A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

First person plural

 “You really need get better with your use of pronouns, Dad.”

Given that I was not the target of the teens’ lecture on grammatical usage – specifically, singular “they” for non-binary individuals -- I was happy to snicker from the couch.  My own pronoun-fluency might be shaky and my linguistic knowledge embarrassingly sparse, old-fashioned, and European/colonial, but for now, at least, they (third person plural) were correcting him (third person singular) rather than me (first person singular).  

We know about this, Dad.  Listen to us.  In our classes…

We/us/our. These are not contentious words, but in the context of pronouns I found myself noticing my kids’ casual use of the first-person plural.  As twins, despite their differences and arguments, they are often “we”.  Way back, I fretted that this might be a problem, but I’ve long since stopped worrying that they won’t forge highly distinct identities.  So why does their “we” still occasionally make me pause?

The first-person plural sometimes catches my attention when friends use it, too. We’re heading down to Denali for the weekend. We have tickets for the show. I notice it most when it’s used to describe not just shared actions, but also shared states of mind. We love that book!  We always laugh when that happens.  We’re planning.  We’re hoping.  We can’t wait! 

Does “we” confuse me?  Does it make me jealous, or anxious, or wistful, or lonely?  Do I use it less than other people do?  Existentially, is there an ideal level of “we” in everyone’s life?  Does it differ from person to person, and place to place?  How does “we” fit into a culture, and a language?

I’ve heard the argument that the way we view the world is limited by what words exist in our language.  This seems overly simplistic; English doesn’t have words for “hygge” or “iktsuarpok” or “greng-jai”*, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand those concepts, or haven’t experienced those feelings.  I just need more words to say these things.  And yet, I’d agree that the words that a language offers – or doesn’t -- reflect something about the assumptions, the biases, the blind spots, and the strengths of a culture.  How, then, have English pronouns affected my worldview?  And what does the whole global Babel have to offer in the realm of pronouns? 

I know that many languages – unlike English -- offer a wealth of ways in which to show varying levels of formality, respect, and relatedness.  I’m relived that mine doesn’t; I’m not fond of formalities, and I’m sure I’d make egregious social errors.  I’m likewise glad that we’re not like the French – and many others – who insist on assigning random genders to objects.  The petunia, he is flowering!  The mustache, she is curly!  The vagina, he is… wait, what?  And the prostate is female.  Okay, cool.  I guess the French already understand gender fluidity?  Or not? 

The Duolingo owl-mascot was mocking my ignorance. With a combination of genuine linguistic curiosity and blatant procrastination, I started Googling, and took a deep pronoun dive. 

English, as it turns out, is even more lacking than I thought it was. 

I already knew, as alluded to by the teen admonitions above, that English’s third-person options are problematic. He, she… Why use gendered pronouns at all? Sometimes a person’s gender is neutral, and sometimes it is unknown. It’s rarely salient.  Being constantly reminded of gender and forced to reference it in every sentence is annoying. Logically, we could pare down third-person pronouns to “it” and “they”, but “it” is considered so offensive when used for people that we struggle when admiring someone’s infant, or even their dog.  Due to our “it” aversion, we long ago started using singular “they” for a person of unknown gender, as in, “What if you had a really weird English teacher, and they forced you to read blog posts about grammar?”  I don’t want to dehumanize anyone, so I’ll roll with this -- and I’ll try to do so smoothly enough to prove that I’m not an old fart.

I also already knew that our second-person pronouns are insufficient.  I like simplicity and equality, but English is downright spartan here.  We need a plural “you”. Would you like to come over for supper?  Does this mean my whole family is invited?  Or just me?  Can I ask for clarification without seeming pushy? What if I offer to bring a pie?  Southerners use “y’all” and some New Yorkers resort to “yous”.  I’m more New York than Southern, notwithstanding the homemade pecan pie I’m bringing, so I’m voting “yous”.  What do yous think of this plan?

That’s two strikes against English for third-person and second-person issues… but I’d never considered that our first-person pronouns are also limiting.  This is where we get back to “we” – and my weird feelings about it. 

