ESSAYS ON LINKEDIN.COM

In June, 2014, LinkedIn invited me to publish my writing on their blogging platform.  I viewed this as providential, and immediately started to post short essays on a wide range of topics that interest me, including politics, sports, writing methods, contemporary idioms and language usage, human foibles, nostalgia, advertising, suicide and the 2016 presidential election campaign. 

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I have now published 78 essays on LinkedIn.  Is Passion Now a Big Shrug? is my most popular essay on LinkedIn to date, with more than 1800 hits. The Postman Always Thinks Twice also provoked a good deal of thoughtful discussion.

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS THINKS TWICE—DOES KNOWING STUFF DATE US?

 

   Earlier today, my postman was leaning against the mailbox outside my building. He was waiting for a truck to dump the pile of mail he would deliver. With his elbows pressed against the mailbox dome and his chin inches above its cold metal surface, our mail carrier struck a sculptural pose of human superfluity communicating mythic suffering. After 30 years toiling for the postal service, he had to wait around to do his job. 

    “I’ll write a play about you,” I promised. “Waiting for the mail.”

    He smiled. “Like waiting for Go-dot, right?—Oh, I’m dating myself.”

         “Relax. You’re not dating yourself for knowing about Waiting for Godot.  It’s one of the most influential plays of the mid-20th century. It epitomized the Theater of the Absurd and depicted a world without certainty, meaning, and God.”

    He blinked and stared down the road as if praying for the mail truck to appear.  “Really? That’s great. Thanks.”

    “No problem,” I replied as I went to move my car from one side of the street to the other, so that In 90 minutes I could move it back again.                 

         But there was a problem. I mulled over the implications of what the postman said. He believed he sounded old because he recognized a reference to the most famous play of Nobel-laureate Samuel Beckett. Was it shameful to know this information?

     Yet I understood the unease he felt when referring to any person or event from more before the previous five or ten years. It was like saying you prayed to Satan during the Inquisition.

     I admit that I have violated my own know-it-all principles by holding back when making certain references in public.  I avoid alluding to history—even the Vietnam War sounds way too “back in the day.”  To mention “Woodstock,” “transcendental meditation,” “peace demonstrations,” “the bombing of Cambodia,” “Easy Rider,” “civil rights,” or to use the term “disco” pegs me as old if not senile, or as having taken the wrong college courses. 

    When I taught English literature to remedial students, a colleague archly pointed out at a meeting that we were wasting time teaching John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” and Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”

    “My students think the Civil War was America’s war of independence. They think World War II happened 150 years ago. They think Mary Queen of Scots owns Scott’s tissues,” he said.

     Senior faculty shuddered. They loved Meta-physical poets and believed everyone would feel the same way given inspired instruction. They wrote off my iconoclastic colleague as a defeatist and did not rehire him. Senior faculty continued to teach Milton—one professor literally with his eyes closed—to undergraduates who had last opened a newspaper to house-train their puppies.

     Not long ago, back in the Mesozoic day, it wasn’t cool not to know things. Ignorance was neither blissful nor hip; it prompted eye-rolling disrespect. Most people put a high value on cultural literacy. It was okay to identify music that wasn’t on the Top 40 (oops, just dated myself), to go to a museum and know what you were seeing.  No more. Now most people never go to museums, or read books, magazines, or even tabloids.

     Dumbing down is now like keeping it real. The more you know about the world and how it got this way, the smaller your corner in it. People don’t follow what you’re saying. Your references go over or by them. They shake their heads at your irrelevance. It’s the revenge of ignorance: if you have erudition you are considered old, geekish, out of touch and lost. People conclude that if you know about the Hundred Years War, you must have fought in it.

     Computers and associated technologies were purported to be the foundation of the Information Age. It is amazing that you can Google-fish for facts and snare them in seconds. Yet the only information many of us seem to care about pertains to technology, per se—when the next Apple gadget is rolling out, what it will do and how well it will perform. The knowledge people value most is about the latest app, the latest film, and the latest episode of the latest hot TV show—the latest of everything.

     It makes one wonder if the celebration of now and the empowerment of ignorance are two tines of a multi-pronged conspiracy to keep people running in place, consuming the latest ephemeral thing produced to create a life-long loyal consumer base, a herd with no reference to other values.

    One proverb states that if you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going.  But what if nobody cares where we’re going? What if the only concern is to go and to get there—somewhere, anywhere?

    Another classic adage warns that if we don’t know history we’ll be doomed to repeat it. But today’s consumers are willing to repeat their actions, buy the same devices, see films multiple times and sequels afterward, and watch reruns of the same TV programs ad infinitum, until death or cable do them part.

    Beatniks were legendary for saying on a Friday night, “Let’s drive to Cleveland.”

    “What’s in Cleveland?”

    “Does it matter? Let’s just go.”

    To a boy of 15, such spontaneous absurdity and freedom made perfect sense.  But Kerouac, Cassidy and other Beats were joyriders rolling against a conformist tide. Today, the unmoored “just do it” crowd are the conformist tide. It’s make you wonder where we’re all going when the tide rolls out.

--November 6, 2015

IS PASSION NOW A BIG SHRUG?

 

Tom Waits said that bad writing destroys the quality of our suffering. I would add that poor language usage not only demeans our pain, but it diminishes our joy and every other emotion we may be lucky enough to experience.

