Josna Rege

439. Of Damp Squibs and Other Watery Slurs

In Aging, history, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 20, 2019 at 10:40 pm

A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib:
something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”
—Oxford English Dictionary

In a recent text-message exchange with my friend Anna I found myself using the term “damp squib” to describe an anticipated event that hadn’t come to pass. Quite understandably, she was nonplussed; what was a squib when it was at home, and why was I calling it damp? Also understandably, Anna thought I had meant “squid,” but that didn’t shed any more light on the subject for her. I explained, and followed up with a link to a dictionary definition of the British idiom. Literally, a damp squib is a firework that fails to go off because it has gotten wet; and figuratively, something that fails to come up to expectations.  But this isn’t interesting in itself, except to superannuated language nerds like me; more interesting is how and why we use the language that we do.

Did I even consider, when I used “damp squib” in my message to Anna, that she wouldn’t be familiar with it? Surely I must have known, but in the end, I suppose, just using the term was more enjoyable to me than whether or not it was understood. Perhaps, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I wanted the opportunity to explain something that I thought was important but that many people were letting fall by the wayside, all unawares.

As I get older, I find that my English gets older too. Funnily enough, as I age, it seems to reach farther and farther back before my time, perhaps anticipating my obsolescence by attempting to revive terms that are already obsolete, or at least archaic. Why do I rant impotently at the screen when a film or television series uses anachronisms—especially a British or Indian film using Americanisms (they would never have said that!). Is it the educator in me getting so exercised about this or, as retirement looms, is it my own dread of becoming irrelevant?

Enough of the navel-gazing and back to these terms, and the joy they bring to me when they roll upon the tongue. When I used one of them in conversation with my mother, even when her Alzheimer’s Disease no longer permitted her to speak, she would break into a grin. When I am with someone of my generation, whether they are from England, India, or the United States, I find myself reveling in shared idioms, in knowing that I will be understood, no questions asked. Rather than running through an interminable list of them, let’s just look at a couple more in the same watery vein as “damp squib.”

There’s the wet blanket. Don’t be such a wet blanket, you might say to someone who, in American parlance, is being a party pooper. Their lack of enthusiasm puts a damper on the fun. Then there’s someone who’s so inexperienced that they’re still wet behind the ears, quite the opposite of the cynic who wasn’t born yesterday.

Water is a good thing, isn’t it? We can’t live without it. Furthermore, it prevents explosions (that damp squib again), puts out fires (the wet blanket) and productively controls burning (the damper). Then why is there such a negative connotation to these watery idioms? If fire is associated with manhood (think fiery loins), water can be used as a gender-policing slur. In American English someone deemed weak or wimpy is called a wet noodle; in British English, simply wet. It becomes an abhorrent ethnic slur in the term wetback (referring to a person who has swum across the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. illegally),used to refer to Mexicans. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s 1954 Operation Wetback, in that year alone more than a million Mexicans who had immigrated to the U.S. legally, many of them recruited for cheap labor under the Bracero program, some of them U.S. citizens, were subjected to forcible mass deportation. Sound familiar?

While we need water to survive, we condemn others by pronouncing them wet. It’s downright perverse. Still, water gets its own revenge. As in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, one can be surrounded by precious water and still be ravaged by thirst.

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink/ Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Let that be a warning to all those who misuse words, water, and their fellow beings, whether on the tongue, on the ground, or on the rolling deep.

 

 

 

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438. “I never died,” says he

In Family, history, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Stories on August 19, 2019 at 2:23 am

This past weekend, August 16-18, was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the “three days of peace, love, and music” on a dairy farm in New York State, attended by 400,000 people and including musicians Richie Havens, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Canned Heat, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Santana, and Jimi Hendrix. Although my father came to the United States that same month, in August, 1969, my mother, sister and I didn’t follow until February of the following year, and I always felt that my arrival was somehow belated, that at not-quite-sixteen I had already missed the height of the youth movement that found its expression there. When the three-hour concert film came out, just a month after our arrival, and the triple album a few weeks later, I watched and listened avidly, again and again, until it became, if not entirely part of me, then certainly a part of how I saw this strange new country and my generation in it. Watching the PBS documentary, Woodstock, the other night, and listened to a young and pregnant Joan Baez singing “Joe Hill”:

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me
Says I “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he
“I never died,” says he.

I thought about what that song had come to mean to me since. Joe Hill or Joel Emmanuel Hägglund (1879-1915) immigrated to the U.S. from his native Sweden in 1902 and became a union organizer. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the “Wobblies,” and wrote labor organizing songs for them, fought in the Mexican Revolution, and then was charged and executed for two murders that he hadn’t committed. Joe Hill, sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock, was written by Alfred Hayes, set to music by Earl Robinson, and popularized in the 1930s and 1940s by the great Paul Robeson.

