Category Archives: Human relations

Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.

Nah.

We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)

GO MALL (guh MAWL)

SCOIL (SKULL)

“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)

 

[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]

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The dumbness of single-bit binary logic: everything that is not this, is not necessarily that

My bro JT, one of the most unconventional thinkers I know, has long commented upon the problems with single-bit binary logic. I understood this, but I’m embarrassed at my failure to process it until very recently.

In binary notation, everything is a 0 or a 1. They is a this or a that, as the old umpire used to say. This is a base two system, and it is the basis for digital electronics. If you don’t know what base two means, that means there are two numbers before you have to start a new column. We count in base ten, logically since we have ten fingers.

Binary notation works fine as the basis for our electronics. In the world of humanity and issues, where things are rarely so clear and exclusive, it is an indicator of feeble-mindedness. Consider: “If you aren’t for us, you are against us.” “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Stop and think, as I believe in doing any time someone trots out a glib saying repeated so many times that people assume it wise. This is dumb. Just because I am not for you does not mean I am against you. If you’re dumb enough to construe me as your enemy because you can’t bully me into signing onto your cause, that’s your problem and mistake. And just because I am not participating in a solution does not automatically signify that I am part of the problem. I may be neither. I might be a little of both. I might be in the process of using my brain to make up my own mind without consulting you. And this attitude isn’t adding luster to your side, I might add.

The fundamental problem with single-bit binary reasoning: it allows only two categories, choices, alignments, what have you. When applied to a human issue, that’s feeble-minded. It oversimplifies the human condition down to a moronic level. It works only for those who yearn to be spared all nuance. Is Bill Gates an evil man or a good man? He made a fortune by monopolizing our computing environment with increasing mediocrity. Then he decided to retire and use his wealth for such good causes Warren Buffett said “here, take mine, too.” He left behind his company still doing all the same things, growing more mediocre by the year, but no less monopolistic. Hate or love? Respect or disrespect? It is not so easy. It confounds feeble thinking. It makes modern America’s brain hurt, so its members just apply selective amnesia. They derided him back when his software company was strangling every possible competitor, and he was an evil guy, but now that’s old hat and he is a good guy. Nuance is hard. Absolutes provide comfort of the shallowest kind.

Look at the United States’ political system, which embeds and defends single-bit binary logic. If you aren’t one of these, you are one of those. This is idiotic. There are lots of things to be other than those two. Single-bit binary logic works fairly well on life and death (it’s very rare to be neither dead nor alive, I’ll concede), sports events on the field (can’t really play for both teams at once, I’ll go along with that), and other such clear-cut situations. Most matters of opinion are not so.

Thus it is with public demonstrations. Not every failure to join in a public demonstration of homage amounts to disrespect. Only single-bit binary logic can conclude that it does. Suppose that my national anthem is on television before a hockey game. I could choose to stand, interrupt my activities, pay attention, even sing the song: that would be respectful. I could choose not to pay attention, but to avoid doing anything overtly self-indulgent or gross. I could talk with someone about the imminent game, look at a magazine article, or simply sit in silent passivity; that would be somewhere in between. Or I could choose to scratch my groin, flip off the TV, use bad language, drink cheap beer, chomp tortilla chips, and/or make a snide remark; that would be disrespectful. It’s feeble-minded to think that all non-respect is disrespect, just as it is feeble-minded to think that all the different forms of respect can be conflated into one term.

(One of these days I will go into depth on that. There is the respect born of fear (s/he can and might hurt me), that born of affectionate regard (s/he has done great deeds I admire), and that stemming from positive regard without affection (s/he may be a bastard, but in some ways I respect him or her). In some situations, more than one may apply in some proportion. Our error occurs when we fail to qualify what we mean by respect.)

Single-bit binary logic works fine for dogs. If you are a dog, I recommend it without reservation. In most cases, a dog not mistreated either likes you (you are best pal for life) or hates you (you are intruder, competitor for scarce affection, etc.). My friend Jim had a rather ratty little dog named Willie. Willie liked everyone. I mostly don’t like dogs, and I didn’t like Willie. Willie didn’t care; he liked me.

(And lest you think Willie had no importance, let me tell you, Willie was an impact player in one of the funniest pizza-related instances in the history of the faux-Italian menu. I think I’ve told that story on here. If I have not, I must. If I haven’t, you are permitted to rag on me until I do.)

Why are so many issues presented to us in single-bit binary logic? Because it’s easy–and because it makes us easier to manipulate.

