Sunday, Feb. 29, 2004 - 1:36 p.m.
Humans are good, we know, at inference and generalization. Weíre good at making and understanding symbols. One effect of this is that we can turn entire people, complex individuals with lives all their own, into our own symbols.
My friend Colin told me years ago that when you initially fall in love with someone, youíre really falling in love with yourself. Everything you think that person is actually is a reflection of yourself. He didnít present this as a bad tendency, just a human tendency. Problems arise between people when we realize the other is actually a person in his or her own right, not the projection we have created.
Projection, symbol Ė same thing, more or less. We make things stand for other things. We make our actual lovers stand for our ideal lovers, who are really ourselves in love.
And it goes farther than love. I made up someone this weekend, based on the minor stimulus of an actual person.
Iím sure Iíve had this breakthrough before; I have every breakthrough multiple times, and every time it changes my life for about a day. Thatís another part of being human: bad memory. Good instinct, though. Breakthroughs may just be what happens when an instinct becomes conscious.
I set up and worked at the registration table for a linguistics conference all weekend, handing out packets, answering questions, and absorbing the general vibe. At the conference was a PhD student from an important linguistics program north of here. He set up a table next to mine to sell books and manuscripts put out by his department, and we chatted a bit. He had tattoos covering both arms under his LinguistList t-shirt. He seemed comfortable and was friendly. He would turn occasionally to say something in German to the friend heíd driven down with. We talked about nothing important: where we were from, when he would finish his dissertation, how kids had made fun of our names when we were little. He noticed I pronounced ďHawaiiĒ with a glottal stop, asked how common this was among English speakers born there. We spoke for perhaps fifteen minutes altogether.
My brain was in quick-process mode through the whole conference: rather than just enjoying myself, I had to decide how much I was enjoying myself, and whether it was enough enjoyment to sustain me through a career in this. I constantly evaluate this: yes, I like it, but do I REALLY like it? Are these my people? Do I go with this?
I talked with a phonology professor three years into her quest for tenure. She told me she works seventy hours a week, that her current position in the system offers her exactly no life. I knew it was like this, but itís depressing to hear it yet again.
And then there was the tattooed boy. I knew nothing about him, but I decided he was perfectly able to integrate worlds, to work hard and be a linguist but to maintain his rock credibility. Maybe he is even in love, and he is good at it. Certainly he is able to make it all work. Of course, I have decided, he is a fabulous teacher but doesnít think about it too much. Probably he is a drummer, but his band does a lot of instrument-switching, so he plays guitar and sings sometimes as well, writing perfect lyrics with barely a thought. Also, Iím sure he learned how to build furniture from his great-grandfather and does a little woodworking on the side. He grows herbs and collects rare jazz 45s. He rides his bike to school. Nothing interferes with anything else, and he is always happy.
I googled him, of course. His cv on the schoolís page has a picture of him with his cat. Iíll bet he cleans that catís litterbox every day.
His list of languages is unbelievable, unreal, like something I made up along with the rest of it. Ancient and modern, rare North American and common European, at least six major families represented. He has papers and presentations in multiple areas of linguistics.
So thereís some real life support for this boy being a perfect person. Thereís evidence he works hard, at least. But all the rest of it is just me. I want to world-switch with no difficulty, to work hard and be convinced Iím doing the right thing, to be sure itís all worth it. I want to be plunked down in a conference full of strangers and talk comfortably with them. So Iíve made up a hero.
The funny part, Realization Number Two of the weekend, is that I already do these things. I can understand someoneís explanation of small nominals, talk competently about Relevance Theory, read a few chapters of Dance Dance Dance and make friendly conversation with strangers, then pack up and swing by the studio that Lís other band is recording at and ask whether the guitars theyíve recorded are just scratch tracks, and how ProTools seems to be working so far. I can stand on the street outside the studio drinking a beer and hear all about the show I missed the night before. I can go home and kiss my cat on the head, pay my bills, and write a letter to my grandmother. I can watch a Buffy episode as L falls asleep with his head in my lap, and I wonít even have nightmares about vampires. I can wake up thinking about some potential problems for Frege's analysis of proper names. And I can sit outside in the sunshine and stop thinking about all of it for a few minutes.
I did all this. Thatís my weekend. I just donít trust it.
I donít need to change anything, donít need to make up my mind once and for all or become a better person. I just have to realize that my hero is me.