In the 1980s, while we were in our twenties, Andrew, Eve, and I founded Whetstone Press, a letterpress print shop, and made the IWW our union label. We delighted in being part of the Wobbly heritage and in The Little Red Songbook (first published in 1913), full of songs by the likes of Joe Hill and Utah Phillips. Through the years, in the movement against nuclear power and weapons, protests against U.S. interventions in Central and South America, solidarity with the South African people’s struggle against apartheid, forming a graduate-student union, these songs became old standbys.

Much later, around 2011, now in my 50s, I joined a monthly singing group called RUSH (Rise Up Singing in Harmony), based on Annie Patterson and Peter Blood’s songbook, Rise Up Singing, and organized by the indefatigable Roger Conant, who, in the tradition of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Hill, believed in the power of song to bring people together in solidarity. It was a loose fellowship, and people came and went, though there were regulars, and I became one of them. One of the people who attended from time to time was an elderly gentleman called Ward Morehouse, whom I didn’t know outside of the group, but who always requested labor and union songs, like The Banks are Made of Marble, sung here by Pete Seeger; “Joe Hill” was one of his favorites.

Not long after Ward and his wife Carolyn Oppenheim had started coming to RUSH, we received the sad news that he had passed away. It was only then, after reading his obituary, that I learned that he himself had been an active labor organizer and, furthermore, that he had led the movement in the U.S. against Union Carbide on behalf of the workers killed and incapacitated in 1984 by the deadly gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide facility in Bhopal, India. That led me to write a new verse of “Joe Hill” in his honor* and to attend Ward Morehouse’s memorial service along with my mother.

In 2012 Mum was 85 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for at least five years. However, she could still sing along to the songs on the programme for the service, and it turned out that she knew most of them. Carolyn had asked Roger Conant to lead the singing, and I was happy to see that Mum was really entering into the spirit of it. While everyone was singing the international workers’ anthem, “The Internationale”, I glanced over at her, and as she sang the rousing chorus, her fist was raised high in the air.

Here are the lyrics to Billy Bragg’s updated version of The Internationale. And here is a moving rendition of it being sung en masse in Leicester, England. One verse in particular speaks to me loud and clear at this moment in time:

Let no one build walls to divide us
Walls of hatred nor walls of stone
Come greet the dawn and stand beside us
We’ll live together or we’ll die alone
In our world poisoned by exploitation
Those who have taken, now they must give
And end the vanity of nations
We’ve but one Earth on which to live
.

My dear mother has since passed away and, just recently, so has Roger Conant. They are sorely missed. But just as the spirit of Woodstock lives on, wherever people gather in solidarity and song, they will be with us.

Joan Baez at Woodstock

 

*The verse of “Joe Hill” for Ward Morehouse:

From Bhopal to Atlanta,
When companies don’t play fair
Where working folk defend their rights
Ward Morehouse will be there
Ward Morehouse will be there.

 

 

 

 

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437. Wide Awake

In Childhood, parenting, Play, Stories on August 8, 2019 at 8:56 am

My friend Anna brought her grandson Dylan to visit yesterday evening on the way back from the movies, the new remake of The Lion King. He was with us for an hour, hour and a half at the most, but boy, was he switched on, and so were we, the whole time.

From the moment he came in the front door he noticed everything, all the time, responded to it, remarked on it: the inordinate number of slippers in the straw basket in the entrance hall, the length of the galley kitchen, the image on one of the trivets (a gloomy old gargoyle from the Bodleian Library)—there was nothing that escaped his keen eye. I was slower on the uptake. He had a sharp new haircut, which I eventually commented on admiringly once I noticed it; he took the praise lightly but with appreciation.

I got out the carrom board, which had been relegated to a corner of the living room since the last children had visited, back at Christmas. As soon as I compared it to pool he understood all the rules—you got a second turn if you pocketed a piece, you had to cover the queen in order to win (this was just like pocketing the eight ball in pool, he pointed out), you forfeited a point if you accidentally sunk the striker. Here he had more questions that I was unable to answer, such as what happens if you sink a piece along with the striker. He was soon improving his technique and controlling the force he put into his shots. He didn’t throw a tantrum when he found himself repeatedly sinking his his striker, but was a good sport; and when he won his first full game he announced it with quiet pride.