As it turns out, the reason why “we” sometimes feels exclusive rather than inclusive is due to something called. . . wait for it. . . “clusivity”.  Clusivity addresses the question of whether the speaker is referring to people who are part of the conversation, or to people who aren’t: does “we” mean “me and you(s)” or “me and he/she/it/them”? 

Apparently many languages – Mandarin, Lakota, Vietnamese, Maori, Punjabi, Hawaiian, Cree, Fula, and dozens of others spread across the world – have different words for “we that includes the person being spoken to”, and “we that does not”.  This distinction is lacking not only in English, but in every other western European language – although it’s present in American Sign Language.

Obviously, it’s not impossible to disambiguate.  As with “hygge”, it just takes more words, an understanding of normal social rules, and maybe some pie.  Still, clusivity fascinates me, because it seems so closely tied to a sense of belonging, to community, to the difference between individual and group thinking, to partnerships, friendships, marriages, kinship, barriers and boundaries. Where am I in the Venn diagrams that helpfully illustrate the Wikipedia page on clusivity? 

The more I think about it, the more the two meanings of “we” seem radically different, conceptually and emotionally.  If my kids use “we” to mean just the two of them – “We’ll do it later!” that’s very different from the “we” that also includes me – Can we go to the library this weekend?  If a friend uses “we” to mean the two of us – We could grab some Thai food for lunch – that’s not at all the same as the “we” that includes only my friend and some default other person who is definitely not me – We always play cribbage on Fridays.  We love that movie!  We’re planning an exciting trip to a sunny far-off land with way more pronouns than America.  One type of “we” makes me feel connected, and one type… not so much.  Inclusive “we”, exclusive “we”.  Why did I ever think they were the same word? 

Well, because my language decided that for me.  Duh.

Is “duh” really a word?  Do other languages have a word for “duh”?

Deep in my nerdy linguistic investigation, I told the twins about what I’d read. You know how you were talking about pronouns?  There’s this concept called clusivity…

As it turned out, my knowledge of pronouns was just as laughably deficient as their dad’s.  We already know all about that, Mom. We had a long discussion about whether to have one pronoun or two for “we”, when we were inventing our own language.

Duh. Of course they did.  That’s so last year.  Actually, that was almost three years ago, but who’s counting?  I wandered away, carrying my wounded pride wrapped up in my kids’ exclusive “we”.

But a few days later, curious, I circled back.  What pronouns, I inquired, did they ultimately decide upon, back when they were inventing that language? 

The answer, it turned out, was that they went for simplicity.  They settled on just six – singular and plural for first, second, and third person. 

I felt pleased that my opinions matched theirs when it came to ditching genders and adding something akin to “yous”.  My internal logic was sound and up-to-date!  Hip, even!  As for their choice regarding the lack of separate words for inclusive and exclusive “we”, I’m ambivalent.  I still haven’t decided how I’d parse that, if I had any power whatsoever over linguistics.  I still haven’t decided whether the distinction is meaningful and influential, or just a semantic blip.  I don’t know whether my culture’s focus on individualism has biased our language, and whether that in turn steers the way we think about being part of a pair, a partnership, a group, a community, a “we”.  I’m still not sure whether “we, but definitely not including you” would feel better or worse, conversationally and emotionally, if we had a word for that.

In examining my own clusivity, I realize that although I’m a sister, a spouse, a mother, and a friend, and have been part of two different nuclear families, I’ve never had an automatic “exclusive we” -- a plural version of myself that I drop casually into conversation.  Of course, I frequently use both types of “we”-- We’re collaborating on a paper.  We’re going skiing.  We made chana masala and naan -- but always with pre-stated names or other semantic clues, not as a default.  I rarely if ever profess exclusive-we emotional states: we think, we hope, we dream, we love.  Is this cultural?  Personal?  Something about my upbringing?  Is such isolationism more common in speakers of languages with limited clusivity options?  I don’t know.  True, I’m usually glad to have autonomy, neural privacy, and first-person-singularity. I’ve been alone in my head for half a century, and I’m used to it. But sometimes I long for a Vulcan mind-meld.  Sometimes I miss the phantom twin I never had.  Sometimes I want another word for “we”.

On the bright side, we -- the twins and I -- had an excellent conversation.  I felt… included.  I also felt educated by my teenagers, which can only be a good thing.

The kids are alright.

