophane tape (cinta), I ask the attentive elderly shop-lady for a hip (cía), then some cider (cidra), and finally—desperately—a date (cita). When at last I muster the nerve to text hugs and kisses (XOXO) to a nascent love interest, I text her the c-word instead (XOXO = sho-sho = the c-word).

As for grammar … madre effing mía. My subjects pile up like rugby players, my objects slip off into the ether. My future is past and my past is pending. When I tell a story, it’s hard to say who did what to whom and when—if actually at all, because at some point we may have stumbled into the subjunctive. It may have all been theoretical.

The schoolmarm gets schooled. Nouns before adjectives, objects before verbs. The dog tiny and vile at me barked. Oh, and this: volition ceded to inanimate things. I can drink the wine, but that’s where my involvement ends. I can’t love the wine. I can’t even like the wine. The wine has to like me. (And it does, it does.) After the wine has liked me, I’m apt to raise the bottle and announce ineptly, ¡Me gusto muchísimo!, i.e., I please myself a lot, a lot, a lot—a claim which, if I continue to text the c-word to nascent love interests, may have to bear itself out.

In the EFL classroom, where a marm might expect to reign, the schooling continues. How, my puzzled young charges ask, does a person travel on a plane without being blown off? While we’re at it, why on the one hand, and not in? Is it really true, oh teacher American, that through, tough, and dough don’t sound at all alike? How can that be?

Because I said so, I’m tempted to snap. An alarm goes “off” because I said so. But that just isn’t very satisfying, for them or me. It sounds like something Franco might have said. Anyway, when you don’t know your ass (trasero) from a storage closet (trastero), it’s not quite so easy to pull off because-I-said-so. Instead, I shrug. Es lo que hay, chicos, I tell them. It’s just how it is. They’re learning to accept that. So am I. With English, you kind of have to.

If the internet has its way—and I’m guessing it will—the next generation of EFL students is bound to have an easier go of things, at least orthographically. At this very moment, on touch-screens across the world, thru is passing through and tuf is getting toughDough is yielding dohlove is falling for luv.

Satan is succumbing to s8an.

Or maybe s8in. Either way, the Angel of Darkness is in no great danger of being mistaken for a textile. So let us not raise a stink, chicos. Let us not furrow our brows. Let us sit back, allow the wine to have its way with us, and enjoy the XO.

Charlie Geer, author of the novel Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter-Day Charleston, currently lives in Spain. Reprinted fromThe Threepenny Review(Fall 2015), a quarterly literary magazine.

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