Celebratory day

Today, September 6th, is both National Coffee Ice Cream Day — my favorite flavor — and also Lafayette’s birthday (1757), a most satisfying confluence of occasions. Meanwhile, it has brought me some extraordinarily warming good wishes from people appreciating things I have said and written over the past roughly 60 years, on my own celebratory day. Today I become an old man.

(Is there a ceremony for this? Would I have to do it in Hebrew? That would make it a deeply serious ritual, but totally out of my range, as a lapsed Episcopalian, formerly Lutheran. The Book of Common Prayer, alas, lacks a rite for this occasion. On the other hand, the Lutherans and Anglicans (and many other Christian denominations) have music for it; see below.)

I have been getting comments from readers, colleagues, and former students thanking me for things I have said or written, sometimes quite specific things (mostly from the distant past). For a teacher and scholar, few things can be more satisfying.

Especially satisfying for me, since my way of working has never been to pursue Big Ideas or to to aggressively defend some grand theoretical proposal against all comers or to establish an academic empire, but to try to understand some small puzzle and then to pursue the consequences of what I find. And to be open to the tentative character of what I conclude. (All of this strikes many as a decidedly unmasculine style of academic work.

In any case I was led to methodology, argumentation, and conceptual analysis, and also to fine-grained explorations of small domains of data. (I’ve been told on several occasions that neither of these lines of work is theoretical linguistics: that the first is philosophy, the second applied linguistics or the mere accumulation of fact. Then there’s my work on grammar, usage, and style, and on social variation, which is equally modest in its approach and also, to many people’s minds, clearly also not theoretical linguistics.) The point is that while all of this sets me up to encourage students (but critically) in whatever topic they want to pursue,  I’m neither directive or oracular, and my influence on my students and readers is more subtle, so generally not especially memorable. And that’s just as I want it.

Several of the comments are quite touching. One reminds me that the knowledge and expertise I once had in several areas has pretty much entirely disintegrated, gone to dust, so that I read its praise for an old paper of mine with amazement that I could ever have done that.

And then, from my first male lover (50 years ago!), a tribute that brought tears to my eyes:

I celebrate your birth and your true and luminous presence in my life and in this world.

(He was, and is, a wonderful man, and in turn, he changed my life, in many good ways.)

The theme song. “Ancient of Days, who sittest throned in glory” from Hymnbook 1982 (of the Episcopal Church (United States)):

The text is by William Croswell Doane (1832-1913); the tune is Coburn, by Alec Wyton (b. 1921). Doane’s hymn was originally written for the Bicentenary of the City of Albany NY in 1886. The first verse:

Ancient of Days, who sittest, throned in glory,
to thee all knees are bent, all voices pray;
thy love has blessed the wide world’s wondrous story
with light and life since Eden’s dawning day.

Now, of course, this is not a hymn to the attainment of old age, but to the Holy Trinity. Succeeding verses praise (in order) the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the 5th the Triune God.

Nevertheless, I am tickled by the idea of taking the first line as a metaphor for the achievement of old age: on your 80th birthday you become an Ancient of Days, and you will now sit clothed in glory. Well, there should be some reward.

9 Responses to “Celebratory day”

  1. Doug Harris Says:

    I’m wondering if you find it as strange to legitimately use the phrase ‘over the past roughly 60 years’ as I do to say ‘over the past 55-plus’ — these being ages neither of us gave a moment’s thought to at the early part of those stretches of time.
    You commented recently you struggle with assorted physical issues. But fortunately, your mind is sharp as a whip (an odd cliche, is it not?)!
    And BTW, you’re due to write an update on your garden!

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On that 60-year time span. It was roughly 60 years ago when I began my career of teaching (tutoring math, mostly calculus, as a Princeton undergraduate; then serving as a graduate teaching assistant in linguistics at MIT) and writing for publication. At the time, I had two remaining grandparents, my mother’s mother and my father’s father, so they were my image of old age. My grandmother was terribly frail physically by then, but still agile of mind; my grandfather was already descending into a long twilight period of mental decline (presumably dementia, though we had no label for his condition). (Ann Daingerfield, who I married roughly 60 years ago, had no grandparents remaining at the time.) So, yes, it was pretty much unimaginable to the 20-year-old me that I would eventually become one of these old people.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      You: “And BTW, you’re due to write an update on your garden!”

      Don’t chivvy me, man; my life is hard (but yes, I think I’m still pretty damn sharp, though I work more slowly). The plants have had a tough year; what I have for the summer is lots of interesting greenery and almost no flowers of any kind, so there’s not a lot to write about.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      Is “sharp as a whip” a common expression? My brain wants it to be “sharp as a tack”. One could say without risk of contradiction that Arnold is “smart as a whip”, but I wouldn’t apply that phrase to a mind.

      • Stewart Kramer Says:

        Yes, (Google finds “About 192,000 results (0.34 seconds) “) and no, it apparently originated as a blend of exactly those two phrases, although it is now its own idiom:

        (as) sharp as a whip
        Very intelligent, clever, or quick-thinking. (A common but incorrect combination of the two phrases “sharp as a tack” and “smart as a whip.”)
        Ted’s as sharp as a whip, so he’ll find a solution to this problem.
        Of course Ellen is our valedictorian—she’s as sharp as a whip.
        See also: sharp, whip

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Stewart: you are a marvel. I’m way overloaded with things to post about, and was still assembling the material you’ve posted here, and now you’ve done the work. Thank you.

        I try to encourage people to follow up on a question and post the results here, rather than just assuming that since something I wrote gives rise to the question I’m responsible for doing the research myself (my blog, my job) — but very few people are willing to do the work. You are, and that’s admirable.

      • Stewart Kramer Says:

        Well, I mostly look up the things that I’m interested in. If people mention something interesting, I might as well share what I’ve found. Also, posting an answer makes it easier to find if the question comes up again.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        Arnold, once again, I apologize for inadvertently giving you the impression that I wanted you to do the work. My question was really addressed to Doug Harris, since it was he who used the phrase in question.

  2. Max Vasilatos Says:

    I adore coffee ice cream.

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