"Apparently" and "Weird": A Report on Colloquial Usage

I overheard a conversation on the subway today between two college kids: "It's weird, you know, apparently she was his girlfriend, but now it's so awkward, I'm like whatever."
The words "apparently" and "weird" have taken on a nuanced meaning in contemporary Americana. Jonathan Franzen, in his novel Freedom, first alerted me to the phenomenon of "weird." Everything Patty Berglund notices that should be contested, like her son living with the next-door neighbor, instead of in his own home, is just weird, she says. Anything Patty Berglund doesn't like, "it's weird." The neighbor flicks cigarettes from her window into the baby pool below. Patty Berglund just says, "It's weird."

"Weird" no longer means oddly strange or not normal. Weird is a catch-all phrase for anything a person doesn't understand or agree with. "It's weird," a student told me. I thought she would tell me about a strange occurrence on the way to class, but she only meant her grade. "You gave me a C-."

Instead of, confused, or give me a reason, the epithet I get is weird.
"Awkward" deserves its own post. It's like weird in that it replaces what we'd rather say about a situation or unable to say, so we say weird or awkward instead. Everything is either weird or awkward. I think Franzen is keen to the usage of words, like weird, because the word becomes a substitute for whenever we rather not say what we would like to say, so we just say it's weird or awkward. It's similar to standing in front of a painting at a museum and saying, "That's interesting." We know we like the painting. We just can't give words to what we feel. Weird works like this, but it masks a moral attitude. Patty could have said the neighbor was sociopathic, or mean, or just plain bad. But it's weird. Nothing beyond weird was in her vocabulary. She avoids placing moral blame on an action by substituting right or wrong, just or unjust, with weird.

The word has taken on a moral ambiguity that Franzen links to a propensity to choose not naming an action for what it is out of fear of being labeled weird. By taking the weird stance, I protect myself from being weird.

Anything that threatens becomes weird. Weird is the neologism that defines fear of otherness. Building a Muslim Community Center in Tribecca? That's just weird.

Then there's "apparently." This adverb is everywhere in speech patterns I've overheard. It's supposed to be a useful way to suggest an inductive conclusion based on surface knowledge. "Jorge apparently had not studied because his answer sheet was blank when he turned it in to the teacher."

If something is apparent, it means I know it to be true only at the level of appearance.
People use the word incorrectly to talk about events that are known. "The J train's not running, apparently." Is it running or not? There is no "apparent" in sight. The word insinuates suspicion of a claim on certainty when no such suspicion is necessary. It's weird!


Aesthetic Thursdays: Oedipus and the Sphinx

In this blog post, I compare Gustav Moreau and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's two very different paintings of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
"Oedipus and the Sphinx" - Gustave Moreau. 1864. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Notice the bottom of the painting. The gray corpse and fallen crown foreshadow Oedipus's tragic fate. The painting depicts young Oedipus as powerful, able to thwart the Sphinx's cunning by answering her riddle. But, the viewer can't help but notice death hiding just beneath.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 1827. The Louvre, Paris.
Notice in Ingre's version, we see depicted in the left foreground the foot of a fallen corpse (who guessed incorrectly) as well as in the right foreground a foreshadowing of Oedipus's own demise. Since Oedipus solved the Sphinx's riddle and saved Thebes from a plague, he was given the Queen Jocasta as his wife who later is found to be his mother. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch.


Photograph: Dogs of the Upper East Side

Dogs diligently wait as dogs are wont to do.


English Teacher at the Yeshiva

Inside an empty hallway in the Satmar Hasidic Yeshiva School
Today at the Yeshiva my patience ran thin. I'm exhausted by the antics of three of my students.
Most of the boys I teach love to learn. They dive into the strangeness of English. The silent "k" of "know" and the funny -ed ending of past tense verbs. Why "spoke" and not speaked? Questions abound from them about curiosities in language. English words are like rare finds. "It's a pity," I said today, "few boys don't want to learn." One astute and perennially smiling child asked, "Teacher, what means 'pity'?" I say, "It means, 'It makes me sad.'" "I say you something, yeah?" I don't hear what he says because I'm distracted.

The Classroom Is Full of Non-Stop Chattering Boys
The classroom is loud. The boys are supposed to be doing a Spelling review. Spur, snap, rub, scrub, run, etc. Joel, Shlomo, and Shlomo are out of sync with the lesson. I motion towards the trio of boys who are huddled around a drawing of an oversized rebbe and a picture of a horse.

No spelling words in sight. "Get out of my classroom if you don't want to learn," I say. This is not a first warning. Earlier Shlomo had eaten into the husk of a pen splattering ink over his face and onto another boy's pants. This is not the first time these three have completely ignored the lesson. I'm not adverse to drawing. But it is insolent to not even have at least one spelling book.

The rebbe comes into the classroom. "Boys no discipline?" I say only a few boys, pointing to the three huddled together. He takes the three boys outside.

Teaching English To Yiddish Speaking Satmar Hasidic Children Is Not Easy
This is life in the Yeshiva. I try to teach English to children who barely speak the language or seemingly have an interest in it. If you walk the streets of Brooklyn in certain areas one only needs to know Yiddish (or Jewish, as they call it).

I love the chaos, though. Sometimes the school day is electrifying. Hundreds of kids rush by me on a late weekday afternoon. In class, we talk about the Amazon Rain Forest, or exponents, the normal fare of American elementary schools.

