Sunday, March 4, 2012

Language @lert

The Hermit, Gerrit Dou
Norman worried me. He seemed seven feet tall, constantly fingering a hand-rolled cigarette and yelling about systematic incompetence in one place or another, though he was more likely to describe it as "corrupt bastards, every last one of 'em". Blustery on most topics -- downright wild-eyed on the right ones -- I grew a tolerance to his opinions that rivaled my tolerance to whiskey itself. Just like a proper drinking career, sobriety comes with a certain social price. The difference is that one destroys personal dignity, and the other helps to restore it by first leveling our false pride.

God sent Norman into our life by way of the hardest knocks. My husband Anthony arrived in Southeast Alaska with the interruption of his journey to Somewhere Else, Alaska. The 747 had a mechanical failure on the November day he fled Orange County for good. Anthony found himself deposited on a marshy isle called Wrangell, where the one-room airport's phone rang and he was summoned to the call by a desk agent. On the other end of the phone was Norman, a stranger to him. He was, however, known to the Episcopal priest who was known to the fish mogul/street preacher who had years before burned a path between Southern California and Southcentral Alaska, goading all around him to do the same. Uncle Mike wasn't around this time, but his people were. And so the world shrinks when you need it to. The interrogation was brief, jarring and provided passage to Petersburg. Norman's voice boomed through the phone with gruff extroversion.

"You drink?"

"No, Sir." 

"If you're lying to me I'll rip your (expletive) eyeballs out."

That my husband boarded the ferry boat to such an invitation says enough about his mental health and hunger for adventure at the time.

Within this spiritual and physical journey there was to be a blooming courtship between Anthony and me. Norman would later become a chaperone of sorts, spending hours offering us the simple gift of self which unlocks the mystery of recovery from chronic addiction: we hang out together and don't get high. He'd drive us to deserted logging roads, park his two-tone Chevy pickup and assemble the accessories of an Alaskan hike: guns, dog, smokes. Our walks ended when Norman said it had been three miles, which was clearly random from one day to the next, but we didn't care. Not drinking is a full-time pursuit in the very beginning, and any diversion of this focus is gratefully welcomed. 

The Dutch Housewife, G. Dou
We spent a lot of time with Norman and his wife Merry in the coming weeks and years, their tireless devotion to suffering souls being without parallel. We cooked together, celebrated holidays, passed the time with card games and stories. Their modest home was usually bursting with guests, from the scrappy newcomers like us to the local doctor or recently transplanted state trooper. Their open door signified everything that was behind it: hospitality for anyone, warmly offered regardless of status. Elegant-souled Merry has many one-liners that ring in my heart to this day, a favorite being "Take your time in leaving (her house), but hurry back."

She also demures when complimented for her generosity, answering simply, "You can't outgive God." As an art school dropout who now drinks in good philosophy wherever it's served, I continue to hear strains of Merry's folksy wisdom from the most rareified minds I can plop myself down in front of. She knows the human condition intimately, after four decades of ministering to addicts. I'd contend there's literally nothing someone could confess that would shock her.

While making enchiladas, I once said something about "a good person" and Norman went mildly ballistic at my term. "She's not a person, she's a woman. These women's libbers have made knowing what we are into a problem we're supposed to fix, now? Buncha hogwash."

I dismissed him as crazy and kept chopping onions.

It is nearly twenty years later, and the crazed refrain that our language has been hijacked no longer displaces my sensibilities. The obvious offenders are notable but tired, and the effects are intentional and insidious.

In terms of personal pronouns, we slowly strip away everything that makes a person unique, with this insistence that equality means feigning utter homogeny. What a bore.

Indoctrination is most effective when the subjects perform it on themselves, and we see this in the hunger to be hip and relevant with the trendy rejection of reality. Often coined 'privilege awareness', it addresses a narrow spectrum of personal traits which none of us had a hand in choosing, and paints a hierarchy we must name, claim and reject in order to relate to anyone else. White European Guilt pales in comparison to Privilege Awareness, and comparison is the name of the game. Rather than welcoming a new friend or associate, we're called to flatly survey the balance sheet of their experience on this planet, and reduce our expectations (of ourselves and others) according to the prevailing prejudice. Content of character is now secondary to this frenetic labeling.

Privilege Awareness is different than useful thought exercises because it's based in gibberish and ends in policy. As an elementary school student, I remember a simple and powerful classroom activity about discrimination, probably in tandem with learning about Rosa Parks. Many readers of my generation will be familiar with it too, and I've used it in discussion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to our young daughters. Our teacher separated our desks acoording to eye color, granting "good seats" to only the blue-eyed children for a whole day. (No doubt this would be hatcheted into unnecessary complexity today, or railed against by parents who don't grasp the specific and gentle nature of the lesson.) 

My ears are now pricked up for the codification of left-wing preference as the default setting of common sense. I'm encouraged by the beauty of actual intelligence which is capable of examining cause and effect, and unimpressed by the poorly thought out offerings of those who are really impressed with themselves.

Lots of tributes lately at the Lox. I'm thankful for people who are at least willing to shout rather than fiddle while Rome is burning. Especially if they value truth above their own reputation. People like Norman are right about everything, even if our first urge is to dismiss them to preserve our own comfort.

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