Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
November 26, 2010
“To err is human, to forgive divine,” so said Alexander Pope in “An Essay on Criticism.” We’ve all heard or seen that excerpt; it’s part of bustling through our education system, and it sticks with us, even if we don’t remember quotes very well.
It was called “Advanced Grammar and Syntax,” a monster of a required class and a major roadblock in an otherwise satisfactory collegiate career centered upon English Literature. Such instruction seemed incidental in the beginning; it’s a long way from Steinbeck, Joyce and Hemingway to diagraming sentences, if you ask me, not even close to the point, and it got put on the back burner.
Truth be known, I did have an inkling of what grammar was all about, but syntax? From playing the piano, I knew about syncopation, an interesting way to change up the beat, but syntax didn’t register. Diagraming sentences? Boring, although Gertrude Stein, an obviously fun-challenged writer once said, “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagraming sentences.” Compound predicates, indirect objects, appositives and participial phrases? I may as well have been at Vladivostok State University, Russia.
Girls with pageboy haircuts, wool socks up to their knees under checkered, short woolen skirts, with buckle-up, shiny shoes and clear Monday morning eyes could dissect a sentence faster than they could cross and uncross their legs.
Maybe I was in the wrong department? But, people liked my short stories and when I felt magnanimous, they would eagerly await copies in the student union, delivered at a time set by word of mouth. They weren’t complaining about my grammar and syntax.
The problem may have been one of attitude. If you ask me, the phrase, “To err is human,” is too simple to be defined grammatically. I mean, for God’s sake, doesn’t it simply spell out the fact that we are continuously doing one unenlightened thing after another, or as the old saying goes (always wrongfully attributed to Einstein), we keep doing the same things over and over, expecting different results? I mean, let’s be honest, it’s impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the human race.
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Truthfully, if you’re uncomfortably warm in the front row of a class you dislike, a creaky, wooden desk under you, listening to the groan and pop of old-time steam radiators and surrounded by friendly, intelligent women, it’s hard to concentrate. The professor drones on, “In the idiom ‘To err is human,’ the infinitive To err is an infinitive.”
How tedious it must be, semester after semester, teaching such fundamentals to ungrateful undergraduates. The ultimate irony, at least in my mind and with all due respect, is that 90 percent of us cannot pronounce “err” properly, anyway, which proves the essence of the sentence and undermines any further attempts at intelligent discussion.
The professor was gay, homosexual, only those weren’t the terms we used back then, but it didn’t matter. He was a good-looker, tall, nattily dressed, sporting chiseled features topped by a generous mop of silvery hair. Although the exemplification of a distinguished professor, he was scared to death of me, never looked my direction.
We always sat in a semi-circle, our backs to the tall, narrow windows and I was forever trying to imagine the gray, overcast skies outside, thinking about powder snow, warm beds and tangled sheets.
The intriguing part of the professor’s job was thrust upon me, the only other male, simply due to his inattention to the female form, and I watched winter skirts coyly climb silky thighs and was infinitely lost in the promises found therein.
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