Although Anna had forewarned me that Dylan wasn’t a big eater, he knew what he liked. He had told his grandma after the movie that he wanted a hot dog, and sure enough, he ate two, on whole-wheat buns with ketchup. Although he did note that it was the reddest hot dog he had ever seen, I was relieved that this difference from what he was used to didn’t put him off. While he was at it he ate with gusto, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to get on to the next thing; after all, eating was a bit of a waste of time. About halfway through the meal he got up and stood behind his chair, testing something—himself, us, I’m not sure which. Perhaps anticipating an adult admonition like, “Finish eating before you leave the table”, he commented on it when we didn’t: “I don’t know what I’m doing here.” I think I tried to acknowledge what he had said without drawing undue attention to him: “Perhaps you’re just experimenting”, or something like that.

During the meal he made conversation and, unlike many children, responded to questions from adults quite readily. What was The Lion King about? He had to think that one through a little, but his reply was spot-on. He identified the main character, the cub, explained that hyenas had teamed up with the cub’s uncle but—I was impressed here—didn’t simplify the plot to bad guys vs. good guys, and understood the concept of sacrifice, that the old King had saved the cub’s life at the cost of his own. He showed us how. Using his table napkin folded into a sharp point and the steep side of the napkin-holder, he demonstrated how the uncle had knocked the King down into the pit as he was trying to climb up. (By the way, I haven’t seen the film, so have only Dylan’s account to go on.)

Asked how his basketball camp was going, he was quite forthcoming, although I don’t think he would have volunteered any information without the prompting. He told us how many children there were, how many coaches, how many teams, how many games they played per day. He was both the youngest and the smallest, he told us, but it was his grandma who added that he was more than holding his own. He also told us that he had played basketball for a time at school, but hadn’t gotten one basket the whole season. Again Grandma was quick to point out that he was still very short for basketball, and that he got plenty of baskets while practicing.

Then it was time for dessert but he wasn’t much interested. He nibbled on an ice pop but soon got up to finish getting all the carrom pieces in and do push-ups on the carpet. Asked whether he intended to finish the ice pop he said that he was letting it melt and was going to scoop it up with a stick, but neither Anna nor I thought that that would work very well, and he didn’t push his luck. He came back to the table readily enough and ate a bit more of it, then was happy to let me finish it off. By now there was a new game starting, and we all needed to play a part in it: he sprinted from one end of the dining room to the far wall of the living room and back, while we spotted and timed him. First he ran the course, then sprinted, demonstrating the difference between the two. Then we estimated the total distance, and finally Grandma started the timer on her phone while Andrew counted off the seconds. Dylan completed the course in excellent time and then beat his own record twice. Once in-between, when the adults got distracted in conversation (how often and easily that happens!), he clapped his hands together to get us back on track, and even then it took a while for us to catch on.

He asked to use the toilet and insisted on crawling down the hall on his stomach, though I was able to dissuade him from doing the same through the kitchen. He noted the presence of the bidet in the bathroom, something new to him, and asked what it was for. Before I left the room he asked me to confirm that the left faucet was indeed the hot water and the right the cold, telling me that he had once encountered a sink where they were reversed.

Dylan had a terrific sense of humor throughout, sharp without being unkind, yet wasn’t afraid to express his fears, even to someone he didn’t know very well. During the racing, at the far end of the living room where he touched the wall and turned around for the return trip, there was a tall narrow window with the Venetian blinds up to reveal the overgrown flagstone path along the side of the house. All the adults were near the starting line in the dining room, and in tagging the far wall he had to catch a glimpse of that shadowy passage in the gathering dusk. After a couple of runs he asked me to stand there by the window because he was afraid someone or something might jump out at him. My heart melted. Just in case I forgot (how could I possibly have forgotten?), he reminded me, but I was already standing guard, with the blinds lowered and a hand out to speed up his turnaround. Once again he bested his previous record.

When Grandma said it was nearly his bedtime, he didn’t make a fuss. Just one last game of carrom was all he asked. As he said goodnight after having come up from behind to a surprise victory, Dylan mock-ceremoniously shook hands and cheekily called Andrew “Madam” and me “Sir”; I returned the joke by addressing him as Your Majesty.

We were tired after he had left, but oh, so switched on. I marveled at the energy required of parents (good job, Ellen and Jason!) and the energy we must have had when we were young parents ourselves. But much more than that I marveled at the electric aliveness of children, noticing every little thing, immersed wholly into every activity, their imaginations constantly on the go. I fell asleep last night thinking of the visit, everything Dylan had said and done, and most of all, his alert state of being. After not having been inspired to write a new story for nearly two months, I woke at dawn today and decided not to go back to sleep. Instead I came into the living room and just started writing (dear Andrew following soon after and bringing me a mug of tea). With less than a month of my summer left, I resolve to be like a child and live every day of it, wide awake.

P.S. A few years ago the Bodleian Library held a competition for new gargoyles designed by children, unveiled in 2009 by author Philip Pullman. Full of life and mischief, how different they are from the miserable old men on my trivets!

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