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Hey Nineteen


This post is not about Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian (although I could easily write one).

I bought Aretha Franklin’s “30 Greatest Hits” this week. It’s a 2-CD set that includes my two favorite Franklin songs, “Chain of Fools” and her cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”

Much as I like her music, though, whenever I think of Aretha, the first thing I think of is the Steely Dan song “Hey Nineteen”:"

Hey Nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old


Most of my students are 18 or 19 each academic year, but I grow older when every semester starts. Before, my occasionally irreverent approach to the course material—I won’t go as far as saying “crazy”—helped keep students alert yet relaxed. This made it easier to “sell” the importance of using our language like a scalpel, or at the least as a knife, a chisel, a planer, a rasp—tools to shape meaning.

No we got nothing in common
No we can't talk at all

Too many of my students today, though, don’t understand the importance of these tools. Almost all of them say their writing in high school was graded on ideas, not mechanics. It shows. At the start of the semester, they have trouble identifying subjects and predicates. They are lost when asked to identify adjectives and adverbs, much less propositional phrases. Paragraphing? A lost art. Punctuation? Egads.

There are always exceptions, but high school teachers’ failure to teach students how to use scalpels and rasps means many of today’s students have never faced consequences for their abuse or non-use. Lackadaisical language has never harmed their ability to convey a message, either, because their vernacular’s use is growing. Even when I tell them that who knows how many internship supervisors, HR managers, and communication professionals have told me how important good writing skills are in any profession worth working in, the reaction is a collective shrug.

Just so the language part of my brain doesn’t come across as ossified, I understand that language is organic. When I was growing up, “suck” was a naughty word. The word “piss” was a naughty word. “Gay” meant “happy.” A couple of generations from now, the two-word version of “all right” probably will seem quaint. This is all good—the fact that English is a living language, not a dead one. However, I still am annoyed by the use of “like” as an attributive verb, and by uptalk and its assault on the question mark.

My gripe is that no matter how the language grows or shrinks, it still needs to be used carefully for maximum impact. For someone who loves the language, uses it as best he can, and loves working with students who want to learn how to use it better, these are indeed “hard times for the soul survivors.” I’m thankful that music like Aretha’s can help pull me through until I walk out of the classroom for the final time in May.

OMG I’m, like, tired of swimming upstream?

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
sahlah
Dec. 15th, 2015 12:40 am (UTC)
Word. (ha ha)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”

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