You are Nothing but a Whatchamacallit!

Sticks and stones… you know the rhyme. Designed to thicken children’s perceptual skins against the slings and arrows of ignorant name callers, it works for the innocent. But adults know better. Words can hurt.

Destined always to be the ‘new kid’ at school, I learned unimaginative insults were unworthy of response. If it was clever, I would laugh at the wit employed and win my antagonist over with a good-natured response. The art of schoolyard diplomacy was born.

One might think words are like so many legos available to assemble at will. But words have weight. Their emotional content colors our sense of things. They resonate. Their roots penetrate our joints. Create our world. Change things.

We are immersed in a sea of words and are largely unconscious of how they affect our perception of the world. Speakers of another language literally see the world differently. They don’t just use different words to describe our ‘objective reality’. They swim in a different sea. Some words may have an approximate correspondence or cannot be translated at all.

Their sense of time and space may be as impenetrable as the language they use. In La Paz, Bolivia I heard a folk group singing passionately (in Spanish) about ‘throwing off the yoke of the conquistadors.’ They sang in the present tense.

There is the old joke about England and America being separated by a common language.

Oppressive regimes strive to control the language of their citizens with Orwellian precision. Who would think choice was a bad thing? Especially regarding healthcare decisions? Stating such decisions result in murder is, as Hillary Clinton said during the 2016 campaign “just terribly unfortunate.” Not the decision, but the description.

In his book “1984”, Orwell explains, “a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc—should be literally unthinkable.” People who grew up under totalitarian regimes have told me how their conversation and thought became progressively vague for fear of committing some unnamed crime.

Conservatives criticize the education system for ‘indoctrinating’ the country’s students into leftist thought. Does anyone dispute the idea that Conservatives rely on a different set of words and concepts than Liberals? Each sees a world the other cannot. Yet we all have access to the same words.

Orwell warns about adopting the set phrases of one’s party. Eventually, stock phrases “will construct your sentences for you—even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent—and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” Choose your legos carefully. Who does your thinking for you?

Nasty and brutish language says as much about the speaker as what he is describing. The words he uses define him no less than a connect-the-dots picture is revealed through those numbered connections.

Could a study be done of the contrasting word sets used by happy and depressed people?

Babies learn words and increase their ability to discern distinctions between mommy and daddy, red and green, up and down

Open the hood of a modern car and ask a child to describe what they see. If they never saw a modern internal combustion engine before, they might attempt to imitate its sound but won’t have words for it. It would appear a chaotic mass of metal and hoses. But point out the basic components and functions. Words describing the flow of energy  would reveal the sense of the engine’s process and purpose. And so the world.

Babies and children quickly build a structure of words and concepts by which to navigate their world. They readily invent terms for things when they don’t know their proper names. Even babbling has syntax.

A professor once told me, “if you cannot put it into words, you don’t know what you are talking about.” Hmmm.

Another challenged me to tell him one thing ‘that doesn’t have a name’. He had a point. How does one discuss what has no words attached to it? I cannot think of one nameless thing.

Imagine the terror of an infant left alone with a need it cannot express.

Or, think of two babies from the same neighborhood. One is consistently exposed to words like: fear, oppression, hate, weakness, victim, leave.

The other hears only of trust, hope, strength, gratitude, wonder, spirit, opportunity.  Do these word clusters crystallize into a basic framework through which the beginnings of a worldview is formed? Does anyone think the trajectories of these two lives would run parallel, when one sees opportunity everywhere and the other only victim-hood?

Words are powerful. They can give life. Or death.

We need to speak lightness into and darkness out of our children’s lives. And our own.

Women are Powerful

Women are strong.

There seems to be some confusion about that in recent years. For one thing, many feminists have spent an inordinate amount of time falsely promoting the idea that women are always victims, mainly of toxic masculinity. I have read American women are the most oppressed minority in the world. But we are also supposed to believe there is no difference between males and females. Huh.

Now we are told to believe women are strong. Which they are. They always were. In fact they are powerful, whether they know it or not.

Traditionally, women were kept out of the armed forces, especially combat roles, not to discriminate against them but because women were judged not to be expendable. Women were thought to be too important to be mere cannon fodder like their male counterparts. If women want to participate in defending our country, there is no doubt they can be fierce warriors. But that is a separate issue.

Some years ago an anthropologist studied a village (known as the U.S. Congress) and its culture. The study determined that the women actually get things done in this village. Everyone else talks about doing more than they actually do. These results gibe with studies of almost every culture, primitive or not. Huh.

There is currently a new book out, ‘Strong is the new Pretty,’ promoting the concept of strong women. Nicole Kidman and Drew Barrymore are two celebrities who gave it a thumbs up. Considering their decades of survival in the jungles of Hollywood, I would say Kidman and Barrymore know something about strength. The book’s cover claims it consists of photographs of young women ‘being themselves – strong’. I can’t argue with that. Life is tough. Strong is good.

