Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Awe


Awesome he said when I gave him my name and awesome 
again when I verified my address. One more awesome and I’m canceling my order and hanging up, said I. Your hyperbole offends me, I told him. It does violence to my ear. There’s nothing awesome about anything I said. Save the word. Stick it in your wall safe. Try to go through your day without using it. That would be awesome. Cool, he promised.

Strange how some words travel across the entire spectrum. Terror long ago became terrific which you would never use to suggest fear. But there may still be time to salvage awe.

Awe was cousin to reverence. It was evoked by the sacred. Awe accompanied an epiphany. It describes the sublime. It is the language of our discourse with the unknown. Awe is the last word before the inarticulate.

Awesome is an exclamation reserved for my first sight of Van Gogh’s Iris vibrating off the wall in Amsterdam or Paul Robeson’s bass-baritone voice shattering my glass anatomy. Awesome is Peggy, robust at 97. It is the Grand Canyon, the redwood forest, the pictographs at Chauvet, the amaze of the Gehry-Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as we turned the corner to our astonished eyes or the words on the page of a certain Wallace Stevens poem which knock my unmatched socks off.

Awe morphed into awful as if it contained some nasty seed for mischief. Now we have Shock and Awe describing what happens when a village is bombed to smithereens in a manner designed to break the opposition's will. I suppose Hiroshima was that instance of terrible beauty that Rilke and Yeats  referenced and awesome was the mushroom cloud as we witnessed the instrument for planetary suicide. With Beauty now discarded we have accepted the demotic into the notion of grandeur.

I can accept this negative awe for its proximity to something both numinous and destructive surpassing all else but not the debasement of the word to describe my name and address. Certain words deserve special handling as they travel across millennia. Yes, I know language is organic, growing wild outside the garden wall. It is what everyone says it is. And yet…

The problem is that to dispense awesome in a casual way is to debase it, to assign it to the garbage pail of exhausted words. It needs to be earned. We need to conserve certain language for our vocabulary of wonderment. Without it we are bereft. In these times of bereavement as Trump has raided our glossary with his third grade grasp of superlatives we have to at least protest against the theft of awe. The damage he has done to our democracy is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb but I wouldn't waste the word awesome on him.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tech, High and Low


The future has already arrived, I’m told. The past is not even past, so says Faulkner. I’ll take his word for it. Give me a break. It’s getting too crowded to live in the moment. As a mid-octogenarian I’m still reviewing my life and figuring out how I got to this page in my saga. Or more currently still asking, what just happened after the defeat of Hilary 591 days ago.

There is something about sci-fi or whatever names apply to that genre of cautionary tales about runaway technology which numb my brain. It’s the great what if and to be sure much of artificial intelligence is already with us. When Orwell wrote 1984 he was really addressing what he saw in 1948. Momentous change arrives on cat’s feet through the back door while I’m in a rocking chair on the front porch.

I bought shoes last month and can’t figure out what to do with those 54 inch laces. I trip over the excess aglets going into the eyelet or else buy a toggle. It probably took me eleven years to learn how to tie my shoes and I refuse to yield to the new technology. I’m getting nostalgic for those good old days when our mothers took us to the shoe store and we were treated to a dose of cancer-causing fluorescence to see our toes wiggle.

I don’t particularly like quinoa or kelp. Whatever happened to lettuce and romaine? Not good enough for you? When I call any large corporation I always hit zero in order to speak to a human being. It’s no fun arguing with a recording. But I understand that Google has now simulated the human voice with all our stammers and pauses to make us think we are talking to one of our fellow species.

I’m the guy who still gets the newspaper delivered. Here it comes now. I also watch T.V. by candlelight. Love those eternal verities.

I know it’s a losing battle. Even indefensible. I suppose there were folks like me resisting the innovation of lawn mowers. That led to the removal of grazing goats and assorted quadrupeds to trim the front grass…which in turn led to more social calls and then to tea servers and even costume jewelry worn by the hostess and who knows what else. I was born too late.

