More Thoughts on Intimacy

England is, to use Bill Bryson's phrase, a "small island," it's true. But that only makes it all the more pleasantly surprising when you discover that for its size, it's a startlingly diverse place. Not in terms of melanin or world cultures, although there is some of that, albeit probably restricted to the urban areas. I mean that in a country with only 4,000 more square miles than the state of Pennsylvania, the accents of people who were born and raised a thirty minute train ride away from each other are distinctly different enough that an outsider can distinguish them and identify their places of birth.

Things have changed a bit with the advent of television and, before that, radio. I'm led to believe that there's a sort of "BBC English" that has subtly or not-so-subtly standardized spoken English like a verbal version of what the King James Bible was for written English. But what I said before still holds true: Norfolk speech is clearly distinct from Yorkshire speech is clearly distinct from Welsh speech and so on.

And that's just the ways of speaking--that's not even accounting for the language itself. Which is, of course, what I'm really interested in. England's history is dense and rich, such that you could spend weeks in one place and barely scratch the surface of all that's there. And a huge part of that is the language. What with different conquests and industries, the languages of different regions have developed entire dictionaries of hyper-specific terms. Okay, so they might be smallish dictionaries, but still more than you might expect for an area the size of, oh, Philadelphia County.

The thing about this rich, complex language is that it's born out of an intimate familiarity with a particular place. It arises when you're paying attention, and you've paid attention for forty years in a row, until your knowledge of the land (or a craft) has become minutely detailed. The shape of the land makes itself known in the shape of your speech, and your life is molded to its peculiarities, from the question of what vegetables grow in the local soil to the easiest route to walk from here to there to the terms you use to describe the weather today.

I say walk, because driving is the enemy of familiarity. As we speed up our lives, the spaces between where we're coming from and where we're going begin to blur, losing their right to claim our attention and becoming alien to us. Our lives are defined by choice, here the choice to attend only to spaces that form the points at either end of a line, so that we rarely have to attend or adapt ourselves to the circumstances of all that's in-between. But setting that aside.

Robert MacFarlane's book, Landmarks, is partially a glossary of the wildly unique, regional terms that have arisen in response to the particular local features of terrain and climate. Just to give a selection...

Many of these terms have mingled oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognizable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the fine film of silver ice that coats leaves, twigs and grass when freeze follows thaw, a beautifully exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen but never before been able to name. Shetlandic has a word, f'rug, for 'the reflex of a wave after it has struck the shore'; another, pirr, meaning 'a light breath of wind, such as will make a cat's paw on the water'; and another, klett, for 'a low-lying earth-fast rock on the seashore'. On Exmoor, zwer is the onomatopoeic term for the sound made by a covey of partridges taking flight. Smeuse is a Sussex dialect noun for 'the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal'; now I know the word smeuse, I will notice these signs of creaturely movement more often.


As well as these untranslatable terms, I have gathered synonyms - especially those that bring new energies to familiar phenomena. The variant English terms for 'icicle' - aquabob (Kent), clinkerbell and daggler (Wessex), cancervell (Exmoor), ickle (Yorkshire), tankle (Durham), shuckle (Cambria) - form a tinkling poem of their own. In Northamptonshire dialect 'to thaw' is to ungive. The beauty of this variant I find hard to articulate, but it surely has to do with the paradox of thaw figured as restraint or retention, and the wintry notion that cold, frost and snow might themselves be a form of gift - an addition to the landscape that will in time be subtracted by warmth.

While he's attempting to capture some of the words that have been used in the past, MacFarlane notes that this is an ongoing process. It has not stopped simply because most of us have lost touch with rural life and the land. Perhaps it has slowed, although he doesn't say that. But languages are fluid, flexible things, more like water, shaping itself within its banks, even as it changes those banks with its motion. As long as there are people speaking, there will be new words, new combinations, to express the range of human experience, new words and new combinations to shape our understanding of those experiences. But they can only arise when we're paying attention.


