Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Surely This Means Something

July 30, 2010

I was, for a brief moment, feeling a surge of ambition course through my veins as I sat down to compose a profound rumination of what it means to be an American. Then I saw this clip of a little old lady in a wheelchair firing off a few rounds with a machine gun and rambling about shooting somebody “in his toodles.” It’s clearly a more eloquent statement of who we are as a nation than anything I could possibly say.

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Confounding Rampant Genderism, Then and Now

July 21, 2010
Cover of "Bob the Builder: Let's Find Shapes"

From Amazon.com

Right now my 18 month-old daughter is in that stage where she wants to have the same book read to her over and over, and over and over, and over and over . . . The book of choice is Bob the Builder: Let’s Find Shapes, which isn’t the least bit surprising considering her favorite toys have always been things like dump trucks and toy construction equipment.

The book is a little unsettling, though, due to the context in which the only clearly female character in the book appears. I realize that on the Bob the Builder TV show, many of the construction vehicles have female voices, but we don’t normally watch the show, and you can’t tell the machines’ genders from the book. Instead, the only woman, Wendy, appears holding a tray of cookies with the caption, “Wendy has star-shaped cookies for Bob.”

It’s flabbergasting, considering the book was published in 2002. As bad as that is, the book isn’t nearly as cringeworthy as some of the older things we have around the house.

Take, for example, the series of 25 pamphlet-style cookbooks I somehow wound up with from my parents that were published in the early 1960s. They’re littered with such gems of statements as, “Here are 250 recipes gathered . . . to help the hostess increase her repertory and add variety to her family’s everyday menus,” and “Sunday night suppers . . . give Mother an opportunity for training the children in the entertaining of their own guests.” Throughout the series of books, the person for whom the recipes are compiled is always assumed to be a woman, a mother, and a “homemaker.”

Better yet, the recipes in question are always for things like “Chicken á la King with Ham Rolls,” “Paté de Foie Gras,” “Chicken Pie de Luxe,” pies, cakes, cookies, and even candy made from scratch, because the female homemaker and parent in question clearly has nothing better to do than spend all day cooking an absurdly complicated evening dinner. There’s even a category of “After Sports Suppers” to be made when, you guessed it, the men are all sitting around watching sports on TV. My personal favorite is a recipe for something called “Chicken Calcutta,” because adding a pinch of curry powder and a pinch of chili powder to something apparently makes it Indian (it’s part of a “Cosmopolitan” recipe section of “Oriental” food).

I can’t help but wonder what a person who helped compile that crap would think of our household today, where I stay home with the kids while my wife goes to work, and our daughter plays with toy dump trucks and rugby balls when she isn’t busy trying to wrestle her two year-old brother to the ground. To top it off, our son likes to pretend to go to work. When he does this, he says, “Go to work,” and puts on one of my wife’s necklaces, rather than a tie.

I hope that individual could withstand passing out from shock just long enough to hear me to say, “Welcome to the 21st Century, dickhead.” It wouldn’t matter if the cookbook author in question was male or female; you don’t need to have one to be one. This is the 21st Century, after all.

“Self-Delusion: America’s Renewable Resource”

October 19, 2009

Every once in a while you stumble across something that seems brilliant at the time, and as the years go by, you still remember it. With those added years, though, it starts to look not only brilliant, but prophetic as well.

The cartoon at the link below, which was initially published in May 2002, is one such thing:

http://www.cartoonistgroup.com/store/add.php?iid=27962

The Death of Language

October 17, 2009

This BBC article published today got me thinking: what exactly is lost when a language dies out? Is the death of a rarely-spoken language always a completely bad thing?

They’re not merely academic questions for me; half of my family is Pennsylvania Dutch, and my grandfather can speak the language fluently. A century ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see bilingual street signs throughout central Pennsylvania in both English and Deitsch, the proper name of this region’s twisted offshoot of German (the word “Dutch” in Pennsylvania Dutch is a misnomer coined by English speakers who misheard the word “Deitsch,” which is derived from the German “Deutsch”). 200 years ago, such bilingual signs were even common throughout Philadelphia.