 

My sense of awe has been diminished by “awesomeness.” And so many people claim to be “blessed,” even when awful and banal things happen to them, that I can no longer distinguish between a blessing and a curse. Meanwhile, radio and television news presenters promise “shocking” news that turns out to be ho-hum and “genius” is spoken of so promiscuously that you might believe we were no longer on earth, but in Valhalla with the immortals, free of cancer, heart disease, poverty and crime—until winter thaw reveals garbage bags, empty bottles and piles of dog manure—probably works of genius to someone of a more perverse sensibility.

 

Economists have learned how to curb monetary hyperinflation, but are there linguists who can put a lid on the verbal hyperinflation that threatens to turn even our juiciest words into word-jerky?

 

Some misuse of vocabulary is beyond individual control.  People do not use turgid words to indicate small emotions as part of an orchestrated mental conspiracy to subvert culture and confuse everyone. No, this practice indicates an emotional sea change.

 

We use words that represent aspirational qualities, whose meanings are obviated by current reality, as verbal condiments. They become touchstones of enchantment and taboo. Elusive and coveted ways of being, such as “fulfillment,” “adventure,” “wealth,” and “passion” are repurposed as heroic euphemisms to make banality acceptable, in the same way that fried onions make liver palatable.

 

Great words like “passion,” “control,” “genius,” and “awe,” function like antiques with which we furnish dull, sterile rooms. The concepts these words once defined rarely exist in our lives, so we use the words alone to cover the voids the ideas themselves once filled.

 

In this sense, great words often mean the opposite of their original definition.  “Passion” is a symptom of underlying tedium.  “Original” means you’ve seen and probably liked it before. “Shocking” means sordid but typical and familiar.

 

Of all of the overworked and misused words of grand emotion and great aspiration, none is more abused than “passion.” Passion was once associated with great and often bewildering acts of devotion of the “Tristan and Yseult” variety—Edward VIII abdicating his throne for a woman, Adele Hugo travelling across the Atlantic to stalk her beloved—or an indefatigable striving for wealth, knowledge, and discovery—Lewis and Clark, Coronado and the cities of gold, Scott’s, Amundsen’s and Shackleton’s race to the south pole, Watson, Crick and DNA.  But today, it is used to describe an insurance agent’s desire to give you a quote on your car insurance.

 

Using the word "passion" to sell products or promote an individual is tantamount to selling with sex, power and other mental elixirs we use as motivation supplements. Passion makes effectiveness and seriousness sound sexy. It connotes energy, desire and a capacity for single-minded devotion.

 

When people use "passionate" to characterize their attitude toward work, it assumes a moral inflection: it is the Puritan ethic made manifest. The message is, "If I love my work, I must be good at it—and a good person, too."  Yet, passion also eroticizes work.  “I’m passionate about what I do,” means “I have re-routed my sexuality to work,” or more bluntly speaking, “I have sex with my job.”

 

Even in the workplace, “passion” is more utilitarian than emotional. A person who is passionate about his job does not fulminate about his beliefs, because this egotistical behavior would not thrive or be tolerated in a corporate environment. “Passionate” in this context is a code word for a willingness to work late, perform tedious tasks without complaint, at the lowest salary. 

 

Professing passion about a product and service may instill confidence in a customer, who wants to believe the provider cares as much as he does about the item he is about to purchase, but it reeks of insincerity. Passion is a fathomless emotion, and should be reserved for prized or venerated objects. When applied to ordinary things, the word sounds sarcastic.

 

"We are passionate about office products!' 

"We are passionate about power tools." 

"We are passionate about dog food and laxatives!"

“We are passionate about data storage.”

“We are passionate about insurance!”

 

Euphemizing, hyperbolizing nitwits have diluted "passion" until it means as little as the word, “sale.” I am waiting for vampires to proclaim that they are passionate about drinking blood; for zombies to declare their passion for eating human flesh; for Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” dour subjects to cry out, “We’re passionate about pitchforks.”

 

Is the depreciated use of “passion” meant to aggrandize a product by suggesting that someone can feel a profound emotion for it? Or does it demonstrate the humble devotion of a person who expends profound emotions on trivial objects? 

 

The new CEO of an active sportswear company recently was quoted as saying that she was passionate about the leotards her company manufactured. These leotards are so tight that they creep up into the wearer’s personal crevices.  Was she referencing a passion induced by wedgies?  

 

This is post-industrial fetishism. I see images of contemporary avatars of St Teresa of Avila, male and female, having spiritual orgasms while contemplating their jobs and products. It is surreal vision straight out of a Bunuel film.

 

“Passion” in the marketplace can frustrate anyone who still associates the emotion with Romeo and Juliet rather than breakfast cereal.  But concepts such as “passion” are as subjective and personal as the experiences they describe. 

 

Babel is not a biblical myth but a universal reality. Notions of what it means to "live fully" and "be fulfilled" are as unique as our fingerprint. “Passion” is not just a street address, but also a zip code of pleasurable sensations. Since billions understand it differently, why can’t everyone have a go at it?

 

Maybe we should hire new words for our vocabularies and stop filling in the blanks of what we feel with the word, “passion,” which is overworked and needs a vacation. Passion, as defined, is an extreme emotion that takes more energy than most people can afford. Yet we continue to use it indiscriminately, expecting it to take us as far as our imaginations can go. JP Sartre pointed out that if we think we have passion, and act like we have it, then we have it. Yet, at times we tell ourselves we have passion to avoid falling into a coma.-- November 15, 2015