Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Comparatively superlative


When I was a child and complained “I’m bored,” my father would say, “Maybe you’re not bored; maybe you’re just boring. If you find ways to be excited, you won’t ever be bored. Boring people don’t do that. Blah blah blah, blabbety blah blah.” There was more but I usually stopped listening at that point because it, or I, was too boring.

This week I’ve focused my ESL class on adjectives and adverbs. Among other things we’ve discussed the difference between the present participle and the past participle when each is used as an adjective. This too may sound boring, but mistakes in this area result can result in some unintentionally humorous sentences—or perhaps some inadvertently revealed truths. The story from my childhood is an example of why you never want to confuse these two types of adjectives, unless you’re my father and you’re trying to make a sanctimonious point. Native speakers of English probably never have to give this distinction any thought; we know which type of adjective we want in any given situation even if we can’t necessarily articulate the rules behind our choice. Just think about how this looks from an ESL point of view, though. There is no good reason why the present participle should describe an experienced created by something for something else and the past participle should describe the experience itself. This has nothing whatsoever to do with time; it’s just one of those crazy-ass rules that’s true because I say it’s true. It is also true that crazy-ass can be used as an adjective.

Now a set of rules that makes somewhat more sense is that which governs comparatives and superlatives. After all, most languages have words to signify gradations in qualities: good, better, best; bad, worse, worst. In English, “good” and “bad” have irregular comparatives and superlatives, but most other words follow a set of rules involving adding “-er” for the comparative and “-est” for the superlative or else “more” and “most” or “less” and “least” before the adjective or adverb. There are a few other things to know here, but overall this is a fairly simple bunch of rules.

That said, teaching these lessons got me to wondering just why this is such a universal concept. Why are comparisons so essential to human life? Can’t we experience love without announcing to the world that our boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/partner is the best? Yes, it’s supposed to show how much we love them when we make such proclamations, but to me this seems kind of like the opposite of love. I neither know nor care at this moment whether my boyfriend is the best boyfriend in the world; I know he’s the best boyfriend for me, which means he probably isn’t the best boyfriend for everyone in the world because not everyone is me, thank goodness. But there, see, I’m still doing it, still using superlatives to compare one person to others, because it’s pretty much impossible to avoid comparisons if you’re human—if you’re alive at all, in fact. One of our macaws will eat anything you put in front of him; the other strongly prefers some items to others. Picky, pickier, pickiest.

And I just did it again, compared our two birds, much in the same way my parents compared their two children. I kind of hated when they did this; my sister was the neat one who was good at math and science, while I was the slob who was good at writing. While there’s a nugget of truth to all that, they seemed to overlook the fact that she used to get A’s in English (even though she hated writing) and I took advanced Calculus in high school (even though I can’t add worth a damn any more). As for the neat/slob thing, no one else in my entire life has ever thought of me as a slob, but the minute I go back to visit my family and I fail to hang my towel up so that the edge of the towel is parallel to the towel rack, it’s Slob City all over again, population me. Messy, messier, messiest.

Obviously comparisons aren’t always a bad thing. We can create goals and challenges for ourselves by looking at what other people have done and wondering, Can I do that too? And then, Can I do even better than that? And possibly, Can I be the best at that? Of course, most people are never the best at anything, by definition, so it’s debatable whether, at the point where we go to thinking in terms of superlatives, we aren’t perhaps doing ourselves harm. Why set impossible goals? Yes, ambition is exciting and admirable, but finding a way to be contented with your life is in many ways an even bigger challenge than finding a way to be the best, and one key way to gain contentment is through acceptance. Say this life is good enough. Say I have what I need. Say I am this person and that’s fine by me. Easy enough to say, but wait a bit, those pesky comparatives and superlatives will be back with a vengeance.

Fast, faster, fastest.

There have been many times during my BQ training that I’ve wondered why in the hell I ever decided to go after this thing. Right now the prospect of never racing again seems awfully enticing. I love running; I do not love racing. Good news is I can run without racing, I can run just for fun, just to enjoy the feeling of movement, of being alive, of all those good things I’ve gushed endlessly about in this blog, at least before I started jabbering on about PRs and BQs and intervals and fartleks. And yet—and yet! Still I wonder. Still I look at my running buddies who have done Boston and I wonder, can I do that too? These runners would assure me this is not a bad thing—is, in fact, a very good thing, because a BQ is satisfying, not because it makes you better than other people, as it most assuredly does not do that, but because it’s the very best kind of challenge you can encounter in life. This is a goal you created yourself; no one made you do it, and no one will think more of you for doing it or less of you for not. Many of the best runners I know have no desire ever to try to BQ; instead they choose other goals. Whatever running goal you choose, any runner will tell you that you’re mostly in competition with yourself. You want to be good, you want to be better, you want to be the best you can be. And then you want a lot of food. Hungry, hungrier, hungriest.

I have not changed my feeling about this Saturday’s race; I don’t feel confident that I’m ready to BQ. I won’t be surprised if the BQ doesn’t happen, though of course I’ll still be disappointed; there’s no other way to feel when you fall short of a goal even if that goal was entirely out of reach. But in another way I won’t be disappointed at all. Perhaps my father’s words really did sink in after all, because the one thing my pursuit of a BQ has not been is dull. Neither bored nor boring, I’m off to face the marathon.