Blogs by Kalikiano Kalei
The Ever-Widening Pyramidicity Paradigm
2/22/2009 3:58:48 PM
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Arrrrr, Jamie me boy! The sea can do strange things to ye, young Jamie. Arrrrr. The First Mate there, in a certain light, can look like a beautiful mermaid, fer instance. Or yon Mizzen can of a sudden look ta be a Foc'sle sheet sproutin' out the poop deck binnacle. Yassss. Strange things, I say, young Jamie, strange things indeed!
THE EVER-WIDENING PYRAMIDICITY PARADIGM…
Gazing out over the Kalohi Channel towards Lanai, my attempt to capture the serene rhythmicity of the waves in the form of a mental snapshot is severely disrupted by the commotion attendant to two big furry bodies wrestling at my feet.
Picture this, if you can: my desk has a small cubbyhole under it where my feet would normally be while I am seated at it, but at the moment its normally crowded confines are filled to capacity with two human legs and 140 pounds of Siberian Husky (2 x 70 pounds each) in constant motion, both eagerly contesting the right of which dog gets to be closest to me while I sit here. Flattering to some, I suppose, it’s a doggone (how apt, eh!) nuisance when you want to enter the ‘zone’ of creative reflectivity and wax eloquent about some nuance or other of life.
‘Stitch’, my russet and white 2 year old male finally claims the catbird seat and curls around my feet, pinioning them in a not uncomfortable but definitely confining embrace of warm husky fur. After several ‘best out of three’ moments of contention, ‘Lilo’, my 4 year old B&W female finally shrugs (ever seen a doggy-shrug?....it’s quite interesting) and takes up station nearby, but a few feet distant, where she keeps a weather eye on Stitch, constantly ready to rush into any vacuum he might leave under the desk in its cubby. As the stormy space at my feet finally settles into some kind of tranquil repose, concurrent with a sort of dogwars armistice, I have to remind myself that all is still not at perfect peace, since I have to constantly remind myself not to move my feet such that I step on Stitch’s head. That wouldn’t do at all and would at least elicit a spontaneous doggy protest howl with wolfish overtones, as if to ask (in an non-articulate manner) “Wot? You tink my hade one footstool, eh boss!” Ah…ever the joys of bonding with one’s four-footed ilio companions!
In case you are wondering about the term 'catbird seat', it’s an idiomatic phrase first used by whimsical writer James Thurber in the early 40s story he wrote of the same name (‘The Catbird Seat’). While those of you who are long in the tooth will instantly recognise both writer and phrase, many (if not most) of you who still have your cognitive baby-teeth will merely engage in the mental human version of a doggy shrug and pass on to the next idea under discussion here.
And as long as we’re on the subject of idiom and language (since idiomatic terms are a very important form of all linguistic modes of expression), it is occasionally of passing interest to me that so many people are not instinctively interested in any idiomatic terms they may run across in daily use. A great many such terms were inserted into daily use by World War Two veterans, who picked up nautical (or military) slang expressions while serving in that war. Many others were bestowed on modern English by First World War vets, others from the Korea, Vietnam, and most recently from Southwest Asian conflicts. A particular interesting book (for anyone interested) that addresses the subject of these war-related idioms may be found in the US Naval Institute’s (USNI Press) collection of books on naval warfare. The book in reference is titled ‘Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat’, (by Martin Robson, ISBN 978-1-59114-627-8, $18.95) and it provides a fascinating narrative on how a great many of the rich descriptive slang terms we use and take for granted today originally came from 18th and 19th century British and American naval operations.
Remember if you will that at the time of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy was the most powerful seagoing fleet in the world (thanks in part to the defeat of the Spanish Armada off the coast of France, at the battle of Gravelines in 1588). The rich nautical traditions of the Royal Navy provided the grounding of those of the newly founded American navy at the time of the American Revolution. Building upon the combined maritime traditions of those sea forces, much of the rich argot of slang the United States Navy inherited from them came to be introduced to common use in the newly independent United States of America, and the process continues from there.
Today, a surprising number of idiomatic slang terms in everyday use stem from these early nautical origins and over the subsequent decades thousands of additional military terms were added to the American English language. Lest some of you think I am a hopelessly militaristic person at this point, let me hasten to assure you I am far from it. If anything, I have been a life-long antagonist of war and the organized mass killing on a broad scale in which it most frequently takes form. However, that having been admitted, ignoring violence and war, and the act of turning a blind eye to all things military, have never resulted in the eradication of the sort of passionately orchestrated and brutally levied violence that war most often constitutes. War, as tragically sad as it invariably is, has been a part of human civilisation from the dawn of our recorded history and it shall always remain so—a permanent part of all human interactions on the planet until we finally either destroy our home planet permanently, or become terminally extinct as a species at our own hand. One way or another, war is just as much an ineradicable part of human life as are love, sex, and humane kindness (all qualities I greatly admire, needless to say).