Who’s a good boy? Good boy!

How to fix your self-esteem problem

This can be done.

I got to thinking about it while reading yet another forum post by a Lost Soul wondering why he didn’t have any friends, why people stood him up and showed him little consideration. It looked pretty straightforward: he had low self-esteem. The other theoretical explanation, that he was an asshole, does not work in practice. Assholes have all kinds of associates, even friends, and people might be less likely to stand them up. Assholes might be assholes about it, after all, and people tend not to want to stir that up. So as I see it, we’re back to low self-esteem: they do not esteem him because he does not esteem himself.

All right, fine. He doesn’t esteem himself. He doesn’t really think he amounts to a lot. He may tell himself he does, but he doesn’t feel it. Maybe he’s afraid it would bring out a latent narcissism (I can think of people I wish would have considered that). Maybe he’s let the world tell him what opinion to have of himself. However one looks at this, it’s all too simple to say and quite another thing to do: “Then treat yourself with some respect, and people will respect you more.” That’s like telling a fat person to exercise more and eat less food. Certainly it is correct, but if it were that easy to break bad habits and establish new ones, we wouldn’t need a whole medical specialization in bariatrics, a drug rehab industry, or eternal therapy for neurotic people.

Okay. Let’s assume that a person who is consistently ignored, disregarded, stood up, not considered by others has probably conveyed a lack of self-esteem. If it’s not so, my advice won’t hurt. If it is so, this might help.

You can’t get self-esteem from others’ approval. It comes from within; whether it’s a conscious choice, a value judgment after examination, or just ingrained from youth, no one can confer it on you. It’s self-administered and self-maintained if it has any validity at all. Likewise, no one can take it away unless you grant him or her that power. If you grant someone the power to determine your self-esteem, I submit that it’s not your own to begin with.

Whatever the case, you can’t wait for it to come from anyone else. What they offer is not self-esteem; it’s their own esteem of you. They can esteem you with a mighty esteeming and you can resist it if you wish. Or you can accept it, consider this handled, and then learn that your supposed self-esteem can be taken away as easily as it was given. Only self-esteem you confer upon yourself gives you the power to veto anyone else’s attempts to damage it.

Let me also present this: in order to esteem yourself, you must not have a terminally bad metric for value. If nothing you could do would make you think better of yourself, then any such effort is gutshot until you decide that you would permit a path to better self-esteem. That too is a choice. No one can make it for anyone. Nothing I can write will make it for anyone. Anyone bound and determined to loathe him or herself will always find a way.

If you buy that, here’s what I propose: do anonymous good deeds.

Do small good deeds. Do them a lot. Do them as a way of life. When you cannot do them anonymously, do them with minimal fanfare and the simplest possible ‘you’re welcome’ for any gratitude. If need be, ask of the recipients only that they never mention it again (very good in the case of monetary aid). When possible, do them for complete strangers you’ll never see again. Do them for humanity at large, or the environment: pick up that litter, wave to those kids (even though you live in a big city and big-city coolness more or less demands you act like a self-absorbed ass), take your shopping cart back to the collection area.

Your massive-ass grocery shopping takes an eternity in front of that young guy just buying a six-pack? Ask the checker to tack his charges onto yours. You knocked a bunch of crap off the grocery shelf? Pick it up and put it back. Leave good tips and give retail service people kind words. If they do really well, tell their supervisors. When you sense that you’re about to bitch about something where bitching won’t help anyone, swallow it this time. Make a regular habit of doing a lot of little things, and some bigger things, that you can respect in yourself. Be the kind of person you respect–but do most of it where no one else will see or know or praise you. You’re doing this to earn your own respect, not theirs. If they respect you anyway, fine, but see that for the potential pitfall it is: their respect, while kind and probably sincere, can distract from the real reason you did it. They could withdraw that respect as easily as they proffered it. It’s nice to have, but at the core, you did it so that you could look back at the day and say, believing it: “I did good. I lived my values today.”

You could esteem that in yourself. Made a habit, it would sink in. You’d like that person. You’d respect that way of life. You’d esteem you.

And if it doesn’t work? If you still don’t like yourself? Then you know have rigged the game against yourself in the way I described earlier. In that case, since it’s your game, you’ll be needing to change the rules. Rules that say “I can respect myself when I brighten others’ lives” are perfectly reasonable.

