Monday, June 11, 2012
On recovering from culture shock
On Recovering from Cultural Shock
When I was a New York City adenoidal sophomore in 1941, college students wore ties, clean shirts, jackets and sported crew cuts. We were what was called "College men." It was de rigeur for us to wear or carry hats, sharp straws in summer and Pork Pies, with ribbon, in cooler times. We were considered a Breed apart, the hope of the future, the big guys of tomorrow. Most of us, in fact, were struggling to overcome the slurred and indistinct speech patterns we knew from Hell's Kitchen, San Juan Hill or good, old Brooklyn which allegedly described the way we spoke. Brooklynese! Some of us won scholarships. Others took side jobs as ushers and messengers to pay the freight of tuition. Generally, we all were day hops, travelling by bus and subway. Living on campus was for Rockefellers and the fantasy of Hollywood.
Most of us came from the upper level of the lower class with little money and high expectations. Most families had one radio in the dining room shared by all family members as they listened to carefully managed newscasts wedged between heroic presentations such as Mandrake the Magician and The Romance of Helen Trent or why romance need not be dead for women over 35! Hardly anyone had an automobile or "machine" as they were called. The joys of vacation were limited to Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Midland Beach or, if the fates smiled on us, Long Beach.
We consciously attempted to re-create ourselves in the fantasy image of some non-existent Harvard, Yale or Dartmouth undergrad. We faked the sophisticated speech of the East Side as we spoke through fashionably clenched teeth and used the big words we learned the day before. Some of us even carried pipes to give an added aura—knowing full well if we ever attempted to smoke we would probably sicken.
We thought our music was smooth and catchy. We were enthralled by a skinny Italian kid from Hoboken, Sinatra, and a velvety voiced guy from Spokane nicknamed "Der Bingle" who had us all singing about a White Christmas. Big Bands were the thing. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw set the stage for the "in" dances. The Lindy Hop and the Bunny Hug and the Shag! Our dancing was described as "cutting a rug."
The girls we dated wore saddle shoes and long skirts that swirled. They wore their hair relatively short with curls encircling their faces giving them what we thought was a clean and sweet look. They wore white gloves while carrying a little hand bag. They wore hats to Church on Sunday and always looked what was known as "ladylike." The core of a good date was to take one's girl to the Parish weekly dance which was followed by a trip to the local Candy store for a Cherry coke with fascinating talk about new songs and their impact on our dancing. That was it! There was an unspoken and almost universally accepted high norm of behavior. No Hanky Panky! Perhaps, the modern says "Repressed"—we said—"Respect."
It was winsome and innocent. It was limited but it was clean on every level. The dissenter from the "Code" was not respected but drew scowls and frowns of disapproval—even from my Uncle J.J., a mechanic with the Sanitation Department, who boasted of a sixth grade education in the local Catholic school. He knew somehow that marriage is a calling from God which could be marred by a confusion between furtive, hot, sweaty, adolescent pawings on a Saturday night and the relaxed, committed depth of the marital loving within the Sacrament of Marriage.
If by some strange concatenation of events, I was given a magic potion and thrown into a Rip Van Winklesque trance/ sleep and wakened in 2012, how would I react? How would I cope? Could I cope? Not having the "benefit" of the intervening 70 years with their wars, incredible scientific advances, universal access to previously hidden information and almost cosmic evolutionary changes in thinking modes and behaviors, would the shock be traumatic for a naïve and winsome son of the Forties?
My immediate shock would be how dirty and dowdy everyone looks. So many seem to be wearing work pants used by bench hands, janitors and farmers. I have seen people wearing these weird garments with the knee area shredded! I have been told that this is chic, that these pants are sold in fancy stores purposefully ripped! People look so sloppy. Can't they clean these things occasionally and dump the smudges and grease stains? So many guys are unshaven. Few wear ties. The color of their clothing so often seems on the dark side. Black and more black. I wonder whether or not this reflects what goes on within their psyches. Many of them have a harried, worried frown as if they just lost a job or else they wear a forced, frozen smile, painted on the face seemingly determined not to face reality. Is it decades of living with a potential nuclear obliteration? Or a super anemic economy which no one seems able to correct? Or is it disillusionment with the rhetorical promises of Eden which never came through? Or a lack of Faith and the terror of unbelief? Is the loud and artificial laughter I hear in restaurants a cover for inner emptiness?
