Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Ent-at-Heart Speaks on Political Correctness

I am finally ready to say what I think of the idea of "political correctness." It has taken me decades to come to a conclusion. Entish of me, I know, but I am reluctant to speak before I am sure of not only what I feel, but of what I think.

In order to remain rational, we have to define not only what "political correctness" is but what it is not. (Which is hard, because, what the hell does that phrase mean, anyway? -- "politically correct"? It really is doublespeak in the truest sense. It's horrible, linguistically.)

Edward Hopper
At any rate, political correctness is not some system that is in place with a head office, a list of bylaws and delineated consequences. Yet, people seem to see it this way. It is not an active governmental program designed to suppress free speech. Yet, people seem to see it this way.

Political correctness is a concept. And like many other artificial social constructs, it wants to be seen as a structure of stone and steel; as something real. In the end, it is no more than an idea. Ideas are important, of course -- maybe the most important force in the world, but an idea that is seen as a rulebook, when it is not, is, at best, imperfect, at worst a virus (for good or ill, depending on your view) in the program that is the collective consciousness of a culture.

Generally, PC seeks to define what is okay to say and what is not. It is not about choosing what to say based on your values and emotional intelligence, it is about prescribing what is allowable to say. Not that there are any teeth in it, mind is just an idea. 

That is what we do with language in 2016. We depersonalize and we prescribe. We move things away from personal responsibility and into some hazy entity of a program we ought to follow -- that we wind up feeling pressured into following; in this case, a program that does not exist in any official sense; a program in which broken rules have no tangible consequences.

The problem is that the more we depersonalize, the more we become empty rule-followers; the spirit is no longer behind the actions; the actions are performed just out of a vague sense that the rules simply must be followed. Don't think; do or do not. Sounds a lot like what people criticize religion for. (Though, at least in terms of Christianity, one glance at the Adam and Eve story will clearly tell you that a blind following of the rules is not what God wants...He wants voluntary good behavior, or He never would have made it a choice.) 

What was wrong with "having manners"? Think of the difference between parents and grandparents telling their beloved children what is polite and people following a list of politically correct terms. Think of the difference in tone between "having manners" and "being politically correct."

My wife and I ate brunch at a great restaurant in Philly, two days ago, but we had a waiter who depersonalized everything. Some waiters say, "I'll be taking care of you." He said "I will be your server." When he asked how he meal was, he didn't say, "I am glad you liked it." He said, "I'm glad it was enjoyable." Everything he said kept us at arms' length. A week earlier, we had had a waitress who was such a warm and witty sweetheart, that a stark contrast was all the more vivid... We engaged with her in our dining experience, but this guy basically just put the plates down for us: the difference between human interaction and mechanical action. He was doing his job; she was being friendly, for her pleasure and for ours.

To paraphrase George Carlin -- who was referencing Vietnam vets -- if we still called the condition soldiers suffer after battle "shell-shock" and hadn't changed it to "post-traumatic stress disorder," the soldiers might have gotten the help they needed faster. Plain language is more personal; a more poetic phrase -- an onomatopoetic one like "shell-shock" -- is no+t just for the brain, it is for the heart. It begs for engagement and shared feelings. 

In the process of depersonalizing, we weaken the connection of our intentions to our words and to our actions -- and to each other. Once we lose the connection between words and sincerity, the action that follows them becomes a simple laying down of the plates; there is no shared humanity. 

As a teacher, for instance, I never have made (and never will make) a student apologize for having done something. What good is an apology that is not meant? I will ask a student if he thinks he wants to apologize. And often they do. A forced apology, however, is worthless -- an empty action. 

So, instead of giving people a list of things that are "politically correct" to say, what is wrong with stressing manners? Be nice. Treat others with respect. Old fashioned, I know. But so is sitting on the front porch and talking to neighbors on a summer night. 

One argument in favor of political correctness is that one group gets to decide what they would like to hear or to be called. But long before political correctness existed, people told me, as a child, what was polite and not polite to say -- people I respected taught me to be respectful; that every human deserves some respect for being a human. Sure, it is the lowest level of respect, but it amounts to human decency. It is simple respect for life. (Hell, I even have respect for trees.) 

I know, I know...some people don't have that kind of guidance. So what? Let's work more on developing values than on creating lists. Let's offer parenting theory courses in high schools. Let's bring our kids back to church. Whatever it takes to focus on values and the concept of respect for our fellow humans. If you roll your eyes at this, then, yes, you're right; it's too late, I guess. If you consider it possible, there's hope.

If our child-rearing concept is to collapse, then, what's wrong with sorting things out through people's reaction  to what we say? What's wrong with hearing, "Hey, could you not call me that?" For that matter, how about a nice brawl over an insult. Someone has to learn something from that, in the end.

