The Empire of Grammar

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Joy and peace, Camper, and welcome to Your Uncle Jerry’s Grammar Grotto.
Lately, it has come to Uncle Jerry’s attention that more and more young persons lie awake at night fretting over fine points of English grammar, stylistics, and semantics.
Listening to NPR, for example, they ask, “Shouldn’t Scott Simon have said ‘this raises the question’ instead of ‘this begs the question’? I mean, ‘begging a question’ refers to the fallacy of petitio principii, doesn’t it, Uncle Jerry?”
So true, but as professors here in the humanities building have always told us, you really can’t get to Journalism from English; you have to go through Marketing.
Or, buying their ramen and caffeinated sugar-drinks at the grocery express line, young readers say to each other, “I’m sure that sign should be ‘15 items or fewer’ instead of less.”
Well-spotted, Camper. But in this case, the more serious crime against language is the use of the word express.
Grammar is complicated. (No one knew how complicated.) So it’s no wonder that campers have questions. Recently, Your Uncle Jerry heard from a young person with the following grammatico-theological question. “Dear Uncle Jerry: In the participle phrase, his destroying the temple, what case should the pronoun take—genitive or nominative?”
As with so many questions of language, much depends on the context. First of all, as I sense you have already noticed, we need to know whether it is Titus or Tiglath-Pileser III destroying the temple. Second, when parsing scriptural texts, we should keep in mind that these are often written in an obscure tense called the Perfect Preposterous or sometimes the Compound Hagiographic. Pay attention, Camper; this may be on the quiz.
What comes before or after the phrase in question is also important. “What’s that noise? Oh, that’s him destroying the temple,” would yield a different answer from, “His destroying the temple was a clear case of government over-reach.” And in either phrase, we still don’t know whether the temple was being used for lawful worship of the emperor or for basement meetings of an MLA Citation Suicide cell.
Be that as it may. If the writer wants the possessive, then we’ve got the following problem. In formal language, a possessive must point to, as the kids say, “a real thing.” A nominative. So if there’s a genitive (as in HIS), then the –ING form is a gerund and not a participle. OK? A gerund sounds like an article of clothing (gerundies), but it functions grammatically more as a noun. We can clarify things by substituting an equivalent noun—say, “destruction” in this case.
To wit: “His destruction the temple.”
That don’t work—it needs a preposition: “His destruction OF the temple.” Or IN the temple or AROUND, etc. (Why? Because emperors, like all partisan politicians, destroy pretty much everything.) So then we substitute “destroying” back in with the preposition, and we get “His destroying OF the temple came on the equinox this year.”
This is now correct grammatically. But theologically . . . eww. The equinox is no time for destruction.
On the other hand, if the writer means “destroying” as a participle, then you’ve got a verbal form, and you need to change the genitive pronoun HIS to a dative: HIM. For the dative case, it helps to think of the last person you actually dated. Because as you discovered, you can’t possess either a verb or a flake, and that romance was not a real thing.
Hence, we now have: “Did you hear something? Yep. It’s Wednesday, so that’s him destroying the temple.”
That works. With the dative, the case of romance, destruction suddenly makes more sense, MLA is crushed, and grammatical balance is restored to the empire.
Peace and Joy. 
LEPORELLO: Who's dead, you or the old man?
DON GIOVANNI: What an asinine question! The old man!
LEPORELLO: Bravo! Two deeds of derring-do: force the daughter, kill the father.

--Don Giovanni
Mozart & da Ponte

Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry’s Opera Corner.

As you know, Uncle Jerry is besieged by campers looking for wisdom from the opera.

“What would Susanna do in my situation?” they ask.
“Would suicide by hara-kiri hurt worse than poison?”
“What’s that opera with the dragon?”
“My bros are coming over to watch the Vikings, and for the soundtrack we can’t decide between Gianni Schicchi and Boris Godunov.”

First of all, my friend, Schicchi is way too short for a football game, but if the Vikings are playing, yes, go with a comedy. Avoid the Russians. (One would think of Wagner for the Vikings, but No: that kind of gravitas is way beyond them.)

But why is opera, for so many young persons, their go-to source of wisdom and titillation? An excellent question, Camper, and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind.

Let’s look at it from their side: If today’s teens want only splattered primal urges and supernatural creatures, they can get those from Game of Thrones, Grand Theft Auto, any Sigma Chi house, and the dark side of the internet. If they want only an orgy of sublime musical artistry, they have an iCloud full of Santana, Bach, and Sara Tavares.

