Science is the Sh*t: The Epic Journey of a Word and Its Kin

No, really — science is shit, etymologically speaking.  But we’ll get to that later.

Partial click-bait titles aside, consider this blog post the spiritual successor to my language fixation entry from spring 2016.  In that post, I described my humble beginnings as curious schoolboy and my transmutation to bona-fide linguist; here, I present a more specific fascination: the word.

Shove It Up Your Arsenal

Words are funny.  Some prove highly resistant to transformation and hardly change at all in a millennium, while others seem to change at the drop of a hat.  Humans, armed literally to the teeth with imperfect diction and hearing, have taken their word-ingots to the forge and have beaten the forms of those most malleable, sometimes leaving them so altered that they would no longer be recognisable in pronunciation or spelling to a speaker of the same language mere centuries prior.

Here are but a few mild processes by which a word may change:

Misdivision – If we use some good reasoning, we’ll see that this process is nothing more than the erroneous separation of words in a sentence.  This occurs mainly in pairings of an indefinite article followed by a noun.

“A napron” might become “an apron,” and it did.
“A nadder” might become “an adder,” and it did.

Works the other way, too.

“An ewte” became “a newt.”
“An eke*-name” became “a nickname.”

*Eke, here, is an archaic English word for “an increase, augmentation.”  Therefore, a nickname is literally an “additional name.”

These misdivisions, of course, occurred in the Middle and Early Modern periods of English.  Want a more recent example?  Look no further than “a whole nother.”

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“an ice cube” vs. “a nice cube”

Misdivision sometimes will manifest itself not in a word’s spelling, but rather in its pronunciation.  Here are a couple modern examples I’ve observed:

Painstaking (meaning one “took pains” to accomplish something) is often pronounced “pain-staking.”  I don’t know what it means to “stake pain,” but a word separation more faithful to the intended meaning of the compound would be “pains-taking.”  Say them both.  “Pains-taking.”  “Pain-staking.”  They should and do sound different.

“Each other,” in casual speech, sounds more like “ee-chother.”  Very subtle difference, but a particularly careful speaker will make sure the /ch/ sound is attached to the first word and not to the second.

Metathesis – Sometimes we jumble the intermediate sounds of a word.

The Anglo-Saxons had a word for a beaked, winged creature: bridd.  Over time, the R and the following vowel switched places, so now we spell and pronounce it bird.

The same people had a couple variants of the verb meaning “to call for an answer; ask.”  They were ascian [AHS-kyahn] and axian [AHK-syahn].  The /s/ and /k/ sounds were pronounced in either order.  Both verbs survived into Middle English as asken and axen, and Chaucer used both.  Until around Shakespeare’s time, to “ax a question” and to “ask a question” were equally appropriate.  (Those sentences would have been phrased differently back then, but you get my point.)

Syncope – Sometimes called syncopation.  Because music has a monopoly on most of the latter’s meanings, though, I prefer the original Greek.  Anyway.

Syncope is the disappearance of an unstressed syllable in a word.  It is usually the second of what should™ be a trisyllabic word.  Some examples (and I got a million of ’em!):

  • family ⇒ “FAM-lee”
  • different ⇒ “DIFF-rint”
  • chocolate ⇒ “CHAWK-lit”
  • opera ⇒ “OP-ruh”

In British English, medicine is often “med-sin” and library is often “lie-bree.”

Sometimes, syncope yields new words.  This is where it gets fun – at least for me.  Here:

  • courtesy ⇒ curtsey
  • fantasy ⇒ fancy
  • jettison ⇒ jetsam

Back-formations – When we derive other parts of speech from the original word.

A prime example is donate.  This is a relatively new contrivance.  The noun donation existed in English far longer than the convenient verb we designed after it.  I guess people grew tired of saying “make a donation” all the time.  That’s all well and good.

Here’s where the process becomes problematic – sometimes we create unnecessary or superfluous back-formations.

The verb that has traditionally corresponded to conversation is converse.  But now we have “conversate” for some reason.

Many of the readers who are thinking, “Well, *I* don’t say ‘conversate’” are about to be caught with their pants down – what verb corresponds to obligation?

Oblige is the traditional verb form, not “obligate.”  “Obligate” was born of the same ignorance that spawned the abomination “conversate.”  They are equally hideous to my ears.  You can denounce the use of “conversate” all you wish, but you had better not let me catch you saying “obligate.”

Parasitic Letters – New sounds sometimes latch on to other sounds in the same word.

Empty didn’t always have a P in it.  But say the word as if there were no P.  “Emty.”  Hard NOT to say it without one, huh?  Our lips close to form the /m/ consonant before immediately hitting that /t/ plosive, so it’s only natural that a brief “puh” sneaks in there.  It was in the Middle English period that scribes began writing the word with a P.  This is an example of euphonic alteration – when the spelling of a word changes to become more sonically pleasing.

More recent examples of both processes are yep/yupnope and welp.  The affirmative and negative word variants come from clipped pronunciations of yeah and no, typically given as very quick, one-word responses.  Welp is identical to the clause-initial well, but its abbreviated vowel length conveys an even greater tone of surprise or vexation, as in the sentence, “Welp, there go my plans to relax tonight!”  A subtle P latches on to the end of each word as the lips abruptly shut.

But English words aren’t the only ones susceptible to these processes; we can see their mark on Latin words as well.  To form a noun from the verb assumere (“to take up,” and origin of English assume), let’s add the suffix -tionem.

One would think that assum(ere)tionem = “assumtionem.”  But note the M and T next to each other.

The compound was actually written assumptionem.  With a P.  Meaning that ancient Romans must have fallen prey to the same “parasitic P” that infected the English word empty.

Don’t feel guilty for making an assumption; just make sure you don’t “assumpt” anything.

Associative Alteration – Changing a word to make it conform to an unrelated word.  More examples that you probably won’t bother to read:

  • perform – From Anglo-French parformer, alteration of Old French parfo(u)rnir.  The second element fornir is related to the word furnish but was changed by association with the word forme.
  • admiral – From Arabic amir-al or amir-ar-rahl.  The D was added possibly by influence of Latin admirabilis (“admirable”).
  • island – Very old English word that never had an S in it until scribes stuck one in there to make it cosmetically similar to the Latin-derived and unrelated isle.

“Pend”-House Magazine

Now that the dense stuff is out of the way, let me regale you with less-dense stuff!

Words can change in sound and appearance, but what truly enthralls me is to examine how they change in meaning over time.

This process is referred to as “sense evolution” or “sense shift,” and I will use both terms throughout this blog post.

How often does one use spearhead to refer to the “tip of a spear?”  Of course, that is its original, literal meaning.  But its more common meaning of “anything leading an attack, operation or undertaking” is a figurative understanding of the word.  And it’s often used in the verb form, as in the sentence, “She spearheaded the initiative to help ex-convicts rejoin society.”  We’ll return to this principle in a bit.  In the meantime, however, I want you to take a gander at the picture below:

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This image of a scale is absolutely critical in understanding this next part.  Keep it in your mind for the next few paragraphs.  There’s a family I’d like for you to meet.  I present to you the Pends.

In this household live pendantpensivepensionpound (unit of measurement and money), ponder and all the -pend verbs you can think of (impendsuspendexpend/spend, etc.), plus others.

They aren’t what you’d call an idyllic, classic American nuclear family, though.  There are no parents or children living there; everyone is just cousins with one another, and you’ll hardly ever see any two of them in the same place at the same time.  They’re a family that’s as large and extended as it is dissociated.  But they’re all blood – this much is certain.

All the words listed in the “Pend” family are united via the notion of hanging and weighing.

Their origin, the Latin verb pendere, means “to hang.”  And that’s how things were weighed.  On scales like the one depicted above.  What did the ancients weigh?  Why, money, of course!

This is what we call the “ground sense.”  The ground sense of a word is its initial, primitive meaning.  The base from which all other meanings are derived.  The ground sense of all the “Pend” words is hanging and weighing; this is the universal sense felt, no matter how faintly, amongst all of them.

pendant is a hanging ornament.  Something suspended is hanging in the air.  Your impending doom is hanging over you.  A pound of weight and a pound of money, if we go back enough centuries, are one and the same in England.

Pensionsexpenses and spendings all are things being paid out, a sense conferred by the notion of weighing money.

Word senses generally shift from the literal to the figurative, as I demonstrated with spearhead earlier.  We connect the contemplative meanings of pensive and ponder to the hanging and monetary meanings of the other words by using the scale as a metaphor for thought.  When one is pensive or pondering, he is taking the time to “WEIGH things out,” thus, “consider.”

I know — I’ve got goosebumps, too.  But wait — it gets even better.

What if I told you that this sort of sense shift can occur in parallel between two completely unrelated word groups from two separate languages?

The Latin verb capere carried meanings of “grab, seize, take hold, catch” and is the root of many French-derived English words such as captive and capture.

The same verb exists in Italian, albeit with an evolved meaning.  Capere in Italian means “to understand.”  Many Americans are familiar with the second-person-singular conjugation, “Capisci?” or rather, “Capeesh?

How does such a physical, forceful verb take on a more intellectual meaning?

That’s right, class!  Through figurative use!