And me?  I really need to get better with my use of pronouns.


* Hygge (Danish): a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.

Iktsuarpok (Inuktitut): the feeling of anticipation while waiting for someone to arrive, often leading to intermittently going outside to check for them.

Greng-jai (Thai): being aware of other people’s feelings and showing politeness, respect and consideration, particularly in a manner that helps others save face and avoids inconveniencing them.


Sunday, December 25, 2022

Assembly Instructions (2022)


Warning!  Avertissement!
Follow all instructions carefully.  Year must be securely attached to the moorings provided (see December 2021 and January 2023).   Failure to secure 2022 will nullify the enclosed warranty.

Before you begin:

Prepare adequate workspace for assembly of 2022.  Some components may expand to fill more than the expected area.

Check contents:

  •  Primary components: Nancy, Jay, Lizzy, Molly (Note: Contents should include two high school sophomores.  These components are self-actualized under most conditions).
  •  Secondary components: Shiloh, Eddy, and Sinbad. (Note: tagging and labeling secondary components is recommended.  Do not use paint or Sharpie.)

Supplementary and auxiliary components (not included) will be needed for some steps.

Gather all necessary tools.  You will need:

·       Optimism (Phillips, flat-head, torx, and hex optimism will all be needed).

·       Patience (use coarse, medium, and fine-grit patience in order to ensure a smooth finish).

·       Sense of humor (gallon-size or larger).

·       Fortitude (heavy-duty C-clamps can be used in addition to fortitude, as needed).

·       Love (Note: epoxy should not be used as a replacement).

·       Reading glasses. 

Step 1: January.

Figure 1

a.       Open 2022 carefully, being careful not to mislay any small parts such as early-morning meetings, permission slips, dental appointments, or emails from the director of your workplace.  Contents may be cold and dark; this is normal. 

b.       Be sure to avoid residual COVID.  

c.       When in doubt, check your climate change models.  (Figure 1. Note: csv files are now available.)

d.       Set aside travel plans; you will need these in later steps.

Step 2: February.

a.       Actually, you need those travel plans right now.  Assemble them quickly. 

b.       Insert your hand into another hand.  It will be frail. 

c.       Hold gently. 

d.       Keep holding. 

e.       Hold until it’s time to let go.

f.        Parts will be irretrievably broken during this step. 

g.       Oddly enough, although you will never be able to persuade your heart that this is normal, this is normal. 

h.       Insert family, friendship, warmth, and memories. 

i.         Repeat step 2h as necessary.

Step 3: March.

a.       Sort priorities. 
Figure 2

b.       Fold life back into schedule. 

c.       Assemble all human and canine components, four snow bikes, sleeping bags, clothing, assorted gear, and an enormous amount of food (Figure 2).

d.       Circle White Mountains clockwise.  Do not pedal continuously.  Be sure to enjoy.

Step 4: April

a.       Refer back to climate change models.

b.       Prepare supplementary bark beetle sub-model (Note: results may be concerning).

Step 5: May

a.       Turn 50.  (Note: this type of turning should not be accomplished with screwdriver).

b.       For components turning 16 rather than 50: commence daily counts of hatchling swallows, apply AP exams, and finish school year. (Note: natural finish is preferred to polyurethane).

c.       Check to see if all the snow has melted. 

d.       If results of step 5c are positive, go camping. 

e.       If results are negative, go camping anyhow.

Step 6: June

a.       As applicable, continue counting beetles and/or swallows. 
Figure 3

b.       Add squirrel. (Figure 3)

c.       Find rock climber among components; set her aside in Hatcher’s Pass for a week.

d.       Liberal application of Shakespeare will be necessary in June and July.  Sharpen acting skills.

Step 7: July

a.       Firmly affix acting skills to wall (see Figure 4).
Figure 4

b.       Firmly affix walls. (Note – 7a and 7b are two distinct tasks; only the latter should involve nails, hammers, and screw guns, although both involve a certain amount of paint and suspension of disbelief.  See Figure 5).
Figure 5

c.       If cast as part of a teenage string trio of fairy muses (Figure 6), sharpen viola-playing skills. (Note: This type of casting does not involve cement). During this step, it’s also very important not to slam your finger in a doo…   Oh.  Keep playing.)