I haven’t seen the book’s contents. But the publishers made an unfortunate choice for the cover shot. The young woman on the cover looks like she is spoiling for a fight, which makes her look neither strong nor pretty. It is not the fault of the woman in the photo. Did the photographer tell her to ‘be herself’? Or, ‘look mean. Look tough.’ She looks ridiculous. Diane Arbus’ famous photo of the enraged little boy holding the toy grenade comes to mind. Pretty wrong.

Feminists have spent the last decades emasculating boys and men. Now they want girls and women to fill the void (and become the men they hate). Is masculinity toxic only when males have it?

Someone (anyone) who is truly strong doesn’t need to swagger around with a snarl on their face. Relaxed confidence does more to fend off potential aggression than in-your-face scowls.

Speaking of Hollywood, the most iconic female stars were no shrinking violets. Millions of fans bought tickets to see Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert and others for their spirit, spunk and never-say-die attitude. They inspired all of us. Their strength transcended the muscular.

A friend of mine, Sonny, told me he first worked as a bell hop at a beach side resort near Santa Barbara. One morning he delivered breakfast to a room occupied by Marilyn Monroe. She answered the door in her robe, smiled and asked him to prepare her a cup of coffee. His hand shook as he stirred in the sugar. How many specific cups of coffee do you remember making after thirty years? And you didn’t even taste it?

According to Sonny, no braggart, nothing more than her playful flirtation happened. But they both knew her effect on him. Marilyn Monroe had an undeniable power over people. She still does. Women always have.

Curiously, the powerful are the least visible in society. The poor and vulnerable can be seen on any city street. The powerful are invisible. They travel incognito in private jets to undisclosed locations. They exert their power unseen or from a distance.

Imagine a culture, a utopia in which the women are so powerful, they sequester themselves from society. They require attendants for travel and when in public, they dress anonymously – covered head to foot in shapeless, colorless and un-revealing clothing. Perhaps only their husbands and children know what how they look. In this imaginary society, women reject education. Their immense power is enough. Education is for the male servant class who need it for their physical work.

It might appear to an outsider that the men who acquiesce to these feminine demands are afraid of women’s power. Do these men believe the mere sight of a woman, as she truly is, would deprive them of their will? Render them helpless? Is it for their own good that they submit? Or else what? Are these women so irresistible?

Can you imagine these terrified, desperate men, blowing themselves up in defiance of such enveloping femininity?

What culture would willingly impoverish itself by condemning half its people to such a life? How damaged must one be to perpetuate such fear and weakness? Could healthy balance ever be regained?

Thankfully, imagination is not reality. Every sane parent, man or woman, wants opportunities and happiness for each child. Imposing one’s will on the weak and vulnerable is tyranny and abuse.


Ominous Cow Pies Threaten Idyllic Honeymoon

By all accounts (all two of us), ours was a wonderful honeymoon. Except for one small, insignificant, hardly worth mentioning incident.

We stayed in Cambria, on the California Central Coast. One day we went to the beach near San Simeon. Jutting into the ocean was a finger of forested land which intrigued us. We clambered up the embankment and stepped over the ancient wire fence that had been traversed by thousands of tourists before us.

This wild acreage had a park-like feel, with numerous paths populated with picnicking families and tourists coming and going. The ocean breeze wafted through the tall pines draped with Spanish moss creating a dramatic backdrop for pictures.

My wife Cassandra noticed the occasional cow pie as we walked. Having grown up in farm country, I paid them little mind. When two young men came by, we asked about them and they expressed little concern.

Done posing for pictures, we followed the path back toward the parking lot. Cassandra again remarked at the large size of the cow pies which looked typical to me.

Then it happened. We approached the compound of park service buildings and saw it.

Thus far, the accuracy of my account is undisputed. From here on, our perspectives diverge radically.

In the clearing, near the first of the buildings, stood a bull casually chewing its cud.

Cassandra, walking at my elbow suddenly vanished. I caught a glimpse of her as she disappeared back into the forest looking like the goddess Diana in hot pursuit of a deer. I followed as best I could and regained sight of her as she slid down the 20 foot embankment on her tush.

I followed, still not comprehending what spooked her. When we finally talked, I came to understand just how different were our interpretations of reality.

We agree there was a bull.

The dispute is over whether the bull was breathing fire and standing astride the skeletal remains of small children. Or: was the bull about the size of an extremely good-natured and sleepy St. Bernard puppy, secured by a thin silver chain. I think the latter.

Cassandra maintains the bull was about the size of a billboard. I think it was no more dangerous than a billboard. I maintain in fact, it was so passive, the bull resembled a billboard only in that it had graffiti on it.

The average toreador would need to be on stilts to take on the bull she imagines. Not likely.

This is still one of the few disputes we have. Even now, when out with friends, the story of the bull will come up and we’ll each lobby the uninitiated for support.

I grant the bull may have been larger than I describe. However, I maintain it was no threat and had it been aware of our presence, would have been glad to see us.

I usually end the discussion by saying it was unsporting of her to slide down that embankment. That no bull would attempt such a steep incline.

To which Cassandra will reply, “Exactly!”