When one understands something, he “grasps” it.  He “takes” or “catches” the meaning.  And this development occurred in English, as we can plainly see with the verb grasp.  Its first “grabby” meaning is physical, just like the Latin capere.  But a figurative meaning of “to get a hold of mentally; comprehend” emerged over time in both words independently.

Here’s another pair of unrelated words that underwent remarkably similar sense evolutions.

Latin causa (“judicial process, lawsuit, case”)
Proto-Germanic* thengan (“appointed time”) – ancestor of English thing

*Proto-Germanic is the reconstructed, theoretical common language of all the Germanic tribes that was spoken several millennia ago when they all lived in relative proximity to one another before splitting off and developing what would eventually become the modern Germanic tongues of German, Dutch, English, Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, etc.

Many of the Germanic languages held on to this word – thengan.  In most cases, it came to mean “meeting, public assembly, council” which more closely resembles in meaning the Latin causa.  Then it shifted to mean “that which is DISCUSSED at a public assembly,” hence “matter.”  From “matter,” it shifted again to refer to various nouns like “entity,” “body,” “being,” “act,” “deed” and “event.”  Today, in many Germanic languages, the word means simply what we would call “a thing.”

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The building for “Althing,” the parliament of Iceland.  The second element of the name keeps the original sense of “public assembly.”

This sense shift was mirrored in the Romance languages.  The descendants of causa, which bore judiciary and public assembly meanings, include the French chose and Spanish/Italian cosa, all of which likewise now mean “thing.”

One more pair to demonstrate a parallel sense development:

English friend
Latin amicus (friend)

Friend comes from the Anglo-Saxon word freond, which is a noun derivative of the verb freogan, meaning “to love.”

Amicus is related to the Latin verb amare, meaning – can you guess? – “to love.”  Anyone who’s taken a course in a Romance language should recognise amicus as the ancestor of the Italian amico, Spanish amigo and French ami – “friend.”

(Those especially keen might recognise it as the source of English words like amicable, amiable and amity.)

But here’s a Latin-based English word that gives me an internal chuckle every time I see it: enemy.

Hard to tell from looking at it now, but that word is the descendant of the Latin inimicus, which entered English via the Old French inimi.  Let’s break down the original Latin word and see just how ridiculous it is.

inimicusin- (“not”) + amicus (“friend”)

Therefore, enemy literally means “not friend.”  Real imaginative, Romans.  That’s right up there with fireplace for words that took minimal thought to produce.

What A Load Of Crap

Sometimes our prejudices keep us from seeing the truth.  Two words that look nothing alike and with completely separate meanings still could be related etymologically.

Science is the word of academia.  It encompasses the virtues of observation, concentration and patience.  It is the embodiment of pure, humble intellect.

Shit is…well…none of those things, really.  I suppose one could argue that patience is required for — actually, no, never mind.

These two words have nothing in common (save for their starting letter).

…Or do they?

Rewind, say, seven millennia or so.  Before there was any Latin.  Before Greek.  Before any of the Germanic languages.

Linguists have reconstructed what is known as Proto-Indo-European (henceforth written as PIE), another theoretical parent tongue.  This would have been the common language of the earliest settlers of the Eurasian landmass.  As this first group of people began to disperse (over the course of several millennia), they developed their own dialects – e.g. Proto-Germanic, Proto-Celtic, Proto-Slavic, etc.  And, of course, each of these became a language family in its own right.

IMG-1588

The PIE root for “to cut, split, divide, separate” is skei-.  This root, like many other PIE words linguists have reconstructed, was the progenitor of numerous nouns and verbs still in use in the extant Indo-European languages.

The prehistoric word served as the base for a couple Proto-Germanic verbs.  They are skaithan and skit-.  Both these verbs remained more or less faithful to the literal sense of “separating.”  Skaithan yielded English shed (as a snake does to its old skin or a tree to its leaves) and German/Dutch scheiden.

The other Germanic verb skit- manifested itself in English as shit (dialect shite preserves the Old English vowel), in German as scheissen and in Dutch as schijten.  All these verbs came to mean “defecate” on the notion of excrement being SEPARATED from the body.

PIE skei- was present in Latin words as well.  It was used to form the important verb scire, meaning “to know.”  But how could the verb for splitting or separating something mean that?

*cue angelic choir* FIGURATIVE SENSE SHIFT!

To “know” is to “separate one thing from another; distinguish.”  The Roman verb became a metaphorical separation, whereas the Germanic verbs remained literal separations.

The noun derived from scire was scientia, meaning “a knowing; knowledge.”  This is the obvious origin of the English science and all the Romance cognates.

(Bonus: The Greek verb skhizein (“to split”) comes from the same PIE root and is the origin of the English word schism.)

To recap:

PIE skei- ⇒ Proto-Germanic skit- ⇒ English shit

PIE skei- ⇒ Latin scire “to know” ⇒ Latin scientia “knowledge” ⇒ English science

Therefore, science and shit are distant cousins.

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Carry On My Way-“Word” Son

What a journey some words have!  Sometimes they need to make pilgrimages across vast lands over great stretches of time to find themselves.  It may take centuries for some words to settle at long last on one primary sense.

Nice is one of these “journey words.”  (Not a technical term – just something I call them.)  Nice was a Middle English borrowing from French, which in turn was an evolved form of the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware.”  The Latin is an adjectival compound of the prefix ne- (“not”) and scire — yeah, that verb we JUST covered — meaning “to know.”  It literally means “not-knowing.”  (And, yes, that makes it related to shit as well.)

In French and when it entered English, it wasn’t too far-removed from the Latin, carrying meanings of “foolish, stupid, senseless, silly.”  The sense development in English is remarkable, having shifted across “simple,” then to “petty, fine, minute, (a sense preserved in nicety)” to “childlike,” to “delicate,” to “agreeable, pleasant,” to “kind, thoughtful.”  The Oxford English Dictionary says this about the word:

“In many examples from the 16th and 17th centuries it is difficult to say in what particular sense the writer intended it to be taken.”

The adjective slight originally meant “smooth, sleek,” then moved to “slim, slender,” to “feeble, not strong, inferior,” hence “not good,” before resting on “small in amount.”  The German cognate schlecht followed a similar path, moving from “smooth, plain, simple” eventually to “bad, mean, base.”

Words can weaken and strengthen over time as well as narrow or broaden.  The Old English yfel (Modern English evil) was the go-to adjective for anything negative or displeasing.  The Anglo-Saxons used “evil” where we would use badcruelunskillful and defective; the sense of “morally wicked” also was in Old English, but it did not become the main one till the 18th century.  Slay, like its Germanic cognates, originally meant “beat, strike.”  The English form, however, strengthened to “kill, destroy, especially with a weapon” later on.

Starve comes from Old English steorfan, meaning “to die.”  Its main modern meaning is specified and weakened: “to be in the process of perishing from hunger or suffering severely from it.”  German cognate sterben still means “to die.”

The Old English noun deor (ancestor of deer) meant “animal.”  Today, it refers to a specific, antlered animal, while the Dutch and German cognates retain the broader definition.  Linguists reason that the word narrowed to mean this creature in particular because that which we now call a “deer” was the favoured beast of the chase.

The verb try has assumed various meanings in the past few centuries.  In Middle English, it was restricted to the legal sense of “put on trial,” but it has since expanded to “put to test” and “attempt to do” and “put forth effort.”

A word’s journey might take it so far that it ends up a complete 180° from its initial meaning.  Moot, from Old English gemot, was the noun form of the verb meet.  Much like thing, a moot was an assembly where matters were discussed.  A “moot point,” therefore, was that which was “up for discussion or debate.”  The modern opposite meaning of “not debatable; not worth discussing; impertinent; irrelevant” must go to show how effective those meetings were.

Before Our Very Eyes

Sense evolution and sound changes are not a purely historical study.  If you squint hard enough, you will take notice of the more recent changes occurring in words.

Mad, for most of its history in the English language, meant primarily “insane,” but its newer meaning of “angry” has eclipsed the former in common use.  Madman and maddening retain the traditional sense.

Oblivious did not mean “unaware” until the 19th century; before then, it meant “forgetful.”

Only a purist or a pedant (like me) might insist that words like these can mean only what they did originally.  But that reasoning is flawed; nobody is going to call his dim-witted coworker a “nice” man to mean he is a simpleton.  Similarly, most people don’t use decimate to mean “remove one tenth of,” as the ancient Romans did.

The hard truth about sense evolution is that, when a word acquires a new sense, the older one often falls into disuse, sometimes earning the label “archaic,” or, more absolute, “obsolete,” at which point that particular sense is no longer understood by the common people.  The old sense of obliviousness or oblivion, perhaps fittingly, may well be on their way to “the state of being forgotten.”

(Some old senses end up getting fossilised in idiomatic expressions.  One such lucky specimen is large, in the sense of “free from restraint.”  This sense is obsolete, except in the phrase at large, as in the sentence, “The murderer is still at large.“)

Take a moment sometime to listen to the way we use our words to convey specific shades of meaning.  Soon and anon both originally meant “at once; immediately; without hesitation.”  Because of human procrastinative nature, however, they softened to a more lenient “soon; in a little while.”  Can you detect a similar shift with now?  When we say that something needs to be done “now,” is there an implied grace period?  Maybe a few moments?  One might distinguish “now” from “right now,” the latter meaning “absolutely at this moment.”