Step 8: August

Figure 6

a.       Insert two adults, three teenagers, two dogs, and associated gear in truck. (Note: this step incorporates auxiliary component V.  This may be a tight fit, but greasing components is not recommended).

b.       Head for the hills. (Note: In this case, “hills” are primarily the Wrangell Mountains, Figure 7)
Figure 7

c.       Update M & L components to 11th grade mode.  Dust lightly with Calculus. (Note: instructions also available in German and Russian).

d.       Sand, polish, and lightly varnish teaching skills; apply to a batch of UAF students.
Figure 8

e.       Adjust squirrel as needed (Figure 8)

Step 9: September

Figure 9
a.       Measure 26.2 miles of trail.  Apply components N, L, and M (plus supplementary component V from Step 8.
b.       Continue to calibrate large auxiliary components (Figure 9)
c.       Gently release squirrel.  Loosening nuts may help. (Figure 10)

Figure 10
Step 10: October

a.       Complete academic quarter.  Apply grades.  Components will have a lustrous finish.

b.       Temporarily transfer all primary components and several auxiliary components to Tolovana; immerse in hot water until softened.

Step 11: November

a.       Recalibrate expectations by actually receiving federal grant money. (Note: consult paperwork to determine what you said you’d do).

b.       Suspend component L from wall (Note: this is normal, but distinct from both step 7a and step 7b. – Figure 11
Figure 11

Step 12: December

a.       Add finishing touches to your 2022. 

b.       Prepare points for secure attachment to 2023. (Note: failure to attach 2023 voids mail-in rebate).

c.       Repeat step 2h as necessary.

d.       Spread a thick layer of durable good cheer (high-gloss or matte, as preferred).

Congratulations!  Your 2022 is now complete.  A wonderful holiday season and a happy new year to all.


Don't forget to hold hands.



Sunday, December 4, 2022

All the privileges, all the plumbing


In honor of turning 50, I got a colonoscopy.

I know -- everyone’s got that one friend who wants to tell them about their medical procedures.  Don’t worry, I’m not actually that friend*. What I do want to tell you about is social injustice.  

Yeah, everyone’s got that one friend, too.  But I’m the quirky friend, so I’m going to relate it to toilets. 

We don’t have one. 

In case the connection to commodes isn’t glaringly obvious: in dutifully reading the six-page preparation guide provided to me by The Medical Establishment, I found that it assumed that all patients have access to a bathroom that they can commandeer comfortably and without interruption for at least half a day.

I repeat, we don’t have one.  We have an outhouse. 

Okay, that’s super-weird.  But at the same time, it’s not weird.  About 7% of Fairbanks North Star Borough residences are in this category – a small but not insubstantial minority.  Shouldn’t the literature at least recognize this? 

Shouldn’t the literature at least recognize this? 

Right.  In registering my own mild affront, I started thinking about everything else that is, so to speak, not recognized in the literature -- not in the particular literature I was dealing with, not in the literature for mammogram I also had and the shingles vaccine I need to get because I’m now officially Sort of Oldish, and not in the broader and more metaphorical Literature of Medical Assumptions.

It’s amazing how a tiny lack of privilege can highlight what a boatload of privilege I DO have.  In contemplating my outhouse, I started counting my advantages within a rigged system.  There are a lot of them.

First, I have health insurance.  This is huge. 

Second, my employer nags me about getting checkups, and provides me with incentives to do so. This is annoying as hell, but even with all that nagging, I still managed to procrastinate for six months, so… yeah.

Third, I am well educated.  Like, way over-educated.  I have a PhD in biology, so I at least know how a colon works, assuming that I can remember even 10% of what got me through the GREs. 

Fourth, I have connectivity and information access.  I have Google, and I also have 24-7 EBSCO access to articles with improbably long titles.  If I’m in the right mood, I even read them.  A primer: colonoscopies are not only useful for screening and catching cancer early when it’s still treatable and survivable; they also prevent cancer.  Colon cancer starts as precancerous polyps.  Polyps are routinely removed during colonoscopies.  Boom, no cancer ten years later. Nice.

Fifth, I have transportation and time: a working automobile and a driver’s license, and a spouse with the same.  We both have vacation time, flexible hours, and the ability to work partially remotely. 