In the past, both languages could be heard spoken regularly in public places throughout eastern and central PA by people from all walks of life. Today, Deitch is generally only spoken in the home by members of the “Plain” religious sects, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, as well as a dwindling handful of secular old-timers like my grandfather.

So what happened? For one thing, improvements in transportation and communication technology wore away at regional isolation. As more people became more exposed to a wider world in which people did not speak Deitsch, English increasingly became the dominant language because it was spoken throughout the country. World events had something to do with it as well — after World War I, the number of people speaking the language began to dwindle. Then, my grandfather’s generation was largely the last of the non-Plain people to grow up speaking the Pennsylvania Dutch language at home, as well as the last born before the Nazi takeover of Germany and World War II; those things occurring together are not coincidental. Ironically, my great-grandfather, also a fluent Deitsch speaker and a World War I veteran, was chosen to serve as part of the allied forces in the occupation of the Rhineland following the First World War specifically because he could sort-of understand and sort-of make himself understood by the local populace there.

My Dad’s family has lived in this part of Pennsylvania for about 300 years, and they clung to the Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch sprooch (language) for about 250 of those years. There’s a lesson in that for all the anti-immigrant/English-only hysterics out there: English was NEVER this country’s sole language, and speaking English is NOT what makes you a “real” American.

All the same, my father and I grew up speaking only English at home. I’ve often wondered if we’ve lost an additional perspective on the world for not having grown up bilingual, but I’ve also often wondered if I wouldn’t have had access to the opportunities I’ve been given in life if I’d grown up speaking something other than English at home. I also seriously doubt that my father would have eventually married the daughter of an immigrant from Manchester, England who lived in both countries growing up if he’d been born into an earlier, more insular, time period.

There are now attempts to revive the language, led by academics at places like Kutztown University, like what has been done elsewhere in the world with Irish Gaelic, Welsh, and Hebrew. Part of me hopes fervently this succeeds. After all, I chose to take German over Spanish in high school and continue studying it into college for the same reasons some professors and younger people are trying to spark a Deitsch renaissance today: it’s part of my background, and I would hate to see it die out.

On the other hand, another part of me wonders what the practical point of all this is. What purpose does speaking Deitsch fluently serve? German (or Deutsch) is a useful international business language, but Deitsch isn’t Deutsch. If you tried to speak it in a boardroom in Frankfurt, you’d be barely intelligible to everyone else in the room, and, worse yet, you’d probably sound like something several notches below that of hick.

Is spending a significant chunk of one’s education preventing cultural memory from dying out more important than spending that time learning other skills? Increasingly, more people in places like Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and now perhaps even here are saying yes. I’m not sure what the answer is.

Say Goodbye To Mannywood

May 8, 2009
Manny Ramirez with the Boston Red Sox. By Terry Foote on Flickr.com.

Manny Ramirez with the Boston Red Sox. By Terry Foote on Flickr.com.

Es irrt der Mensch, solang er strebt.

— Goethe, Faust, line 317

Another day, another baseball star is caught using steriods. This time, it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Manny Ramirez. Pharmaceutically based cheating is not endemic to baseball alone. Nor, should it be emphasized, is it endemic to the world of sports alone. When we say it’s not natural, we deny our very nature.

Strangely enough, one of the more interesting and insightful sports blogs out there is written by actor Alyssa Milano of all people, a rabid Dodgers fan. She has been insisting for years that current performance-enhancing drug scandals in sports are really a reflection of our broader culture, and I’m inclined to agree with that notion. The Ramirez suspension, which will obviously impact the Dodgers in a big way, has caused her to write about it again. In addition to describing in a way that doesn’t put you to sleep exactly how human chorionic gonadotropin works in the body and can be used by athletes, she said this:

Am I enraged? No. Cheating in baseball has been around for as long as the sport has been around.  . . . Performance enhancing drugs are, unfortunately, the evolution of cheating that mirrors the evolution of the pharmaceutical society that we’ve become.

And there’s a link to a post from a couple of years ago, called “The Steroid and Botox Era.”

We’re a pharmaceutical nation. In between acts of our favorite shows, every other commercial is selling a drug trying to ease what ails us. Allergies. Restless Leg Syndrome (I’m sorry, what?). Cholesterol. Impotence. Pop a pill and we will feel better.