In a similar vein, literally has shifted so much in popular use that speakers and writers may find it necessary to precede it with the word quite in order to express that something ought to be taken truly “literally,” that is, “precisely as worded.”

In merely the last century, the syllabic stress of harass and harassment has shifted from the first to the second.  Second-syllable stress for those words has recently become the primary pronunciation, at least in American English.  There are some, though (including me), who still prefer the traditional stress pattern.

The Internet is a trove of examples of linguistic shift in action.  In this new era of instant communication and self-broadcast, words, abbreviations, acronyms, phrases and slang come into existence and develop in the online world at a rate unseen in the natural world.  They obey the same linguistic evolution principles as their real-life counterparts, but their changes occur at a rapid, observable rate.  I believe that they have a place in academic scrutiny.  A few terms for thought:

  • LOL – “Laughing Out Loud.”  Possibly the best-known – and certainly one of the earliest – product of shorthand in online communication.  Originally meaning that the person behind the keyboard is actually laughing; has been used at least as early as the new millennium to indicate that something is mildly humorous, even if no actual laughter occurs.  Now often used as filler or placed at the end of a serious message to soften its impact.  “Car broke down today, lol.
  • RIP – “Rest In Peace.”  Popular in online video gaming culture, this solemn real-life initialism has been hijacked by the Internet.  The phonetic “rip” pronunciation in online gaming was facetious at first but quickly became the standard.  Originally used as an interjection for when a player dies in a match; meaning has expanded to refer to the end or destruction of any non-human thing or institution; then applied to anything unfortunate, whether in a game or in real life.

Person 1: “Ugh, my earbuds are tangled again.”
Person 2: “Rip.”

  • GIF – Image format that has had Internet users arguing over its pronunciation for over two decades.  Once disparaged as an ignorant corruption by programmers, the “ghif” pronunciation (hard G) is now equally valid to (if not predominant over) “jif.”  Also, I may or may not have written a blog post on it last year.

How “Nice”

Words, whether in the spoken or written form, serve as an allegory of a sort for their masters, the human species.  Their evolutions are proof of where man exhibited great folly – and also where he showed poetic brilliance.

We are the words we use, in a way.  To study words is to study human thought – and to study their scars is to examine our own image through the ages.

Reminds me of that classic speech from Hamlet:

…to hold, as t’were, the Oxford English Dictionary up to nature, to show poetry its own coinages, slang its own etymology, and the very speakers and writers of the time their pronunciation and usage…

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Like Night and Day

“Last year sucked!  Who cares about last year?”

– Jim Greene, instructor and independent act

Well, *I* do.  At least I did.  I mean, my 2016 season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival was great – I wouldn’t have exalted it with an entire blog post if it weren’t – but if last year were a full meal, then the 2017 season was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Because I’m unimaginative and terrible with transitions, let’s talk about my living situation.

Site Life

When the creative director was sending housekeeping e-mails to the 2017 cast this spring, he asked for everyone’s living preference (i.e., onsite lofts, offsite housing, indifference).  I made the naïve decision to forsake all sense of adventure and voice my desire to live off site as I did last summer, citing convenience of shopping and household amenities as my chief reasons.

The decision was ultimately up to the director, however, and he countered my request by assigning me to a loft at the Armoury.  He was right.

Living on site was the single most important change from my experience last year.  What was lost in the convenience of Walmart just down the road and the kitchen mere feet away from the bedroom was more than recompensed by a firmer connection with my castmates and with the playing space we would call Warwick.  I finally could state truthfully that Warwick was my home, a claim to which I was not entitled last season.  Such a bond with my people and my space provided the groundwork for more effective improvisation and street-work on my end.  More on those later.

Still, where I had good fortune, I remembered.  I harboured limitless empathy for the five who lived in the offsite housing, especially the three among them who were virgin to the Sterling experience.  Despite our best efforts to reach out to them and include them, they were, at times, cut off from the rest of us, often missing out on the more impromptu cast gatherings or plans.

I shared the Armoury attic with four other men.  My loft was actually quite nice – I daresay superior to my pathetically small room (which was more like a glorified closet) in the city house last year.  In my loft, I could put all my clothes and other belongings into various shelves and drawers, freeing up an immense amount of floor space for walking around and changing garments.

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My loft, facing inward.  Note the draping mosquito net.

Living out of a loft was nothing like my preconceptions of it.  It might have helped that Armoury lofts were arguably some of the finest on site, at least in terms of size and privacy.  Each room had a proper, functioning door and was enclosed by complete walls; I had envisioned flimsy, rotting plywood separating the chambers and hanging cloth where a door might be.  I had plenty of electrical outlets and a good main light.  These lofts were less like cabins in the woods and more like gently furnished, low-rent apartments.

My biggest fears about living in a loft were relieved swiftly; there were no leaks, there was a privy (restroom) directly next to the building and bugs were not nearly as significant an issue as I had predicted – besides a few wasps over a ten-week period, insects and the like were virtually nonexistent – the ant infestation in the offsite house last year proved to be a far greater threat to my comfort than anything I encountered in my loft this year.

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My loft, facing the doorway.

There were two major drawbacks of onsite living.  In addition to longer grocery trips, we also needed to travel to do laundry.  The cast’s (and many of the independent performers’) preferred laundromat in Fair Haven was only about a five-minute drive away, but, man, did it make you bleed quarters.  Even more if you didn’t bring detergent.  At least the place had air conditioning and free Wi-Fi.

Then, there was what one cast member called the “dance of the kitchen” – the charlie-foxtrot of three dozen actors trying to evade one another to access their respective cabinets and refrigerators in what was maybe a 10′ by 20′ food preparation space – a dance I avoided by waking with the small 6:00 early breakfast club, but a tango I had no choice but to learn during the cast’s lunch break every June rehearsal.  It was as much a lesson in trust and cooperation as was anything we did during our ensemble-building exercises.

The Ensemble

How’s that for a transition?

Maybe it owed to my living on site; maybe it was an inherent respect that came with being a second-year Wyldewood Player; maybe it was simply the luck of the draw.  I will not mince words here: this year’s ensemble felt warmer, more together and absolutely more welcoming to me than last year’s did.  And I wasn’t the only returning cast member to sense these things.

I felt comfortable speaking with everyone in the cast, and it seemed like anybody could jump into and from any group conversation in the kitchen.  Cliques existed, sure, as they form naturally in any large group of people, but the key difference this time around was that these subgroups were not as potent – that is to say they lacked the exclusivity that last year’s had.  This year, there appeared to be an inviting atmosphere with every social outing and gathering, and I never felt bashful or ashamed to join up with any particular set of cast members.

Furthermore, the tone of this season’s ensemble, to me, was more laid-back than last season’s – in a good way.  While the work produced by the 2016 cast was unquestionably magnificent and inspiring, I can’t help but feel in retrospect that everything seemed so damned serious far too often.  The 2017 cast had a temperament that beckoned me to loosen up, let down my hair (sometimes literally) and play, the last one being the core of our show at the festival.

Rehearsals

Rehearsals were more or less identical to last year’s.  Morning warmups (physical and musical) followed by hours of various workshops in improv, imagination, styles/language and character development.  Not much to say here that I didn’t already cover in my first Sterling blog post.

Nay, instead, the change came from within – from the way I approached rehearsals.

During dialect workshops, I toned down greatly on my inclination to jump in and give unwarranted explanations of various rules and concepts.  I restrained myself this season and deferred always to the several instructors thereof, despite language being my domain.  Though holding my tongue was often frustrating, I found a sort of relief in embracing my subordination.

In improv, I retained the techniques I picked up last season and went forward with a no-fucks-given mindset, knowing that something is always better than nothing and that, even if you have a less-than-adequate scene, people generally will quickly forget about any embarrassing missteps you may have made.  My equipped, unbound mind yielded me much greater success during rehearsals and proved my viability in the discipline of improvisation.

This was a Joseph Scott that those who knew me last season did not recognise.  During a first-impressions exercise in which everybody revealed to every other person in thirty-second sessions how he/she initially perceived the other, all the staff members and cast veterans said something similar to me – they all seemed to note a confidence in me that was lacking last year.  One described the change as “like night and day.”

Side note: Wisdom is the child of hardship.  I learnt from my mistakes last year and brought plenty of warmer apparel for those cold rehearsal days in June.  The first week was brutal this year.  Also, rain boots were easily my smartest purchase all summer.

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Faire Days

At the heart of the Sterling Renaissance Festival’s entertainment is interactive theatre, conducted by the actors, the Wyldewood Players.  The actor’s job on a faire day is to, in character, find problems and activities and solicit the involvement of patrons and other characters.  The goal is immersion – to fill the space and make it truly seem like a bustling English town in the year 1585, inhabited by a host of wacky denizens who all have relationships with one another.  There is a specific interactive technique we actors learn in rehearsal and utilise every faire weekend.

Overall, my work in the lanes (the paths that patrons take on faire days), or street-work, was objectively better than what I did last season.

