Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

i know

Everything I do involves the transfer of ideas. I teach English, thankfully often to people who actually plan to use it in either the US or Europe (or England, which I guess doesn’t count anymore?). So I am constantly figuring out new better ways to understand ideas people are trying to communicate to me, and to effectively communicate my own ideas to others. But this isn’t just my job. It’s my whole life. And it’s not just a job for me. This one is for all of us.

I get home from work and the work continues, because as anyone who studies or works in language already knows, INeffective MIScommunication is pretty much where every shitstorm starts. Words just seem to have this nasty habit of changing, evolving, and flipping their meaning 9000 degrees along that treacherous journey from mouth to ear. There’s so much room out there for walls and booby-traps to stop ideas in their tracks, with results ranging everywhere from funny to fatal.

wall

Take the US for example (can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, amiright??). The past few weeks we’ve seen a tragic evolution in the country’s paralyzing addiction to violence and aggression.  After years of reports and videos of what many feel to be excessive police violence, the violence has turned its crooked smile back on the police themselves.

Two major national tragedies in two weeks – mass shootings of police officers, and both by US veterans – have thrust the US into a dark time. But it seems like every time we try and begin a productive conversation about even the general problem of violence in the US, the sad problem of miscommunication gets in the way once again.

Watching from the outside, it looks to me like the entire country is talking past each other, particularly when it comes to violence and the police. How is this possible? The simplest way I can rationalize it is a fundamental difference in abstraction. Abstraction is basically how you draw the line between one “thing” and another in your mind.

Where does one “thing” end and the next begin? As a new driver, the act of “starting the car” involves numerous small steps like adjusting your mirrors, buckling your seatbelt, turning the key, shifting into 1st (or Drive), etc. After 20 years behind the wheel, “starting the car” becomes one action that happens to include all these smaller steps we no longer think about. This is abstraction. To me and most others, a chair is a chair. It’s a thing I sit on. To a master carpenter however, a chair is a work of art, many little pieces that fit together perfectly in a particular, beautiful way in order to stand tall and elegantly support the weight of my lazy ass.

So there appears to be a fundamental problem with abstraction when we talk about “the police” in the United States. To some, “the police” refers to the system of police and policing, including rules, regulations, quotas, metrics, training, culture, job descriptions, transparency, etc. that we all pay for, yet clearly and definitely contains some serious problems.

To others, the “police” are simply those wearing the uniforms, those you can point out of a crowd. Police are the men and women who perform a necessary, difficult, and dangerous duty everyday. Failure to clarify whether you mean police-as-people or “the police” as a system or particular government program appears to end any productive conversation on this issue before it ever even begins.

The Black Lives Matter movement wants changes in the system of policing in the US. Meanwhile, opponents claim that individual police officers are often good people who deserve to be respected. What’s often missed is that both are true, and more importantly, both are possible! You can respect the courage of individuals while criticizing the broken systems they may represent on the clock.

In fact, if you truly want to honor individual police, you should want the system that employs them to be as fair and safe as possible for everyone involved. From the good, honorable men and women who don the badge and put their lives on the line everyday, to the citizens on the street whose taxes pay for this program of “protection” and “service,” everyone benefits from a better system of policing. Well, everyone except those who would plan to abuse it.

So in my opinion, as a professional communication enhancer and clarifier-of-ideas (look how good I am at the putting-together-of-the-words), it’s important to start taking the time to clarify the language we use when debating this volatile, yet essential issue. Unless we can agree on what “it” is that we’re actually even talking about, we’ll never make any progress and in our stagnation, lives will surely be lost.

Until we first agree on which bone is broken, we’ll never be able to make the right cast (or perform the right surgery). If you really care about the senseless loss of life on either side of this picket line, you’ve got to start caring about how effectively we are even communicating with each other in the first place. Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” Let’s make sure we’re all talking about lightning, or we’ll never make it out of this storm on the horizon alive.

lorax

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Can you imagine what the world would look like without war? We all say we want peace but none of us have ever really even experienced it; so how do we know what we’re talking about? There has never been a time in history of true peace, at least since humans showed up. In the animal kingdom there is death but only in circumstances where survival is at stake. It’s natural that at some point a “me or you” situation may arise, but only out of necessity like hunger or immediate bodily harm. The only instances even resembling temporary peace we people have ever experienced have been peace through superior firepower, which is no different than beating a child into submission and declaring them well-behaved. At some point it becomes necessary to take a leap of faith and just imagine it – or try at least.

John Lennon put his own version of peace into words and was killed for it, just like Martin Luther King Jr. Take a second and let that sink in. It’s common knowledge that advocators of real peace are often killed for doing so, but consider just how paradoxical that is, and just how powerful of an effect that knowledge has on our minds. Of course people think war is inevitable, we’ve been at war our whole lives. We don’t know anything else. But just because we’ve never seen another world, that doesn’t mean it can’t exist. And it’s important to understand that the first step toward addressing any issue is to become aware of the words that we use to do so. To say a world without war can’t exist admits defeat before the possibility of debate even starts. In sales school I became hyperaware of “self-talk.” “Self-talk” is what happens when you are alone with yourself. That voice in your head? It’s your mind expressing itself in symbols you can understand. But those symbols aren’t random, and nor are they originate externally. Except in cases of severe mental illness, you choose the words you speak to yourself. So in English, when it comes to speaking to yourself about ability, there are five levels: “I can’t,” “I can,” “I will,” “I am,” and “it is.” I can’t do it. I can do it. I will do it. I am doing it. It is happening. The same applies for every type of speech about any subject. Addressing issues is first and foremost dependent on the words we are using to do so. In the timeless words of Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