{Burbs} The Utopia of Rules

Title: The Utopia of Rules
Author: David Graeber
Year First Published: 2015

The biggest problem I had with this book is that I couldn't underline it. Libraries are honestly just about the closest thing that we have to magic (obviously the closest thing is the postal service--an opinion I've held for a long time and one that, coincidentally, Graeber addresses in this book, but more on that later), but the one thing you can't do with non-digital library books is underline them. So at last, it would seem, I have found something useful about ebooks versus physical books: you are actually able to underline or bookmark a borrowed ebook, and nobody will ever give you a nasty look for it.

As with his somewhat better known tome, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber is tackling social structures that we don't often look at, from a perspective that we don't often think of. Admittedly, most of us aren't anarchist anthropologists (which is a pretty badass-sounding combination of words, btw), so that's hardly surprising. But also, most people don't busy themselves thinking much about bureaucracy, except maybe how much they hate it, and even then, they mostly just resign themselves to the whole thing.

Oh right, so we're three paragraphs in, and I haven't even made this clear yet, because I'm not a very good book reviewer. This book is all about bureaucracy. Why we love it, why it makes us stupid, and how it is fundamentally rooted in violence.

In case you think I'm joking about that last bit, we come to our first quote:

In contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as "criminal law enforcement"--particularly, to police officers. I say "euphemistically" because generations of police sociologists have pointed out that only a very small proportion of what police actually do has anything to do with enforcing criminal law--or with criminal matters of any kind. Most of it has to do with regulations, or, to put it slightly more technically, with the scientific application of physical force, or the threat of physical force, to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. In other words they spend most of their time enforcing all those endless rules and regulations about who can buy or smoke or sell or build or eat or drink what where that don't exist in places like small-town or rural Madagascar.

So: Police are bureaucrats with weapons.

A case in point that was possibly too recent to have included in this book when it was submitted for publication: Eric Garner. How do you go from maybe selling individual cigarettes to being choked to death on the sidewalk by a New York police officer? See the above.

Or here's another situation, not to do with race (necessarily--although there's probably a racially disparate impact): police are often called in to deal with people manifesting serious mental health issues. Sometimes they are called in when those people in fact have committed a crime, and if you follow the Southern Poverty Law Center on Facebook, you'll quickly learn what the statistics are on mental illness, prisons, and--surprise, surprise--lack of treatment coupled with institutionalized procedures that may contribute to further deteriorating mental health. Sometimes it's just crazy Michelle in the court yard, building a box tent in the rain, and she's obviously not okay, but they're not really going to do anything either way, and it raises the question: why are the police the people we're calling in that situation? Because we're afraid of "crazy" people and need to be protected from them, just in case? Because Michelle needs to be protected from herself? (I don't know how much this proves Graeber's point, but I figured it was worth bringing up in relation to that, if only to stir some thoughts)

Post offices. I promised, now let me deliver. This book happens to be a collection of three longer essays (at least one appears to have begun life as a lecture, actually, but close enough) and a fourth shorter piece that was an expanded article critiquing The Dark Knight Rises for its clumsy handling of current affairs and developing the relations among superheroes, the far right and the radical left. The third essay, for which the book is named, deals in part with the tension between "play," here understood as a kind of free, chaotic creativity and productivity, and "games," which are transparently rule-bound and can only produce a limited range of results.

[...] Bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I've called poetic technology, that is, one where mechanical forms of organization, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshaled to the realization of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratization of despotism. Once, the privileged waving of one's hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organize themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.

Graeber traces the development of the postal service in both its German and its American incarnations, although primarily the German. As a sort of marvelous tidbit of history, the German postal service was such an astonishingly successful top-down enterprise that it was arguably an inspiration for Lenin. It took a military requisite and turned it into a civilian necessity.

Arguably, the postal service is a bureaucratic sort of institution. But, as suggested by the above quotation, it's the sort of institution that has results which are anything but dull and trivial. We often get irritated when our packages don't arrive on time or get held up or get lost in the mail. And in our frustrations over what doesn't happen, we lose sight of just how wondrous it is that an Etsy seller in Bulgaria or Thailand can ship something to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and 99% of the time (probably/maybe better), it actually arrives just like it's supposed to. We're not quite at the pneumatic tubes shooting letters throughout Berlin in 1873 when it comes to magical delivery methods, but the postal service itself is a bit of wonder that has somehow worked its way into the gray background of our everyday life.

