Wilderness — A Meditation

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Death at a Funeral

comment by Naomi Frampton - language tutor and manager of Literacy Center - Brisbane, Qld, Australia

I hated this movie, too, but Naomi explained to me why I hated it. I thought you might concur, so here goes!

I cringed through the whole thing and couldn’t wait for it to end - it was that severe. I detest that particular genre of English humour that relies on the audience sharing a set of assumptions about the proper and normal organisation of society and proper behaviour within that framework and then presumes comedy in the portrayal of the havoc caused when people behave incongruously. The inappropriate behaviour, the wreaking of havoc, comes from people of different class or nationality who fail to understand, adhere to or meet what the audience are assumed to understand to be the proper norms. In this film the wayward, middle class drug dealer who is the source of the illicit psychedelic drugs, the working class characters - the swearing Uncle Alfie and the uneducated, slightly stupid lad who is completely unaware of the deficiencies that make him an inappropriate match for the more educated girl from a wealthier family that he is pursuing – and, of course, the gay, midget American, are the sources of mayhem. ‘Nice society’, in the form of upper middle class English guests at a funeral, becomes the backdrop against which these characters, and all that they represent, are ridiculed. In a more sinister reading the audience is being alerted, however unconsciously, to the inherent dangers of admitting these representatives of the abnormal into decent society. What I really resent about this particular style of ‘humour’ is the failure to question, in fact the requirement that I, as a member of the audience, share, the view that these particular characters are the proper subject of ridicule. It is this requirement of allegiance to a particular set of class/race norms that, I think,  is the major point of differentiation between this and other types of English ‘mayhem comedy’ such as Fawlty Towers. In Fawlty Towers the comedy lies in the riotous situations caused by actions, reactions and miscommunications between the neurotic Basil Fawlty, his sidekick, the silly Spanish waiter, Manuel, with his poor command of English, Basil’s wife, the class-conscious Mrs Fawlty, and the other workers and permanent guests of the typical English seaside hotel in which it is set. While the exaggerated characters are clearly based on stereotypical characteristics linked mainly to class and cultural norms, all are equally ridiculous – the audience is not presumed to be in alliance with a particular set of norms against which particular characters are selected for ridicule.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

a few words on Thanksgiving:

Since Thanksgiving is up and coming in America, I thought you might enjoy this discussion about the words we use to talk about family and family members. Walker caught my interest this morning. Hopefully, you, too, will find her provocative.

Relatively speaking, a paucity of words
A look at some lexical gaps in our vocabulary of kinship.
By Ruth Walker

from the November 16, 2007 edition Christian Science Monitor

"Ma-ma" or "Da-da" is often the first word a child speaks.

But once the child grows up to be a full-service speaker of English, he or she may notice that not all relationships are as easy to identify as "Mommy" and "Daddy."

There are some gaps in our vocabulary of relationships – instances where we don't have a really satisfying term to connect A to B.

"Lexical gaps" is a term for these missing words, or rather for the spaces in the language that their absence leaves unfilled.

One such gap is the need for a better term than "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" for those occasions when the "friends" in question are no longer otherwise referred to as "boys" or "girls."

A good term for adult offspring is another lexical gap. Parents commonly speak of their sons and daughters as "our children" when they are indeed children. But once they're grown, they don't refer to them as "our adults." Instead, we get absurdities such as, "She has named her three children as executors of her estate."

I ran across another one of these the other day while reviewing a commentary proposing, in effect, a new guest-worker program for immigrants to the United States. Once their immigration status was clarified and they were out of the shadows, the piece said, they would be free to make family visits across the borders. But to say, "Families would be able to visit one another," sounded too much like, "The Smiths would be able to visit the Browns."

What we really needed was a way to describe José going back to the village to see Maria and the kids, or maybe José and Maria and the kids going back home to visit the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I ended up concluding that "relatives" was probably the best option. But it's not a very richly emotive word, is it? Compare and contrast the phrases "family visit" and "visiting relatives." Which has the warmer vibe?

