Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grunt Speak

Once upon a time, I was fascinated by quotations and one-liners.  I would guess this came from seeing so many great comedians on HBO specials as a kid in the 70s.  That was also the decade where the message t-shirt was born.  Rolling Stone always had a page in the back with a company that had a plethora of ironic/funny t-shirt sayings.  “Free Mustache Rides” was my favorite, with the side-view of a naked woman riding a walrus mustache.

Well, I never grew a walrus mustache or bought that t-shirt.  I would think growing a mustache would be a prerequisite to wearing that t-shirt with any authority.  We had a cotton mill in our county that had a sideshop specializing in nothing but message t-shirts.  I used to love going there and having t-shirts made to order.  They always had the usual selection of popular rock acts you could get ironed onto your shirt, but they also specialized in block-letter personal messages.  I’d guess the bulk of their business was catering to local sports teams, but you could also walk in there and get any kind of message printed on a t-shirt.

They made them in the store, too.  Take your selection, lay it out, put it under the hot press and give you your shirt within the hour.  These were iron-on decals as opposed to silk screens, so you knew the shirt wasn’t going to last forever.  I guess this was the 70s working-class version of getting a tattoo, save it only cost $5.00 as opposed to hundreds, and all these years later, I don’t have a blurry blob of ink on my bicep to show for it.  We were smarter in the 70s, which scares the shit out of me now.

For years afterwards, I had a fascination with one-liners and quotes, to the point of buying various quotation books.  Words to live by, yadda yadda yadda.  I’m not sure what that phase meant, but it lasted well into my 20s.  If life were only that easy, so that you could utter some magic words of wisdom, and you’d suddenly see the light and transform into something greater.  It doesn’t work that way, although I guess some type of “wisdom osmosis” could transpire over the course of years.  But there’s a more direct form of wisdom osmosis called “getting your ass kicked by life.”

This concept of gearing your life towards inspirational quotations … I just read a Vanity Fair article about President Obama’s lovelife in his early 20s while attending Columbia University, and the kind of airy/farty world view I associate with that way of life runs like a river through that article.  Not so much him (although he had it, too), but these Vassar-style women he was hanging around, the terminology they use, the dimestore psychology they apply to every thought and emotion.  It just reeks of the worst sort of mediocrity I ran into constantly at college.  The pompous grad student who, I knew, had no talent for writing, but spent a lifetime reading and analyzing and dissecting and practicing the academic banter for the fucking awful dissertation no one would ever read again because it was so pedantic and boring.  So they could get that assistant professor job at some nondescript university in the middle of nowhere and wow them at the wine-and-cheese socials with their views on Chaucer and Hawthorne and get that whole ass-kissing academia thing down so when they applied for tenure, all would go smoothly and the cobwebs and coffin lids and coffee breath in the faculty lounge could descend on them like bored vultures.

On the flip side, at work I’m constantly aware of work-place clichés and repeated aphorisms that underline the futility of a 9-to-5 existence.  Things people mutter under their breath when they’ve been given a thorny assignment and not enough time to do it.  Grunt Speak.  Doesn’t have to be an office.  In fact, you’re more likely to hear these clichés in factories, and garages, and junkyards.  Maybe even more so since it seems like so many people who do physical labor for a living are conditioned to think they’re the bottom line in terms of employment, and they see all from the bottom up.

They’re probably right.  But I can’t help but pause when I hear these oft-muttered phrases, because there’s often more meaning to them, or at least a meaning I sense that they’re not intending when they put forth with some generally downbeat view of the world.  I’m now going to list some of these phrases I often hear, and what goes through my head when I hear them.  I guess I’m thinking outside the box.  (I wouldn’t do this if I was at a biker rally in Sturgis, surrounded by balding, 58-year-old old mechanics, their remaining hair tied back in pony tails, walking around in their assless leather pants, wearing t-shirts that just might bear some of these sayings.  Something tells me they’d force me back inside the box … the pine box.)