One of my biggest hangups last season was language and dialect.  My obsession with having impeccable grammar and with staying outside the realm of linguistic anachronism (using words/phrases/ideas that were not used in Elizabethan England) often inhibited my improvisational potential on the street.  I discovered this season that, in relaxing my language somewhat, ideas for street bits suddenly started flowing more rapidly and I was able to maintain patron attention much better.  It hurt my soul a bit to be so lax, but perhaps this was a necessary trade-off.

My street-work improved also because I finally understood how to throw an extraordinary offer/assumption at another character – and to do so confidently – in order to ignite some sort of meaningful interaction, or encounter.  And, when all else failed, it was quite fun to spew the first thing that came to mind.

Finally, some of the greatest rehearsal advice I employed on faire days was the notion of permitting my character to get involved with other characters’ problems – that any character, regardless of social station or personality, can and will, under extreme circumstances (meaning an encounter’s stakes have been raised appropriately), perform some action that he/she may find unpleasant or out of character.  I began to realise that the characters in Warwick were not designed to be two-dimensional archetypes of their occupations, but full, real people.  For example, the barber surgeon is a middle-class fellow who deals with medical issues primarily, but that does not and should not preclude him from being dragged into helping, say, a lower-class washer wench with a laundry-related problem or some non-occupational encounter like picking flowers for a bouquet.

Similarly, a lower-class beggar could be seen in the company of a member of the Queen’s court, doing things not typically associated with begging.

Speaking of which…..

The Sailor, not the Tailor

When I learnt that the two other beggars from last season would not be returning, any doubt that I would create a new character was removed.  I wished to embody a wholly different person to exist alongside and play off the likewise different persons my new “mud brothers” would generate.

Much to my surprise, my beggar character, William “Will” Taylor, was green-lighted by staff during rehearsal.  I feared that he would resemble too closely the namesake on whom I based him, the titular character from the folk song “William Taylor,” whose opening lyrics are, “William Taylor was a brisk young sailor, full of heart and full of play.”  I later found out that this very song was played by one of the festival’s musical acts on faire days.

William was much stronger a character than the one I developed last season, Peter.  Will’s choices were more playable to audiences, his nautical backstory more easily related in conversation, whereas Peter’s convenient amnesia was an unwise actor choice.

I made sure to distance William from Peter in almost every way conceivable.  His voice tended to sit in the chest, his lower, neutral growl much more biting than Peter’s shy, bouncing cadence, even decaying into the sarcastic on occasion.  Will’s movement stemmed from his forehead and right breast to contrast with Peter’s right knee-led gait – a change perhaps corresponding to the actor behind the characters as he evolved from one of insecurity to one of confidence.  While Peter’s vestments were a potpourri, Will was accoutred specifically to reflect his nautical background, complete with a sailor’s hat and spyglass.  Finally, Master Taylor had different motivations, goals and habits, which meant stick-collecting and leaf-munching had to go.  Will was headstrong and ambitious and had little time to devote to such petty diversions.

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Photo credit: Andrew Lesny

William’s passion (character’s driving force in life) and foible (trait that interferes with the character’s attainment of said passion) were clear and identifiable where Peter’s were, at best, vague and nebulous.  It was visible that Will was out solely for thrills, at sea or otherwise, while his pride often kept him from achieving his short-term goals, begetting other foibles such as forgetfulness and obliviousness.

I also added some other character minutiae to Will that, while not necessary for playing in the street and creating encounters, helped flesh him out and made for humorous moments upon their invocation.  The two main flourishes were his probable homosexuality and his recently-acquired fear of birds; not being seduced by the singing of Sirens and cowering before the festival’s trained hawks and other birds of prey were recurring gags this season.

Just Add Water

Mud is mud, so no updates there.  “Ye Mudd Pitt” required the same maintenance it did last summer, the most notable change being that the dirt came from a different supplier this year and required us to sift through it before we could dump it into the pit.  Another difference was that all three beggars lived on site this time, so we didn’t have to make special trips out between faire weekends to maintain the mud.

We turned to ancient Greek myth for our newest mud show, basing it on the story of Jason and the Argonauts, specifically the Quest for the Golden Fleece.  The basic plot – that is, which scenes we wished to portray and the order thereof – was a combined effort of the three beggars, while the specific dialogue was written by the director.  He intelligently wrote the script with provided room for variation and jokes we could insert on the fly.

“Myth and Muddy Mayhem,” as it is titled in the festival’s programme, was a longer show that made heavy use of stage properties, called for several important character endowments (like Heracles and Eros) to be hand-picked from the crowd and requested full audience participation during moments where sound effects and scene transitions were needed, filling a void created by the unavailability of the classic “Dante’s Inferno” this season.  I was very pleased with the show we produced.

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Photo credit, clockwise from top: Andrew Lesny, Philip R. Frey, Andrew Lesny

The biblical show the beggars wrote last year, “The Prodigal Son,” returned in all its glory (or shame), still as sacrilegious and scatological as it was last summer, and perhaps more so.  The show continued to grow this season as the two new beggars embraced it and made it their own.  Very proud of my lads.

Oh, yeah – we performed four shows per faire day, eight per weekend, where it was only three a day last season.  The addition of a fourth performance each day at 5:00 proved to be, at least initially, more draining than expected and forced me to manage my voice more wisely – to pick my battles, as it were.  I had trouble speaking every Monday after the first three weekends, but my body eventually acclimated, I’m thankful to state.

What did not change, at least not in great measure, were the size and enthusiasm of the 5:00 crowd.  Most days, it was a mass of miserable, tired people who were simply trying to find somewhere to sit before the final joust, after which they could make their sorry, daunting trek up the hill and finally leave the festival.  It was difficult to incite any spirit in them, and even the funniest, most outrageous jokes in “Prodigal Son” often failed to get reactions.  Perhaps the inclusion of a fourth show was not worth it and the time we beggars took to set up for it, perform it and clean up afterward would have been better allocated to our already meagre street time, of which we had virtually none after 1:15.

Parade bits were a welcome addition to the beggars’ antics.  The first weekend, we three decided to forgo a shower after the second mud show, knowing that taking the time to clean up and change would make us miss part of the Queen’s midday procession.  So, naturally, we walked around completely covered in filth so we could make it to the beginning of the parade in the upper shire in time to greet Her Majesty.  It’s beyond me why we didn’t try this last summer.  We very quickly discovered that our swarthiness was a wide, paved avenue for performing bits, and you had better bet your bottom shilling we rode it every weekend.  Each faire day, we did something different to entertain the parade and the patrons around it, whether it be pretending to be tea-sipping Frenchmen or creating tableaux of various Stages of the Cross or overtly crossdressing as ladies of the court of the washer wench, Nerys, whom we appointed our Fairy sovereign.

Other Thoughts I Couldn’t Find a Section For

Some readers may recall that last year I developed an awfully strange physical intolerance – an allergy, even – for cold water.  I was unable to swim in any body of water – lakes, ponds, wash pits, etc. – cooler than corporeal temperature, lest my skin broke out into what looked like hives (showers didn’t do this to me because I bathe with very warm water).  It was often painful.

Well, I ended up swimming in the “Dunke Ponde” a couple times this summer without such a reaction.  And the oft-cold shower after my 5:00 mud show (no more hot water by the end of the day) didn’t seem to affect me, either.  Fingers crossed, but I may no longer suffer this curious condition.

I failed to maintain my run-whenever-it’s-pleasant-out regimen.  In May, I imagined that I would end most days in Sterling with a solid, hearty run and a refreshing shower.  Nope.  Turns out I befriended all my castmates and found it difficult to reconcile my exercise custom with my busy social calendar.

The final and most important miscellaneous thought I wished to share is my newfound appreciation for poetry and verse, a fondness I fostered with my own authorial contributions.  Two and a half months of living amongst trees, creatures and artistic peers untethered my mind and took it to places it had never been.  I ended up penning numerous sonnets and other poems that are packed with nature-inspired imagery.  While my prose already has a poetic tinge, I loved the challenge of assigning my words to metre and finding novel methods of describing ordinary things.  My sonnets come in iambic hexameter (not sexameter) and classic pentameter, and I even wrote one in octameter (what?).  And I had the opportunity to read some of my works at a couple in-house events held on site.  It was gratifying to know that my poetry was received as well as it was.

But I’m Not Ready to Leave…

You can leave all your “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because happened”s and “You’ll get out of this funk soon”s and “Where one journey ends, another begins”s and other hackneyed epitaphs at the door.  I’m sad.  I’m really fucking sad.

This summer was an absolute privilege and a delight that somehow exceeded last summer.  I’ll cash in my saved-up originality tokens for one trite paragraph and say that this summer was basically a dream.  A bubble where I didn’t have to worry about everything for a little while.  And I’m not wearing my nostalgia goggles – I realised this as the fantasy was unfolding.  Because I experienced that bliss once…and I finally had it again and knew I had to relish every moment.  And then I had to give it up again.  And now I’m back in the crappy real world.  And it sucks.  So much.

Never enough time.

If you’ll indulge my conceitedness once more, I’ll end with the verse I composed for our pub song, “Health to the Company.”  My fellow players already heard me sing it, but I think a reprise befitting.  I meant every word.

Thus to you, dearest brethren, my final remarks:

You forgive me my missteps, to my jests do you hark;

You’ve return’d me my happiness, this virtue been depriv’d;

Never ere has this dead man felt quite so alive!