But where oh where can a Millennial camper find both the absurd degrading archetypal violence they love, alongside the delicate nuance of uplifting human pathos they crave? I think we know the answer, don’t we, Camper? It’s all there in Don Giovanni.

You wouldn’t think that a nerd like Mozart would even know a story about a wealthy sex addict—a story that begins with date rape and a sword fight, and ends with the nobleman dragged to hell after the world’s most horrible dinner party. (At least until The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.) But this is the beauty of opera. Opera distills life into clarified yet profoundly gloomy meanings:
  1. Power corrupts.
  2. You will never have any.
  3. Infanticide doesn't really work out.
  4. The gods are clueless.
  5. Wine is a gamble; you gotta know that going in.
  6. Don't do what you're thinking. 
  7. Grief and joy, ecstasy and pain become equally beautiful when you hear them like a melody slipping from your lover's dying lips.
Joy and Peace.

New Years

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.

---R. Burns, lame old Scottish poet

Joy and peace, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry's cultural studies cabin. Today we think about the new year.

January first, as you would know if you hadn't slept through tenth grade, does not begin the new year except in our imagination.

Here's a little story. 2,200 years ago (give or take), in a place we call Monte Albán, the Zapotecs carved a calendar into a slab of stone six meters tall, and they stood it up like a fin looking edgewise into the sun. Every day at noon, the sun would throw (and still throws) a shadow from that stone as far as it can reach. At noon on the winter solstice every year, the shadow is 4.4 meters long--its personal best. When the Zapotecs saw that long shadow, they knew the new year was at hand. Let the wild rumpus begin!

The Chinese had a calendar 4,600 years ago, and that includes a lot of leap years with 13 months in them. In the West, we know our current new year is in no way the 2014th year; worse than that, it's not even the 2014th year since the birth of Jesus, like you were told. Anno Domi-NOT, buddy.

But how did all this calendar confusion start? you ask. Well, Camper, in the year 525 or so (or 3150, if you're Chinese) there was a monk and sometime rapper named Dionysus Exiguus. Everyone called him Li'l Denny. One day, the pope said, "D, my sundial has stopped. What month was Jesus born?" and Li'l Denny said "He's a Capricorn, Boss, from the days of Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor in Syria." (Look it up, Camper. You know how to use the interwebs.) "Can you be more specific?" said the Pope. 

Well, of course, rappers are improvisers, and Li'l D missed the date by 3 to 7 years. We don't even know, and we can't fix it now, anyway. Theology is like that. But the church had planted its flag in a calendar, and that turned out to be a very big deal.

Point is this, Camper. If you ask the folks in China, Israel, Mongolia, Vietnam, Tibet, Sudan, or Burma which day is New Year's Day, you'll get answers based on lunar/solar cycles, which actually move around a lot. If you ask Islamic friends what year are we in right now, they might tell you it's 1435, and they'd be as right as you are about 2014, or the Chinese are about 4650. None of these folks even have a month named January.

What? you say. No January? Jesus born three years before year 1? Your Uncle Jerry gets a bit dizzy thinking about all this. Until recently, like most Americans, he thought the stars pivoted around Times Square.

As with so many things, young person, the stuff our parents told us about New Year's Day is totally made up. That's not a bad thing, but it's a good thing to know. And it means, if you pay attention, you can get 3 to 47 different new year's days every year. How cool is that.

That's why Your Uncle Jerry makes it a point to cross into the new year as many times per year as possible. His kazoo is well-used; his annual flag of celebration is a many-splendored one. 

Peace and joy.

Say a Prayer for Me

may you be free from harm. 
may you be free from physical suffering.
may you be free from mental suffering.
may you have ease of well-being. 

--lame old Buddhist prayer

Peace and Joy, Camper.

When Your Uncle Jerry was a young whippersnapper, he rented an apartment in an old brick house down the street from a Catholic church. His landlady was a church-going widow, whose name was Charlene Cash.

Cash was short and round and cheerful—a dumpling in a floral-print housedress. She was 75 years old, with blue-white hair, and she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Because she was from Paducah, Kentucky, some people thought she was clueless. And the Alzheimer’s, of course. But Uncle Jerry loved her just the way she was.