Oops. Just received the accurately predicted howl of protest from under the desk, thanks to a shift of position just now. The BBQ fried pig-ears I gave to both my ilio as a quieting bribe have now disappeared and they are likely wondering why I am not getting up to let them out to sniff the rich range of natural and artificial aromas wafting on the trades, as they blow in from the sea. Sorry, guys. I’m on a literary roll here (tosses out another fried pig-ear as a sop to continued peaceful canine coexistence).
As someone who has maintained a lifelong fascinating with language (both spoken and written), it has always been hard for me to understand the rampant illiteracy that today so often passes for currency in our society, nay, that is all too frequently embraced as some sort of adolescent badge among youth who think it somehow heightens and accentuates their self-perceived studly image. I have never been able to understand exactly why so many younger people (mostly male) resist taking an interest in language, since literacy is the key to learning, and reading is the primary instrument that enables learning, the basic requisite process that creates an educated individual. I suspect that it is part of a range of adolescent behavioral nuances that relate directly to an inability to adequately understand and control the effects of hormonal changes that transcend the immature mind’s accommodation.
I suspect that aside from the fact that (invariably) ignorant individuals pass along their inherent ignorance to the children they bring into the world, ignorance of language and an absence of interest in learning (i.e. reading) has today seemingly become the common currency of ‘average society’. Fact is, I enjoy words and I enjoy using them. This seems to provoke a sort of unhappy reactive backlash from people who are less enabled in the literacy department, on occasion. I can recall at least several instances wherein I have been accused of keeping a thesaurus by my elbow when I make commentary in various forums; the truth of the matter is that I don’t need one, since I carry all those words in my head and employ them as I see fit, simply because I enjoy slinging words around. It’s a sort of hobby with me and it certainly beats beating puppies or drug dealing. Those who have never taken much interest in language or linguistics seem to resent such things, apparently, and have used the word ‘condescending’ in reference to me and some of the observations I make. My take on this sort of sour grapes reactivity is that they’re merely resentful little ignoramuses (ignorami?), for the most part. These are usually people, I might add, who are grammatically challenged to an extreme and who commonly use the possessive term “their” for “they are” (they’re), “it’s” for “its”, and “your” for “you’re”. Just tune into any internet forum and you’ll quickly grasp that fact. [While I will admit that I have my share of grammatical short-comings, at least I am not guilty of those most basic errors of speech and written expression.]
Returning to the subject of language as an interesting cultural paradigm, idiomatic slang is certainly a rich and fascinating aspect of any language, whether English, Chinese, or any of the thousands of dialects found all over the planet. In fact, idiomatic slang is such a central part of spoken Cantonese dialect that the natives of Hong Kong can tell immediately how long a visiting Chinese speaking person from Hong Kong has been away from that Far Eastern city by the slang terms and expressions the visitors use (or rather don’t use). It’s one thing, you see, to be able to tell that a visitor speaking your language is from another area; it’s quite another to quickly determine from what he says exactly how long he’s been away from your municipal area.
Hawaiian idiom is equally rich in all areas of expression, as is also the island slang form commonly referred to as pidgin. So often in the past, I’ve encountered individuals who look down on pidgin and ‘dis’ (disrespect) those who speak it. The critics are either kanaka maoli locals who resent haoles trying to use what they consider ‘their’ exclusive indigenous patois, or haoles who look down (as somehow less intelligent than those who disdain its use) on non-haole locals who use it commonly. Typically (at least in most instances I’ve personally encountered) it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black. In almost all cases, it’s also about ‘localism’ and the never-ending effort by groups who perceive themselves to be disadvantaged to identify with a group, in order to establish a vestige of higher self-esteem, personal respect, and integrity. In this last association, it is not infrequent for many who feel they are being looked down upon to accuse their critics of ‘elitism’. A term that has recently been co-opted by the masses, thanks to ignorant partisan political campaign criticisms of our newly elected president (due to his having had a superior education and being an articulate, thoughtful person of substantial intellect), the word ‘elitism’ is now slung about like a weapon-like epithet at the least provocation by those who are poorly educated (at those who have a higher level of intellectual function).