Also, if you think I waited till September to write this blog post, then you think erroneously.  I didn’t make it twenty-four hours after returning home to start this.

Derailing the Stage Choo-Choo

According to a friend and director with whom I have worked on many productions, there are two kinds of train in acting.  Both are bad.

The first is the locomotive that crosses the stage whenever there is a worryingly long gap between lines of dialogue (his own hyperbolic figure of speech meaning that there was a silence long enough for an entire train to traverse the performance space before the next line was delivered).

The other is the choo-choo of poor diction.  This is the one on which I will be focussing for this post.

A year ago, the same director asked me to assist him with his college production of Hedda Gabler.  I was a “diction monitor” of sorts.  At each rehearsal, I would sit in the audience with my iPad and do nothing but listen to the words the actors were saying.  I cared not for characters or line delivery or the way they carried themselves.  My job was to note every garbled syllable and any otherwise unintelligible word they spoke, and, boy, did I have a field day with it.

Scores of spoilt lines of dialogue I scribbled hastily on my Apple device, day after day.  I took no prisoners; every actor in the show was guilty of sloppy diction at least once, and I made sure to embarr — I mean inform each of them of their slip-ups at the end of every rehearsal.  Some missed their final t’s, there were some dropped h’s, we had some “yers” and “fers” instead of “yours” and “fors” and some even travelled across the Atlantic mid-play and said “git” when the word was actually get.

But the most common errors, by far, were those that occurred when words like did and won’t preceded the word you.  The results, all too often, were abominations such as “dijoo” and “wonchoo.”  And examples of these littered my notes every evening.

Constructions like those are the namesake of the aforesaid Theatre Tank Engine to be avoided – the choo-choo.

But it’s hard to blame the actors.  That’s just the way English speakers speak, generally speaking.

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General Lee speaking.

They’re naturally-occurring sound developments, the dijoos and the wonchoos.  And they occur on both sides of the pond.  To illustrate:

“Would_you come here for a minute?”
“Don’t_you see it?”

The areas in bold denote the consonant clusters [dy] and [ty], respectively.  However, this /y/ sound isn’t a true consonant.  /Y/ here, in reality, is a clipped long /e/ vowel.  (Say “ee-oo,” and then say it again with as little “ee” as possible, and that’s the word you.)  As such, it has a tendency to alter the quality of the /d/ and /t/ sounds (the English dental stops/plosives, for those interested in knowing the technical term).

To form perfectly the words “would you” and “don’t you,” the tongue must perform some degree of gymnastics.  When articulating the /d/ or /t/, the tip touches the alveolar ridge (the flesh immediately behind the upper incisors) before retreating; the sides of the tongue then press against both sets of upper molars, creating a “U” through which air passes to form the /y/ (or long /e/) vowel before relaxing somewhat whilst the lips become pursed to form the final “oo.”

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Note the locations of the alveolar ridge and hard palate, colloquially the “roof of the mouth.”

In rapid or casual speech, however, we often cheat a bit.  Too much travel for the strongest muscle in our bodies.  We can’t be bothered to make either the plosive consonant or the /y/ vowel, so we combine them; the tongue lands somewhere in the middle and calls it a day.  Well, the “middle” happens to be hard palate territory, which is where the blade of the tongue goes to make the palato-alveolar affricate consonants.  Most Anglophones know these as the /j/ and /ch/ sounds.

The outcome of such shortcuts, therefore, are our esteemed friends, “wooja” and “doncha,” who are here in the places of “would you/ya” and “don’t you/ya.”

“Wooja come here for a minute?”
“Doncha see it?”

Turns out “got you” and “what you” couldn’t attend the party, either, so they sent “gotcha” and “whatcha” in their stead.

But, wait, it gets crazier.  This phonetic process also occurs with the clusters [sy] and [zy].  The sibilant consonants /s/ and /z/ are also affected by the /y/ in some words, becoming the palato-alveolar sibilant consonants, [sh] and [zh].  We just don’t notice them because many such words underwent this sound change several centuries ago, and the resulting pronunciations are now the standard.  Some examples:

  • pressureassuresure (all these words used to end with a “syoo-er” sound)
  • words ending in -tion (words like temptation used to be pronounced with a final “see-yuhn” but are now reduced to “shuhn” – my Renaissance festival castmates should be quite familiar with this rule)
  • measure and vision used to take the [zy] pronunciation (sounding approximately like “MEZ-yoor” and “VIZ-yuhn”) but are now reduced to [zh]

Historical instances of the assimilation of the [dy] and [ty] clusters can be heard in the words soldier and nature, which are decidedly “SOHL-jer” and “NAY-cher.”  Never will you hear a sane English speaker pronounce them “SOHL-dyer” and “NAY-tyer.”

The word education is overwhelmingly pronounced “eh-joocation” and issue is most commonly “ISH-oo.”  These differ from the above in that they are not quite universal, but only the most careful and posh (or pretentious) pronounce them “eh-dyoocation” and “ISS-yoo.”

In especially British and Australian dialects, this yod-coalescence (the proper term for the phenomenon I’ve been describing) has led to peculiar pronunciations of words that incorporate the “liquid /u/.”  (Liquid /u/ is in words like cube and fume – you pronounce them with a quick /y/ before the /u/.)  Across the pond and down under, this still applies to “tu-” and “du-” words such as tutor and duke.  While an American might “toon” his guitar, an Englishman might “choon” his.  While two Americans might engage in a sword “doo-el,” two Brits might engage in a sword “jewel.”  An American knows that the day following Monday is “Toosday,” but an Englishwoman might know it to be “Chooseday.”

This principle also explains why I say “s-CHEW-dent” instead of “student” and “YouChewb” instead of “YouTube.”

Sean Connery does not assume things; he “a-shooms” them.  Now that we’re done making fun of him, we can “re-zhoom” what we were doing.  You get the point.

So, to recap:

[ty-] —–> [ch]
[dy-] —–> [j]
[sy-] —–> [sh]
[zy-] —–> [zh]

But what if I told you that yod-coalescence happens in other languages, too?

Let’s examine for a minute the Latin word diurnus, meaning “day.”  It would have been pronounced roughly “DYOOR-noos.”  Note the /dy/ cluster.  Both the Italians and the French inherited this word, but its pronunciation evolved in each language.  The Italians say giorno [JOR-noh], not “DYOR-noh.”  And the French say jour [zhoor].

A Latin word for “eat” was manducare, literally meaning “to use the mandibles; manducate; chew.”  Again, both the regions that would become France and Italy kept this word, but their speakers dropped a syllable or two and changed the quality of the /d/ consonant.  In Italian, the verb is mangiare, while its French cousin is manger (source of the English word of the same spelling, which is that from which horses eat).

Lesson over.  The stage choo-choo is demonstrably natural in speech, and not just in English.  And it’s not a recent linguistic development; it’s well-grounded in our language.

I’ll even go so far as to say that the other side of the spectrum, hyper-articulation, is equally harmful to an actor’s performance, if not more so.  I’ve seen several different actors laughably hit every single consonant of every line they delivered, and I couldn’t take any of their characters seriously.  Over-enunciation made them sound pompous unintentionally and made me focus on the words they were saying rather than how they were saying them.  And this is coming from someone who over-enunciates even when not on the stage.

Conversely, the Railed Passenger Vehicle of the Playhouse can be an instrument to bolster an actor’s performance.  Knowing exactly where to enunciate and where not to can make lines sound more natural and believable.  A couple choo-choos here and there can lend themselves to the appearance of a more laid-back character.

All that said, I do not necessarily endorse the Thespian Multi-Carriage Machine of Transportation.  A performance space with less-than-ideal acoustics may not permit more relaxed diction.  Get the words out, but don’t be too forceful.  And go easy on Ol’ Tommy.

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Verdict?  Let your own discretion be your tutor.  Or “chootor.”

Confessions and Repentance of a Cisgender Refuser of “Singular They”

About a year ago, I squared off with somebody on Facebook over the prospect of “singular they” as a preferred personal pronoun.  Except I was not arguing on the side you may hope I would have been.

When I learnt in the spring of 2015 that some people who are outside the gender binary actually identify as they, I knew that it would not bode well for me and my penchant for immaculate grammar.

My initial thoughts were, “How did we, as a society, screw up so royally that these people had no recourse but to hijack the third-person plural pronouns to suit their singular needs?  Surely the English language has a fail-safe, a provision for a situation like this.”

Historically, the pronoun he was always used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a member of a mixed group, as in the sentence, “Any in favour should raise his right hand.”  Many popular adages begin with the words, “He who…” without regard for the subject’s gender.

This usage of the masculine third-person singular pronoun is analogous to the usage of man in certain contexts.  When one speaks of “when man first walked the earth,” he means the human species – not men or women specifically.  Similarly, when Neil Armstrong proclaimed as he set foot on the moon (or a film set) the words, “…one giant leap for mankind,” he wasn’t referring to the male half only.

With these facts in my utility belt, I jumped into the aforementioned argument on Facebook.  My goal was to convince the other party that, for people who identify outside the binary, using gender-neutral he is just as, if not more viable than using singular they.  The former is more historically supported and is arguably less clumsy.  My argument was never about potential ambiguity in writing – let me be clear on that.

