Put a Common Cork In It


Mae govannen, Mellon! Tolo ned; dortho. What’s that? You don’t speak Elvish? I said, “Well met, Friend! Come in; stay.” Don’t worry about which words mean what – just trust me; that’s the phrase. All you have to do is remember it, and you will speak Elvish too!

Okay, you’ll probably need a little more to get by, so if you run into trouble you should also remember Noro lim! (It means, “Run fast!”) Got it memorized? You may also want to practice saying them out loud so you can pedo (speak) well. If I’m throwing too much at you too fast, just ask me to daro (stop) – but I bet if you drill with some flashcards you’ll be able to absorb it soon enough.

Welcome to the Elvish-speaking world!

What, you don’t quite feel fluent? Of course you don’t; this is a completely ridiculous way to teach someone a language. Maybe you could hold down a job as a greeter at a Grey Havens jogging track (“Come in! Run fast!”). At best you could train an Elvish dog. But you certainly won’t be chatting with Elrond about the merits of mithril anytime soon.

If you have ever learned a language – and if you are reading this, I know you have – you know that an alphabet and some common phrases are not enough for conversation. We need vocabulary, and syntax. We need an understanding of the rules. In short, we need grammar.

And yet, for generations we’ve been teaching the language of math just like I taught you Elvish.

Learn those letters (digits 0 through 9); sing the alphabet so you can remember their order (counting); memorize these combinations and what they mean (drill those times tables); and BOOM. Good luck communicating!

The human brain is an amazing thing that can commit an impressive amount of information to memory – especially if it is useless – but after a certain point it just can’t memorize any more. Without some grammatical rules to govern things, the wheels rapidly fly off the Math Mobile. (At around fifth grade, for most people.)

Fortunately, education specialists know that learning logic is just as important for math “numeracy” as grammar is for literacy. Which is exactly what the Common Core sets as the new goal* of early math education.

[*I say “goal” because the Common Core is a collection of skill goals for each age and subject around which teachers and schools design specific curricula. It is not a set (or dictated) curriculum itself.]

Yeah, math homework looks really weird now, but that’s because – in addition to the old carry-the-one remainders method of doing math on paper – kids are first learning to think of numbers as collections and combinations of other numbers. They are learning the logic of math instead of just the labels. Like how a language speaker can look at a word she has never seen before and use prefixes, suffixes, and roots to figure out the definition anyway.

When a person who is “good at math” does subtraction or division in her head, she doesn’t line things up on top of or next to each other and fiddle around with carried numbers. No, she looks at your weird Facebook post celebrating your child’s 31st week of life and thinks that 31 is almost 32, which is itself made up of eight fours, and since there are four weeks in a month calculates that your child is just under eight months old because that’s the way normal people mark time, Thank You Very Much.

If that isn’t how you do math in your head, I am betting you probably don’t consider yourself “good at math.” Our kids, on the other hand, will be, and that will benefit everyone.

Is it annoying that future generations are going to know how to do stuff better than we can? Absolutely. Kids already think they know everything and this is only going to make them more obnoxious. But fighting against numeracy (or the Common Core in general) because “that’s not the way we learned it” makes about as much sense as going back to treating acne with urine. (Yeah, we used to do that apparently. Ew.)

Now, if you want to fight all the standardized testing, that’s a completely different issue. I will be right there burning the No. 2 pencils and bubble grids beside you. Tol acharn! (Vengeance comes!)


Will You Be My Eggplant?


Eggplant LoveIn college, there was this boy. He had red hair, so I of course liked him immediately, but he was also sweet and goofy, had a beautiful singing voice, and played the French horn, like me, which is how we met. Over the years, we never quite managed to get it together, but there was a lot of “almost”. I liked him, but he didn’t know it; then he liked me, but I had met my first love; I was single again, but by then he had a girlfriend… you know the drill. Our hearts were two magnets with misaligned polarity – naturally attracted to each other, but destined to repel one another every time we got too close. Maybe if one of us had just flipped the other over we could have made the connection, but we were college kids; what did we know?

Even though we never managed to find our way into coupledom, our mutual attraction and tumultuous relationship was apparent to everyone around us. Plus, we were band geeks, which is like being under surveillance by your incestuous family while starring in a reality TV show. Everyone is up in everyone’s business, is what I’m saying. We got a lot of questions along the way. “Are you two dating?” “Do you like him?” “Is he your boyfriend?” “Is this a thing or something?” “What are you guys?”

When you’re nineteen, you may know in your gut that the appropriate answer to all of these questions is, “None of your damn business,” but the nerve to actually say that is still a long way off. Still, I didn’t have much inclination to get into a personal conversation about a relationship I could barely quantify myself, and even if I had wanted to, there was no easy way to answer. I didn’t know what we were; it was complicated. So one day, in response to the latest nosy inquiry about the real deal with this boy, I simply answered, “He’s my eggplant.”

I have no idea why that particular word popped into my head at that moment. Perhaps it is because I have always considered the eggplant to be a ridiculously named object. How did that even happen? “Plant” I can understand, but they are not the size or shape of eggs, or egg colored, or the texture of eggs, and certainly not egg flavored. “Eggplant” is the exact opposite of an onomatopoeia – it is a thing that does not look, sound, or in any way resemble the word used to describe it. We should have a name for that. It’s an “Offomatopoeia”.

We should have a word for a lot of things that don’t have names, which was kind of my point by calling this boy my eggplant (in addition to the point that the people doing the nosing should butt out). For all of the nuance of the English language – and I do love this language – the pickings are pretty slim when it comes to the stages of romance. Fights will break out over the subtle differences between “geeks”, “dorks”, and “nerds”, but when it comes to love, the best distinction our language can muster is “love”, “platonic love”, and “in love”. No wonder poor Kevin Arnold had to ask if Winnie Cooper just “liked” him, or if she “like liked” him.

In relationships, our descriptors are pathetic. Once there is a level of commitment, it is pretty easy: spouse, partner, fiancé, boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other. But there are a whole lot of relationship stages before two people get to that point, and for those our language simply has no label. What are we supposed to call someone we like like, or are just starting to date, or are just starting to seriously date? (Even in describing the relationship phases our vocabulary is pretty limited.) We could call him a “prospect”, but this isn’t the NFL draft. A “candidate”? That’s way too political. He could be a “contender”, but that’s way too Brando. How about a “person of interest”? Sure, if you want it to sound like you’re investigating him for murder. And what about someone we’re just sleeping with? (Or: nailing, screwing, banging, tapping, f*cking, humping – here the vocabulary is practically endless.) There is the term “lover”, but I think Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch pretty much killed that one forever.

We’d probably be better off if we didn’t label things at all, but since we do, there should at least be enough labels to go around. Instead, there is a linguistic shaming of people outside of committed relationships (the single, unwed, available, unattached…), and I for one am not okay with it. Calling the romantic protagonists in my life “eggplant” – which I continue to do – is my one-woman protest (objection, disruption, act of defiance, stand…). What do you say we see if it can catch on? Maybe we can start an uprising (revolution, rebellion, movement, coup…). Or maybe we’ll just get some people to mind their own business. Either way works for me.