At the time, Your Uncle Jerry was recently divorced, and might have had a girlfriend or two. He was into jazz and poetry and putting on airs. So, to Cash, of course, Uncle Jerry was an atheist. A rascal. But Cash didn't mind the flowers he brought her. In fact, like most women, she loved to flirt with a dangerous man, and she loved it that Uncle Jerry could fix the furnace or find her lost keys.

One thing that Cash never forgot was to walk down to church every morning for early Mass. Uncle Jerry used to ask her what would happen if she missed it--would God forget where she lived? "Rascal," she'd say.

One sunny wonderful Illinois morning, Cash was walking past his kitchen window on her way to church. And, "Cash!" called Uncle Jerry. "Say a prayer for me while you're on your knees, okay?"

And without even looking up, this distracted old lady replied, "Oh, Honey. I always say one for ALL poor devils and sinners!"

Joy and peace.

Surprising Carmen

The opera Carmen should not interest the decent spectators
who come to the Opera-Comique with their wives and daughters.
-- Early Critic of Bizet's Carmen

Peace and joy, Camper, and welcome once again to Your Uncle Jerry’s Opera Corner.

These days, more and more young people, when faced with the painful disappointments and desires of romance, are turning to the opera. There they find clearer and more believable answers than anything they’ve heard from their parents or their video games. Understandable. Your Uncle Jerry loves the opera, too, but one must keep a critical distance on these matters. A tenor in love is not necessarily your best role model. Especially in Carmen, the world’s most popular opera.

Let’s have a look at Don José. In case you missed this, Camper, José’s backstory includes killing a man who stole his woman. True, true, there is an upside to crimes of passion. Women love a man with passion, a man with a past. On the other hand, passion started José’s trouble before, and it will soon get him in trouble with Carmen—and I don’t mean the good kind. What José is missing is poetry.

I know, I know. Poetry alone is a check with insufficient funds; poetry without passion is a kiss without a moustache. But listen, passion alone is a roller-coaster of anguish at the Hotel California Amusement Park. Don’t take that ride, Camper. Why? Brush up on your 1970s pop music.

Look, pal. Within the heart of the woman you love, there is a Carmen; coquettish and demanding and jealous and, most of all, independent. There are two things that will totally drive her away. One is an obsession to control her. The other is letting her control you. Both of these are the natural offspring of passion, and José has both in spades.

A woman likes to be surprised by her man. Surprise is poetry to her, even when it comes from a doof like you. And no, by surprise, we are not talking about showing up with flowers in your red leather thong. Surprise means she can’t quite predict you; being unpredictable is a form of resistance. And there, my friend, is the irony of love in life and opera. Lovers find resistance fascinating. Why? Because love needs a little friction to keep it warm.

What makes Carmen go cold is a man who can’t stop adoring her for one minute, who gives up everything, jumps at her command. Loses himself. This creeps her out. Oh, she may string him along for awhile, but as he loses control, she loses respect for him. A more sensible Don José would marry the girl his mother picked out, and would then quietly take a series of wonderful lovers, perhaps including Carmen. (Oh please. It was the 19th century.) This is keeping poetry and passion in proper balance.

Dear old Don José, like so many tenors, is passionate but dim. When he shows up in the last act to win Carmen back, he pleads: “There is still time; we can make this work.” And does this work? “Dude, your threats are bad enough, but you’re so booooring. Kill me, please, so I hear no more of your endless raving about love.” Being dim, unfortunately, doesn’t mean being harmless. And—spoiler alert—he kills her.

The tenor may be a wonderful singer, but, No, the one you need to watch is the baritone—the toreador. To him, love is a gamble; he knows that going in. Flirtatious yet aloof, bold yet gallant. Full of passion but quick with a poem. Yes, the baritone loses the girl as often as not, but the point is that he never loses himself.

Joy and peace. 

Thanksgiving in Plymouth and Jutland

Pilgrim:  How.
Squanto:  How? Isn't it obvious? As the fish decays, it releases nitrogen. In the soil, nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert this nitrogen into nitrates, a form that corn plants can metabolize. These nitrates are largely responsible for healthy leaf and stem growth. 

Holiday joy and peace, Camper.

You wouldn’t know it from his cheery disposition, but Your Uncle Jerry comes from a long line of stern, sober, devout, and stoic people. His ancestors on one side were dark Lutherans, and on the other side were merciless unhappy Puritans. As a child, Young Uncle Jerry learned that truth and righteousness were unacquainted with the joys of this world, and that purity of spirit is at odds with bodily pleasure. This kind of theology, Camper, is why good people go wrong.