The debate ended amicably, I’m happy to state.  But it got me questioning my stance on the matter more than ever.  It’s become increasingly clear that my linguistic rhetoric is irrelevant when feelings are in play.

I wouldn’t classify my former self with bigoted assholes who refuse to adopt “singular they” for the sake of quashing the non-binary cause.  I always counted myself among the more sympathetic, those seeking alternative solutions through the application of logic and reasoning.  To the oppressed, however, there is hardly a difference between the two groups.

The unoppressed telling the oppressed that they shouldn’t feel a certain way because of “X, Y and Z” is about as effective as telling someone who suffers from depression to “cheer up” or someone with anxiety to “just relax.”

As a cisgender (meaning my gender aligns with my birth sex) man, no, I do not and will not ever understand the dysphoria that some people experience when they are misgendered.  I do understand the discomfort of being misaddressed, however.  I refer to myself as Joseph and nothing else.  I have never gone by Joe, and it genuinely hurts when people call me that.  It also hurts when people use the wrong surname to refer to me.  I can only imagine the pain of those who are denied their preferred personal pronouns.

Honestly, though, the whole notion of being attached to a certain pronoun is foolish to me.  Personal pronouns, by nature, are not personal; they are, paradoxically, quite the opposite.  Their primary function is to play substitute for your name – your true identity.  They make sentences impersonal.  But I suppose all that’s easy for me to say because I have no qualms with being referred to as a he.  Maybe I don’t get to make that call.

And, because it is unrealistic to do away with third-person pronouns altogether, we need to work with what we have.

Contrived pronouns such as ze/xe and zir/xem simply will not do.  I admire the effort put forth by wordsmiths within the gender-queer community, and I appreciate that they are proposing solutions that would please everybody, but I sincerely doubt that their inventions will catch on.

I’m aware that Sweden recently (1960s) coined the gender-neutral pronoun hen to exist alongside han (he) and hon (she).  It might work in a country of that size and with a population that small speaking Swedish, but English is an anomaly.  There are so many varieties in so many regions with hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide.  Thanks a lot, Great Britain.  The sun never sets on your empire, huh?

The pronoun one does not work when referring to a specified individual, as in the sentence, “Taylor tied one’s shoes.”

So, we come back to they.

Proponents often point to uses throughout history by prolific writers.  Jane Austen was known to use “singular they” rather frequently.  Even the Bard himself used it on occasion.

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

–  Antipholus, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene iii

Moreover, rhetoric like that featured in the following image has been employed recently to illustrate that we already use “singular they” in casual conversation:

using-singular-they

These are pretty compelling arguments.  One problem, though.  These usages of “singular they” are not the same as the usage of referring to a known, specified person.

I will do my best to articulate exactly what I mean here without sounding too abstract.

In the above example, Person 1 says, “Oh no, someone left their cell phone.”  In his mind, this “someone” could be any person – male, female, gender-nonconforming, whatever.  Anybody can lose a phone.  The image in his brain is of multiple people, that is, a pool of options, if you will.  Therefore, this group of potential persons logically requires they.  We do this all the time.

Now, let’s say we’re dealing with someone named Taylor.  (I don’t know why I keep using the name Taylor – it’s just the first unisex name that came to mind.)  Taylor prefers the pronoun they and is known personally by the people in the following exchange.  Taylor is not some hypothetical human within a group of possible candidates.  Taylor is real, definite and specified.  Here’s how the exchange might sound:

“Hey, I saw Taylor hop in their car.  Where are they going?”

“I think they have to go to work.”

In those sentences, someone less acquainted with Taylor would have, without hesitation, used “his/her,” “is he/is she” and “he has/she has.”  This is because Taylor was understood to be a certain individual.  In a less-acquainted person’s mind, Taylor is one person and therefore logically requires a singular pronoun like he or she.

I hope that this accurately illustrates the reluctance of well-meaning people to use “singular they” the way non-binary persons wish – even when they do it all the time in conversation anyway.  I know that this is how it works in my mind.  I might be totally wrong about others, but I’m pretty sure I’m at least on the right track.

But… a year of rumination on the subject has shown me that my mild discomfort in this novel usage of “singular they” does not compare to the distress and cognitive dissonance suffered by those less fortunate than I – those who are not content with English’s admittedly flawed gender system.  These people should not need to change to accommodate something that humans crafted; our craft should change to accommodate them.

And it has in the past.

The Old English words for “he” and “she” were he and heo/hio.  By the 13th century, natural phonetic evolution made the pronunciations of he and heo/hio converge.  Apparently to avoid confusion, the word seo/sio (used in Old English to mean “the”) soon supplanted heo/hio.  This replacement evolved in pronunciation as well and became she.  Parallel developments occurred in German and Dutch with their pronouns sie and zij, respectively.  Also note that we say her, as opposed to “sher” – her represents the survival of the original h-form from Old English (hire).

She, an integral word in our language, was re-purposed and became the dominant feminine singular third-person pronoun through persistent use.  Circumstances demanded it.  And now we have circumstances that require that we find a new word for the genderless singular third person.  It is with great regret that I say I fear that it may be too late for English, as a whole, to adopt a new word.  But our best shot is they.

And, if it makes them happy, I’ll use it.

Ownership Of The Video Game

Games, historically, have been for the player or players.

The word game comes from Old English gamen, which carried meanings of “joy, fun, amusement.”  Gamen is a common Germanic compound; cognates include Old Frisian game “joy, glee,” Old High German gaman “sport, merriment,” Swedish gamman “merriment” and several others.  All these are combinations of the Proto-Germanic elements ga- (collective prefix) and mann “person,” the latter being the ancestor of the English word man.  This compound thus conveys the sense of “people together.”

The primary goals of games are to pass time and to foster companionship.  Games have always been for our entertainment in some way, whether they be displays of athleticism in sports, wit-battles in chess or brief amusements that children make up for themselves.

Video games, a subset of electronic games, involve interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device (as opposed to audio games, whose feedback is solely audible).

Some of the earliest video games were simply pongdigital recreations of games and sports that had been around a long time.  Pong (1972) was nothing more than an electronically-rendered game of table tennis.  Pong and the like had the same player-centric goals as their “real-life” counterparts; the only difference was that they now could be played on a screen.

Those who created, or developed, these primitive softwares vied merely to provide the most functional and accessible product in the infantile market.  Any other gimmick was secondary.

With the advances in hardware of the next couple decades, however, came more complex and sophisticated video games.  Games were no longer just a couple moving pixels.  Better technology meant superior graphics and more detailed game environments – and thus greater room for creativity.

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1994’s platformer Donkey Kong Country, a pioneer of 3-D graphics in console gaming.

While early computer role-playing games (RPGs) had involved personal player narratives for quite some time, games of other genres were beginning to incorporate set, unchanging plots for the player to experience through gameplay.  Some game development studios were building video games with story in mind and started employing cinematics, or “cutscenes,” for the player to watch between levels.

By the early years of the new millennium, many games being created were fully voice-acted and required significant amounts of animation.  Music had evolved from the beeping melodies of Super Mario Bros. to full orchestral scores with dynamic and layered sounds to complement the player on his journey.

After a few more years, it became commonplace for major game development studios to utilise motion-capture (mo-cap) technology in their animation.  Video games now have an unprecedented level of detail in their characters and can present more nuanced stories.  Games that do this particularly well, such as Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, have been known to evoke sincere emotional reactions from players.

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A scene from 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  On left, actors performing in mo-cap garb; on right, the same scene rendered in the game.

Today, the development of major video games (referred to as “triple-A” titles) is not unlike that of a film.  A video game no longer is exclusively about gameplay.  The typical group behind a AAA video game project now has hundreds of employees.  In addition to the requisite programmers, studios now hire writers, directors, actors, sound designers, music composers and sketch and concept artists, among others, to bring a game to life.  And they have ludicrously large budgets to accomplish this.

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Big-budget franchises like Call of Duty can afford to put Kevin Spacey in their games.

The amount of work involved in the development of the well-made video game is staggering, to put it lightly.  The process is a far cry from the early days of a group of computer geeks, numbering no more than fifteen or twenty.  Video game development had established itself as a multi-disciplinary artistic medium on par with other artistic media like literature and cinema.

However, video games as such are unique in that they require player input via a controller or a keyboard and mouse.  What happens on-screen is directly influenced by the player, whereas a novel or a film or a painting is the same every time it is viewed.

This means that the player is still the key component or ingredient that makes a video game a video game (after all, a video game without the game part is really just images on a screen).  And this, in turn, means that the game needs to be engaging and fun.  If it is boring, then it’s more of a chore or work than it is entertainment, and people won’t play it.

The expectations of gamers have always leant toward immersion.  They want an escape from the harshness of real life, to be immersed in a fictional world where they can do things they could not or would not do in the real one.  Immersion is achieved chiefly through stimulating gameplay and realistic visuals, although there are other methods.  Some of the most popular video game franchises in the industry that employ these pillars of immersion fall into the genres of action, open-world and first-person shooter (FPS).  Grand Theft AutoThe Elder Scrolls and Call of Duty all are wildly successful commercially because they adhere to what the average gamer expects of an immersive experience and do it well.

