"The only thing one can do is follow himself . . . dig in, discover what he is, and who he is, and reveal himself." – Henry Miller

Archive for September, 2011

It’s like… a whole new way of speaking!

This is one from the archives, written long before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Enjoy!

Have you noticed that the word “like” is changing the very nature of the English language? This little word is being used so often to add an irrelevant pause in the middle of even the shortest sentence – as in, “She was, like, really nice” or “We had, like, rain all the time!” – that it has become part of some larger conversational drama.

The speaker may say, “She goes, ‘You can’t do that here,’ and I’m like (long, significant pause) ‘I don’t believe this!’”

Here, “like” signals high emotions, in this case astonishment, anger or outrage. The speaker is saying “I was shocked, I was in a total state,” and the listener is supposed to gasp.

However, the speaker isn’t really saying it, but acting it out.

Often, this kind of dramatic utterance is part of some larger story in which an important dialogue is reproduced. We have all heard it: “So she said, ‘You’re going?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ and then she goes, ‘How come you didn’t say so?’ and I’m like (long pause, mock astonishment, mouth and eyes open in disbelief).”

We get the direct quote rather than the indirect comment on it. Dialogue is replayed rather than summarised. The story is not reported so much as it is rendered, with the storyteller sometimes mimicking the characters’ voices. Even speechlessness is mimed.

This kind of talk attempts to show rather than tell. Especially among the young, speech is turning toward performance. We’re asked not just to hear, but also to experience, the speaker’s astonishment. And if other people’s reactions are quoted, then we hear what they said and how they said it, in their own tone of voice.

In fact, the use of the word “goes” or “went” instead of “says” or “said” is also evidence of speech turning into drama. “Going” suggests activity, acting, both in the sense of doing something and of performing.

One theory I have about the origin of this sort of talk is that it started with a generation brought up on Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – on cartoons, where everything was always spoken with great emphasis, and any conversation had to be acted out. The children liked the energy, picked it up, copied it – and a new style was born.

Cartoon talk needs the inflections, the gestures, the mimicking and clowning, to accompany it. You say, “You know, I mean, wow, I was like…”

You can only give those words meaning by creating a highly charged context. Eyes grow wide, mouths fall open, tongues hang out.

In such exchanges, body language replaces oral language. American movies and cartoons are spreading this new way of speaking all over the world. It’s the great American over-animation that never fails to impress (or distress) the rest of us.

What’s lost is a certain precision of language, a suppleness of vocabulary that comments on the action. What’s gained is that emotion that gets into the conversation as part of a performance.


Superiority Complex

For as much as everyone seems to complain about getting older, it’s amazing how often they seem so proud of themselves for it.

A friend called me the other day. He’s about my age, a little younger, successful, smart, hardly an ugly guy, but — and I speak as someone who’s been there — he’s absolutely helpless with women. In life, he’s a gifted schmoozer who knows all the right people and goes to all the right parties. But put him alone with a girl and he suddenly starts speaking in Klingon. He’s got this nasty habit of completely neutering himself within 30 seconds of meeting a woman he’s interested in. It’s an amusing, if sad, spectacle to observe. You can just watch women wipe him off their mental whiteboard before the ice in his drink has even started to melt.

That said, he’s a sweet guy, and if he ever figures out that, in the grownup world, women don’t think it’s cool that you own Depeche Mode CDs, he’ll make someone out there happy enough. Until then, though, it appears he’s going to get fucked over for a while.

There was this girl he was interested in, and mind you, I’m in no position to talk, but she is completely nuts. I won’t get into the sordid details, because it’s not my story, but let’s just say his courtship of her has been, um, rocky. In the span of one evening, she cancelled an evening with him — whom she considers, all together now, a friend — because (deep breath) she decided to have a brief flirtation with lesbianism at a famous London lady’s hotspot, then brought the girl with her to a party where she was supposed to meet him, made out with the girl in front of all his friends, told him she really wanted to be with him but needed to be with the girl tonight, left with the girl, called him from her mobile, said she was sorry, called him back 15 minutes later, said she put the girl in a cab and wanted to come by, met up with him, said he would do for the evening, then bolted early the next morning. (OK, maybe I did get into the sordid details.)

He hung in through all this chaos, presumably because sex is difficult to come by when you own Depeche Mode CDs, and, inexplicably, later asked her Where They Stood. (The boy will never learn.) Her response was classic: “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’m almost 35 years old. If only you were a few years older…” This is akin to Danny DeVito leaving Rhea Perlman because she’s too short.

We hate the aging process. Our waistlines are already beginning to expand, our breasts are starting to sag, our hairlines are making rapidly for the backs of our necks. Our lives aren’t so carefree anymore, and trying to pick up partners at a bar segues from cool to pathetic and sad. We panic when we see old friends getting married when we can’t even score a second date. Our careers are not where they thought they’d be, and we carefully store our dreams in the back of our underwear drawer while we worry about paying rent, checking every couple of months or so to make sure the rats haven’t ran off with them. We’re depressed that even though we’re growing more ancient each second, we don’t appear to be becoming much smarter. We can all agree that it sucks.

But we have a recourse. We have a way that makes it a little bit better, easier to deal with. There comes a point when we take advantage of getting older, which, after all, is one of the few things we improve at every day.

We look down on everyone else. Anyone fortunate enough to have been born after us is suddenly less world-wise, less intelligent, less… experienced.