Shit rolls downhill.  I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately, to demonstrate situations in which a problem is passed on from an authority figure to an underling to deal with.  There’s a real problem here.  I agree, gravity is such that things on earth that can roll, they roll downhill.  Shit, as a rule, doesn’t roll.  It plops out of an anus and just sits there.  Whatever part of the hill you see yourself on.  That’s the beautiful thing about shit.  Just as likely to be stepped on by a $300 pair of Italian loafers as a pair of work boots.  Shit doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor.  In theory, shit could roll downhill.  I’ve seen really dried out pieces of dogshit that are hard enough that if they were on a hill, and a rush of water or high wind blasted it, it could roll downhill.  But I’ve never seen this.  Have you?

And the question begs to be asked: does shit roll uphill in Australia?

Opinions are like assholes; everyone has one.  Tell that to someone with a colostomy bag.  But in general, this is very much true.  I have an asshole.  A show of hands out there for anyone in the same boat?  Good.  Most of us have assholes.  The problem is, I have a lot of opinions.  We all do.  If my body were to match this quote, I’d be some bizarre, alien type of creature that has nothing but hundreds of assholes all over his body.  The analogy is also off in that I gather the ultimate goal of the person muttering this is to equate a person’s opinion with a piece of fecal matter – not the anus.  I can see using this statement effectively in a given situation, with one opinion applied to one particular situation.  But it’s short-sighted.  Let me cut to the chase: I don’t care what you think.  That’s what you’re trying to say.  If you think stating it as “Opinions are like assholes …” is an improvement, all I can say is, nice mullet.

When the shit hits the fan.  I’ve noticed that there’s a preoccupation with feces and anuses when it comes to describing situations at work.  As if they were bad things.  True, we have so many negative associations with feces.  But given how our bodies are designed, we do have these built-in waste systems that require daily disposal, and you should be very happy to defecate on a routine, healthy basis.  Believe me, life is no fun when you can’t!

That said, I’m always perplexed by shit hitting the fan.  Where on earth did this originate?  I can visualize it: a glob of feces striking a moving fan, and pieces of it being flung all over a room.  Not good, man, not good at all.  I get it.  Boy, do I get it.  But … have you ever seen shit hitting a fan?  I know.  This is the internet.  There must be people out there taking their shit and throwing it into a moving fan, just to see what happens.  That’s how the world is these days.  But in general, there’s no logic to this statement.  If the shit hits the fan, it’s because you’re picking it up and throwing it at a fan … which means you have larger problems than shit hitting a fan, in and of itself.  There’s really something wrong with you!

He’s blowing smoke up your ass.  I don’t know what this means.  Should I take it literally?  Someone is crouched down behind a person, smoking, and literally exhaling cigarette smoke up a person’s ass?  Have you ever done this?  Know anyone who has?  Is it a bad thing?  Does it feel bad?  This is generally uttered when someone is trying to mislead or offer false praise to another person.  I can see “smoke screen” – providing a sense of illusion.  But not this.  It’s just freaky.  Please, no smoking near my ass.

Your mouth is writing checks your ass can’t cash.  In this analogy, what’s the bank?  I get it, my mouth is writing checks.  I’m saying crazy things.  My ass can’t cash them.  I can’t back up these crazy things I’m saying.  But where would I be cashing these checks?  What if my mouth was writing checks my ass could cash?  Does that ever happen?  Is the bank some unspoken cloud of truth that determines what my ass is trying to do with those checks?  In theory, I would have a bank account in that cloud of truth, hopefully with over-draft protection, or at least enough money to cash any checks my frivolous mouth is writing and responsible ass is cashing.  And how do credit and debit cards now play into this?  If my mouth is writing checks my ass can’t cash … would you accept Visa or Mastercard?

Life’s a bitch, and then you marry one.  I know the person muttering this means to demonstrate he has an understanding of how foul the world and life itself is.  It’s nothing but a problem.  All the time.  It’s a bitch.  Even as a kid and teenager.  A bitch, man.  And the irony of it all … man, then you go out and marry one!

But isn’t it really a positive saying?  All right, so you’re going around with a world view that life is nothing but a series of endless problems.  I can’t argue with this – to some extent, it’s true.  You sense this, even as a kid and teenager.  Even then, you’re hardened.  Life’s a bitch.

