Day 162: baggage

“ … anyway, I could just tell. There was just an air of fustiness about the way he wrote that said ‘British old man’ to me,” I concluded authoritatively.

La Bonavita stared at me quizzically. “You have a lot of baggage around being British, don’t you?”

“Umm, no, no I don’t,” I said, frowning.

“Yes you do. You don’t even really like to consider yourself British,” he said calmly.

“What?” I was vexed. “Why would you think that? I feel more British than I feel … anything else. What, you think I feel American?” I fairly spat out the word.

“No, but you don’t really identify with British qualities. And you have all this—” rolling his eyes, “—class baggage.”

“If you mean I have … feelings about class, well, yes, that’s true, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel British—”

What I should have added at this juncture is that “having feelings about class” is surely the very quintessence of ‘feeling British.’ But in the moment I lacked the presence of mind.

“—what, you’re saying I can’t feel British while also feeling ambivalent about certain aspects of Britishness? Don’t you feel ambivalent about being American? You should do!” I added, severely.

“And anyway,” I continued, “I do identify strongly with many British things. Like …. like being a Londoner! I identify very strongly with being a Londoner.” On this I was adamant. “And … a lot of other stuff too.” [1]

La Bonavita listened placidly.

“Why are you being so defensive? Just admit you have baggage: you have baggage about being British just like I have baggage about being from New England. It’s fine, we all have baggage!” he said, cheerfully.

“I don’t. Have. Baggage,” I said, wondering why my effort to affect an air of nonchalance sounded so shouty.

He paused as if summoning the strength to break something to me.

“Look,” he said, earnestly, “you left England and you don’t like Downton Abbey.”

He fixed me with his best trust-me-I’m-a-doctor-stare laced with the barest hint of wickedness, and then cocked his head ever so slightly.

“I’d call that baggage.”

 

 

Notes

[1] Now that I have time to reflect, I’ve been thinking of other “British things” I identify with. So far I’ve come up with: a fondness for tea, gin and tonics, Wimbledon, and James Bond, and a kind of reflexive need to repudiate or distance myself from expressions that seem too pat. I’m not saying the British have exclusive rights to cringing at the clichéd or banal but rather that we have a peculiar way of performing our disdain. Bear with me and allow me to elaborate.

When I was in London over the summer I was reading an article in The Guardian (as you do), when I arrived at a sentence that began, “not to be trite, but …” Upon reading this, I was struck by two realizations: 1) the fear of appearing trite is a British-chattering-classes-nightmare, and, 2) “not to be trite, but …” is a perfectly British way of expressing that fear. My inner Brit tells me pretty insistently to preface every utterance I make with the words, “not to be trite, but …” (e.g., “not to be trite, but, now that I have time to reflect …). Most of the time I stoically repress this urge because the only thing worse than triteness is preciousness, and preemptively fending off charges of triteness is surely preciousness of the highest order.

I want to write a whole post called “not to be trite, but …” but, in the meantime; when I was looking for the article I read over the summer on The Guardian website, I discovered something funny: there are a lot of articles in The Guardian that use the word trite. I limited my search to August and September of this year and discovered that the word trite featured in nine Guardian articles in that period; by contrast it appeared in only two New York Times articles in the same timespan.

I know this doesn’t prove anything profound. Maybe the word trite is less frequently used in the U.S.; and so what if it is? Doesn’t it just suggest that writers in the U.S. turn more readily to some synonym of “trite” like “hackneyed” or “sentimental” or “corny”? (For what it’s worth I did a similar search for the word “corny” and found the numbers were more comparable between The Guardian and The New York Times). Maybe that is all it means. But that’s not the explanation that rings true to me, particularly when I note the painfully familiar way in which many of the articles in The Guardian use the word trite.

Here are some examples: “It’s difficult not to sound trite …”; “The theme may seem trite, but …”; “It might sound trite, but …” I’ve singled out these cases because in each of them the author anticipates and deflects the charge of triteness. By voicing the recognition that she skirts close to triteness’s territory, the author establishes a bond with the reader by implying that they share an understanding of the inherent risks in expressing a sentiment that in its very artlessness may ring false. The author voices this recognition in order to disarm the reader; the author hopes her candid acknowledgment of her vulnerability will move the reader to credit her with a discriminating understanding of where the line lies between true and false sentiment. Obviously anyone can have a phobia of appearing trite (you don’t have to be British, it just helps). Nonetheless, this particular rhetorical move reflects a core belief that feels British to me. This is the core belief that sincerity and pathos are debased currencies, a belief that necessitates saddling any expression of an oft-thought sentiment with endless caveats and qualifications. Now that’s baggage.

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Day 161: pitching in

desk

7:30 am. I look around the room and groan.

“What is it, Mom?” asks the elder.

I sigh. “It’s just that I have so much I need to read today. But this place ….” I gesture helplessly at the carnage of half done homework, dirty socks, granola bar wrappers, Pokémon cards, stuffed animals, library books, power cords, random pebbles, and Japanese food erasers strewn on every available surface. “It looks like a bomb hit it.”

