The other evening our cruel and unfeeling daughter-in-law ruined our grandson’s life. She cut up his pizza into bite-sized pieces. Presented with this unspeakable calamity on a plate, his bones immediately dissolved and he commenced howling “My pi-i-i-iz-za” with all the pathos of the last wolf on the range. The good news is he’s 21/2. The bad news is I’m 691/2 and I know – on a daily basis – exactly how he feels.
It comes of feeling powerless. Giant hands are cutting up our pizza, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t put it back together again. Well, maybe they could, but they do work for the king, after all.
More often than not lately, my reaction to the news is the overwhelming urge to throw back my head and howl. To rant and rave. Usually early socialization kicks in, and I’m able to hold it down to a low mutter. Once upon a time, believe it or not, children, it was frowned upon to rant and rave. It was a seen as a sign of weakness, both intellectually and emotionally. It was a quick ticket to a time-out on the home and professional front. (Though truth is, this was long before time-outs were invented.)
Just a quick side note on old coots talking about how things used to be: not always an example of senile nostalgia, thank you very much. Of course everything wasn’t rosy in the past. A contemplative consideration of change is an intellectual exercise. Lots of vital and highly respected jobs consist of studying how things change over time. Paleontologists. Sociologists. Climatologists. Quality control engineers for aluminum siding. Okay, maybe it’s more likely vinyl siding nowadays.
Thoughtful, mature people are ideally placed to note changes that have occurred over their lifetimes. They are also often ideally placed to invest time thinking about these changes and their impact on our lives because a) they are thoughtful and mature and b) they don’t have to spend 36 hours a day shuttling children from here to there, holding down jobs, helping with homework and ruining children’s lives by cutting up their pizza.
So, as the television voice we really could believe in used to say, “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.” Travel back to a time before public ranting and raving became all the rage, before venom and invective became de rigueur, when a well-reasoned argument won the day and the expectation and value of truth was a given.
I’d love to think that at some magical point, hopefully in the very near future, we will retrace our steps somehow and say, “You know what? No. All this public spewing is a bad idea. We’re just not going to do this anymore.” But I fear it may not be that simple.
Change is inevitable, and fashion goads it on. We may not take daily notice as changes happen to our language, to our literary forms, and to their descendants and instigators, the media, but that doesn’t stop it. Poetry was once the gold standard for all kinds of literary discourse. Novels didn’t exist. Short stories blossomed with the advent of magazines. Early television news broadcasts seem quaint and stilted when compared to today’s.
What we read, watch, listen to – things have changed and will continue to do so. What people choose to say in public has changed. Remember George Carlin’s routine about the seven words you can’t say on television? If you don’t, the seven words were profanities. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not wringing my hands and calling for a return to a time when certain bad words were verboten. Laws and rules against words and ideas don’t work. Any parent who has been surprised by little Sally’s brand new word trumpeted in the grocery line knows that. And we wouldn’t want laws and rules against words and ideas to work. (Except of course the existing ones that are, handily enough, already written down in what we call the First Amendment.)
Little Sally needs to be taught about her great new word. We need to educate our children – and ourselves – to use and demand reason and truth in our public discourse. And that education and reaction needs to go beyond just turning off the selected media that spews this dreck. We need to support reasonable journalism and broadcasting – and candidates. And we need to recognize when we ourselves are throwing back our heads and howling.
Pen Campbell lives in Benton Harbor.