We are youth obsessed. Creams to make you look younger. Plastic surgery. Botox. In my industry, it’s hard to find a woman over 50 that hasn’t had some procedure to try and recapture the physical appearance of her prime. In my opinion, it’s an epidemic. So . . . why wouldn’t athletes look to try and regain the physical ability of their prime? It is a sign of the times. We’re in an era when it’s easier to look for the quick fix. We’re in an era when we’re all looking to slow down the hands of time. We are in an era when natural ability just isn’t good enough.

Also, the ambition and responsibility to excel day in and out for these players is overwhelming. Should it be a surprise that they would look for something to speed healing time, prolong their careers, and make them stronger?

None of this makes it “right,” but it is an accurate reflection of who we all are. In one way or another, we all desire to be somehow better than we perceive ourselves to be. We all have insecurities. We all strive to better our lives and our selves, although we all have different standards for measuring what “better” is. If we didn’t, we’d still be grunting in caves.

The push to excel and to improve is neither inherently good nor bad; it is simply what makes us who we are, and it displays itself in a multitude of forms.

I am not defending steroid use here. What I am saying is that when we insist it is not natural, we are denying part of our humanity. When we dismiss as “unnatural” and “scandalous” the darker symptoms of our striving for betterment, we deceive ourselves and make them that much harder to understand and rein in.

Existentialism and Lawn Care

May 4, 2009

This year, I’ve decided to be kinder to my lawn and join my fellow suburbanites in working hard to keep it nice and green, rather than just hoping all the grass dies as soon as possible.

In past years, I used an old-fashioned push mower of 1950s vintage, made of 100% heavy steel. I hated mowing the lawn as a result, and I kept it on the lowest setting so that all the grass would die of thirst by late spring. You could actually look up my neighborhood in Google Maps and see a clear difference between our yard and those of the surrounding houses. Ours was the brown patch, visible from space.

There were several reasons for my vendetta against lawn care and my resulting use of the hand-me-down antique mower. Before we bought our house five years ago, I’d always lived in apartments and never had to care for a yard. Before then, growing up in my parents’ house, they didn’t like mowing the lawn either, so I was always the one stuck doing it. “It builds character,” they said. Phooey. Plus, gas-powered lawn mowers are noisy, dirty, fuel-wasting contraptions that are just plain bad for the environment, both in your yard and from a global standpoint. It also didn’t help that my family had a garage fire when I was a kid, and I’ve had a fear of putting gasoline in a garage ever since. I won’t even put a car in our garage today.

Then, last fall, the old push mower broke after 50+ years of service. One of the steel parts snapped in two. It was impressive. I ended up having to get a new mower, and I settled on one of those newfangled rechargable battery powered mowers.

The fact that it’s a lot lighter and makes cutting the lawn a lot easier has made the act of mowing less dreadful this spring. I’m finding that I’m doing it more often, and that I don’t mind it that much, either. I’m keeping the mower on one of the highest settings possible so that the grass doesn’t require as much moisture to survive, and the result is that our lawn is currently one of the greener-looking ones on our street.

I was feeling good about this until, while mowing yet again on Saturday, the thought hit me: at no time and in no place in human history other than here and now would this be considered a good use of one’s time, let alone rational behavior.

Think about it. In our culture today, it is considered perfectly acceptable — nay, required in many localities — to spend vast amounts of time maintaining a large space where nothing grows on it save grass. And that grass can’t get too long; there are regulations about that, complete with fines for non-compliance.

How much arable land in our towns and suburbs currently takes the form of “lawn?” Lawns don’t produce any food crops, and it isn’t like they are part of the forests and meadows that the land would naturally produce if left free of human intervention.

It’s one thing to expend time and energy intervening in the ecosystem around you if you are doing it in the practice of agriculture; it’s another thing entirely if you are doing it simply to keep a lawn looking nice, green, short, and weed free (especially when many of those weeds, such as dandelions, are in fact edible and very nutritious).

Imagine if you were a peasant in medieval Europe, and you decided that, in a large space of land in your village, rather than growing beets this year, you were going to plant this stuff called “Kentucky Bluegrass.”