Viewing the movie Babette’s Feast, which he does as a personal discipline every year during the winter holidays, Your Uncle Jerry feels as if he’s joining his ancestors for dinner. And like any black sheep returning home, he feels comfortable yet alienated. He even gets a little angry as he watches his ancestors not enjoying, not giving thanks for the exquisite meal that Babette has prepared just for them. He suffers through their long ungrateful silences, their refusal to acknowledge the bliss and blessing there on the table. Uncle Jerry can’t wait for his favorite movie to be over. He clamps his teeth over his own knuckles until the old general finally speaks.

The general, a secular, world-weary man trapped like Uncle Jerry at a winter meal in Jutland with people frozen in their own theological misery, finds himself amazed at what Babette has created. He is tasting with his entire body, rolling his eyes, puffing out his cheeks, examining each forkful and each glass of wine as if he cannot believe that anything so obviously a gift from heaven could exist in the same world with such dour, sour human beings. The general has dined in the most opulent restaurants in Europe, but only once has he tasted such a palpable mercy as Babette has laid before them tonight. That was many years and many wars ago, in Paris, and little does he know that Babette was the chef at that meal, too. At last, almost woozy with joy, the old general rises to offer a toast.

Mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss each other. We in our weakness and short-sightedness believe that we must make choices in this life. We tremble at the risks of choosing—what to take, what to leave behind?

But no. What we choose is of no importance. Once in a great while, there comes a moment to open our eyes, and we realize that mercy is infinite. Mercy imposes no conditions. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. And lo, everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we have not chosen—this has also been granted.

For mercy and truth are met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss each other.

You don't hear this stuff in Sunday School, Camper. Try to remember it. Peace and joy.

United We Stand

Or will you try and tell me that you’ve been too long at school?
That knowledge is not needed, that power does not rule?
—Gordon Lightfoot
lame old protest song.

Joy and peace.

Your Uncle Jerry is thinking about getting into politics. What this country needs is a few more citizens with the guts to speak truth to power, thinkers who will not shrink from making the unpopular argument. We need public intellectuals who will bravely stand in the face of public opinion and repeat what they’ve been hearing all day on CNN. Uncle Jerry has decided to become a pundit.

The recall election in the state of Wisconsin makes the need clear. Some of Uncle Jerry’s more soft-headed friends who happen actually to live in Wisconsin thought this election was about restoring accountability to executive power and about the runaway influence of Big Money in state politics. But the truth is there to see—in the media: this election was clearly a referendum on the threat to the American Way of Life posed by powerful labor unions that disappeared sometime in the 1970s.

Labor unions, as any news anchor with a smart board and a $5000 suit could tell you, are the bane of democracy. They are roving bands of firefighters, teachers, secretaries, and autoworkers, controlled from the shadows by cigar-chomping socialists. Union members aren’t real Americans; they’re unwashed shirkers, whose collars aren’t white, who have no gratitude for our democracy or for the millionaires who own it fair and square. They despise those who keep democracy safe through gerrymandering and through dismantling campaign finance regulations.

As a new member of the punditocracy, Your Uncle Jerry will make it a priority to remind American couch potatoes that this country wasn’t built by union workers, and it isn’t kept safe every day by police, firefighters, safety inspectors, teachers, and other blood-sucking unionists.

America was built by the blood, sweat, and tears of the fabulous. You think being born into wealth is easy? Well, it isn’t. It takes real imagination to invent things like tax loopholes for capital gains; it takes chutzpah, dedication, and vast networks of powerful friends to hoist bags and bags of money and to hide them in off-shore bank accounts. You think bootstrapping from the working class is hard? You should try it when the only straps available are the tassels on your Gucci loafers.

The voters in Wisconsin have made it clear, as all the pundits agree. Workers go too far when they band together demanding “economic justice.” As we stand here in the dawn of the Age of Romney, we must not be weighed down by demands from the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We owe them nothing. We must look up—way up—to our wealthiest one percent. Look at how they protect each other, how they congratulate each other, how they compete good-naturedly to write the biggest check to their personal senators. Look at them linked arm in arm. There we see, Camper, exactly what the Founders meant by “a more perfect union.”

Peace and joy.

In chapter 19, Molly and Rhinehart unite around the need to pull a scam.