English has plenty of old-fashioned synonyms for family, especially in the broader sense: clan, tribe, even "people," as in, "Their people came over from Ireland during the 19th century."

"Kin" is wonderfully concise but sounds backwoodsy to modern ears; it lives on largely in the idiom "next of kin" – a phrase that doesn't have a lot of happy associations.

"Kith and kin" is another term that doesn't get much use today. "Kith," rooted in the idea of something or someplace that is known, first meant the country someone knows, and later came to mean one's circle of acquaintance.

So "kith and kin" is another way of saying "friends and family." (I don't mean to write a kith-and-tell piece here.)

The trouble with all these older terms is that they refer to groups. Perhaps as a reflection of our individualistic (atomized?) society, collective nouns seem to be giving way to expressions that signal the presence of the individuals within the group. Thus "I have family in that part of the country" becomes "I have family members there." As an alternative to "relative," Visual Thesaurus offers "kinsperson," a word our forebears knew not.

"Relations" is another possibility here, but it sounds a little quaint, and like "troops," is one of those plurals that don't really have a singular, except in the idiom "to be treated like a poor relation."

To anyone who grew up within the sound of an adult voice reading aloud from the "Winnie-the-Pooh" books, "relations" calls up associations with "Rabbit's relations."

Maybe "relative" is the best we can do here. Maybe the quest for a single word that is equal-opportunity, common-gender, and indisputably singular or plural and also packs some punch is just foolish.

After all, families are not about individuals; they're about groups. And in the up-close and personal circle of the family, gender naturally plays a different role than in the more public spheres of citizenship or employment, for instance. A voter is a voter, but your mother is not your father.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Ok, so birthdays come and birthdays go and the 67th has disappeared into the background and I'm well on my way to preparing for the 68th.

Amazing, huh? If someone had told me twenty years ago that I would be so happily situated, so satisfied with my life today, I would have seriously scoffed. When one is 47 menopause looms, wrinkles are just starting to metamorphose the areas around the eyes, and life looks a tad scarey.

I think that's because most American 47 year old women are really really busy. They have children in the nest or just taking wing on their way out to college or the military or on some sort of job training adventure. Most have a full time job that competes with home life for energy and if they are still in a marital relationship, they have the responsibility to be a decent partner. All of that activity either has to leave one comotose by the end of the day or celebratory that all the requirements of that day have been met as one plans out the agenda for the next twenty-four hours.

Not much time left to consider life twenty years hence. So, let me assure you that this particular example of what the Ausralians refer to as the 'oldies' is full of relaxed early mornings, lots of good books to read, tracks to trek, movies to see, columns to write, manuscripts to complete, and oh yes, I receive my MA in Writing, Editing, and Publishing from the University of Queensland on 17 December. Hooray for retirement, a modicum of wisdom, and lots of time and space in which to enjoy it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veterans Day - A three day week end


And how many of you intend to go to your local cemetary tomorrow to put wreaths or flowers on a soldier's grave?

Yeah, I know. America surely isn't Australia where dead soldiers are the primary focus of all national holidays. These folks take their veterans very, very seriously, more seriously than Americans do.

As much as I disaprove of the USA's involvement in the middle east, I still have the greatest respect for the young Americans who have paid the price for us all by keeping their word and showing up in Iraq and Afganistan when their government told them they must.

Just thought I'd check in with ya'll and see how you felt about these young folks who so much need us to change the direction of our country so that they can come home again. I understand from a recent Yahoo article that one of four homeless persons in the USA is a vet. Gives pause for thought, doesn't it?

It's a rainy day down under. Actually, it's been a rainy day most days for the past two weeks. No complaints. We are in serious drought conditions. The land sops up the water and finally our sub tropical forests are beginning to look a tad healthy again. All this rain kept me from my planned birthday excursion, a 12 kilometer trek in Warrumbungle National Park down in New South Wales. We put off our trip south until after we come back from America in March. Summer school holidays begin here in about a week. All national parks will be a tad overburdened with vactioning families until the kiddies go back to school. I look forward to being out of the city and back in the 'natural' world then.

Be well...write again soon.