“How do you eat it,” your neighbors would ask. “You don’t,” you reply. “Oh, so that means the sheep will graze on it,” they say. “Oh, no,” you say in response. “You don’t use it for anything. You just spend hours upon hours every month keeping it nicely trimmed to 1-3/4″ in height, and you make sure none of those dandelions get in there.”

“But that’s what we make salad with,” your neighbors say. “No we don’t anymore,” you say. “From now on we’re calling them weeds, and we pull them out and throw them away. They make the grass look bad. And you don’t let animals graze on it, either. They’ll mess up the lawn.”

At this point your neighbors are lighting the torches and gathering up pitchforks to run you out of town, as well they should.

Guuck fer Ardickel!

October 25, 2008

One of the weirder things floating about the Internets is the Pennsylvania Dutch version of Wikipedia.

That’s right, a version of Wikipedia in the Pennsylvania Dutch language exists. Contrary to popular belief, not all Pennsylvania Dutch speakers are Amish and/or Luddites. There aren’t that many of them who are not, however, so the variety and length of the articles are both rather limited.

Still, it’s pretty funny to see what the authors of “der Wikipedia in Deitsch” find important enough to say about their subjects. Take, for example, the comprehensive four sentence biography of Dick Cheney:

Der Dick Cheney iss alleweil der Vice-Bresident vun Amerikaa. Er hot mit em George W. Bush zwee Lekschionne gwunne. Uff der 11 Henning, 2006 hot der Dick Cheney der Harry Whittington, en Texas Attorney gschosse mit me Flint. Er waar Quail am Yaage mitaus en Permit.

My translation abilities are a little rusty, but this is the basic gist of what it says in English:

Dick Cheney is currently the Vice-President of the United States. He won two elections with George W. Bush. On 11 February 2006, Dick Cheney shot Harry Whittington, a Texas attorney, with a gun. He was quail hunting without a permit.

Really gets to the heart of the matter, doesn’t it?

Who Killed Halloween?

October 23, 2008

Since Halloween is coming up soon, I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before in this blog: reprint an earlier post of mine. Originally written the day after last Halloween in a frenzy of disappointment and confusion, if there’s any one thing I’ve written on this site that I can genuinely say I’m proud of having placed into the public domain, it’s this:

——————————————————————————————————

Halloween in our neighborhood was pathetic. We received a grand total of three trick-or-treaters all night, and on our block it appeared our house was one of just two that had its lights on to welcome kids cruising for candy.

It wasn’t always like this. I can remember growing up in my old neighborhood just over twenty years ago, and it would be a rarity to see a house that was not welcoming trick-or-treaters. Even places where the people weren’t home that night would often have a basket of candy left sitting on the doorstep for kids to take from on the honor system.

What the hell happened to my favorite holiday of the year? Halloween is, at its best, a holiday that celebrates community. At its core, it is supposed to be the one day of the year when it is considered perfectly acceptable to ring the doorbells of those in the neighborhood you barely know and be welcomed. It was a reason for people to get to know each other’s families and begin to find more in common with one another than sheer geographical accident. This spirit seems to have completely withered and died, and I want to know why.

When I was a kid, my hometown had an annual Halloween parade for all the children. It began at a church parking lot and ended at the local fire hall. I have to wonder how many churches today would consider hosting part of a town’s Halloween parade, complete with kids in ghost, monster, devil, ghoul and whatever other types of costumes. Then as well as now, some religious groups had objections to some of Halloween’s imagery, but it seems like they were more willing to find a way to take part in what is essentially a community-building activity.

Today, flipping through the local weekly newspaper, there are instead several ads from rather large nearby churches for “Halloween alternative parties.” Instead of being a part of a community’s Halloween celebration, it seems like a lot of religious groups have determined that, for whatever reason, the holiday’s sheer existence is no longer acceptable in any form. As a result, they have chosen to balkanize the communities of which they are supposed to be a part by having their own, “alternative” harvest-themed celebrations, sanitized for their approval and independent of what the rest of the town does. The popularity of these alternative faith-based shindigs seems to me another symptom of the cultural trends that have led to the rise of “gated communities,” an oxymoron if ever there was one. Instead of welcoming in those around us, we are now trying to shut out everything around us that seems even remotely different or makes us feel in any way uncomfortable.

