cur·mudg·eon?

Am I becoming a curmudgeon?

It seems to be a path followed by countless people of my age throughout time.  Somewhere around the mid-fifties, we begin to lose reference points with dominant culture. We don’t get the jokes, the music begins to irritate rather than inspire.  People’s behavior begin to appear foreign, value centers seem to shift. It’s begins to feel like we’re living in one of Batman’s Arch-Villains lairs: everything is tilted…just a little “off”.

The standard metric for whether one is curmudgeonly or not centers, it seems, on mood. Is one feeling angry more often? Is one feeling low-grade annoyance with everyday circumstances? Is one “hardening” into this mood over time? Then one might be a curmudgeon.

While I seem to be experiencing episodes of curmudgeonly moods, I don’t feel I’m hardening into it. Hence the question: AM I?

Let’s explore one particular area which seems to be begging this question: Speech patterns.  I know many of my generation receive their curmudgeon credentials by consistently critiquing the millennial generation for being “entitled”, “apathetic” and “lazy” among other character flaws. I could spend a lot of time discussing this but it’s not the point of this blog entry. I bring it up because, while I could understand a curmudgeonly response if one believes those things to be true, I don’t…yet what DOES make me feel old and grumpy is how people have begun to change their speech patterns. This is perplexing because I know in my bones that speech patterns don’t matter a tittle compared to shifting value systems, economic policy, and world view.

Yet here I am, annoyed by how people are speaking.

What the hell?

I suppose the same has occurred in previous generations. Those who spoke/wrote a more formal version of English in the 19th and early 20th centuries might very well feel the same way about the English I speak. In fact, my great great great grandfather might lead the charge in criticizing my own writing. He wrote this 1854:

All the websites featuring this work include this description (but with no citation, so I don’t know who feels this way about it):

“This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.”

So apparently it’s a pretty big deal, and I share some of the “linguistic DNA” of the dude who wrote it…so my opinion REALLY matters.

Anyway, my annoyance has less to do with grammar, syntax or spelling than vocabulary and speech patterns. Let me vent about just three:

  1. Vocal Fry.

Younger women trying to sound more “authoritative” is the most popular theory for why this has become a trend. Perhaps. However, I am personally acquainted with several younger men who practice this, and there is little sense they feel a lack of agency on par with their female peers. In addition, I hear it used by people who are clearly in positions of authority in media and politics. No, I think the adoption of Vocal Fry gives demonstration to the speaker’s disaffection; their nonchalance, their apathy, indifference,  disinterest even superiority. In a world fraught with countless relational dangers, being able to isolate one’s self from caring is a critical defense mechanism.  Giving the impression that one is unaffected has always been pretty cool, too.

Just a theory.

2.  Up-Talking / “So…”

I’ve put these two together because I believe they stem from the same unconscious motive of the speaker: to soften any possible offense on the part of the listener by eliminating the “sound” of being sure of one’s statement. Beginning a declarative statement with, “so” has the affect of making everything which precedes sound like an opinion, an apology or a theory. Here are couple of other theories.

I believe the same affect (making one’s statements sound subjective) is achieved at the end of sentences by up-talking; making it sound like a question.  Here’s an example.

Again, you will find other theories out there from smarter people than me, but when I find myself listening to those who use these affectations, I experience the sensation that the speaker is unsure of their statements, or perhaps apologetic, timid at best.

I further theorize that it is this over-commitment to subjectivity  which has created an unconscious linguistic “blow-back” in another area:

3. Adverb / Adjective Dramatics

When normal statements of fact have been undermined by the idea that nothing can really be known for sure and speech patterns reflect it (Up-talk / “So…”) then when you actually want to be emphatic, you must over compensate…you must REALLY REALLY overcompensate. It’s so, so, important to be believed, and it’s horrific and cataclysmic if people don’t understand!!!!

Blogger Niti Shah points out our tenendancy to use “crutch words” like “um” and “like” but also adverbs. She writes:

“There is literally an epidemic of the incorrect and over-use of adverbs. Adverbs are great! They add flavor to your otherwise boring verb. However, you need to make the call between when it’s adding value to your point and when it’s just there as a filler.

I personally have only recently been able to get over the “literally” phase, but I catch myself overusing “basically” and “definitely” quite a lot. Crutch words are like whack-a-mole: You get some under control, and new ones pop up. 

Just: It’s just not necessary to always use adverbs.

Almost: You almost need to catch yourself before you use them.

Basically: It’s basically just unnecessary, you know?

Actually: I guess there’s times you can actually use them, though.

Definitely: There are definitely real uses of adverbs.

Literally: I use them literally all the time.

Really: Adverbs are really great for describing verbs.

Very: It’s very enlightening to know when to use them.

Truly: I truly feel I have a grasp of the concept of adverbs.

Essentially: It’s essentially just inserting in extra words to give my sentence more of that wow-factor.

Absolutely: It’s absolutely necessary to use them.

