10 May 2013

by jkatejohnston

Dear Max,

Yesterday Enzo got out of his bath, and without drying off, asked me to carry him. I did. He wrapped his legs around me and clapped his wet feet behind my back. I clapped my hands on his wet butt.

“I can’t believe you didn’t want to name your butt-cheeks,” I said.

“Their names are Diamond and Shiny. And my butt-crack is Rose.”


I’m still thinking about writing problems and the right words to use. One time in Max Schott’s (that is your) writing class, Max read a story aloud, and in the story someone exited the freeway. Max said that he’d always objected to the word ‘exit’ used for exiting a room or exiting a car—you should just say ‘leave’ or ‘get out of,’ and he’d thought that the only way you could use that word would be for exiting a freeway. But now that he saw an example, he didn’t like it for that either, and you should just say ‘get off the freeway.’

As a teacher, you can be pretty sure that the students don’t hear anything you say, and even if they do, they think you’re lying or deluded, and anyway they don’t remember anything three minutes after the class is over. And it’s very comforting. You’re unlikely to do serious harm. But that class with Max would have been about twenty-five years ago. So sometimes they do remember. God. What a responsibility.

But I knew that word was wrong before Max said so. I remember it so well because we’re all fascinated by what we agree with, especially if someone says just right what we already know to be true.

Is ‘exit’ just a hopeless word? Maybe you can exit a stage. And it works for signage.

When I was a teacher I used to write in the margins of papers, “this sounds like a vocabulary word.” It seemed cruel to write “pretentious diction,” for the weird words the students would dredge out of the thesaurus, and anyway “pretentious diction” is pretentious diction. It took me a long time to convince the students that “vocabulary word” was not a compliment. I told them not to write words that didn’t have a pretty sturdy existence in the spoken language. I also told them not to use ‘whom’ because they almost always used it wrong, and even when they used it right, it sounded lame.

Whom. Now there’s a word with a stick up its butt. And this reminds me. You know that notation [sic] that people use in the middle of quotations to mean “not my mistake!” It reeks of smug fastidiousness. Anyway, there should be a notation that means, “I meant that mistake. So fuck off.” You could put it after split infinitives, prepositions at the end of a sentence, ‘who’ as the object of the verb, and ‘their’ as a singular preposition. I don’t follow dumb rules, but of course I want everyone to know that it’s because my taste is too good. How about [Ha!] or (as Enzo says when he’s about to get caught in tag) [Times!] Or maybe you just brazen it out.

And take a word like ‘penultimate.’ Every decade or so, you get a chance to use it, and I always go, oh goody! But in the end I have to hang my peasant head and take it out and put in ‘next to last.’ I’m glad the word exists, but it’s not for me. That’s what happens if you read when you’re young. You end up knowing a bunch of words, and you have to spend the rest of your life fighting them off.

Well, reading’s not all bad. Read all of Jane Austen and maybe you can write ‘amiable’ without feeling like an ass. But useful words do get lost. Like ‘liberal’ in The Life of Johnson means something like ‘generous-minded.’ Wonderful word and thing, but it’s been taken over by politics and ruined. And at some point ‘cunt’ picked up a whiff of insult and pornography. What a fucking shame. I do see it used (very rarely) with what I think it is the old, right feeling—sexy, funny and affectionate.  (See http://shesgonechilaquiles.blogspot.com/2013/01/mistakes.) I like Chaucer’s cunt better than Philip Roth’s. [Times!]

A while back I wrote about Enzo scolding me because I said ‘journey’ when I meant ‘trip.’ And he was right. It’s wonderful how kids completely get the feeling behind words. By the time they’re freshmen in college, it’s usually been educated out of them, at least in their writing. And I love the word ‘trip.’ It sounds so quick and cheerful.

It reminds me of this thing from Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography. She was walking in Paris with Balanchine, and he said, “I love to hear you clip-clopping along.”