Sixth, I have enough income and savings to not have to worry about minor out-of-pocket expenses, deductables, fancy fluffy toilet paper, whatever.

Many of these privileges were already on my mental radar, but I’d never really added them up until I read through the multi-page prep instructions.  The assumptions are all there: you can get to a pharmacy or a grocery store whenever you want, buy all the necessary items, and get them home with you.  You understand exactly why going through all this hassle is totally save-your-life worth it.  You do not fear it, even though the document offers no FAQs to assuage potential worries. You can take two whole days off work, during which you apparently do nothing at all -- no childcare, no remote work, no chores. You can get to the hospital or clinic, and you also have someone who can be there to pick you up, because the paperwork insists upon no walking, no taxis, and no Ubers due to the after-effects of sedation -- although it fails to mention that the sedation itself is NOT mandatory. 

This is a lot – financially, logistically, structurally, educationally, emotionally, and socially.  This is not a given, for a lot of Americans. 

Even a very brief session of #4 (All the Scientific Articles) uncovers some harsh truths. People are dying, and they are doing so in a manner that disproportionately affects racial minorities and anyone who is poor.  They’re dying because they are not getting screened. Colonoscopy reduces the risk of death from colorectal cancer by as much as 88%. The strongest correlations with lack of screening are lack of high school diploma, income below the poverty line, and lack of health insurance.  Gee, what a surprise.

There are quite a few academic papers that attempt to unravel why this is the case.  Most of them seem to conclude “it’s a lot of things”.  Yeah.  See the list above.  It’s a lot of things.  A lot of privileges that a lot of people don’t have.  A lot of reasons why people might avoid doing something that not only sounds totally gross, embarrassing, scary, and mystifying, but is also a massive financial and logistical hurdle.

And now, back to the toilets.

Toilets are obviously not the biggest factor, but I’m going for Toilet Symbolism here – whereby toilets represent all the unanswered questions and all the unacknowledged privilege, not just the assumption that you can hog a bathroom for hour upon hour, presumably in your suburban home with its 2.5 baths. Toilets underscore privilege.  Go take a moment to admire your privilege.  Aaaaah. 

Back now?  Good. 

So, as you might guess, outhouses in November in Fairbanks, Alaska are not a reality that meshes very well with colonoscopies.  But I’m living this weird cabin-in-the-woods lifestyle because I want to, not because I’ve been economically forced into it.  As such, I got myself a hotel room for one night.  It was luxurious. 

“Luxurious” is probably not a word most people would use to summarize their colonoscopy.  But there you have it.  Not everyone can afford bathroom-related luxury -- or any of the aforementioned logistical, social, and informational luxuries.  So, weird as it seems, our society is set up such that colonoscopies are a luxury. 

Wait.  There’s one more luxury that I almost overlooked: Advantage #7.  Due to the fact that so many of you, my friends, are socioeconomically A-OK, we have the advantage of Social Support Via Demystification.  In other words, I lied; for your own good, I am going to tell you about my colonoscopy.

It was… fine.  Non-stressful.  The prep was a bit tiresome and somewhat hungry, but not as much so as I expected.  Mostly I was lolling on a comfy bed, typing on my laptop as usual, and eating non-red lollipops.  This felt decadent, in a goofy little-kid way. 

The procedure?  Slightly humorous, and kinda fascinating, because I chose not to be anaesthetized (you knew that was an option, right?), and there was a big viewing screen.  Cool! Cecum!  I’m a biologist, I have the sensibilities of a twelve-year-old, and I enjoy Ms Frizzle and her Magic School Bus.

The results?  The doctor found, removed, and biopsied two sesame-seed-sized polyps. Serrated sessile adenomas.  Definitely not cancer – yet.  Those two tiny lurkers are gone now, no longer a potential threat to my ten-years-from-now self. 

The future? Because of those pink dots, I get to do this all again in five years, rather than the usual decade.  And… that’s a privilege.

There you have it.  If you’re part of my 1972 cohort or some even more archaic gang, be sure to take advantage of the luxury available to you.  Appreciate it.  And, of course, in the true spirit of Advantage #7, be sure to tell all and sundry about it.



*Yes I am. Obviously.