Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Xmas" scolds are full of humbug

'Tis the season once again for the Xmas scolds, the people who complain that the use of "Xmas" for "Christmas" is somehow defamatory or sacrilegious.

In fact, the Xmas scolds are ignorant.

The "X" in "Xmas" isn't the letter "x" (eks) of the Roman alphabet. It is the letter of the Greek alphabet that has the same shape, the letter "chi" (kai). Any word in the English language that has a "ch" pronounced like "k" comes from a Greek word. Where we see "ch" but say "k"--chromosome, character, chiropractor, bronchial--the Greek word would have the single letter "chi." Which, yes, is formed by two crossed diagonal lines.

One of those "chi" words in Greek was "christos," which was translated with the Hebrew word "messiah," but which the Romanized western world at the same time kept pretty much intact, albeit in a different alphabet, as the name-tagging honorific of Jesus. (I wonder if Greeks wonder why we need two letters when one works just fine for them?)

The shape of "chi" was also recognized in the early Christian world as a type of cross, the type that we call the cross of St. Andrew (it's the x shape on the national flag of Scotland, the Union Jack, and the Confederate battle flag). To early Christians, this doubleness of "chi" as both cross and first letter in "Christ" proved to be a powerful sort of pun, and early on the letter had an apotheosis of sorts, attaining spiritual status as a monogram for all things Christian.

No less than John Wycliffe, widely believed to have been the first to translate the New Testament into English, acknowledged the equivalency, explaining in a sermon in 1380 that "X bitokeneth Christ."

Complaining about "Xmas" is like complaining about "WWJD" because it has the letter "J" instead of the name "Jesus," spelled out. Hmm, now here's a thought: WWXD.

So by all means celebrate Xmas! And invite the scolds to go share their spite cake with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Veni: C'mon

Here's page one of a recent composition for oboe and organ. The title, Veni, is the Latin imperative meaning "Come." It is found in such expressions as Veni, veni, Emmanuel (familiarly known as O Come, etc.) and Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit).

Yes, it does look the same as the word Julius Caesar included in his terse description of his Gallic adventure--veni, vidi, vici--I came, I saw, I conquered--and some of you out there might actually like to write a hymn to him (et tu, Brute?) and call it "I came," but, regardless of whether or not anyone listening to this thinks it sounds like the chain-clank of Gallic POW's on parade, I am not that person.

Veni has the same root as "Advent," the season leading up to Christmas, which began yesterday. I was fortunate to be able to use the piece in an evensong service last evening at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bristol, VA. Many thanks to organist Stephanie Yoder for using it and for doing such a great job of interpreting it along with me.*

I highly recommend such a service to anyone for whom the rampant commercialism of Christmas has become a source of anxiety. One wonders if Julius Caesar, were he a present-day department store/bigbox/online uberretailing magnate, would apply his venividivici formula to the post-Labor Day calendar. So it's quite bracing to read, in the course of this kind of service, of the Lord's (in the mouth of the prophet Amos) condemnation of his erstwhile believers for, among other things, selling the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes. Christmas lights have a different kind of twinkle after you hear that kind of thing.

Somebody ran out of gas in my building parking lot today, a mother and her son in a beaten up van. She was sending him down the street with an empty gallon jug. As I walked by she was emptying her purse: a $1 bill and less than a buck in change. How much gas can that buy? I looked in my wallet. A ten. I was glad to let them have it. I don't know that, failing the gift, I would've been selling the poor for a pair of gallons of gas, but I can see the Lord's point of view.

It's worth asking for. Worth hoping for.

Come peace. Come justice. Come love. C'mon. Veni.

*Great, a footnote (see last post)! I also recorded a studio version of Veni at home and used a couple of days of post-Thanksgiving torpor to render a music video. While doing that, various children and nephews were exerting themselves on some hiphop stylings thanks to Wii; I collected their cartoon dance coaches. By some providential happenstance, the animated dancers strut their stuff to the same beat as Veni. Hmmm. Far be it from me, etc., even if one of them is wearing the devil's horns.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Footnotes Are the Stand-up Comedy of Academia, or Keep "Silent Night" in Christmas--and Take It Out of the Rest of the Year

You've no doubt heard of "publish or perish." But "publish and we killed"?

Imagine the obscure scholar, toiling away on the latest tangential iteration of a years-old thesis (student: "It's on there? Wow. Floppy discs really were floppy."), trying to keep the legend of original research safe from anti-intellectuals and Florida governors (oh, same thing), constrained by the straitjacket of formality ("If you're good we'll take you out of the APA style manual and give you a break in the Iron Maiden."), and just busting at the seams with data too good to waste that unfortunately looks headed for the waste basket. What's to be done?

That's why God invented the footnote. "God?" you ask. Yes, God. The second creation account of Genesis 2:4-25 was meant to be a footnote. How do I know? Isn't it obvious? Don't you think God would really prefer a single creation narrative in the main body of the text? All I can say is: editors, beware. Jesus may have washed his disciples' feet, but there's no record of him doing the same for his editors' feetnotes, or lack thereof.

Not that God necessarily intended the footnote to inject wry, subtle humor into an academic publication that might be read by three people outside of the author's immediate family (son: "Yeah, dad, the intro was awesome! Thanks for thanking me for my patience and understanding!"). After all, the Bible has been read by millions, and the humor of the second creation account, despite its lack of a punchline, is in this day of gay marriage much too over-the-top to be considered subtle.

But for anyone blessed with an academic publisher (they tend to cluster around the word "university"), the footnote has become such a gas outlet that the rest of us can only wonder--given the propensity of scholars to smoke pipes--that more campuses haven't exploded with laughter.

