22 July 2009

Laudator temporis actis

Laudator temporis actis
Fritz Gerlich
07/22/2009, 1:10 AM

It started years ago, when first boys, and then young men, and then even middle-aged men, began wearing their baseball caps backward. I simply cannot imagine anything that could make a man look stupider. What, what is wrong with them, I wondered. A generation of zombies.

Actually, the whole baseball cap thing, forwards and backwards, was and remains weird to my generation. Aside from some Little League caps, the only such cap I ever wore in my life was in the U.S. Army, and that was a badge of servitude. I remember one of my buddies, a New York wit, sarcastically thanking the Army for the blessings it had showered on him: "Why, Sam gave me three hats! Three! When I was on the block I didn't even own one!" It's said that my generation never took to hats because John Kennedy, whose tousled, boyish look was his trademark, was almost never photographed wearing one.

So, there's hats, of all types and usages not required to protect the head from freezing.

Then they started handing you your change wrong. They announce the amount--say,$6.59--lay a five and a one together in your palm, and immediately dump a couple of quarters, a nickle, and four pennies on top of them. Now, if you're right-handed, you're probably still holding your wallet in your left hand, and you take the change with your right hand. At this point, your choices are:

1. Set your wallet on the counter, slide the coins to your left hand, put them into your pocket, pick the wallet up with your left hand, and put the bills in it.

2. If the coins are just a couple of pennies, and you can open your wallet easily with your left hand, slide the coins and the bills together into the wallet. (You will promptly forget the coins and they will fall out on the floor the next time you open your wallet.)

3. Crumple the bills around the coins and stick the whole mess in your right pocket to sort out later. That works for untidy minds. Not mine.

Although coin dispensers, which some stores have, are depressingly automated, they actually work better for the customer, who is free to put his bills away first and then pick up his coins. But what really gets me is how the old-fashioned method of counting the change out onto the counter has been so utterly lost. It's not the counting but the convention of placing the money on the counter that I miss. In that system, the customer first picks up his coins and puts them in his pocket, then puts the bills away.

I've occasionally just left my right hand at my side when the cashier begins to offer my change. What I get then is a look that says, "Don't you want your change?" I suppose I could say, "Put it on the counter, please." Yeah, sure. Then the guy looks at me like, "Do I have Ebola virus or something?" or maybe he just hits the holdup button under his cash register. No, the problem is that the old amenities have been lost. Lost.

And then there's death. Now I understand that death is sad. People really feel loss (and I must acknowledge that I have not had to feel my fair share of it, so far). But it is also a fact that sooner or later everybody, without exception, dances with the Reaper. This is why, in earlier times, most deaths and most mourning were perforce treated as relatively private matters. By "private," I mean that family and friends shared their mourning, but they did not attempt to spread it beyond the customary ceremonies and acts of kindliness posited by their culture. (Posting about the death of a loved one here, which I like many others have done, falls within the circle-of-friends rule.) Leader and celebrity deaths have always been different, for obvious reasons. But the stereotypical gangster funeral of a couple of generations ago, in which the burial of a man important only to his own "family" was treated as worthy of a spectacle, was considered the height of bad taste, a gauche attempt to manufacture respectability out of mere show.

Keeping the memory of the dead has been important in every culture, and of course family and friends have always done that in some way, usually most visibly by visiting the grave on a few special days. But, in these debased times, the lower classes (yes, I'm sure it's a class phenomenon) have taken to a brazen type of public memorialization of death that presumes that the individual they mourn is of interest to the rest of us--when in fact, he or she isn't (cf. the Reaper Rule). I refer to two types of displays that have become distressingly common where I live.

One is the roadside memorial of plastic flowers, sometimes very elaborate, with a placard bearing the name and date of death of the dear departed. It is usually in the shape of a cross, but I suppose that might vary with faith. I assume these displays mark the spots that fatal accidents occurred, but they do pop up in the most unexpected places. There is one far back on a cross-country ski trail I use, and the point at which it sits could not possibly have been the site of, say, a wipeout or high-speed collision (it's right at the top of a hill). These things are quite a visual distraction to drivers, and I understand that they have actually been banned by law in some states. But few state legislators, at least hereabouts, have the cojones to support something so "unfeeling."

The other type of display is the car window decal, usually on the rear window, reading something like, "Kanyon Kristopher Kinnock, 9/16/05 - 3/9/06, He Is Still Loved." I'm sorry, but that's just pathetic. If Kanyon were my son (or daughter?), the only thing I could do for him is vow that his/her memory would not perish while I lived. I promised Meletus that (little as it is), and so far I've kept that promise. But beyond that?--is not in my power. Nor, even if it were in my power, would it be right to thrust my testimony of loss before an undifferentiated public that didn't know Kanyon. Ah, you say: what about tombstones? Do you disapprove of those? No, of course not. I earned my kneepads in cemetery crawling long, long ago. I'm quite sure that people visiting cemeteries not only expect to see such epitaphs, they often enjoy them. But that is because they are in a cemetery, where they are expected. They are not in a mall parking lot, where they only strike a discordant note.

I intended to end this with my showpiece lament about audience behavior: how contemporary audiences don't feel bound by any rules of decorum, feel free to hold conversations at normal volume while the speaker is speaking or the performer is performing, answer their cellphones unselfconsciously, or simply get up and wander out--slowly, conspicuously, not as if they suddenly feel ill and must seek assistance--right in the middle of remarks that some invited guest might have labored over.

Of course there is a vocational angle to this; I'm used to something quite different. But I also feel that the simple ritual of being together as an audience has been lost, utterly lost. I remember taking my son, then about eight years old, to a big martial arts show at a major venue in Anchorage. I remember the kids jumping, from the auditorium, onto the stage (a traditional, curtained kind of stage with a proscenium), and thinking "That's not right." What was wrong with it? The stage is a sacred place, a place waiting to be filled with those who have been entrusted with a special, communal, purpose. Its separateness is integral to the meaning of what the performers will do. The illusion of that separateness is destroyed when members of the audience feel free to invade it, even before the performance begins. Of course, I couldn't explain these things to my son. I did my best to enjoy the excellent demonstrations that followed. I remember that one performer was a Chinese teacher. I remember his extraordinary gracefulness, so understated, so polite, in introducing his students. I remember thinking that I had never seen anybody who so completely fit any meaningful definition of "gentleman" I had ever heard. And I thought: what have we lost? Or is it only a dream that we ever had it?

fritz gerlich

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