13 October 2021

It cannot always be night

Sometime yesterday, a water pipe burst outside the house on Victoria Road. I found out about it on the Road Group Chat while I was in a tutorial with students. When I finished the meeting, I came outside to look at it and talked with two women from the Road who were also looking at it and commenting, the way we need to as British people, on the variety of ways in which this was bad, but really, it could be much worse. This happens in a volley where one person suggests something negative and then the other offers some mitigation, to which the first responds, that's true, and then continues with the positive thread until the second comes back in with something negative to offset it. The conversation ended with one saying, well, I'm getting wet, and it was then that I realised it was just barely raining and I too had started to get wet.

Maybe this has nothing to do with being British. Actually, I'm sure it doesn't, but that way of categorising things continues to work for me as a heuristic. Several students have complained about me this year and in each case, I've managed to repress my more carnal American urge to fire back in anger and instead have managed to mask my crippling fear of being wrong through a response I've told myself is the most British way possible to respond to a complaint: bureaucratic language stuffed with fully formed paragraphs, conditional clauses and seventy-five-word sentences, headed sometimes even with the word 'Whilst' which I savour when I type it without any sense of irony. You can seethe in the most polite anger, nothing but logic and the way things should be on your side. Please don't argue with me, I have been doing lecturing for many years now.

This has a limited success rate, particularly when I am met with over the top apologies that suggest I've not done a good job of hiding my anger, or worse, the same response, an even more masterful speaker of British English who silences me, someone who has not only learned this way of communicating but was raised in it. At that point, the whole charade is off and I have been utterly and completely exposed for the fraud I am. I can't compete with real British authority, you can hear the truth every time I open my mouth and pronounce a vowel. My kids can point it out immediately and mock me. The moment I say water is pouring out of the pavement: Okay, but before I deal with this report, where is that accent from?

I only think this way, I only hear authority in people's voices, because I was raised to be acutely aware and afraid of authoritarian grandstanding, particularly when it came supported by big words or in a British accent, the sort of voice you'd hear in a WWII documentary, Winston Churchill maybe, or the Queen. British English was an older and therefore better version of whatever language I spoke. God spoke with a British accent, certainly. I can pretend here and there, but everyone knows that I am simply pretending, my American friends wondering who the hell I think I am spelling favour with a 'u', like some college junior that went to Barcelona for a semester and now speaks with a lisp. We get it. 

I shouldn't pretend that I'm the authority on anything. My daughter having tested positive for Covid was asked on the phone to list all the friends she was in contact with and I knew only one of them. I go into their rooms to say good night or ask them to do something and they are looking at screens that I can't see. When I was younger, when I thought of having children, I assumed that I would never be like my parents, oblivious of the things that were happening or possible right in the house. I thought at the time that I was some sort of exceptional person, not entirely taking advantage of the gaps in surveillance. Now, of course, I realise how foolish all this was, how my parents of course knew, if not exactly, approximately, and that I wasn't some exceptional child, but that I had come to monitor myself. That the surveillance had already come into me. All the second-guessing, the anxiety, the fear I've lived with for years and years, of getting caught, of being wrong — that was the feature, not the bug. 

Water is still coming out of the pavement, but the supplier must have decided that this was not a priority. The sun should come up any minute and then they may be more willing to come out and fix it. It's not an emergency anyway, and we still have water in the house. These are the things you say in the volley of bad news that isn't really bad news for you, though you feel a kind of relief that this is the bad thing that will happen. Of course, two bad things can happen, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely that now something good might happen.