Once, in class I taught at Rutgers, we were discussing the term "African American," which I was defending, and a black man in the class sat in the back shaking his head. I asked him what he wanted to say and he declared that he hated the term African American, because, although he is black, he was not of African descent. He preferred "black". See, I had to engage with him to find that out. This conversation hurt no one and now at least 25 people knew what he preferred. No bloody noses; 100% real human interaction; point made.

People defend political correctness and people call it the great plague of free speech. But I think that those who call it the plague of free speech are almost seeing it as something that is concrete. What that makes is a kind of gaseous cloud of language-bullying. It floats over our heads and we bow to its gloomy weight. Political correctness is only as powerful as we make it and we make it too powerful.

Manners. We need manners. We need to interact more as if we live on the same planet. Right now, political correctness is the teacher holding two kids by the backs of their collars three minutes after fisticuffs on the playground and forcing them to be friends again. If that teacher would just talk to human beings...they might actually wind up seeing how silly their conflict was; they might even walk out of the room arm-in-arm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Real Beauty

Each morning, this summer, as I drive into school -- somewhere around 8:30, when the sun is at its most golden -- I see true beauty.

All business, in shorts and T-shirts, there goes a father, mother and son. All three of them are overweight, the son's round physique a perfect miniature of the father's, his hair just as sunrise red. The mother's hair sits high in an all-business bun.

They're there for a reason, make no mistake. They are out there to get in shape. They walk briskly and with purpose, each the others' most important person in some way. Each encouraging the other to keep going; to get healthy; to work off the weight. The son seems determined, even if he would prefer to be playing Minecraft, and he inevitably trails a bit behind with a stick (sword? light saber? bow?) in hand. The mother holds the father's hand -- or, rather, she holds gracefully, coquettishly, onto his outside two fingers. The mother walks a nearly imperceptible four inches ahead of her husband; they are side-by-side as a husband and wife should be, but she is leading -- she is the one who wakes her favorite lads up each morning and says, "Come on -- get your sneaks on."

Every day, without fail, they breathe in the leaf-dappled summer scents and take advantage of the slow-motion summer clock and incrementally work at changing their lives, step after step. It chokes me up every time.

There's no saccharine, greeting-card, joyful, everyone-in-white-on-the-beach false moment-capturing, here . There's sweat and inconvenience and sacrifice in their walk and in their posture. There's some inner-thought distance. But there's committment and total comfort of company. There's an "us-against the-world-ness." There's teamwork that no artificial team could ever approach. And, of course, there's love.

Is there anything, on Earth, more beautiful than a family?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Hot Thought

It was 94 degrees in these parts on last Friday night, the last time I looked -- which was about 11:30 at night. I had to play three sets on the drums in a club whose air-conditioning was definitely feeling the strain of a long heat wave. Between the struggles of the machine and the door to my right -- that opened and closed repeatedly onto the outdoor deck to let in belches of oven-hot air -- it must have been 85 degrees in the bar.

Needless to say, by the end of the night, I was rather damp with perspiration. (We play three sets of just about non-stop music every night. No time for the weary drummer to rest. No need to give me any sympathy -- the band does not, God bless them.)

After I'd broken down the drums and loaded them into the car -- it was, like, 1:30 am by then; it had maybe dropped to a cozy 88 degrees outside -- I went back in to "dummy check" for stuff left behind and I bumped into one of our regular followers; a really nice guy, a little younger than us with a bald head and a quick smile.

The not-so-old old guys. 
"Man," he said, looking me over. "I think you're sweating a little."

I laughed and he laughed. "You're way too old to be working this hard," he said.

I told him that I had just had a serious conversation, that night, with my fourteen-year-old son about his becoming my "roadie" when he starts driving.

The plan is that, when he gets behind the wheel in a couple of years, I'd pay him part of my nightly salary to set up and break down the drums. It would be a great part-time job for him during high school.

Logic aside, it was another chance for me, philosophically, to wrap my head around this getting-older business; this dance one has to do on the fuzzy floor between accepting age and fighting its detrimental effects. I'm only 48, for the love of Pete. But part of it is about learning to let our loved ones help us as the years pile up There is no shame in letting the vehicles of our virtual immortality (our sons and daughters) prop us up from to time, the way we did as they leared to do....hell...everything.

Machismo wants to brag about having walked uphill (both ways), barefoot and over broken glass to school but the wise man is just proud of having learned once he got there. I plan to play the drums until my arms fall of, but if I can put off that unfortunate day of limb-shedding for many years by harnessing the youthful energy and strength of my boys, why not? Will the audience watch me play a 32nd note fill around the kit and say, with a snort, "Well, yeah, that was fast, and he is, like, 86 years old, but I hear his son sets up the drums for him..."? Of course not.