The elder comes up to me and gently puts his hands on my arms. “We can all help,” he said. “We’ll all do it together when we get back from school—it probably would only take fifteen minutes if we all do it.”

I gaze at him in awe. “Oh my God, yes. Yes. Max, that’s a wonderful idea and it’s so so lovely that you suggested it! Honestly, I feel so much better already!”

“It should be a daily thing!” he adds.

“Yes!” I say giddily. “It’ll be so easy if we all pitch in together!”

We hug each other tightly.

Suddenly I notice the younger scowling at us. “What?” I say.

“I think,” she says, “I think there should be a sign-up-sheet.”

 

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Day 160: siblings

This morning I find a gummy bear on the living room rug.

“I believe this is yours,” I inform the younger.

She takes it from me. Then she runs out of the room yelling “Sucker!” at the top of her lungs.

“Max! SUCKER! This is MY gummy! This is MY gummy! SUCKER!”

There is a pause during which I suspect the elder is inspecting said gummy.

Then I hear him say to her disdainfully, “you know this gummy has hair on it, don’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s MY hair!” she crows in triumph.

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Day 159: spiders in milk

When my cousin John’s daughter was very small, like, maybe three years old, she would tell the best knock-knock jokes. I used to babysit her and her siblings when I was in my early twenties so this would be about twenty years ago. I found her jokes so surreally hilarious that I would retell them frequently, which is why I still remember them.

Example:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Mustard.

Mustard who?

Mustard in the custard.

My all-time hands down favorite continues the tainted-nursery-foods theme, but with a darker twist:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Spiders. [1]

Spiders who?

Spiders in milk.

This joke’s genius (in case it’s not obvious) lies in the fact that the idea of spiders in milk is so utterly shudder-inducing. (You have to say the punchline slowly and in a whispery yet gleeful tone for the proper effect.)

You know Julia Kristeva’s thing about the abject and the skin on warm milk? Well, that’s only because she’d never thought of spiders in milk. Spiders in milk is a diabolical prospect. Just think of spideriness and milkiness conjoined and tell me you don’t recoil. It’s an unholy union. It’s what a witch would drink before bed. [2]

That being said, until this morning I had never empirically confirmed that spiders in milk are actually creepy in reality as well as notionally.

Until this morning.

This morning, I took a mug from the cupboard.

I poured milk in it for my morning coffee.

And as I poured the milk a tiny spider skittered up out of it causing a strange noise to emanate from me eeeeeuuuuoooohhhhhaaahhhhhhhit’s a spider it’s a spider (in disgust) it’s a spider in milk (with dawning realization) spiders in milk … spiders in milk??? (and finally with an odd jubilation) spider’s in milk!!!

SPIDER’S IN MILK!!!!

 

Notes

[1] Cf. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: “is it possessive ‘Spider’s’ or plural ‘Spiders’’?”

[2] She’d have to open her throat wide to get the spiders down, the way that Andrea says you have to when you drink pulpy orange juice in Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself

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Day 157: nudge nudge wink wink

A couple of days ago, PBJ showed the kids some Monty Python’s Flying Circus skits and we made a magical discovery; Monty Python hits the exact sweet spot where six-year-old humor and eleven-year-old humor intersect.

So PBJ suggested we all watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail that Saturday night. I found I only had a dim memory of the film; although I appreciate Python in small doses, I’ve never been obsessed, and I’ve only seen Holy Grail once (and it was as an adult, in America, at He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s insistence. I wasn’t into Python as a teenager; they, along with Led Zeppelin and Dungeons and Dragons belonged in the category I thought of as “Scripts Boys Feel Compelled to Enact Ad Nauseam”) So being the responsible parent that I am, I looked it up on “Common Sense Media,” a website that gives slightly humorless but also useful guidance on the suitability of movies for kids of different ages. (What do I mean by humorless? Their criteria include categories for “positive messages” and “positive role models.” They give The Holy Grail 0 out of 5 on both counts and state dourly under the “positive role models” heading, “the characters are too silly to be considered positive role models.”)

I for one feel comfortable exposing my children to extreme levels of silliness, so that didn’t faze me; moreover, the rest of the review was reassuring, describing the violence as “obviously fake” and stating that, while the vestal virgin sequence is “filled with sexual innuendo and proposition,” that is “the iffiest content.”

As someone weaned on the Carry On movies and Roger Moore as James Bond, I don’t worry too much about a bit of innuendo, so we went ahead and watched it.

It was all going fine. The violence was indeed “obviously fake,” as my children agreed.

However, I would like to take exception with Common Sense Media’s blatant mis-use of the word “innuendo.

I can pinpoint very precisely when this thought popped into my mind. It wasn’t after one of the vestal virgins has told Sir Galahad they all need a good spanking because they’ve been so naughty. No, it was right after the next line, in which she says, “And after the spanking, the oral sex.”

