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2019 June 18 - 02:13 pm

Farewell to the Shibboleths

The Shedding of the Elders

It is now officially beyond the middle of the middle month of the year.

We have passed through slightly more than half of the month of June, a thirty-day fellow among others of like length or less (ah, February!) and still more a day longer.

And as I sit before a blank computer screen with a flashing black cursor prompting me to write, my mind floats off. I am, after all, no longer employed, even part-time, at a place that my father created, a place where once I was lauded as brilliant and a gift to the College, named Teacher of the Year, Department Head and Grants Co-ordinator, Academics Consultant and Languages Resource.

No, everything has ended.


Via E-mail.

I suppose I should be happy that The Word did not come via Twitter, since that seems to be the Last Best Administrative Tool for even the highest leaders in this land these days.

But E-mail works. It saves postage. It saves any risky face-to-face contact. It can be saved or deleted, moved into a separate sub-file, set aside. Plus, it is virtual. Like (almost) totally unreal, dudes, might say the Californians around me!

And E-mail, like much modern communication, can easily obfuscate, even as it offers the air of the precisely politic, written in the typeface du jour, unliberated Calibri, the so-called default font for Microsoft, as The New Yorker has written. It is a calm and unassuming typeface, as The New Yorker notes its Dutch creator Lucas De Groot as having stated, neutral and non-demanding.

It's just perfect for sending a firing message.

And the words in the message are perfect, too, of course.

As a linguist, I am fascinated by words, their origins, and their uses and abuses.

When I did sports reporting, I loved to be able to say win or lose in a thousand ways, for instance. Team X demolished Team Y; Team X slipped by Team Y' Team X battered Team Y. And so on. When I translated pharmaceutical product package inserts French-English and English-French, I found how important those chemical names can be; word formation can lead to a bad high or a certain poisoning if one selects chloral hydrate rather than chlorohydrate, for instance.

And telling an employee that he is going to be let go just seems not too nice.

But in my case, there has been no letting go. No, an appointment was revoked and a contract retracted. In addition, my history, the existence that I have had at the place for almost 50 years, has been expunged and effaced. When I have asked about any retirement benefits that I may have amassed, the answer is that there is no evidence that I have amassed anything.

Decades of a so-called certain part-time life no more than a shibboleth?

Something that I thought would always stand there, even though as only a portion of an existence, now cracked away from under me in this land of earthquakes and seismic shifts?

A friend of mine keeps telling me that nothing is certain in a part-time life. Another tells me that I must remind myself that the twenty-first century has no memory of anything past. And yet another says that I am too old,” not just chronologically but mentally, for a game that has no fixed rules.

Ah, yes, I remind myself, looking at one of the posters in an elevator at school: Disruption is one of the words of the day. Breaking apart, breaking us into parts --- that is good. Disruptive innovation is supposed to create new markets, new values that displace the old, shedding us oldsters like so much slough.

Yes, I think, yes! That must be it. I am being sloughed off like so much dead skin from the snake. I am then left to slide into a gooey slough of degradation. Aren't words nice?

Nineteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert spent a lot of time thinking, working his grey matter, travailing to arrive at le mot juste, the just-right word for the moment.

As I write this, lots of words come to mind for the deep despairing that has been washing over me these last few weeks. But I believe that the varieties of meaning and pronunciation linked to that coolly very-English slough fit quite fine.

And I wonder, or rather hope, that I can paddle or swim well enough to make it through the mire to another side, to a place where innovation can be more positive than negative, where disruption need not destroy, where the quiet and the strongly dedicated among us bottom-dwellers can still germinate and generate something good. 

Good, after all, is a good word. Its meaning will not slough away.


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