We all should try to age with grace. We all want to keep our dignity. What we have to convince ourselves of is that our dignity does not suffer when we walk through our elder days under the gentle support of those who love us too much to judge us for -- for lack of a better term -- having to "repay" the gifts of strength and guidance we once gave them.

Anyway, I have to set up my own drums for at least two more years. And, no, Kurt the bass player, I will not use a smaller kit. (Okay -- maybe a little macho conviction is good...)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Analog Man

I got a new watch the other day. It's an automatic watch -- the kind that winds itself through the motion of your arm through the day. You move; things spin; it winds.

I am not sure why I like watches so much. I'm not a jewelry or clothing kind of guy. It might be echoes in my DNA of the grandfather I never met, Joseph Tancredi, a watchmaker from Philadelphia. (He also made timers on bombs for WWII.) He died when my mom was way too young to lose a father...

Maybe there is enough of him in me, though, that I have an affinity for the things. I'm not rich, so I can't really afford to own more than one or two, but I like having one.

The one I got, as I say, is an "automatic," or self-winding watch. The finest watch I have ever had, but not so fine by the standards of the real collectors.

I've never wanted anything digital, even when I was a kid and the hideous -- but strangely seductive -- calculator watches came out. I want to see hands and Roman numerals. I want to hear a tick. In this particular watch, there are small views into the workings. You can see some of the jewels and a spring and some working cogs (or sprockets -- never was sure of the difference, ever since Spacely Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs from The Jetsons first raised the question when I was a boy).

The other day I watched a video about care of automatic watches, because, when I get something new, I feel about a week of a real need to know all there is to know about it. I have even been reading about the history of Bulova, the company that made the watch...

At any rate, the guy in the video said something compelling:

"The beauty of having an automatic watch is that at some point human hands have had to come in contact with it to balance it, to regulate it and to get it to run... It's when that craftsman, that watchmaker, assembles that movement and breathes life into it that it gains, well, kind of a soul."

Yeah, man, I'm all in. I was an analog kid; I'll not turn into a digital man. You can have your Apple Watch with its perfect time. I'll set my watch daily and think about craftsman and the springs and the sprockets and the hundred tiny parts that move each other like tangible harmony; none of them virtual; none of them holographic.

The digital men can sit bolt-upright or slide out of their plastic and metal chairs, sterilized and cool. I'll be reclining in the crook of an old tree, a mile away from my phone if you need me, aware of the time but way more concerned with how it passes than whether it is flawless...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Joy, Storms and Sadness

There's no perfect balance; no prescribed fulcrum for the teetering boards that all of us are. Is there? We're all different woods, different weights, different spans of length.

I feel so much and so deeply, sometimes, it is actually frightening to me. There is such beauty in some of the feeling -- like Emily Dickinson experiencing poetry, "feeling as if the top of [her] head were taken off" when she read a great poem; like the overwhelming "high" I feel when I hear a profound moment in music. Sometimes, though, the feelings come in cold waves. Sometimes, they are like weighted lines tied to all of the sinking things around us. Around me.

Friederick Carl Frieske
"Afternoon -- Yellow Room," 1910.
Yesterday, I just felt so sad all of a sudden, and it wasn't out of nowhere. (Which is good.) I could name all of the weights pulling at me. They were not my problems, though -- they were the problems of others; or, rather, the profound weight of my connections to others. My boys, one facing high school, starting; one having lost his first girlfriend and my connection to them pulling at me; my worries over whether I am teaching them right; being firm enough or to firm to guide them into manhood...

Part of is was the book I am reading, Dead Wake, by Erik Larson, about the sinking of the Lusitania -- the sepia visions of history; the great ship headed out of New York Harbor; my fellow humans, dead and gone, stepping aboard and nothing I could do about it -- no way to warn them and save them from the icy water that must close over their heads. The profound coincidence of a woman who survived the Titanic who, at the last minute, canceled her trip on Lusitania because of sickness...

But, it all mixes with beauty. And beauty is heavy, too. It pulls your eyes wide open; it fills you with warm, slightly detached weight, like a third Scotch: my wife's beauty, which is so much more than just a face and a body that it fills me with storms; my sweet, simple dog, eyeing me with a desire for nothing but my casual notice; the warmth of my house...all balanced with the idea that everything is transitory...

I want to feel... I really do. But sometimes, feeling is like adrenaline: after a day on the roller coasters, the rides are just exhausting bacause the tank is empty. And sometimes, feeling is a joy that terrifies. It always leaves me exhausted, though. And sometimes very sad.