You don’t have to get married.  Especially to someone you perceive is or may be a bitch, somewhere down the road.  Why would you want to do that?  If life has been a bitch, wouldn’t it make sense to try to find someone who, I don’t know, makes your life a little less bitchier?  If you think life's a bitch, maybe the problem isn't life itself, but you and how you see it?  But let’s say you can’t wrap your mind around that.  You’re locked in on that permanent downward spiral in life, it’s a bitch, it’s never going to get easier, or better, this is your fate, not just to live this bitchy life, but to KNOW life’s a bitch and carry around that understanding of the world.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t marrying a bitch really add no more or less bitchiness to your life?  Life’s already a bitch.  Then you marry one.  It seems more like fate … and in line with you how you see the world … and ultimately what you were destined to do … and if you’d care to admit, happy to do.  You married a bitch.  It’s OK.  You expect no more or less from the world.  You may marry a bitch or two.  Or three.  You can handle it.  Frankly, if that’s how you see the world, you wouldn’t want it any other way.

And what does the bitch think about all this?

Same shit, different day.  A beautiful saying that demonstrates the repetition of most of our work days.  You’re dealing with the same shit EVERY day.  Man, it never ends.  But look on the bright side.  It could be different shit, same day.  Implying that you’re dealing with all kinds of shit in one work day, and that’s got to be more stressful and depressing than same shit, different day.  Same shit, same day?  Eh.  Different shit, different day?  I guess that should be what I tell potential employers when they ask what my goals are.  I want to deal with different shit on different days.  Man, just not the same shit on different days, lord, I can’t take it. 

There’s no free lunch.  Ass, grass or gas: no one rides for free.  Forgive me for that 70s flashback, but it’s pretty much synonymous with this phrase.  (Although if you hitch a ride with me, I will not demand ass, grass or gas in return.  If you want to help with gas money, I’m OK with that.  I don’t smoke marijuana, especially while driving, but I appreciate the offer.  Ass?  I don’t expect sexual favors for taking you from Point A to Point B in a motor vehicle.  Are we cool now?  Can I go back listening to my Foghat eight track?  No, I’m not gay.  I just don’t demand ass for giving you a free ride, mama.  No.  Not even a free mustache ride.)

I’ve had a few free lunches in my time.  The one place I worked, an investment bank, we had free lunch every day.  I’m assuming the bank used the money to pay for it as a tax write-off of sorts.  Their attitude was the money they spent (and partially recouped at tax time) giving free lunch to employees encouraged people to work at their desks and not go out for lunch.  (Of course, most people ate at their desks … then took an hour lunch anyway!)  But it did work for some people, and it was a nice little perk.  In NYC, if you don’t brownbag it, you’re generally spending anywhere from $5.00 to $15.00 per day on lunch, depending on how extravagant you want to get.

We’re the people our parents warned us about.  No, you’re not.  My parents didn’t warn me about people who wear lampshades on their heads at parties.  Or drop movie/TV quotes in vain attempts at humor.  Or spout meaningless clichés at work all day long, as if that self-mythologizing nonsense gives meaning to their lives.  Or are just not funny, original or genuinely wild in any sense.  My parents warned me about perverts and criminals.  Unless we’re sitting in a holding cell in Rikers, I tend to view this statement with mild contempt.  I wish my parents had warned me about mediocre people with no wit, intelligence or imagination.  But they probably figured life would drop them on me like rain soon enough.  It did.

That which cannot kill me will make me stronger/I’ll never live to see 30/live like you were dying.  All thanks to Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I’m not even sure if that’s the exact phrasing, but you get the picture.  It’s a young man’s thing.  You have to be young to say shit like that.  I’m not sure how old Nietzsche was when he came up with that one, but he was wrong.  That which does not kill us does not make us stronger.  It kills us, slowly, almost imperceptibly, in small doses, over time.  You keep doing crazy things that threaten your health and well being, you’ll see by your 40s, it’s killing you.  Chances are, you’ll look like you’re in your 60s in your 40s if that’s your life philosophy.  And you’ll be dead in your 50s.