And what when you are treated with disrespect? Stop wanting that person’s respect. Letting the same person keep disrespecting you, and wanting him or her to change, signals permission for everyone else to do the same. Bear in mind, that doesn’t mean you have to ruin your work environment, go nuts, end up in jail. It just means you don’t want what they won’t offer. Go about your life. Don’t make plans with people who dump your outing as soon as something better comes along. Don’t make efforts to make the office snob happy. Don’t offer a place to stay to people who don’t treat your home with respect. Do your work, live your life; do good things because you respect them in yourself, and do good work because you respect it in yourself. It’s true that we teach people how to treat us. It’s also true that if we do not treat ourselves well, others learn that they also may mistreat us.

There is a very toxic person in my life, one I cannot readily erase from it. This person has always talked as if I were the bee’s knees, but has for many years behaved so as to provoke me whenever possible. This sort of dichotomous conduct is par for that course. This person knows all my buttons and had (yes, past tense) regularly completed his/her own toxic circles by jabbing at them. This person is mentally ill and there is nothing I can do to change that–nor is it my job.

What I could change was my judgment on that person: his/her utterances, actions, attitudes. The key point for me was where I realized a thing about judging: the reason not to judge wasn’t that it was fundamentally bad or wrong or not my right. Screw that. I am perfectly entitled to judge bad behaviors, and there is nothing morally wrong about it. However…by judging the behaviors, I opened the door to the toxic manipulation. I’m entitled to judge, but it wasn’t working in my favor. It was leaving me vulnerable.

Only when I no longer judged the mentally ill behaviors did I learn to let them wash past me. Now this person has no idea how to relate to me. The vending machine is eating the quarters. Maybe s/he will learn better behaviors; more likely s/he will not. Either way, it is not my problem. This person must own his/her own problems; I already own enough and can’t add new ones.

How I reacted, and why I reacted (or more accurately, did not react), were the point. I didn’t do it to change this person. This person cannot change, and I was foolish to hope otherwise. I did it to change myself, to liberate myself. It was what a self-respecting person should do. I didn’t respect in myself the feelings that came up after those interactions, and I had to find the key to their banishment. I think it’s the same way with wanting people’s approval. If we live in ways and make choices that give us reason to approve of ourselves, esteem ourselves, respect ourselves, people’s approval is a nice-to-have but doesn’t control us.

I know another toxic person who is a career ass-kisser. Literally, in the career part of the term: this individual made a living for decades marketing instruments by sucking up to unbearable assholes, treating them as though they were the most important persons in the world, enduring all their disrespect without ever daring complain or walk away. Over time, ass-kissing became this person’s fundamental identity. AK, as I will name this person for short, was also famous for giving things away. No one could outdo AK in giving, which was not the same as generosity. AK was trying to buy people–friends–by kissing ass and giving them stuff. If you knew AK, AK told you how neat you were, how great you were, and tried to load you down with stuff. AK probably never gave anything anonymously in AK’s life, because the point was that AK wanted to buy people’s favor. Doing so anonymously would only be a good deed; what would be the point of that?

After a while, AK and I stopped seeing eye to eye because I didn’t respond to the constant overpraise and layers of bullshit. I understood that it wasn’t sincere; bullshit was simply the way AK rolled, and if AK’s current bullshit level wasn’t getting results, AK kept dialing it up. AK was not used to people who declined excessive gifts; AK felt most comfortable when AK had ‘bought’ someone’s ‘respect’ or ‘friendship.’ A person who could not simply accept all the bounty–who recognized it for the toxicity it was–made AK very uncomfortable. A person who attempted to reciprocate (the act of a self-respecting person) sent AK into orbit. AK’s game was to always be the giver, and that is pure toxicity. Anyone who can’t receive can’t give, and vice versa, because there is giving in all receiving and receiving in all giving. AK doesn’t really give; AK bribes. AK doesn’t really praise; AK sucks up.

AK doesn’t have very much self-esteem. AK lives a fearful life, dwelling on the slightest negative feedback, always trusting the wrong people and often betrayed. AK has been in therapy for decades, and it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. When AK’s spouse of many years just walked away, AK did not understand. Had AK not done all the requisite things? Had AK not kissed sufficient ass? Had AK somehow managed to give insufficient material things? Whatever AK’s spouse had most wanted in life, AK had not provided it, and when the kids were grown, AK’s spouse got out. Maybe said spouse had decided that decades of toxic relationship patterns were enough. Maybe said spouse had self-esteem, a thing unknown to AK.

