Tuesday 24 April 2012

Dear Competent

Dear Competent 

I don’t usually write fan letters. In fact, this is the first fan letter I’ve written since I was a little girl and had a huge crush on David Bowie in Labyrinth. (I didn’t hear back from David Bowie. Today, his codpiece scares me. I can’t believe they let him wear that in a movie ostensibly made for little kids. Back in the day though, I was in love with his big hair and dramatic eye makeup, and the moment when he said to Jennifer Connelly ‘Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. I move the stars for no one.’ I didn’t know exactly what this meant, and I didn’t exactly understand their relationship (in fact, I don’t think I understand their relationship now. Is it fatherly? Mentorly? Loverly? Avuncular, but in the sense of that slightly creepy uncle who doesn’t get invited around much? This is quite confusing.) Also, I just looked Jareth up online, and found this blogpost about a four-year-old dressed as Jareth for Halloween. I thought it was quite weird, and that you might like it too.), but I knew, like some new coupling getting linked up in my neural wiring, that this was capital-R Romance. 

 Sorry. I got sidetracked. This happens sometimes. This was meant to be about you. That’s kind of why I’m writing, actually. I feel like you are overlooked. Sidelined. That you’ve become a bit player in the great cast of the English language. This makes me sad. I figured it makes you sad, too. That you must watch all the other words getting their time up on the stage, but you’re kicking your heels in the green room. Kind of like Pauline in Ballet Shoes, that time when she went from being the precocious lead actress to being an understudy. I know that was a lesson in humility, but I hated it all the same. Why couldn’t they just let her star shine? She was so obviously going to end up in the movies, although I bet on the inside the theatre will always be her first love. Sometimes I think authors should just tell the truth about their characters rather than trying to teach us things using narrative arcs. I brought this up in a tutorial once, but the class didn’t really agree. Oh well. Their loss. 

Anyway. I thought I would write to you and see if I could put a little pep in your step. I am planning to reclaim you. You see, I think we have become careless with our superlatives. Everything is awesome. Zombies are awesome. Vampires are awesome. Unicorns and rainbows are awesome. Unicorn-vampire-zombie-rainbow mash-ups are awesome. Tweets are awesome. T-shirt slogans are awesome. Fonts are awesome (okay, some typefaces are awesome. There’s this particular one I like that was used by Vogue in the 1930s that has this quirky vertical tail on the capital Q. I admit to liking it partly because it is obscure and that makes me feel clever when I drop it into conversation: “My favourite font? Well, you probably won’t know it, but there’s this font that was licensed to Vogue in 1930 and it’s not really used any more, and it’s kinda plain but has these little distinctions, like a really low-slung em-dash, and a really long bar on the capital G, and a funny little vertical tail on the capital Q …”). Cupcakes are awesome. Cocktails are awesome. Cuddle-class seats on aeroplanes are awesome. You see what I mean?

I think that all this thoughtless overuse of superlatives means that a whole lot of really worthy words have slid down the compliment scale and gotten all bunched in the middle. I should explain the compliment scale. At the top is ‘awesome’. At the bottom is ‘sucks balls’. Grouped in the middle are all the words that used to mean good things, and now mean ‘average’ or ‘mediocre’. Words like ‘satisfactory’ and ‘adequate’ and ‘capable’. Words like you.

This makes me really sad. I really like you. In fact, if it’s not too weird to say this so early in our relationship, I think I am kinda in love with you. I like saying you. You are full of heavy, round, precise sounds. You have those three very distinct footfalls to your form. Com-pe-tent. I love that. I love that I am the only person, I think, who really cares about you as a word. (I hope that doesn’t make you feel bad. I mean it in a nice way. I bet someone else out there feels the same way, and I just haven’t found them yet.) I use you in conversation as often as possible to promote you.

Here’s what I think has happened. As we’ve gotten used to describing everything as ‘awesome’, we’ve stopped thinking that being perfectly good at something is enough. We say ‘He is so awesome, I want to make love to his brain and have his mind-babies’. We don’t say ‘I really admire her, I think she’s very competent.’ If I wrote a letter of recommendation for someone and described them as competent, it would sound like I didn’t have anything better to say about them. It would sound like I was saying you could trust this person to turn up to work on time and not make a fool of herself. She would be able to use Microsoft Word and wouldn’t walk around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe or her skirt tucked into her tights, and she’d never say anything stupid in a meeting and she’d probably be really good at filling out complex forms, and would use the right colour pen and always write in BLOCK LETTERS where you are meant to, but she will never surprise and delight you. (Surprise and delight is another letter I plan to write. Unlike you, I think that phrase has become debased through overuse. I can’t figure out who to send the letter to though, so I am holding off for now, and I am keeping a post-it on my desk with the words ‘surprise and delight’ inked inside a little squiggly box to remind me.)

So, yeah. I am starting a campaign to win attention back to you. I am thinking of starting a tumblr and collecting all the good mentions of you I see around the web. Or maybe a Twitter account, where I can retweet people who use you well. Or a Facebook page where I can … actually, I don’t really understand Facebook, but there’s shitloads of people there, and surely some of them feel about you the same way I do. Maybe that could be a fanclub. The Competent Fanclub isn’t a very good name though. I will have to work on that a bit. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.

Anyhow. That’s what I’m thinking. I hope you take this letter as it is intended, and that I’m not coming across as all stalker-intense-crazy-lady. I just wanted you to know that … I guess I wanted you to know what someone out there cares about you, and is thinking of you. I’ll be in touch again soon.

With love (but only if you are ready for it, otherwise, just really nice thoughts)


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