And then they all start chanting “Oral sex! Oral sex!”

The elder shot me a look and started giggling helplessly. The younger looked confused.

“Thanks, Common Sense Media!” I said to no one in particular. “That’s actually not what the word ‘innuendo’ means,” I continued. “That’s, like, the opposite of innuendo.”

***

Later, the younger came up to me looking sheepish. “Mom, I have a question,” she said.

Oh, here we go, I thought.

I braced myself. “OK. Go ahead.”

She took a deep breath. “OK. What does ‘spanking’ mean?”

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Day 156: one or the other

What is a duck-rabbit hole?

I think of the duck-rabbit hole, like the duck-rabbit itself, as shifting depending on how you squint at it. From some angles it’s a cavernous hollow, fit for burrowing into; from others, it’s a gleaming surface, perfect for floating on.

If the phrase “down the rabbit hole” suggests passage into an obscure subworld, in a duck-rabbit hole that passage is always forked. And whichever path you go down leads to yet another forking.

I say this more in weariness than in wonder.

I wrote in my last post that, in the course of looking up “lights” in the OED, I discovered that the phrase “the living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.”

It is true that this is what I thought I discovered; when I read “to scare the (liver and lights) out of (someone)” listed as a colloquial phrase under the OED definition for lights meaning lungs, I was struck by its similarity to the colloquial phrase “to beat (also scare, etc.) the (living) daylights (also daylight) out of” someone. The gestalt symmetry of the phrases arrested me; and it was the internal likeness between the phrases that persuaded me they were related more than any external evidence.

But after looking a little longer, the gestalt switched, in duck-rabbit fashion. Or, I could say, the path forked. There are several sources that do indeed argue that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights.” But, the OED argues that the phrase “living daylights” actually derives from the eighteenth-century use of “daylights” to refer to a person’s eyes (“also occasionally: the nostrils”); it cites Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia (1752) as providing the first recorded expression of the phrase to darken a person’s daylights meaning to give someone a black eye (“If the Lady says such another Word to me .. I’ll darken her Daylights.”) “Living” is a general intensifier, said to be an American turn of the century usage.

Both explanations (deriving “living daylights” from “daylights” or from “liver and lights”) require a conjectural leap. The expressions “scare the liver and lights” and “scare the daylights” are both current in the 19th century. Although the first usage the OED cites of “living daylights” is from 1955, a search on Google books shows a few late nineteenth century instances. The point is: there’s no linguistic smoking gun either way to tell us definitively whether the “lights” being scared or beaten out of us are in our eyes or in our chest. (Or both! It’s possible, given that both expressions were current at the same time, that they merged.)

This indeterminacy is difficult for the mind (well, my mind) to accept.

My quickness to leap to the conclusion that “living daylights” is a corruption of “liver and lights” is yet another case of “lights for cats” in the sense (my own, willful sense) of chasing a delusive gleam.

It’s yet another humbling reminder of how difficult it is to fully accept language’s contingency. Even in the immediate wake of having re-learned afresh what is after all common knowledge—that light refers to both buoyancy and luminosity—I somehow couldn’t hold both meanings in my mind at once. Having originally reflexively read “lights” in Barthes’s essay as meaning luminosity, in my exuberance upon discovering it also meant lungs, I simply switched to reflexively privileging the new meaning. It turns out to be as tricky to toggle rapidly between lungs and lights as between duck and rabbit.

I recently read Toril Moi’s new book Revolution of the Ordinary. It’s been a long time since I read a scholarly monograph from cover to cover for the sheer pleasure of it. The fact that I did so in this case is a testament to Moi’s prose (OK, also maybe to the concentrating effects of Adderall), which is luminously clear. The book is about the relationship between ordinary language philosophy—especially Wittgenstein as read through Stanley Cavell—and literary criticism.

After reading Moi’s book, my thoughts turned naturally to Cavell in trying to think more about the kind of literary criticism ordinary language philosophy might encourage, and I found myself browsing through his book Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage. This passage from Cavell’s Introduction speaks to the way that, in my thinking about “lights,” brightness first eclipsed airiness, and then airiness brightness, in quick succession:

“… what he [Wittgenstein] calls ‘seeing an aspect’ is the form of interpretation: it is seeing something as something. Two conditions hold of a case in which the concept of ‘seeing as’ is correctly employed. There must be a competing way of seeing the phenomenon in question, something else to see it as (in Wittgenstein’s most famous case, that of the Gestalt figure of the ‘duck-rabbit,’ it may be seen as a duck or a rabbit); and a given person may not be able to see it both ways, in which case it will not be true for him that he sees it (that is, sees a duck or sees a rabbit) as anything (though it will be true to say of him, if said by us who see both possibilities, that he sees it as one or the other). And one aspect dawns not just as a way of seeing but as a way of seeing something now, a way that eclipses some other, definite way in which one can oneself see the ‘same’ thing” (Pursuits of Happiness, 36).

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