There’s also a thematic element of Halloween that may have fallen out of fashion these days: confronting one’s fears. On Halloween, people often dress up in costumes that are meant to frighten. When you answer the door on Halloween night, a representation of the face of death may very well stare you back in the face. However, behind that mask is the face of the child wearing it. Behind the representation of our own passing is the face of the next generation. There’s something transcendent in the symbolism of that — while we ourselves will someday perish, the community of which we are a part will continue to live on as we continue to nurture its future. When looked at in that perspective, our fears for our individual futures and eventual demise look quite small and insignificant.

We were once told that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Today, we are told to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior amid dark mutterings about buying plastic sheeting and duct tape. Unfortunately, the values of Halloween just don’t jibe with that vibe.

I take heart, however, in the thought that the ancient pagans upon whose beliefs the modern holiday of Halloween took root believed that the nature of all things was cyclical. What once was shall be again someday, and just as what is now shall someday pass. I can only hope that’s the case.

——————————————————————————————————

Once again, marquees in front of the biggest churches outside town are hawking their “fall celebrations” to take place over Halloween.

Once again, we will be ready to welcome trick-or-treaters, even if only one or two show up.

Once again, our porch light will be turned on, shining against the darkness.

I hope yours will be, too.

What Happened to Halloween?

November 1, 2007

Halloween in our neighborhood was pathetic. We received a grand total of three trick-or-treaters all night, and on our block it appeared our house was one of just two that had its lights on to welcome kids cruising for candy.

It wasn’t always like this. I can remember growing up in my old neighborhood just over twenty years ago, and it would be a rarity to see a house that was not welcoming trick-or-treaters. Even places where the people weren’t home that night would often have a basket of candy left sitting on the doorstep for kids to take from on the honor system.

What the hell happened to my favorite holiday of the year? Halloween is, at its best, a holiday that celebrates community. At its core, it is supposed to be the one day of the year when it is considered perfectly acceptable to ring the doorbells of those in the neighborhood you barely know and be welcomed. It was a reason for people to get to know each other’s families and begin to find more in common with one another than sheer geographical accident. This spirit seems to have completely withered and died, and I want to know why.

When I was a kid, my hometown had an annual Halloween parade for all the children. It began at a church parking lot and ended at the local fire hall. I have to wonder how many churches today would consider hosting part of a town’s Halloween parade, complete with kids in ghost, monster, devil, ghoul and whatever other types of costumes. Then as well as now, some religious groups had objections to some of Halloween’s imagery, but it seems like they were more willing to find a way to take part in what is essentially a community-building activity.

Today, flipping through the local weekly newspaper, there are instead several ads from rather large nearby churches for “Halloween alternative parties.” Instead of being a part of a community’s Halloween celebration, it seems like a lot of religious groups have determined that, for whatever reason, the holiday’s sheer existence is no longer acceptable in any form. As a result, they have chosen to balkanize the communities of which they are supposed to be a part by having their own, “alternative” harvest-themed celebrations, sanitized for their approval and independent of what the rest of the town does. The popularity of these alternative faith-based shindigs seems to me another symptom of the cultural trends that have led to the rise of “gated communities,” an oxymoron if ever there was one. Instead of welcoming in those around us, we are now trying to shut out everything around us that seems even remotely different or makes us feel in any way uncomfortable.

There’s also a thematic element of Halloween that may have fallen out of fashion these days: confronting one’s fears. On Halloween, people often dress up in costumes that are meant to frighten. When you answer the door on Halloween night, a representation of the face of death may very well stare you back in the face. However, behind that mask is the face of the child wearing it. Behind the representation of our own passing is the face of the next generation. There’s something transcendent in the symbolism of that — while we ourselves will someday perish, the community of which we are a part will continue to live on as we continue to nurture its future. When looked at in that perspective, our fears for our individual futures and eventual demises look quite small and insignificant.

We were once told that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Today, we are told to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior amid dark mutterings about buying plastic sheeting and duct tape. Unfortunately, the values of Halloween just don’t jibe with that vibe.

I take heart, however, in the thought that the ancient pagans upon whose beliefs the modern holiday of Halloween took root believed that the nature of all things was cyclical. What once was shall be again someday, and just as what is now shall someday pass. I can only hope that’s the case.


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