Tag Archives: Language

Organic, Free-Range, All-Natural, Human Beings

Walking down the isle at the local grocery store I took note of the newer marketing ploys meant to entice potential customers. The once popular “no-msg” is accompanied by “low calorie” or “no high fructose corn syrup,” enriched foods are being replaced by whole grain foods (of which we are told to accept no imitations), and that dreadful concoction they call Splenda lurks within damn-near every “sugar free” food. All of these product lines draw our attentions and intentions back to matters of body—the so-called obesity pandemic of our times. When will we shed those no-longer unwanted but down right deadly pounds of fat? When will we be able to showcase our oddly-nourished but all-”natural” bodies and defy the Hostess franchise?

Let’s switch gears. I once had a dog—a spaniel named Cody—who fell into a violent fit of epilepsy. Once every hour he would quake. The late night veterinarian asked my mother and I what Cody had (or could have) eaten. “There is this fertilizer that he might have eaten—but it says that it is all-natural,” mother replied. Being a covert smart-ass, I kept my initial reactions to myself and hoped the vet would speak on my behalf; after all, the vet held post-graduate credentials and I hadn’t even finished high school. Fortunate enough for me, the vet came through with a calm but pointed remark: “just because it’s natural does not mean it won’t hurt you.”

There is a line drawn between man and his environment, and this line is flimsy. Drawing attention to this line sells deadly fertilizers, (morally) justifies the actions of predatory creatures, and (to return to the original topic) makes us feel dirty for eating Flaming Hot Cheetoes. Today I ask a question that should occupy the thoughts amongst the hoi polloi (yes, that means you and I): are we not part of the natural world?

When I look at the New York City skyline, I can marvel at it and wonder how men can come to build magnificent things. When I look at a mile long series of beaver dams, it would not be out of the ordinary to consider the works of beavers one of many works of “nature.” Birds nests, grassy fields, coral reefs; all of these things are considered natural in that they are untouched by humans. Perhaps the lowly beaver considers the skyscraper a marvelous work of nature, in that a skyscraper is untouched by beaver hands … paws.

I, for one, happen to consider human beings a full part of the natural process; and, sure, “natural” will become a useless category in the aftermath. Of what use is it to separate what is naturally attained from what is humanly attained anyway? Human hands, at this point, are required for the use of anything outside of ourselves. Wheat must be processed and packaged, cleaned of bugs and seasoned for flavor. Even berries must be picked and used for something other than nourishing the seeds contained within. Everything we have dubbed natural has lost it’s link to nature; we devise each step in the process, and each step is one away from “nature” (if there was such a distinct thing to begin with). Is high fructose corn syrup any less natural than a simpler sugar? If you think so, then you must have an elaborate definition of nature. Yes, you may be in for a sweet surprise.

It was no surprise for me to find that seaweed extract has a high concentration of MSG in it—this happened long before the term mono-sodium glutamate came around. Scientific language is part of the problem here. No scientist is afraid of dihydrogen monoxide, but many have fell prey to shame when they figured it out: they were the butt of a joke. The fear of the unnatural has the average person afraid of drinking water!

We are part of this world whether or not we like to admit it and regardless of our theoretical baggage. Some of our actions will kill us, others will kill us slowly but contribute to our mental well-being (recreational drugs, anyone?), and much of what the others will tell us about these acts will be—excuse the obscenities—utter bullshit.

Think about it next time you pick up the groceries.

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The World Is a Knee-Jerk

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I feel in the dark. Not only does the future of the United States seem murky, but what ability I possess to trust my fellow man seems to be crumbling more than it ever has in the last eight years. No doubt this is because of our economic situation, but I am more concerned with the portrayal of “truth” and our ability to recognize it. I know it sounds crazy to think about the abstract when brick and mortar are on the line, and we all face unemployment. We must remember that we live in a time where we can trust neither Lehman nor AIG, McCain and Obama dig into one another on the World’s stage, and a home loan can drive a person to suicide—the truth is just as important as ever. We must ask ourselves: can we trust our “superiors?” How can we select people to trust? How can we recognize the truth at all?

Take the Presidential Campaign as an example. Both sides seem to take for granted that the majority of voters are ignorant and uncritical. The McCain campaign has called Senator Obama “dishonorable,” “dangerous,” and “risky.” Thirty-five seconds is too short a time to get at the truth—to prove that Obama is dishonorable. If John McCain himself flew to my home just to tell me, “my advertisements are meant to inform the voters about the issues,” I would laugh a hearty laugh and slam the door in his face. The McCain camp, then, is only trying to push my buttons. Then again, is there anything more to language than pushing another person’s buttons?

