Sunday in the Park
April 16, 2010
What you say.
What? You say.
What, you, say.
Lately, in my slightly geeky but wholly enjoyable world of working with kids and literacy at the Mega Genius Supply Store and IQ HQ, we have been playing with punctuation — and how, with the simple use of periods or quotes or commas, everything changes. You may remember the sterling example from the best selling book, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," which, depending upon the commas, you may have thought of as book about a basketball player or a panda.
No price too high.
That was a sentence I was asked to punctuate in the only journalism class I ever took. Ever the optimist, I saw it as: No price too high. Period. What would you pay for a medical procedure needed for save your child’s life? There would be "no price too high." If, however, you were asked if you wanted to buy a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes right off the runway, in this economy, for, say, $2,000, the response would change the punctuation just slightly: "No, price too high." You get the idea.
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Here’s another: She lived well beyond her expectations
Go ahead. Play with it.
Last week I was in a meeting of only women, except one. It was a kind of sales meeting where this guy was talking about his enthusiasm to really promote and move a particular product. He expressed it as, "We’re gonna sell The Bitch." He was not referring to a female dog in heat. The rest of the room turned on him and it led to a discussion about slang and the unexpected interpretations of words. You know the classics: what is "cool" becomes "hot" and back again. Good things are labeled "bad" or "sick" or "sweet" when they are actually in no way ill or tasty.
More than a dozen years ago, I attended a workshop for journalists, taught by those who work in the field of domestic violence. It started with headlines we wrote and how often we turned the victim into the lead instead of the perpetrator. It also addressed the violent nature of our everyday language. Thinking of myself as a rather peaceful person, I was surprised when the instructor used me as one of the first examples of the day. He pointed to me and repeated what I said when the break time included only watered-down punch: "I would kill for a Coke." And he inquired, "Would you? Really? Kill someone or something, to drink that particular beverage?" It all sounded ridiculous, of course, said out loud like that. And I have tried, since that one-day sensitivity-training session, to be careful when I choose the words I use. I want them to represent my mood, my feelings, not some slang that others could misread, or that younger, much younger folks could start to repeat and pattern into their language.
This leads me to my most recent ire over language and the messages we send. I should preface this by admitting that, while I am not a fan of reality television in general, I do consider it a kind of homework to watch the show "American Idol." Those young, aspiring singers remind me about the work and the hope and the rejection it takes to even try to start a career in a business that is notorious for crushing dreams. And yet, when you hear the purity of a high note or fresh interpretation of a classic song, it is thrilling and moving and sometimes exhilarating. So to hear the first judge (who I like overall) invariably shout, "That was DOPE, man," well, it makes me crazy.
There are millions of people around the world who watch this show, primarily people younger than me. When we use a word that causes so much grief and harm and violence and dependence and, ultimately, often death itself, as the highest of praise, what is the message we are selling? And when you try to translate that expression for a friend with limited English language skills and you say something like, "It means he thought the performance was terrific, as good as it gets, over the moon." And the response comes back, "But doesn’t ‘dope’ mean heroin or amphetamines?" and you have to nod and realize how ridiculous and confusing we have made communication. And how children start to make associations about what is cool and hot and rad and sick and dope and then try to navigate in those turbulent waters.
Just for this week, I’m going to try to say what I mean, using the English language in all its glorious depth to communicate the high praise or desperation I may feel at any given time. And I’ll imagine how sentences could change their meaning, altogether, by just moving a little punctuation around, on this very Sunday in, The Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.