War is orchestrated and executed. Pun intended. George Carlin, the late great comedian known for his vulgarity and ruthlessness had a dream too. His was simple but profound and like much of his material, focused on the words we use; he wanted to switch the acceptability levels of the words “fuck” and “kill.” One represents the most intimate and natural of acts but is widely shunned, while the other represents the essence of destruction and is plastered all over the evening news. Coincidence? I think not. As John Lennon believed, to strip away our socially constructed barriers and “stop inviting walls into wide open spaces” would finally bring the world together as one, but as it stands far too many have far too much invested in the opposite. From defence contractors to privatized prisons to newspapers that pay more for photos of war than of love, our world is made up of people and institutions that profit from establishing enemies and maintaining boundaries, not cooperating and dissolving them. But who knows, maybe one day we’ll stop cutting off each others’ heads over invisible friends, or dumping our trash into the oceans, or using power to make ourselves wealthy, or blowing up mountains instead of investing in renewable resources, or stepping over homeless people while foreclosed homes sit empty, or locking drug addicts up in cages, or shooting people for talking about fucking love.

Maybe the aliens will have to land for us to see each other as comrades, but maybe we can reach this conclusion on our own. I like to think there are enough candle-carriers out there to light up the darkness. And you may say I’m a dreamer, but hey, I’m not the only one.

Onward and upward.

Z

Bon après midi gens du monde!  Good afternoon people of the world!

Well, here it is.  Tonight marks another sunset on one more beautiful week in Bamako.  This week ended up being pretty productive, so as it comes to an end I have to say it went to good use.

First off, my stepmother-dearest, Kari was here visiting this week.  We had a good time checking out a few restaurants around town.  A few Dad and I had been to, but many we hadn’t.  So When Kari got here we showed her the spots we found and liked so far, but we were soon out of new places to go.  We discovered a few spots that were honestly pretty impressive, like Savana, the big American/European spot complete with a thatched roof and zebra-skin chairs.  It was a warm restaurant that looked like it could easily get pretty hot if the band got going.  Apparently there is a Greek place out there somewhere with the highest reviews around.  Even though I could easily go never smelling Ouzo again, I do love me some feta.  I’ll let you know if it lives up to its name.

With Kari’s help we got a few trinkets for the house, like a new lamp for the den and some curtains.  We also unpacked our books onto the bookshelf and fixed two of the air conditioners.  Having all the books out, in the open, in one place makes it way easier to just read a little of each of the books I’m constantly reading, which is nice.  Maybe one day I’ll finish one.  No, just kidding.  I actually finished Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is great.  Though now I have a stronger distaste for Tom Sawyer and his unnecessary theatricality.  The car was brought into the shop to have its A/C fixed on Saturday.  The whole ordeal was originally expected to be a few hours, but it ended up taking seven or eight.  The best part is that now that we got it back, the A/C works a little worse in the front, won’t turn off or turn down in the back, and the “Check Engine” light is on. … Three steps forward and two steps back, as they say.  It’s a process.  The A/C repairman also made a visit this week to fix the unit in Dad’s room.  Once again it was my man in the bright blue suit, who determined the cause of the malfunction was simply that the unit had never been cleaned since he himself installed it almost five years ago.  So he did his usual cleaning of the filters and syphoning of the tubes WITH HIS MOUTH, and whatever dead salamanders were clogging up the thing were taken care of real fast.  If anyone deserves to be paid more, it’s that guy.  Little by little this place is starting not to look or feel quite like Alcatraz anymore.  It’s all very exciting.

This week I got some solid writing done.  I put some good hours in on a story I’m working on, and a book of poetry I have been comprising for about five years now.  Next week I think I’ll focus a little more on music and see if I can get some beats and tunes saved for later.  So many projects, so little time!  Who knows, maybe one day one of my many projects will be complete enough to show off.  I could tell you what they were about now, but… I’d have to kill you.  And I like y’all.

Oddly enough, I also happened to be a guest on a TV show this week!  Once a year AfriCable, an international African television station hosts a karaoke competition called King Karaoke.  They pick twenty contestants out of 150 or so original applicants to compete for and be crowned the karaoke king (or queen) of Africa!  A producer from the show hangs out at the same hotel Dad and I have been going to Thursday nights for karaoke, and wanted me on after she heard these glorious pipes.  What can I say.  Technically contestants need two songs to compete, one of which needs to be a traditional Bambara song.  Since I only just moved here and know neither French nor Bambara (yet), they asked if I would sing a song for their premier episode, which recorded on Thursday and aired on Sunday.  I was originally asked to sing No Woman, No Cry, but a group of contestants decided on that as one of theirs so instead I went with my backup, Come Together.  The best part of the whole experience came right after they called me on stage though.  As I was waiting for they system to reboot so my song could start playing, the host asked me to sing something a cappella to kill time.  I agreed and decided on a bit of Three Little Birds to stick with the original Bob Marley theme, which the crowd liked at least enough to join in and start clapping along.  They only televised a short clip from Come Together, but at least those at the recording got a more of a show.  That was a blast, haha.  If I can find a clip online I’ll post it here for you all to enjoy.

On a more serious and useful note, this week I also finalized plans with Dad to volunteer some time at his office teaching his staff English.  The next step is to meet with him and his assistant at the same time so they can begin making sure all the right channels are aware.  Ideally though, pretty soon I should start holding classes at noon on Tuesdays (for beginners) and Thursdays (for intermediate/advanced).  I’m very excited about the possibility.  Hopefully I can help the overall team improve its English, and build a network of references in the meantime.  Time will tell at this point.  Fingers crossed.

I suppose that’s all for now folks.  I’m off to go watch some AfriCable.  If I fall asleep with it on, it’s like learning French through osmosis, right?

Onward and upward,

-Z