When AK retired from the first ass-kissing career, s/he began a second one. Life without kissing ass was unthinkable; ass-kissing had become an identity. Some people are manipulators, some people are tough, some people are cold, some are cuddly; some suck up. All AK’s esteem came from the people with whom AK shopped for it. Sometimes it was genuine; other times it was a facade. In the end, nearly none of them will stay bought. In the end, AK does not esteem AKself, and neither will the people AK has tried to buy esteem from.

I am glad to have distanced myself from AK. Had I kept associating with such an individual, it would probably have drawn me into more toxic cycles. The last thing we need is to add more of those to our lives.

It begins with doing good things, but always for the right reasons: because they are meritorious, acts that speak for themselves in the way they validate our self-concepts. The fewer other people that know who did them, and the less accolades they bring, the better they work. If I were independently wealthy, I’d just go around wiping out medical bills with several layers of anonymity between myself and the recipients. From those who have been blessed in life, more is expected. You’d be surprised how little self-esteem some of them have. Or not, considering that celebrity suicide is a thing.

There. If you want self-esteem, stop lamenting over the way people treat you. Go get it in a way over which no one on earth has a veto.

The dumbest criticism of writing I ever hear

Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:

“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.

In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.

I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.

People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.

None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.

In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.

In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.

In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”

Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.

Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.

Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.

That is the point.

 

There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.

==

*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

Whether or not you choose how to age, you do choose

Today I am feeling philosophical, and I want to share one of my fundamental beliefs about aging.

If we are spared, in our forties, we choose. What we choose in our minds does not constitute our choice. Rather, our choice is manifest in our actions. Talk is cheap and wishes are cheaper, but deeds matter. Deeds are who you are, whatever you may wish you were.

In most cases, by our forties, we have figured out how we will get through our years. We may have decided that we will do so in a given job field, or with no job at all, in partnership, as parents, entirely singly, as hermits, or in whatever way, but we are mostly established by that time. At that point we are likely to have something of a surplus of resources, even if very modest, or at least probably do not have so many urgent wants or needs.

Sometime in our forties, we decide whether or not to share. It is a decision whether we will seek to give of our knowledge, our possessions, our time, and whatever else we value. Not all of it, but enough to be remembered. We either decide to share, and live the remainder of our lives sharing, or we decide to hoard.

It is a decision based partly in the choice of courage and confidence over fear and uncertainty. The brave, confident person is not afraid to share. The fearful coward hoards.

The neighbor gal overshoots the cul-de-sac and her bike rolls up into our yard. We either smile and wave to her, or we scream at the poor kid to get off our lawn.

The Girl Scout is selling cookies we don’t want or need. We either stop, discuss, engage, and purchase, or we hasten past without eye contact.

The elderly fellow is clearly lonely and not terribly interesting to talk to, and is a bit tactless. We either be patient and listen for a while, or we treat him like a leper.

It’s Halloween. We either turn on the lights and hand out candy, or we shut them off and refuse to answer the door.

The hotel desk clerk looks harried. We either answer her “have a nice evening, sir” with something bantery like “Thank you; I wish you a peaceful evening free of entitled jerks,” or we just nod and take our keys.

The other guy, who has out-of-state plates, is in the stupidly designed lane the rest of us locals knew to get out of. Now he’s truly stuck. We either let him in, or we close the gap and let someone else perhaps do it, screw you, I got mine, not my problem.

A family friend is down on his luck, and very proud. We either find a way to slip him some money (which we will never again mention), or we figure that’s his problem.

Whether or not we choose to share mainly determines the nature of our memorial service.

If we choose to share, we burden our survivors with a mighty but rather heartwarming burdening; our memorial service becomes a vast pain in the butt. It becomes necessary to rent or obtain an auditorium in which to hold our memorial service. In some cases (and this actually happened to one family friend of ours) it will require two auditorium sessions.

If we turtle up and cannot bear the thought of anyone getting anything he or she did not earn, and yell at the kids to stay off our lawn, the memorial service is easier. It can be held in the men’s can at the SunMart on 27th and US 395 in south Kennewick, WA, and probably without taking over any stalls or disturbing anyone’s deuce deposition. Might even be able to handle it in a single stall.

If so, poetic justice.

But whether or not we choose with our minds, our actions represent our choice.

Share or hoard. Either you have chosen, or you will choose.

And as people choose, so do people’s organizations in their fullness of maturity: companies, churches, social groups.

Even nations.

Choose.