Re: Cliché

With the COVID19 pandemic, clichés are going viral: ‘We’re all in this together’, ‘The new normal’, ‘Flatten the curve’, ‘Social/Physical distancing’. Everyone is catching these phrase viruses. Clichés are just phrases that were once respected for their originality and meaning yet in these compacted times, a phrase, however helpful, can easily become worn out from overuse. Then people may stop paying attention.

My former father-in-law wrote the book on clichéd discourse. He revelled in bromides such as, ‘Love your enemies:It drives them crazy.’ He enjoyed teasing actor friends with the worn platitude, ‘Break a leg’. He preferred the banality of weather talk over conversations that challenged his one sided view of things. He sometimes sat me down and issued a string of trite phrases that blurred into a single slurry of thought, like this memorable one after I asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As I recall he said something about; ’The blushing bride, bury a hatchet, at loose ends, busy as a bee, depths of despair, easier said than done, the fair sex, calm before a storm, to the bitter end, in no uncertain terms.’ We shook hands after this confusing monologue, which I took to mean he was blessing our union.

I’ve always thought that clichéd statements were examples of lazy speech, much like swearing. I discouraged my sons from wearing out words while trying to say what they were feeling or thinking. When my wife and I went on a cruise, we agreed beforehand to steer dinner table conversation away from clichés like; ‘So, where are you from?’ or ‘What do you do for a living?’ or ‘What’s your story?’ Or, the worst of all; ‘Is this your first cruise?’ Instead of using these banal queries we tried something refreshing like; ‘How do you express your artistic side?’ or ‘What would you find hard to live without?’ Or even a cymbal clasher like, ‘Who do you love most?’

Clichés can be considered the comfort food of language. A cliché will sound familiar and therefore safe. We often speak them to get quick acknowledgement of our ideas and a sense of where the other is at, in their view of the world. A cliché spoken and received may identify your level of understanding or establish you as part of the club or tribe. For example, when we want to show support for soldiers we speak of their ‘supreme sacrifice’. We often acknowledge grief by sending ‘thoughts and prayers’.

Over time, we might cultivate phrases that become the proverbs or slogans by which we live. My favourite is, ‘Plan for the worst/Hope for the best’. The truism, ‘You get what you pay for’ will quickly establish a point of view. ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’ holds bits of sage wisdom, however the language we use to describe our complicated lives requires more than hackneyed old sayings. Insight can be found in some clichés yet I’d hate for them to disguise the whole truth about me or the world.

Re: Fame

A nerdy game I used to enjoy playing in high school started with the question, ‘Would you rather have fame, fortune or power when you grow up?’ It wasn’t really a game, more like a continuation of the more childish Aladdin’s magic lamp suggestion, ‘If you had three wishes…’.

I loved camping with my parents (I had my own ‘Famous’ brand rucksack and cooking equipment). I enjoyed learning about the woods and the ways of the world as a boy scout. I got into scraps while in uniform and one time I remember shouting as I got pummelled, “I’m going to be famous!” The bully just laughed, but I felt buoyed by my hopeful prediction. Even when I was older I felt that youthful sense of optimism when I saw myself through the eyes of the characters in the musical Fame. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqMmquNLnHg

In my youth, I thought it would be way cool to be famous. I saw only positives to being recognized wherever I went. The other two options didn’t appeal. I was actually frightened by the prospect of having more money than I thought I could handle. Likewise with power, I couldn’t see having dominance over another. I never felt my influence extended any further than the tip of my nose. But fame! Now that would give me access: Right this way sir. Of course we have room for you. Follow me I’ll show you to your table. Certainly we can make that happen.

There used to be a common saying, Big Fish in a Small Pond, that indicated you could be well known in your small community while no one in the wider world would have heard of you. Today I’m wondering if the reverse is true, due to social media. The potential for a small voice to be amplified through Twitter or Facebook can potentially enable a metaphorical small fish to make a big splash in the world’s ocean of varied opinions. I suspect that is why online platforms are so popular. I enjoy giving my opinion, whether it leads to nods or shakes of the head. The possibility is there to get more than just the 15 minutes of fame that Andy Warhol prophesied. The internet has expanded the idea of the nineteenth century speakers’ corner in Hyde Park, England for good and for ill. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l4yHwCaptL0

I remember one of my elementary school teachers often using the proverb, “Oh how the mighty have fallen.” I can’t quite figure out why some people enjoy seeing celebrities come down a notch or two. But I guess fame is currency so if you feel you have been de-famed, you can seek restitution from your detractors in court by suing for defamation of character. If you fail in your suit, your reputation will live on in infamy, like those who bombed Pearl Harbour.

Everything has a down side. For instance, being famous would make it hard to find privacy. Achieving balance on the FAME spectrum from anonymity to renown may be difficult. I shall ponder further.

Re: Why

My granddaughter has discovered the word Why. This is an amazing step for one small girl. This word can be used to stop time in its tracks. Bath time can be delayed while answers are being weighed. Even if the answer is not understood, an important moment of assurance has been established: Why is a very powerful word. From our beginning we learn to use language to shape our environment, to control, or at least influence, those around us who are important to our well being. From the parents’ point of view, the word Why can sometimes seem as a test, at best it is surely a quest for information. Here is a wonderful song by Anne Murray that captures the importance and frustration of this word. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYsadwkBrnI

Before wee babes can formulate discernible words, sounds sub in for communicating needs. Likely, the word When was the first question which came out more like Whaaa! This universal cry: When will I be fed? When is my diaper going to be changed? When is Mommy coming? Translation: Whaaa? Whaaa?

Journalists are taught the five Ws in order to get the important elements of a story. The who, where, what, when, why of an incident are key to understanding. The reporter wields these questions as a surgeon might use a scalpel, to expose from witnesses the details of the event. In my chronological order of question development I see Who, What and Where, as words learned after the When and Why of baby vocabulary: The Who? babes can see, the What? they can point to or grab, The Where? will eventually be explored on pudgy knees.

Getting to How, now that is the most important question of all. In my life, the question of how has been the difference between youthful thinking and adulthood. After you have accumulated data on the first five questions it is the “how about it?’ that looms large. When we reach How, we are searching for our essential selves. We alone can answer the How’s of life: How will I behave? How will I make a living? How do I want to fit into this world? How shall I be?

I’ve spent many a frustrating time trying to figure out an answer to why after an event in my life. It’s a windy road of back alleys and dead ends. It’s a journey of little use. It’s a spinning wheel of thought, endlessly circling without resolution, without direction, without hope. Here’s David Clayton Thomas singing about the trouble with Why. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kK62tfoCmuQ

Agonizing over the Why of something is part of human nature. Most times the reasons behind something are not as important as finding a way out, over, through or forward. Inspecting the How To, can point the way to the future better than any other question. How is a hopeful word. When you become an adult, dumping the Why frees you to consider your present moment so you can finally assert, “This is how it’s going to be from now on.”