But you’ll never live to see 30?  All right.  I don’t think too many people are upset by that.  You aren’t either?  Tough guy, eh?  You’re really burning the candle at both ends.  You’re just too wild for this world, man, there’s no other like you, this wild burning flame, you’re out of control, man. 

You know what I’ve learned?  A vast majority of people who utter that see 30.  They see 40.  They see 50.  They might even see 60, but rarely 70.  And that time span between 40 and 60, they’re generally so beat to shit physically and mentally, that they might be regretting not checking out before 30.  But life doesn’t work that way.  You tend to hang on to it as long as you can, as long as it will let you.  It’s life.  It’s all we know.  So it makes sense not to make dire predictions about your check-out time.  And why is “30” such a bad age to live to?  You don’t hear 35-year-olds in bars crowing, “Man, I’ll never live to see 40!”  Generally when I refer to someone not living to see 50, I’m acknowledging that the person is in ill health, generally due to years of drug or alcohol abuse.  Not designating this person as a wild child who’s burning brighter than the sun.  It’s not cool, the grand illusion being it’s just as uncool when you’re 25, but you’re not smart enough to see it.

No matter, you’re going to live like you were dying.  Very bad country and rock songs have been written about this topic.  By people who have no clue what dying implies.  Watch someone die sometime.  You will, sooner or later.  Someone you love.  Over the course of time.  Years, months, weeks, or days.  They’re not jumping out of airplanes or burning with the light of a thousand stars.  They’re suffering.  They’re in agonizing pain.  They’re high on morphine and floating in and out of consciousness.  I don’t ever want to live like I was dying, although from what I’m seeing, I’ll be an anomaly if I don’t.  Most people go through that horrible phase at the very end. 

I also hope I get old before I die.  Like Pete Townshend.  I think 60s rock music did more to misconstrue and taint the reality of aging than any other cultural force, before or since.  We’re still suffering from it and will be for generations.

It is what it is.  This is the granddaddy of them all.  Muttered all day long, every day, simply to signify that, yes, this situation sucks, and we all know it.  Well, I don’t know it, and I often say as much.  Once, this guy Bob at work, said that in a meeting, and in my best “let’s think outside the box” voice, I replied, “Bob, allow me to interject here, but I have to disagree.  In this particular situation, it is what it isn’t.”

Some people just stared at me.  Others got it and laughed.  Bob laughed, because he knew I was poking fun at him.  It is what it is.  Man, come on.  That’s not saying anything.  If you feel the words “it is what it is” bubbling up in a conversation, do yourself a favor: say nothing.  You’ll be saying the same thing as nothing.  Then again, in a world where “like,” “you know,” “totally” and “awesome” are used dozens of times by people every day in conversations, “it is what it is” must sound like a line Jesus used in His Sermon on the Mount.

Back in the 80s, The Godfathers, a British band, put out a song called “Birth! School! Work! Death!” that did a great job of encapsulating this sort of “life is hard and never gets any easier” philosophy I see people employ every day.  I thought this song was going to become one of those foundations of rock, like “Stairway to Heaven” or “Freebird” but it just didn’t happen, probably because it was the 80s, and hard-rock songs like this (that weren’t hair metal) were out of place.  But it took that philosophy and boiled it down to a four-word chorus, with exclamation points, that pretty much says it all.  If only this clichéd take on the world was done as originally more often.

1 comment:

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Spot on about the shit comments. A good friend of mine worked a lot of blue-collar jobs during college breaks, and picked up a lot of these types of expressions. He also got this habit of speaking quite casually about actual shit and things related to bodily functions. This also rubbed off on him from the co-workers. For whatever reason, people in that industry have a point of view that it is normal to frequently describe the the color, shape and consistency of one's feces, as well as the physical effort and general circumstances dealing with how their shit was taken (say, behind a tree after hopping out of the bulldozer).. Such gruesome details were recounted as casually as someone might describe their commute or the weather. That made it all the worse; apparently they aren't trying to gross you out but truly think it a legitimate topic for chat. Even over lunch at a restaurant, if you can believe it.