Actually, I say "somehow," but Graeber has an argument about that too, saying that the postal service got its tarnished reputation from a very deliberate conservative smear campaign in the second half of the 20th century, in an attempt to show how governments should not be in charge of such enterprises. Plus, now we have the Internet, 9,000 messaging apps (I personally have four on my phone, and five if you count the messaging feature on Instagram -- WHY??), and email, so sending things at the speed of light by dissolving them into 1s and 0s admittedly may have stolen whatever glamour remained.

There is so much more in this book, but it's almost my bedtime and I have to return said book to the library tomorrow, so that's all you're getting. I found it to be highly accessible and engaging, and I liked the bits about Madagascar (if for some reason David Graeber ever were to read this, I'm apologize to him for damning his PhD research with such faint praise--mea culpa, I know nothing of what I speak). I highly recommend both this book and Debt (which I haven't finished yet, because it's 500 pages long and I have the ebook version -- yet another advantage that real books have over ebooks: I find the long ones much easier to read as a physical copy), at the very least to look at everything from a different angle and to maybe compel you to consider that the world doesn't have to be the way that it is, in spite of all attempts to convince us of its predestinated inevitability. If, like me, you're sympathetic to some of the more political aspects and also loathe the meaninglessness of most labor in the 21st century, then you should definitely read it, because you might weirdly end up with a "smidgen" of hope in the middle of your existential despair.

When I Say Your Name

I discovered something recently that probably shouldn't have surprised me, but it did.

For whatever reason, the weather during both of my trips to England was stupendous. The first time I was there, it was late March and all of April. The second time was from early January through late June. While Pennsylvania groaned under the wintry weight of an unmoved blanket of snow for four weeks straight, I was wearing light coats and enjoying brisk but pleasantly sunny walks through the Grantchester Meadows. The real clincher though was that on my walks along Silver Street out to the Sidgwick Site, I would pass by large grassy area where crocuses were pushing up their pale spikes and beginning to bloom in a flowery carpet... before the end of February.

I brought this up recently, sort of absentmindedly, to a coworker of mine. Crocuses have always been a sign of spring for me, maybe more so even than robins, because when I was a child, our neighbors had a huge bed of crocuses in their front yard. We would walk past it every day when I went with my mother on her paper route rounds. So I feel as though I've never not known what crocuses are. Or daffodils, tulips, irises, English ivy, mimosa trees, zinnias (which are precisely the sort of friendly but stupid flower that you would expect something named "zinnia" to be), chrysanthemums, larkspur, Queen Anne's lace, hydrangeas and hyacinths, lilacs, fuchsias, pansies (which are amiable, practical, and not at all stupid), lavender, daisies, black-eyed Susans (I love that name), sunflowers, poppies and peonies, pine versus spruce versus fir... I used to pore over Burpee seed catalogs, picking out my favorite flowers and thinking how hideous cockscomb is, like some kind of strange sea creature that I'd be more likely to see in a National Geographic underwater film than in someone's garden.

But my coworker, bless his heart, had no idea what a crocus was. My mind was blown. To me, a crocus is like a basic shape that you learn in elementary school. This is a crocus, that is a triangle. Easy. Knowledge that you have forever.

There is something so intimate in the knowing of the natural world. As if, when you walked outside, you were greeted by a thousand friends or by soon-to-be friends, whose easy acquaintance might be made with the mere uttering of the spell. What's in a name? The summons that knows it will be answered because it cannot help but be answered. I say your name in a conversation on the other side of a crowded, noisy room, and you look up, because it is a command to attention even when I do not wish to engage in such tyranny.

And I feel as though I know so very little, but I want to know more, to be brought into that place where mere recognition surpasses itself into friendship. The name summons, greets, but it also distinguishes one from another. A tautology: you are you, unique unto yourself. The infinite variety of the world unfolds before us in a language whose grammar has been lost, leaving us only with its proper nouns, and even those feel unfamiliar on our urbanized tongues.

Yet it's a closer thing, to at least speak those names, however few, than to know none of them at all.