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Hijacking a car in Grand Theft Auto V

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Engaging a frost troll in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

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Campaign mission from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Developers understand all this, but, at the same time, they have an artistic vision that they want to realise.  A vision that may be thwarted by being tied down by the tried-and-true gameplay mechanics and tropes of yesteryear.

So, is the video game primarily a toy for the consumer’s enjoyment – or is it primarily a creative vehicle for the developers?

It may be true that the developers do not owe the consumer anything, and it also may be true that nobody is forcing anybody to buy the developers’ product, but, at the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s dollar that keeps the developers afloat.

An independent game development studio must take this risk into account when crafting its games, but developers owned by a publisher (a relationship akin to a musician signed on with a record label) have no choice but to bend to the will of their financial overlords, who make broad creative decisions in accordance with what they know gamers like and will purchase (or will beg their parents to purchase for them).  These decisions often hamper the creative potential of the developers and, in some cases, can undermine the essence of a beloved franchise.

There is a great deal of evidence that the story of Halo 5: Guardians was substantially weakened (if not microsoft_studiosruined altogether) through interference from the publisher, Microsoft Studios.  While developer 343 Industries’ debut Halo game, Halo 4, featured a strong, powerful and critically-acclaimed story, many fans were displeased with it – mainly because its tone was starkly different from that of the original trilogy and because one of the series’ most treasured characters halo_guardianswas killed off.  It is believed that, following such poor reception from the fans, the script of Halo 5 underwent a number of significant rewrites relatively late in its development upon the urging of Microsoft, most notably the senseless revival of the dead character and her asinine relegation to villain status.  The story was supposed to be the best and most riveting to date, but it fell flat because the developers were forced to abandon their original vision.

Conversely, the multiplayer side of Halo 5 flourished because of fan input.  The general consensus is that it is superior in almost every aspect to that of Halo 4, and it’s largely because of the whining—er, I mean constructive feedback—of the community that ensued following 4’s release.

But I digress.  The point I am trying to establish is that, with a video game franchise like Halo, the ownership may be ambiguous.  It could be argued that the members of a fanbase with that much creative influence are the true “owners” of the game.

More conservative gamers might say that this is the way it should be, for the developers to listen to the buyers and to tailor their games accordingly.  Those more liberal in the matter might say that the developers should not be total pushovers by allowing the consumers to dictate what goes into the studio’s product.

Me?  Well, I suppose I have an obligation to take a stance here, as it is often considered bad creative etiquette to raise philosophical questions without even attempting to answer them.  Interestingly, my doing so is, itself, an instance of yielding to consumer pressure to alter my content.

I’ll cop out and say that I’m middle ground.  I feel that the player absolutely does have a say in the video games he buys.  But it cannot be denied that there has been a shift from the player-centric goals of the video game to goals more artist-centric.

In Defence Of The Dialect

Every Wednesday at noon, my Uncle Louis and a few others gather at La Roma Pizzeria to dine and speak principally in Italian.  I join them when I can.  There, I go by Giuseppe, and my uncle is Zio Luigi.  Our collective is sometimes called “il gruppo italiano” (“the Italian group”), and one might say that we are one of the final vestiges of social italophony in the Utica-Rome area, a relic of a bygone era in a region that was once marked by widespread and deep Italian heritage and influence.

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Anyway, at one of these luncheons, my uncle used a word that garnered confused looks from others at the table.  It was quickly resolved by one of our guests that the word was dialectal and not standard Italian.  This did not come as a shock to my uncle, as he has said time and time again that the Italian dialect that was spoken in his home when he was a boy was a combination of Italian, Spanish and Latin (the linguist in me questions the veracity of this claim), but this is neither here nor there for the purpose of this post.

I wish to bring the spotlight on the old man who provided the proper Italian word for the idea that my uncle was trying to express.  Now, mind you that he is one of the humblest and most gracious and most well-spoken people I have talked with, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for him.  Because I was aware that he was born in Italy and is a native speaker of Italian, I decided to enquire further about the way the language is spoken in the motherland.  He happily explained to me that Italy is finally united under a common standard tongue after centuries of provincial variation; this matched my admittedly shallow understanding of Italian language history, which comes from two semesters of Elementary Italian in college, informal Internet research and playing Assassin’s Creed.

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Our guest authority on the Italian language went on to say that dialects are nowadays rightly reserved for the home.  That these dialects are not correct and should stay private.  This was a touch off-putting.

I couldn’t let that one go.  Using my reasonable linguistic rhetoric (with the caution not to offend the genuinely kind and well-meaning elder), I employed the Socratic method to query him into a corner and expose the fallacy in his notion of Italian dialects.

I asked for his agreement (successfully) with the following:

“Italian, like other Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Portuguese, comes from Latin, yes?”

“And would you say that all these languages are recognised as their own sovereign modes of speech with their own unique rules?  That is, do they all have ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ ways of being spoken?”

“Then how about twelve hundred years ago?  They’re older forms of the languages – but still distinct from each other, yes?”

“Let’s go back a couple more centuries.  They aren’t still French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, are they?  No, but would you consider them slightly evolved forms of the regional variants of Vulgar Latin?”

“So, if they’re just dialects of Latin at that point, are they incorrect forms of that language?”

A cheerful smile manifested on the aged man’s thitherto vaguely grave countenance as he said, “I see what you are saying.”

Dialects seem to carry a feint negative air.  They are unjustly felt as second-rate to what is considered standard in a language.  They are sometimes branded with such demeaning labels as “regionalism” and even “slang.”

Such attitudes are poison and will cloud the judgement of writers, orators and so-called linguists everywhere – and that veritably wise and knowledgeable twenty-one-year-old fresh out of undergraduate school with a BA in English.

I believe that this ill treatment of dialects comes from a flawed perspective on how languages grow and develop.img_0543

Dialects are not to be seen as tree branches stemming from the trunk, the standard; they are better visualised as their own individual trees growing alongside the standard, all from the same patch of earth.

Let’s use English as a template for this concept, as it’s safe to assume that it is the first language of most people who are reading this blog post.

If we examine English in the U.K. as it stands today, we’ll note the innumerable flavours scattered therein.  If we were to time-travel back to the Middle Ages, we would make a similar observation.  This is because there was as much differentiation in the language back then as there is now – or at any other point in history.  (Indeed there wasn’t just one Elizabethan vernacular.)

There were four main dialects of Old English, or Anglo-Saxon: Mercian, Kentish, Northumbrian and West Saxon.  These, along with the lesser dialects, had been on their own evolutionary courses for quite some time.  They didn’t just spawn out of nowhere.  img_0544They were brought over to Britannia by sundry Germanic tribes – chiefly the Angles, Saxons and Jutes – that left northern Europe.  And they didn’t all arrive at the same time, either; this was a migration of many peoples over the course of centuries, beginning when the Romans vacated the island.  That which we call “Old English” is actually a collection of closely-related languages spoken by different groups of people in relative proximity to one another.

What does all this mean?  It means that the English dialects today are, by and large, continuations of their ancestral mediaeval dialects, each with its own grammar, lexicon and phonology.  And those, in turn, were continuations of related Germanic tongues pre-migration, two-thousand years ago and prior.  They all grew up alongside the one lucky dialect that would become the standard for “English.”  And that’s the very problem with setting a language standard in the first place: to call one dialect the standard is to imply that related dialects are recent offshoots of it – and not separate self-governing entities that are equally ancient.

It pays a certain amount of respect to be specific when referring to the language of a particular region.  In some pockets of Scotland, it might be more appropriate to call their language “Scots” instead of “Scottish English,” despite its obvious strong kinship with Standard English.  Similarly, it is erroneous to call the languages spoken in Lombardy and Veneto “Lombard Italian” and “Venetian Italian.”  Lombard and Venetian are merely two of the many “dialects” that developed independently from one another in the area we now call Italy, but Tuscan (toscano) is the one that would serve as the basis for Standard Italian.  Again, they all have strong linguistic similarity to the standard, but they are better referred to as their own languages.

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(Remember that the country of Italy as it exists today has been around only since the late 19th century.  Before the unification, the peninsula was composed of numerous city-states.)

These dialects do not swear fealty to the country that happens to envelop them and are not owned by the country’s most privileged dialect.

Therefore, no, a “dialect” in such a case is not a second-rate version of the language standard; it is a first-rate version of itself.

All right, cool, so how about dialects that do branch off the standard?

Let’s suppose that, centuries ago, the Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Central Europe began to adopt the language of an unspecified German dialect.

Initially, these Jews would be speaking some bastardised version of what was considered standard for the variety of German they were trying to imitate.  It was assuredly German, but with some peculiarities.  They were pronouncing words differently because they were mapping Hebrew phonology onto them, and they were sprinkling Hebrew words here and there as well as re-purposing German words to suit their culture.

There’s no doubt that, at some point, people who spoke this variety of German the “correct” or “proper” way started to view this emerging vernacular disdainfully.  I imagine that they would have said that their German was being butchered.

Nevertheless, it was concluded that this “inferior” Jewish take on their language was here to stay, and so people began calling it a dialect.

In time, this dialect had acquired its own identity, complete with its own rules and conventions.  People finally started to recognise it as its own language.

Today, we call it Yiddish.

This raises an interesting question about the validity of other dialects in other languages.  Is African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or “ghetto speak,” truly ruining Standard American English?  Or is it merely following its own evolutionary path?

