Hearing a clerk the other day respond to a customer's thanks for carrying a heavy box from the store to her car with the simple phrase, "Hey, no problem," I couldn't help reacting with the same mixed feelings I've been reacting to it since they first started polluting the air around the time Bush and Cheney began inhabiting the White House.
First, at least the young fellow acknowledged the little old lady's gratitude, and that was a point in his favor, it seemed to me. But, it also seemed to me, his response lost him those same points and then some: I've long since grown to loathe those three words which, in that particular order, used to seem so clever and refreshing, but which now sound, oh, so dreary, mechanical, and witless. And that, I guess, is the problem: by the time a fresh new figure of speech reaches us commoners here in the Middle West, it's already begun to sound a little worn, like a 78 rpm record, if not the cylindrical Edison jobbies that predated even those. American slang is like that: it starts in either the East or the West (New York or Los Angeles), and then quickly moves toward Missouri--but not fast enough to avoid ending up in the linguistic OUT box. True, roughly a decade ago, when Ginny and I heard a giggly teenage couple late one summer night in a starlit park in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I, for one, was charmed when I heard the fellow croon loudly to his girl, "Tanya, nyet probleme!" But it was the music of his lilting Russian accent that plucked at my heart-strings, not the message itself. All slang goes out of fashion.
Bad Habit Cure: Make sure your speech doesn't contain slang that exceeds its expiration dates by more than a year or two. Try making up your own metaphors and figures of speech; it'll exercise your ingenuity, and keep your brain young and vigorous.
Last night, riding in my family's moderately fuel-efficient Subaru to the dress rehearsal of the latest CCPA production, down at the Foxplayhouse, I tried to imagine what our American civilization would be like if, tomorrow, suddenly, the last drop of oil in the world suddenly evaporated. (As, in fact, it eventually will, of course. No material thing lasts forever.) Holy smokestacks! The first thing that came to mind was the sight of thousands and thousands of cars stranded along Austin and route 70, like dead dinosaurs and marooned mastodons, their bodies rotting foully in the sun. And that, in turn, brought to mind those old black-and-white movies (probably starring such B-grade actors as Guy Madison and Vera Miles), in which all America's cars, trucks, and buses lie inert, right-side-up, upside-down, and on their sides, all at odd angles on highways across the nation from Cape Cod to Santa Barbara.
It was a picture of the future of the race -- how near, my vision didn't say.
What will our civilization look like, feel like, when that day comes? Well, what did it look like before the advent of the car? Towns, even cities, were more cohesive, more self-dependent than they are now. It was President Eisenhower -- eventually proved a whole lot wiser than he'd been thought while inhabiting the White House -- who, partly as the result of the oil companies' gentle but insistent prodding, began covering our land with super-highways in 1953, thereby reshaping not only the American landscape, but the American psyche itself.
Bad Habit Cure: Try to walk or pedal a bike to any place that doesn't really require a car. Your body and bank balance --t o say nothing of our ecology -- will thank you for it. When we lived in Minnesota, some 35 years ago, we met a young Oriental couple who'd moved from California. I'd heard rumors that Californians rely on their cars so much that if they have to shop in a store right across the street from where they live, they'll go straight to the garage, get in their trusty car, and drive across the street and park in the store's parking lot. Not much of a walker myself, I thought that that had to be a gross, a ludicrous exaggeration. But, no, not so. One spring morning, we saw the Chin family leave our apartment house, climb into their trusty car parked right out front, and drive over to the Target store not one hundred feet away.
Learning that U.S. teenagers in high school rank number 35, or thereabouts, in the world in math test scores, I began thinking about what that portends for the future. Yikes! And then I began thinking about what an average citizen hears about the education the average kid is getting in his or her local high school. Well, above all, I believe he reads or hears a lot about the sports teams and whether they won or lost. Okay, that's fine. But what about the actual learning that goes on in the classrooms? What news do we get about that? Hmmm. When the debate team, which certainly requires of its members a good bit of research, reading and some writing, wins against a nearby rival, that's news of a certain mode of learning, isn't it? But what about individual learning? I'm not the only taxpayer who thinks we've all mistakenly -- oh, so mistakenly -- let our attention shift from actual learning, whether it be reading, writing, science, math, or whatever other species of human knowledge suits your fancy, to test scores, lousy test scores. I understand there are whole courses on how to take the SATs. Hmmm, there's something patently screwy about this. It's not what a kid should be worrying about, it's not, I think, what's going to enrich his life and make him a valuable, contributing part of his community, giving to, as well as taking from it. Better he take a course in molecular biology, a history course in which he's introduced to a whole new culture and religion, or an English course in which the teacher isn't going to cater to the whims of his students and discuss the reasons the Chiefs lost yesterday's game, but, from the very get-go, teaches his wards how to analyze what they're reading, and construct logical arguments.
Bad Habit Cure: Fall in love with an academic subject of your choice and learn all you can about it, whether in class or out. Take the rumored importance of SAT test scores with a grain of salt. You're in school to learn, not to fool around with test scores.