It’s hard enough getting through the day with all those apps plotting an uprising any minute provoked by a restless algorithm. Must I also read books and watch movies about soulless robots and clones? I find it too strenuous transporting my aged brain to dystopian precincts. Trump has already driven us to the edge of the apocalypse in a driverless chariot. If Donald is the future I want out of this comic book. Can I click and delete him? Where did I park my space ship? If that doesn’t work I’ll settle for a time-travel machine set in reverse, destination unknown.   


Monday, July 9, 2018

Flag and Country


My earliest memory of the flag is probably pledging allegiance to it in the 3rd or 4th grade. Of course, I had no idea what allegiance meant or who Richard Stands was either. Nor did I understand why our nation was invisible. I figured it was a good thing to be invisible so the Nazis couldn’t find us on a map and bomb us. It wasn’t till we learned long division that I got the concept of being indivisible. It’s a good word; one of those that no longer applies.  

Today we are very divisible. Not only in half but more like in thirds. In the 2016 election the largest fraction were the None of the Above party numbering 94.2 million eligible voters. We have become a country of no-shows. Then came the Democrats (65.8 million) and the smallest number went to the winners (62.9 million). Try explaining that to the kids in third grade.

The 4th of July brings out flags displayed in windows, on fences and poles to say nothing of mattress ads, holiday buying sprees and assorted block buster sales events. It’s the American way. Nothing is more patriotic than consuming.

Flag-waving is so pervasive it isn’t usually seen as the political act that it is. Like a bumper sticker or tattoo the flag is an advertisement, an identity. It has become the great signifier of the Republican Party. The word Patriotism seems to belong to those who watch Fox News because it connotes might and blind loyalty and never dissent. Just as the Confederate flag enraged Blacks in particular and Liberals in general the U.S. flag is rapidly reaching that powerful a symbol. Enormous flags are unfurled at opening day baseball games as well as professional football games along with planes buzzing the stadium and a military presence. It is a statement which says that the sport is allied with flag and country; that is to say, Power and Law Enforcement.

And then comes the National Anthem. The announcers are White. The owners are White. Those of us watching on T.V. are mostly White. The coaches mostly White. The players predominately Black. How to make a countervailing statement with a national platform? How else to protest but to take a knee? No disrespect to uniformed men in the armed service. No flag burning. Not even an arm raised as in the 1968 Olympic Games. Just a knee before 15 million viewers to remind us of a culture of police shootings of unarmed people of color, to remind us that the extravaganza of White dominance has an answering voice. One political act warrants another.

Response to the courage of Black athletes demanding to be heard has largely been outrage by sports writers and commentators. These are the same people who know nothing about the daily indignities and existential threats endured by the Black population. Just play the game, they say. Don’t bring politics into sports, they proclaim as if they haven’t already done so for years. The few football players who have knelt in solidarity have risked millions. 70% of the teams are Black. There would be no National Football League without Black players. Three out of every four players in basketball (NBA) are Black. There is a rich heritage of Black athletes speaking out from Paul Robeson to Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to LeBron James though the silence of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan is deafening.

The legacy of Robinson has been kept alive by the persistence of his wife, Rachel Robinson. She has been an equal hero for the past fifty years. However he is usually celebrated for his constraint on the playing field rather than his militancy. This is White society’s fantasy. It should be noted that Robinson, in his final years, DID NOT STAND for the national anthem.

The Pledge has more going for it than the Anthem. The latter is star-spangled bombast. The former has references closer to the Constitution in all its allusions to equality and justice. It was written by the socialist, Francis Bellamy. Maybe if Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land, replaced Francis Scott Key’s drinking song it would bring the country closer together to what we might truly call, indivisible.

For further reading on the subject I recommend, Howard Bryant’s new book, Heritage, published by Beacon Press.