But, it's different though when I'm the minority. It's not that the students are vile or mean spirited or even apathetic. There is a huge throb of energy in my students I find contagious. But, this energy is directed toward Jewish studies. "We boys are Talmud," one boy with sharp blue eyes and round glasses says.

The task is to get that energy focused on English. One father tells me, "I'm not so good with the Math either." And his son tells me, "I not love English." So what am I supposed to do?

I embrace the chaos. I go with the flow.
Today I became frustrated. The three malcontents who seem to be completely furious I turned them in return. The Rebbe tells me in front of the boys, "You good teacher. But too good. No discipline. Boys take advantage of you." I listen to his wisdom. All the boys grow quiet when he speaks. Any boy who not learn send them to me. If you teach and they not listen send them to me. But, you are the teacher Whose fault is it that boys not learn?" I say, "mine," feeling just as chastened as the punished boys. "Right," he says. "You must have the discipline," he says and leaves.

The three promptly do the work. For a time. I walk around the classroom. All the boys are seated in benches like they do in the old schoolhouse style. I answer questions about "slept" and "overslept."

I've been with these boys seven months now. I know them well. I know who loves English and who doesn't. I envy their love of the Torah. It's so unbridled and passionate. I envy the rebbes who command attention. They stand like gods. If only the boys would listen to me like that, I think.

Seeing Hasidic Judaism Through a Child's Eyes
"Teacher, I say you something, yeah?"

Ok. I say.

"All boys learn English, no? Why you not learn Jewish, yeah?"

Tomorrow will be no different. And the next day. Boys will learn a few words. Some boys will simply do nothing. Others will talk loudly and incessantly. I'll manage to conjugate "to be" or tell a story about a boy who rides in an ambulance in the snow. Lately, I've noticed stories grab their attention. And it's in English. A plus! More on storytelling later. For today it's about the discipline.

It's a normal day at the Yeshiva.


True Story: The Death of a MacBook Pro

The specs: 17" 2008 Aluminum MacBook Pro; 2.5 GHz; 4 GB RAM; 200 GB hard drive. But, that's only the hardware. The truth is ...
I loved my Mac as much as a human being can possibly love a machine. My friend Bonnie says people are growing up with attachments, not with people, or pets, but with machines. She says this is the cause of the proliferation of Autism.

Maybe she's right. We're more fond of our binary buddies then we are of our flesh and blood compadres.

I know it's not "right" to have loved a machine. To use the word "love" is sacrilegious when what I really mean is what Aristotle meant by storge. A kind of love that is built on use and use alone. I love my Mac cause I used my Mac.

What I miss is not the machine itself but the use of the machine which fired my loins and made me whisper, "Mac ... Mac ... Light of my life ... Fire of my loins."

(Mac is not my Lolita. I just couldn't help but use a Nabokov reference.)

The practical loss is I'm bereft of a machine.

The iPhone is my primary computer now.

The good news is I'm backed up on Carbonite. If you don't know, it's a nifty online storage solution that backs up your files in the background to the Cloud.

I'm thinking my next Lolita will be a Mac Mini. I'm fond of its portability. I thought maybe I would go bold with the iPad but I'm still not rogue enough to give up the traditional computer. Besides, I don't think the first-generation iPad is capable of replacing a computer 100%.

What I miss most about my Mac in its absence:

1. My cute Finder boyfriend.
2. iWork: and how the only library computer lab with Mac's exclusive productivity suite is Bobst.

3. Movies: But, hey I'm reading
more. Last night I finished Lyotard's Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.
4. BitTorrent (Using Transmission). On an iPhone, I can't download an entire Season of Dobey Gillis.
5. Google Docs. I can't edit Docs on a smartphone. :-(


Walking to Work on a Sunday

How I walked to work on a Sunday (thinking it was Monday) and what this says about my current state of being . . .
Walking to work on a Sunday, thinking it was a Monday, but then realizing it was Sunday and not Monday. What finally tipped me off that it was still the weekend (and not Monday like I had thought) was the discovery that the M train to Brooklyn through the Chrystie Street Tunnel and over the Williamsburg Bridge was not running (because it does not run on weekends). *puts the shape of an "L" on my forehead*. Well, at least on my walk through Lower Manhattan I took the above shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Do you like my photograph? Let me know in the comments!


A New Year from the Perspective of a NYC Blizzard

Snow piled in a heap in front of the Century 21 store entrance on Broadway and Cortlandt Street, Lower Manhattan, Financial District:
I write the first entry of the new year from the point of view of a blizzard's detritus.

Stones of Erasmus is a blog ostensibly devoted to good writing, in whichever modality that can be articulated.

My primary focus is to reach folks who enjoy good writing, no matter your class or by how many bad pieces of art you have hanging in your house, or the number of pulp fiction titles that adorn your bookshelf.

People say fine art and quality literature are in their final death throes. I'm not sure if that is an accurate assessment or not.

I do know that we can only focus on the particular in art or in a narrative to seize in an aesthetic object something autonomous and not subsumed by overarching dumbness.

I credit Kant's aesthetic theory in opening my eyes to the muscle inherent in art and not merely art as sensation, which is how it's too often presented in the manifold of visual pleasure found replete in kitsch media, shallow status updates, Tumblr, what have you.

Please, fellow readers, continue to read Stones of Erasmus, offer comments. I want 2011 to be another successful year for this blog.

Hey, maybe I'll post more than 300 posts.

Peace, love, and tomatoes.