We do it on every level. If you’ve just graduated from uni, undergrads don’t know shit. If you’re a few years removed, those recent grads, jeez, they have no idea how The Real World works. As we creep closer to 30 than 20, we mock those who are younger. Shit, you kids can’t even rent a car yet. You have no idea how the world works. Millennials! A friend in his 20s was whingeing to another about how difficult his life was going recently. She told him to buck up. “I went through the same thing when I was your age.” She is exactly 21 months, 10 days older than he is. Whatever happened to her in that period must have been significant.

(Funny story. I was flipping through Reader’s Digest the other day — um, I, er, couldn’t find my copy of New Scientist, you see — and I came across one of those pithy little “This Life” sections. It told the story of a 24-year-old woman justifying her age to her grandfather. “I mean, I’m closer to 20 than I am to 30. I still have six years until I turn 30.” The grandfather presumably flashed the smug grin of the about-to-die and asked her, “And how many years is it, again, until you turn 20?” That’s right, people; this blog has resorted to quoting Reader’s Digest.)

Even though we miss all the fun stuff those younger than us are doing, we pretend we don’t. We devalue the whole experience. Don’t you get it, kids? We’ve been there. We were doing all that before it was cool to do it. Shit, we remember when Maggie Thatcher was prime minister and MTV actually played videos. We’ve seen things you’ll never comprehend.

These kids today, they don’t know how good they got it. If we were their age, we’d appreciate it. We wouldn’t piss away our time like they do. Somehow, to make ourselves feel better, we’ve become the geezers on the porch, threatening to grab our shotgun if those hooligans don’t get off our property.

It’s bollocks, of course. As my Uncle Richard put it in a recent e-mail to me, “you think your sister is a kid, your mom thinks you’re a kid, we think she’s a kid, your grandmother thinks your mom’s a kid, and on, and on, and on.” The fact is, we are just as stupid right now as we were when we were younger; we’ve just been stupid more often now. Maturity is maturity, and just because you had your graduation ball in the 80s doesn’t suddenly mean you have any better idea how life is lived than you ever did. But we say it anyway. ’Cos, shit, what else can we do?

Some time ago, I accompanied a friend to see a band fronted by the younger brother of one of her old college mates. The venue was a bar — easily recognisable as a students’ bar by its total lack of personality. Same game machines, dartboards, dirty bathrooms and free-spirited clientele. We did a few meet-and-greets, then headed to the bar. We scoffed, marvelled at the unsophisticated taste buds of the proletariat and ordered a double whiskey on the rocks and a Kopparberg.

The band came on. They were one of those knockoff types, with keyboards and extended “jams” and occasional covers. Not bad, nothing special. But the crowd… it was a hot crowd. While we sat in the corner, nursing our drinks and checking our watches, lest we stay out too late and sleep through Later with Jools Holland, the kids were rolling. It was joyous. Before we knew it, hordes of kids, so happy to be anywhere but home this summer, were doing incredible dances of rapture. They hopped and cavorted and smiled and beamed and were happy happy happy, finding something wonderful that the music couldn’t provide on its own, no way; they saw some kind of wonderful, something reckless, careless, without worry, just prancing around, bopping to the rhythm, not a moment of apprehension even daring to peek its head over the horizon. They damned near floated above the floor. Their heads lolled everywhere, eyes focusing on nothing and everything, dancing, dancing, dancing, dance dance dance motherfucker dance. You watched them let themselves go, forget who they were, and just be. It was something glorious to behold. We saw a couple kiss in the corner, then look at each other, smile, then hit the floor again.

We watched this while nursing our drinks. We took it all in. We enjoyed it. Then, 30 minutes passed, without a single change in the vibe the jig the dope the scene the feel, man, and we, capturing the pure joy of the moment, decided we were tired and needed to go home. We cast one last look at the kids, who wouldn’t have noticed us if we’d been dressed like Screaming Lord Sutch, and said our goodbyes.

On the journey home, I spoke: “Those kids… cute, eh?”

“Yes they are.”

“They have no idea how life’s going to kick them in the arse, do they?”

“Nope.”

I’m right. I know I’m right. But I don’t have to like it. Because whatever it is I might have lost… I want it back.


Creative acts of love

Lately, it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic — from the London riots to international terrorism to the economy — by asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilisation. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: “Bad things” occur and “good people” never cause them. “Badness”, it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control — more often than not, in somebody else.

The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a “bad thing” produce a “good” result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone “evil” so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?

Once, on the Tube, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near “all the bad people”. The little girl scrutinised the face of each passenger preparing to exit the train. Then, puzzled, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mum,” she said timidly. “How can you tell which are the bad ones?”

These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when some friends in Surrey discovered, much to their chagrin, that someone had nicked their recycling bin. The bin, after all, had been marked all over with their address in permanent ink against such an event.

And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbour who took the container had actually returned it near to the front of my friends’ house, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup! Apparently, the vandal not only recycles — he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!

What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another’s motivations?

The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgement? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody needing a visit to Specsavers?

In the ancient wisdom monologue Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, (“I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”), a pious man concludes that we could never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us. But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with love or hate, anger or kindness… with creativity.

During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, aubergine and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailors. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity. In the words of Langton Hughes, he was free within himself.

In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of my friends’ bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions — from grumbling about un-neighbourliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed — another idea emerged. What about… phoning the council to request another container? And having it ready — adorned with a bow — to present to the “stealth recycler”?

The phone call took less than 10 minutes — a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had my friends’ irritation gone unchecked. Now, the scenario had shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as a sense of equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, they might even laugh about it together.

Maybe life is just one big salvage operation. Recycling love — now there’s the ultimate haul!