Here’s the thing with dialects and languages: the difference is mostly arbitrary.  Given enough time, derivative dialects become their own languages.  Dialects ignore the imaginary lines humans draw and call national boundaries.  Some dialects are so ancient and distinct that they aren’t really what most people consider dialects at all.

Sociolinguist Max Weinreich popularised an apt saying about them:

“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

Heart Unending

Death is not convenient.  There are always so many “I should’ves” and “Why didn’ts.”  My aunt, who had been vigilant and by my grandmother’s side at all times during her final couple days, hadn’t been gone ten minutes on a quick trip to the store when it happened.  And it seems that nobody answers their phones when it matters most.

Death is not romantic.  There was no point during my grandma’s final moments at which she gazed at me or my mother.  No point at which she offered wise, comforting parting words.  There were no meaningful words for me to utter, either.  There was no fade-to-black, no curtain call, no thunderous applause.  Only tears from my mother – and speechlessness from me, her son, a man of twenty-three years who had never witnessed death and lacked the savvy to cope with it as it occurred before his very eyes.  Effectively a child, I struggled with processing this event, all the while not knowing how to console my weeping mother and trying to pacify my sister’s whimpering and trembling small dog, whom I was holding.

Several hours later, I watched as two strangers from the funeral home hauled the corpse that once housed my grandmother onto a wheeled contraption and strapped it down.  They pushed it outside and loaded the cold, lifeless body into their van as everyday luggage.

Death is awkward.  Death is matter-of-fact.  It cares not where you happen to be or what you happen to be doing at the time.  And it does not wait till you’re good and ready to face it.


My grandmother was born Elena Ceci (pronounced “CHEH-chee” or “CHAY-chee”) the tenth of August, 1933 in Rome, NY to first-generation Italian-Americans.  Like her siblings, her name was Anglicised, hence “Helen.”  (My Uncle Alex was born “Alessandro,” my Uncle Vinny “Vincenzo,” Louis “Luigi” and Angelo – well, “Angelo.”)  She and her brothers represent the last generation on my mother’s side whose first language was not English.

Through my many conversations with her, I can say with great confidence that there is at least partial truth to the popular Central New York axiom that, in those days, all the Italian-American families in the area knew each other and were likely at least distantly related to each other.

Helen did nothing to subvert the stereotypical notion of an Italian-American grandmother, with her unrelenting enquiries about our states of hunger as well as her unbeatable family recipes, which included meatballs and a seemingly infinite repertoire of baked treats, but also her warm heart that never stopped caring about the welfare of those around her.

She always seemed to put others before herself.

I remember numerous sick days off school passed at her former residence on Bedford Street.  My stepfather would drop me off there on his way to Rome Free Academy because both he and my mother were working full-time, and I couldn’t be left home alone.  On such days, I would either watch cartoons or play a dice game with my grandma – a game our family calls simply “Dice.”  But never Monopoly.

Fast forward to May 2014.  My mother, my brother and I were living together in a section of a Utica house, but we were splitting up.  My mom had decided to move in with her then-boyfriend in Oswego, and my brother was moving in with his father.  I still had an Associate’s degree to finish at Mohawk Valley Community College, so my only real option was to move in with my grandmother in my birthplace, Rome.  And she welcomed me with open arms.

This was when I feel I really started to connect with my grandmother.  By then, I had reached my early twenties.  I had matured a bit.  I was no longer encumbered with the brattishness of childhood and was past the hormonal deluge of adolescence.  In essence, I was finally able to sit and converse with her.  Instead of itching to return to my video games and get to the next level or worrying about impressing women wherever I go, I learnt to enjoy her company and become her friend.

It was not uncommon, especially in my first year of living with her, for me to join my grandma in the living room for dinner in front of the TV.  Whenever I was around in the evening, I made sure to warm up a couple chicken patties and pour a glass of milk or juice in time for Wheel of Fortune at 7:00, followed immediately by Jeopardy!  It was a pretty nice routine.  And emptying the dishwasher, taking out the trash, grabbing things just out of her reach, occasionally helping her prepare food and running errands for her was a measly price to pay for living so comfortably.

I count myself fortunate and honoured to have lived with her these past two and a half years, being her helper and friend.  I loved hearing her stories of how suave and funny and diligent my grandfather was – or of their travels to Spain and how they used Italian to converse with the locals through limited mutual intelligibility – or how she was ridiculed in school for not being able to remember the word doorknob and having to substitute the Italian word for it.

In the summer of 2015, during my first season with the Sterling Renaissance Festival, my mother and I received terrible news that my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer in the mouth.  She had survived breast cancer roughly fifteen years prior, but doctors weren’t so optimistic this time.  It had spread so much that a goodly portion of her tongue would need to be removed and surgically replaced – and her first medical consultant told her that she could not survive such an operation.  She ended up going through with it, but at the cost of her speech and feeding faculties.  Her new, makeshift tongue lacked muscles, making swallowing and the formation of certain consonants nigh impossible for her.  My mother would return from Oswego to live with us in Rome and tirelessly play nurse for Grandma over the next year.

Alas, as we all know, cancer is never fully eradicated from the body.  Just a couple days shy of Halloween 2016, she needed to be rushed to the hospital.  The cancer re-emerged and had made it to her lungs.  She was discharged after a week, but this time with an expiration date.  She received hospice care throughout November and into her final days before checking out at 11:13 yesterday morning, the sixth of December.

If nothing else, my grandmother was astonishingly physically resilient.  That’s for sure.  And I might add that, had she given up on life a year ago (a fair choice that was absolutely on the table), she would have missed all my accomplishments.  In buying one more year of life, she saw me graduate from community college, she saw me depart for the summer to live my acting dream at Sterling and she saw me land a steady, gratifying job this fall.  I’m glad she was able to live long enough to see some closure to my efforts these past few years.  She passed with the knowledge that I found some success in my life.  For her, joy came from perceiving others as happy, so I know that she was content when her time came.

Helen was a devout Catholic.  I may not be a Christian myself, but I need to respect her resolve.  Even past the age of eighty, she was making efforts to attend mass at St. John’s and frequently made donations to the church.  I do not know what happens after death – or whether the “soul” lives on – but I do know that she drew her last breath with the sincere belief that she would be reunited with her husband – my grandfather – who died nearly twenty-five years ago.  And that is an oddly comforting thought.

In my life, I have been fairly shielded from the deaths of loved ones.  My aforementioned grandfather (and namesake) passed mere months before my conception.  I’m not acquainted with my father’s side of the family, so any deaths thereof are meaningless to me as well.  None of my friends from school and elsewhere has died.  The worst I ever experienced were the losses of pets and distant relatives.  But this one, the death of my grandmother – it hits, and it hits hard.  I have, through the years, observed helplessly as so many of my friends suffered terrible losses and commenced periods of mourning and grief.  All those things had always been foreign concepts to me.  But I no longer need to imagine what they’re like.

I’m not asking for your sympathies or your condolences.  I’m simply honouring my grandmother’s memory.  There aren’t many things I believe in, but I do believe in respecting the dead and their wishes.  The departed have no voice, but we can ensure that they’re not condemned to oblivion by reminding others of their existence – by talking about them and sharing stories about them.  The ancient Egyptians had the notion of a “second death” – approximately seventy years after your corporeal death – when the world forgets you ever were.  This blog post is but one small effort of mine toward this end of allowing my grandmother to live on.

Normally, I wouldn’t share a loss like this on Facebook.  Like, ever.  I know all too well what happens.  I’ve seen it too many times to count.  Somebody makes a heartfelt post about how “the world has lost a beautiful person” and that the person “had such a positive effect on me,” blah, blah, blah.  Invariably, the post receives a slew of likes (or other reactions).  Most people will see the post pop up in their news feeds, think, “Oh, that’s so sad,” and resume scrolling and view some funny videos and memes that their other friends shared that day.  Maybe they’ll leave a comment with their regards.  But most of them are the brief, shallow, unoriginal cookie-cutter reliables like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” or, “My prayers are with you and your family.”  As if they are trying to express concern in the most efficient manner possible so that they can escape the guilt of not having said anything and still quickly get on with their own lives.  I don’t mean to sound cold, but don’t waste your time or mine with them.  Such condolences are about as mindless as the knee-jerk reaction of telling an armed forces veteran, “Thank you for your service,” and chances are that I will respond to your comment with as much sincerity and enthusiasm as you took to type it.

Yes, I am sad this week.  But hark!  I, Joseph Scott, the bereaved, hereby absolve you of any imagined obligation you may have to wish me your sympathies and/or condolences.

If I truly were looking for attention, you’d know.  Trust me.  After spending an entire summer pretending to be an impoverished, hungry beggar, I think I know a little about the art of making people feel sorry for me.

But I’m not.  Because I’m not doing this for me.  I’m doing this for my grandmother.

Huh.  I recall a conversation I had with her some time ago regarding old age.  I brought up that many older folks are just young people wondering what the hell happened.  They’re trapped inside bodies that weaken every day, and they wish they could reclaim the physical capabilities and attractiveness of their youth.  I asked for her opinion on the matter.

Her response?

She proclaimed, in the proudest, most indignant and resolute tone of voice, “I earned these wrinkles.”

What a champ.