Seriously: I seriously don’t know if I’m using them correctly.

Totally: I’m totally failing at this right now, right?

Honestly: I honestly don’t know how to make this better.

Obviously: We obviously need adverbs, just not all the time.”

When it’s important that we are believed in a world where nothing is believable, we must compensate with inflated adjectives and repetitive adverbs to distinguish the true, from the really, really truthful, gratitude from the so, so, grateful, and the funny, from the rolling-on-the-ground-laughing-my-ass-off funny. (ROFLMAO).

Seriously. I truly mean it. Literally, you guuuuuuuuuuys.

Rudiments

Drummers have a series of practices called “rudiments”: the technical building blocks that comprise what the listener recognizes as a musical rhythm.

For example, there’s a “paradiddle”. It’s called that because it’s kind of what the technique sounds like: par-a-didd-le. It’s a four stroke phrase that goes RIGHT- LEFT- RIGHT- RIGHT and then LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT-LEFT…par-a-didd-le.

I never took the time to learn my rudiments. I mean, I know what they are – I can describe them – I can pick up a pair of sticks and bang them out slowly but I can not perform them instinctively. I have not developed the strength or muscle memory which makes it possible to deploy a paradiddle in a song and use it to make music, and I’ve recognized this limitation not only in my musical life, but in my life.

Theologian Hans Ur Von Balthasar formulated an idea that our spiritual growth follows a three step spiral, which, if followed, draws us deeper and deeper into intimacy with God:

Beauty

Goodness

Truth

  1. It begins with the beauty of a thing attracting us. We see it, perceive it in it’s complete state and we experience a desire for it. We’re drawn to it like a moth to a flame.
  2. This motivates us to explore the thing. We unravel it to discover it’s goodness, it’s essence. We study it, deconstruct and analyse; we explore it’s component parts, we roll in it, taste it, smell it, consume it.
  3. Then a day comes when we realize we have succeeded in merging with the thing. We have uncovered the truth of it and we are changed because of it. We have obtained the intimacy which we desired in the beginning.

The beauty of drumming drew me in.

There’s something about the physicality of it. It’s unique among rock instruments – most bands have only one drummer; they’re special. Drumming requires precision held in tension with violence. It’s like a marshal art.  It MAKES people move…it has power. My older brothers (icons of “cool”) were drummers. What little brother doesn’t long to be like his older siblings?  All these things and more comprise drumming’s beauty for me.

But I skipped over goodness because I just wanted  to get to the truth of it. I wanted the end without paying the means.  I never took lessons (well, I took ONE…and he sent me home with a rudiment book!). I avoided the hard work. I skipped the rudiments and just began mimicking my brothers and the drummers I heard on records.

Looking back on this lead to an insight: I’ve done the same with other aspects of my life too. I didn’t go to college; never learned the math but just jumped into mechanical engineering by mimicking what real engineers do, no need to waste a bunch of time on the fundamentals. Same with pastoring, with farming, with being a chaplain…

There is a layer of shame covering this insight:  “You’re a pretender, Dan. You’re lazy and selfish. There’s not aspect of your life that isn’t a facade…hollow…a cheap imitation of the real thing.”

But just beneath shame is a layer of pride. ” I can see through the silly academics where others get stuck. The rules don’t apply to me because I can perceive the truth at the end, so I’ll just jump straight to it.”

Seismic forces have heaved some parts of this stratified pride/shame structure upward, and other areas have dropped. It has been cut through and pock-marked  by wind and water revealing a complex topography like the multi-layered walls of a canyon. It’s impossible to discern which is which…just a jumble of pride and shame. And really they are just two sides of the same coin.

Part of what has contributed to this erosion, what has raised my awareness of this topography, is a relatively sudden on-set of apathy when it comes to creating: writing, drumming…any artistic expression really. I’m just not inspired and I don’t know why.

Then one night, as I watched an experienced jazz instructor give a younger, but more talented drummer some coaching, it hit me…”That kid played MUCH better than I do, but the only feedback I get from the “professionals” is a sincere, “Nice job!”

Why don’t I get tips and advise, I need them more than THAT guy?

The answer hit me harder: “Because your not worth the investment. You’re just a mimic. You haven’t put in the hard work, you’ve hit your limit and the pros can tell that their investment would be wasted.”

Look, I know I’m a nice guy. I’m easier to work with than many musicians. I can do the job in a “workman-like” manner. I prepare. I even show some natural talent.  I listen to other players, I take an ensemble approach rather then just banging away trying to “show-off”. I think musically. I have strengths. There are reasons I get work as a drummer, but because I’ve never embraced the goodness of drumming, this is all I’ve become…and I have become bored.

I’ve stopped growing.

There are entire aspects of the truth which are out of reach for me, not because I lack desire. Not because I lack heart, but because I have not put in the work to uncover the goodness first.

I think I’ve come to the end of where mimicry can take me.

I’ve decided to go back and learn my rudiments.