Yet there are astounding comforts and conveniences never before available. Computers. iPads and phones, calculators, HD Television, automatic shift for cars, washing machines, dryers, Skype, touch tone phones, cell phones, Kindles, air conditioning, MRIs, and an endless list for better and more meaningful living. Yet there seems to be less happiness and more anxiety than ever before. It might even be a pandemic pain. I wonder about this as I watch and try to listen to modern singers. They seem to be in severe pain as they howl and mumble. They close their eyes tightly but they look like they are having stomach cramps. Where is the bouncing joy of Crosby or Clooney or Como or Kate Smith?
Can one understand the lyrics of modern song? Perhaps the modern listener seeks only sedation from a jungle type beat. Maybe understanding is not important. Of course, every age has its goofy songs. 1940 had some ridiculous attempts at music which met an early demise. But 2012 seems to enshrine and finance non-intelligible sounds.
And yet, there is today a huge sense of entitlement which can make contentment extremely elusive and rare. Consequentially, there follows a kind of apathy or simply not caring. Nothing means much. There seems to be a widespread, deep, inner doubt of one's own value or lovability. Consider, for example, this perennial question. Does how one dresses reflects one's values? It seems almost de rigeur today not to be sharp but to be tacky. Leaving one's shirttail hanging over one's posterior is to be today. Baseball caps are to be worn with the visor, (meant to shield the eyes) protecting the back of the neck in the manner of baseball catchers who wear masks to protect them from injury. Is that the unconscious dynamic behind this odd practice? Protection? If so, I wonder from what danger?
It is particularly modern, likewise, for females to have their shirttails bouncing over their often too ample buttocks. The negative effect is magnified when they are wearing shorts. Perhaps, they fantasize that such "classy" behavior somehow diminishes their fat ugly legs which aspect seems to me to be prevalent. So many young females look decidedly overweight. Even more are they "with it" if what passes for a skirt waddles just beneath their "pudendum". This is apparently intended to catch hopefully an admiring or lustful male eye. To top off the modern female neurosis, the exposure of much of the bosom is required. So pervasive is this practice that even a dried up old bat, a female one time Presidential candidate, decided to show her cleavage. Fortunately for her, the widespread reaction to throw up brought her to some kind of sanity whereby she returned to a more standard mode of trying, with futility, to make herself ravishing.
And, marone, men marry men! Women marry women! A guy has amputation of his external XY signification, has artificially induced bosoms and enters a female beauty contest. And, mirable dictu, is taken seriously and prances around in carefully rehearsed imitative female gait, as the judges rate his "female" beauty. Talk about the inmates taking control of the nut house!
So, how does one cope with all this nuttiness? How did any age cope with its own nuttiness? Every culture, every era seems crazy at times, or quaint from whatever historical crag one views the past. Obviously every age had its heroes and saints as well as its crooks and psychotics. How about Christian coping? All the nuts and neurotics and dum-dums of history are children of the Lord—according to the view of those who follow Jesus. Each has value even if, at times, one must plumb patiently the particular individual human comedy. This must be some good in this obvious klutz, this schlep.
One must be reminded, certainly this writer must, that Jesus would have gone through the horrific Passion He endured if there were only one schlep in the world for all time. Just one. Why? Because each of us is created in the very image of God Himself. An old legend notes that when God created Adam and Eve, He ordered the angels to bow down and reverence His new creation since "man" images Divinity. Those who refused were banished to the outer darkness of Eternal hell. Is not that enough to motivate schleps like me to adapt to that social custom which seems almost designed to make me "frow up"?
So let us be reminded that our experiencing these chaotic social sores which while shocking, must be tempered by the tenderness and patience of the heart of Jesus. And doesn't every era has its own right to be stupid—at least for a time? Come to think of it, I and my gang of the forties would have scored, at times, very low on common sense tests!!
New York city Memorial Day 2012 jbl