I recall once using American philosopher George Santayana’s memorable quote about those who fail to remember the past being doomed to repeat it in a conversation on the internet and having it flung back at me with a disparaging remark about my trying somehow to ‘impress’ others by using it to display my superior wisdom. In that particular instance, the respondent failed entirely to grasp the inherent point contained within the quote and chose instead to berate me for daring to (I suppose) ’flaunt’ what he perceived as a merely a fancy display of gratuitous condescension. Pathetic, really!
Of course, at the central core of all efforts to instill a sense of literacy, education, reflective awareness, and learning in individuals is exactly that central lesson: if we fail to learn from experience and act accordingly, we are simply squealing our tires and doing wheelies on the asphalt of life experience. Education and learning (reduce it if you will to simple ‘reading’) is all about making individuals better able to make wise choices and cultivate intelligent responses to life’s situations, isn’t it? And that, more than anything else, is the primary value of all learning and education…
If one feels somehow more manly by adopting (through ignorance) the model of a brute animal, pitted against all other animals in a symbolic contest of brute physical strength, and regarding the cultivation of sensitive awareness and mature wisdom as somehow anathema to that macho behavioral model, obviously it makes absolutely no difference at all whether anyone learns from past errors and mistakes and continues to repeat them or not. I personally feel otherwise, that the greater challenge of all human life experience ought properly to be congruent with the ancient Greek ideal of cultivating BOTH mind and body equally. Modern researches into the human brain’s function are now demonstrating yet again the importance that both physical and mental culture play in maximizing human potential for both men and women. In other words, a body without much of a brain is just as disadvantaged in the larger context of life as a brain with a poorly cultivated physical host.
The task, as I see it, that any intelligent person who takes an interest in maximizing the potential of one’s fellow human beings is therefore faced with is instilling awareness in others of conditioning the human mind co-equally with the human body. If it helps to think of a human brain an simply another (highly specialized) muscle, that’s fine; as long as the integrated unity of both aspects of our lives are given equal emphasis. In this area of development, women have the potential to excel and far outstrip men, since they already have a predisposition to develop nurturing intelligence; they merely need to adopt a co-equal sense of physicality to round out the developmental model.
In this last context, I am reminded of a recent interview with a human behaviorist who was speaking about the rising incidence of teenage pregnancies. This individual proposed that encouraging girls to become more involved with sports has a substantially strong influence on building confidence in (teenaged) young women, instilling pride in self, and imparting feelings of more strongly actualized personal strength, and greater respect for their bodies….all qualities that tend to make young women less likely to regard themselves are merely pleasantly malleable playthings for boys to manipulate as they chose. Citing studies that demonstrate that young women involved in school sports programs have significantly lower rates of adolescent pregnancy than groups consisting of non athletic program participants, the speaker (indirectly) emphatically iterated the importance of cultivating both minds and bodies of young women equally.
In a traditional culture like that of the ancient Hawaiians, such concepts were effectively frustrated by kapus that limited women’s roles in Hawaiian society, but it is interesting to note that pre-kapu Hawaii did not retard women from assuming more complete self-actualisation of themselves and maximizing their fuller abilities. The vestiges of male prejudice that come to Hawaii today from malihini pop-culture still act to adversely reinforce the male/female gradient, but slowly and gradually that is changing as women become more involved in gaining respect for their physical selves as co-equal to men in (almost) every way.
Male ignorance (the wildly popular macho image of youthful gang-tinged violence that entertainment media has popularized so blatantly) and the faddish adolescent male desire to project ‘toughness’ over reflective sensitivity as desirable behavioral qualities to emulate needs to yield to a more balanced acceptance of co-equal cultivation of mind and body. Of that, there can be almost no doubt. As women come more and more into their own, the growing acceptance of this is (in my opinion) inevitable, but there’s still a long way to go before intelligent awareness and empathetic reflectivity are seen as necessary components of any fully actualized human being…regardless of gender differences.
I realize, in reading all of the above, that it’s a relatively long leap from discussing idiomatic expressiveness to advocacy of more gender balance in intellect and physicality, but these are just some of the currents that regularly course through my mind as I sit here and gaze out over the channel towards Lanai. As always, a sense of sadness settles in on me to reflect on how little effort is made by most to grasp the simple obviousness of these arguments.
Fortunately, another unconscious shuffle of my feet provokes yet another howl of wolfish indignance from beneath my desk, before I have time to get depressed over that last thought, but it serves to bring me back into real time: time to get up, let the pups out to go take a whiz on the palms, and get a few things done before the sun slides out of sight into the shaded depths of Kaiwi Channel.
[Oh yes, in case you’re wondering about the title of these paragraphs (The Ever-Widening Pyramidicity Paradigm), I’m still trying to figure that one out myself; but it sounds great, doesn’t it?]
Me ke aloha pumehana.
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