If the American people demand facts, politicians present things in a fact-like way. The problem is that many things are complex enough that they can look false from one perspective and true from another; truth doesn’t look like a fixed thing. To expect real “facts” is a tall order. Who is going to verify these facts? How can we trust the fact checkers? Can we say anything that is impervious to doubt? What would the undeniable truth look like anyway?

If a potential voter demands empathy on the issues, the candidate tries to “show empathy”. How do we know that the candidate really cares about Darfur? Even if he (she) does, he still has the enormous burden of making people believe it! Trust, faith, and beauty are the case here. How could a presidential candidate inspire trust? They could do it with images; they could do it with what strikes the viewer as beautiful, or what simply “looks right.”

All we have left are our impressions of things.

CNN has taken the focus group in an peculiar direction with their reaction meter that looks somewhere between a biometric meter and a seismograph. Both images (of bio-metrics and seismographs) make sense here. During each debate so far, CNN-selected Ohio voters keep their fingers on a dial and record their reactions (negative or positive) as they happen.

This sends a strong message: not only do the words of each candidate need attention but we ought to keep a close eye on the opinions of our “peers.” Are we expected to gauge our reactions by using CNN’s added bio-meter? Or are we supposed to formulate our opinions based on all of the information combined?

Indeed: our impulses, our feelings, our impressions of people, our initial thoughts are what the politicians play like fiddles. This isn’t news. Perhaps you’ve experienced empathy and admiration for Senator McCain when he claimed to have postponed his campaign to help on Wall-Street; this emotion could stick to your ribs and remind you of just how much you love John McCain. Just how long this feeling will last has something to do with: (1) McCain’s word choice, (2) the opinions of political pundits, (3) the opinions of friends and family, and (4) where you place yourself within that mess. We end up reacting—for better or worse—just as we all have in the past.

The world is a knee-jerk. Our partially-involuntary reactions to the world outside drive the stock market down, cause riot in the streets, and keep pollsters employed indefinitely. What we must do, then, is try to figure out what truth could even mean in this world of ours.

Learning to Drown

Learning a new language is something like learning to drown, at least at the level I’ve been taking it. This Summer I’ve nearly made it through an eight-week intensive course in the German Language, and I can attest that the drowning simile is somewhat accurate (or just useful).

This might seem to be a bleak way of looking at it, but I swear it makes sense—the simile is not an attempt at melodrama. Imagine your first week in a serious language course (meaning, it is called an “immersive” or “intense” course): everyone is scrambling with their dictionaries, the professors speak only the language you intend to learn, and there is a sinking suspicion that the following weeks will be even more of a pain than once anticipated. It is like being on a sinking ship. There you sit, upon the tipped mast, watching the ocean creep up the now immersed (and vertical) deck. You can see your fate, your inevitable drowning, snarling at you from below–the waves bite at the air, longing to fill their mouths.

At this point, I felt optimism. You can do it, I assured myself, You’ve taken languages in the past. Soon, though, those waters would soon be in splashing distance of my feet almost able to grip at ankles or even shins. It was somewhere around the introduction of the Indirect Object that it started to make sense: I was drowning, but it was a good thing. Our professors assure us that German’s many subtle details will one day “click”–it seemed a common enough thing to say, but there is truth to this statement.

Imagine the point where the shipwreck victim is finally neck deep. Her body, in all good intent and will, resists first few splashes of water that try to enter her lungs. After a while, her resistance becomes more painful as more that a few splashes try to enter where they are not welcome. Eventually, there is a painful giving up, a concession, a surrender—the ocean wins.

This is a horrible vision to have when sailing, but in a German classroom, it is a welcomed comfort. Right now, our minds (all of the students) are resisting the language by instinct. We try our hardest to take the water in (of course I wouldn’t do this on the open ocean), but English is my first language: fresh air is my first love. I keep gasping for air by instinct, waiting for the day when instinct will cease to function and the language can finally seep its way in. This is when the language “clicks,” when the language is finally not an object of thought, but a matter of instinct; in other words, I will have learned the language when I have drowned.

I only hope that I can learn to drown sooner rather than later.