Of Language and Guarantees

March and NCAA basketball madness. My alma mater, Indiana University,
bowed out early and, despite all of the hype, I no longer care who wins or loses. Basketball always reminds me of cold and snow. In the Midwest in the 50s, it was the only thing which could relieve the numbing boredom of winter. Running in the afternoon cold, I am reminded of snow gathering in corn rows in an unrelieved landscape of black and white. Ghosts crowd around me as I run, whispering “remember, remember, remember the basketball games and the bus trips.” Going to an away game, our bus was never silent and some group, always girls, was singing the same songs. Do they still sing them today, I wonder?

Don’t you call me sweetheart,
I don’t love you any more.
Since I caught you necking
With the girl next door.
There are many others
Who would do as well.
Don’t you call me sweetheart,
You can go to
Hello Central, hello Central,
Give me FHS,
Hello Central, hello Central,
Tell them they’re the best.

In the mid-50s, swearing, even the innocuous hell or damn, was taboo. Although we swore in private, it was rare to hear profanity in mixed company. To do so would draw stares of disapproval. I am not certain whose sensibilities were being protected since the dirtiest song I ever learned was taught to me by a girl. I still won’t quote it in polite company. In fact, there was a considerable lapse in time between the learning of that song and the actually understanding of it. Old fashioned mores still pertain and I am still astounded by the language one hears today on the public airways. As a society, we no longer appear to have any standards and small children use words I still won’t utter while parents look embarrassedly unconcerned.

In my favorite movie, Casablanca, of course, arguably one of the greater movies ever made, no hint of profanity ever crosses the lips of Bogart or Bergman, yet they manage to convey very well the emotions of the moment. And sex! Certainly the adults on the audience knew what was going on, but it did not drive the story. No sudden eruptions of passion as clothes become impediments to seeking hands. Just a change of scene as the camera pans away, normally to French doors with sheer white curtains undulating gently in the breeze. There is a slight fade and suddenly, Bogart is standing there, still impeccably dressed in his tuxedo, every hair in place. Bergman, also, displays none of the dishevelment expected by present day audiences. Did they make love? Perhaps. It doesn’t matter. Past misunderstandings have been put to right. “After all, we’ll always have Paris.”

I would like to throttle the next commentator who refers to that earlier period as simpler; who arrogates to himself (or herself) the problems of the world while trivializing those of preceding generations. One hears constantly that the problems faced by the current generation are much harder, are more complex than those faced by parents and grandparents. They fail to understand that the problems faced by their elders were no less severe, just different. In failing to understand, they overlook the trauma of a world war and the subsequent Cold War, just as they misunderstand the terror of diseases not yet conquered; of nervous parents trying any method to shield their children from polio.

The arrogance is seen in the way we treat death. No longer viewed as part of the natural process of nature, we treat it as unnatural and evil, going to extraordinary means to keep a body alive when, clearly, no one is home. New rules of etiquette even try to impose rules as to when death should occur. The first rule of etiquette is that death is for the old. Children and people in their prime need not apply; the death of a child, especially, being treated as the greatest of tragedies. Eschewing the rhythm of the universe, we look to any side-show barker who promises an escape. But those promises, like those nostrums of old, are always empty. Yet we continue to cocoon ourselves with laws and regulations which, when they fail, leave us asking, “how could this happen?”