There is a wonderful one, encountered today in The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success; written by Geoffrey Lewis; published by Oxford University Press; borrowed through the magic of interlibrary loan from the James Madison University Library by the Bristol Public Library for my son Samuel who is at present in Kutahya, Turkey, outside of the Bristol Public Library's immediate delivery zone; and which I started reading today during my lunch hour.*

The book tells a fascinating story, and it is well-written with flashes of wry humor in the body of the text, so it's not like it needs footnotes, but how irresistible to take the reader aside for a moment of regaling! Lewis, in summarizing the history of modern Turkish journalism, recounts in a parenthesis how the first non-official Turkish newspaper was a weekly founded by an Englishman named William Churchill.

The parenthetical Mr. Churchill then gets additional treatment in a footnote: "As for Churchill, see Kologlu (1986), an entertaining account of how, despite being miyop (short-sighted), he went out pigeon-shooting one Sunday afternoon in May 1836 and wounded a shepherd boy and a sheep. There were diplomatic repercussions."

Here, have a kleenex. I know, I know. The whole thing deserves a movie!

But my all-time favorite footnote is this harrumphing explication of the Christmas song Good King Wenceslas in the Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, where the footnote's the thing): "This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol...Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call 'doggerel', and Bullen condemns as 'poor and commonplace to the last degree'. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting...not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time."

Remember that this season when you sing about snow laying dinted.

*This is a footnote. Originally, it was not meant to be a footnote, but a piece about footnotes cannot not have a footnote. And this is the closest thing to an aside that I have, speaking of footnotes, but it will soon be obvious that it's not really an aside at all, given its thematic connection to the above footnote-which-is-not-a-footnote-at-least-not-here about Good King Wenceslas.

But still. No: Stille. As in Stille Nacht. As in Silent Night, the Mohr-Gruber collaboration we all know so well. So, so well. Sometimes too well. As in today. I went to Starbucks to read this book on Turkish language reform, I encountered the fun footnote related above, I remembered the footnote likewise related above, and then it happened: over the airwaves the Starbucks favored us with Silent Night. "Favored," as in "do me a favor and stop playing that; it's only November 16; I'm trying to forget that Thanksgiving is already next week; and you want me to go all Silent Night? Look, Gruber wrote the melody only hours before a Christmas Eve service. The least we can do is honor his memory by listening to it one time and one time only, thereby returning it to its original state of blessedness."

I fled Starbucks. There was no room in the Americano. I felt bad leaving Jesus all by himself in there, but then I thought, hey, it's okay. He hasn't been born yet. Maybe. Depending on which footnote you read in which edition of the Bible.

Keep Christ in Christmas. Take Silent Night out of the rest of the year.

End of footnote. See what I mean about gas?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Race to the Bottom: "Readicide" and Killiteracy

I feel vindicated. I coined a word a little while back to describe what I thought were wrongheaded approaches to teaching reading: "Killiteracy." Now there is an entire book by Kelly Gallagher, a high school English teacher in Anaheim, CA, that describes the phenomenon much more thoroughly and authoritatively than I could. His word for it--and the title of his book--is "readicide."

He's hoping for a dictionary entry with the following definition of his word: "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing activities found in schools."

I'm a public librarian. It's important that a public librarian not make too much noise. When I express my fondness for certain follies, it is a quiet activity. When I blog that public libraries have an important, but completely unrecognized place in education, well, I mean, c'mon. Nobody listens to the tree falling in the forest except the person standing under it.

So when I find an authoritative educator--a real, genuine high school teacher--like Gallagher saying the same things as me, and coining words to do so, just like me, well sure it's vindicating! Especially when I see that one of the goads of the Killiteracy blog--the Accelerated Reader program--gets his goat as much as mine. The motivator of AR is to earn points by reading from a pre-selected list of books and answering multiple-choice quizzes about them. Gallagher calls the quizzes "mindless" and demotivating because the "extrinsic rewards" of the point system don't develop any real interest in the books.

But Gallagher's real target is the national regime that focuses on test-taking as a measure of educational attainment. The tests themselves have no real meaning, and in order to produce successful test-takers, our schools are resorting to instructional devices and strategies that will ultimately destroy any interest in reading as an activity to be pursued in everyday life.

Here's Gallagher: "We are killing readers, and in doing so, we are moving students farther away from those skills that 'expert citizens' need to lead productive lives: creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication, honesty, teamwork, how to win and lose, fair play, and lifelong learning. Worse, in the name of raising test scores, teachers and administrators actually encourage this movement in the wrong direction."

Movement in the wrong direction. What that means is ... hmm ... "race to the top" is really "race to the bottom"? Or as another well-known educational theorist, Yong Zhao, puts it, "race to self-destruction"? In a blog by this title (subtitled "a history lesson for education reformers") Zhao invokes the story of Easter Island's famous statues as explained by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. According to Diamond's explanation, the unintended (but at some point, surely predictable) consequences of erecting giant faces on Easter Island included social and environmental collapse.

What an irony if our system of education were to have the unintended consequence of producing a collapse in literacy! And yet that consequence, given the approach to learning that now holds sway, seems entirely predictable. Is it folly to say so? If it were only me, a public librarian, saying it, absolutely! But when a teacher and an educator say so, a library card starts to look like a pretty good thing to let a kid use every now and then.

(By the way, Gallagher's target audience is teachers, and his educational world is the school. Apparently the notion that a public library has a place in that world is every bit as much folly as ever.)