Thursday, July 21, 2011

don't do the crime if you can't do the time

Reading an article today about the Americanisms that can set British teeth on edge, I remembered a time when I was a newspaper reporter. Newspaper reporters used to cultivate sources -- people they could call when a particular story-topic came up. There were police sources, political sources, medical sources, business sources, etc. And one of the sources I cultivated was the top gun at Merriam Webster, the creator of dictionaries.

I forget his name, but I do remember how, every once in a while, the two of us would get on the phone and bemoan the dissolution of language.

Give or take a little, there are two over-arching approaches to words and language. One sees words as having very specific meanings and those specific meanings allow people to communicate more clearly and with less confusion. The other sees language and the words that make it possible as a living organism -- something that flows and eddies and is affected and revised by the people who use it. Once upon a time, for example, the made-up word "alienation" had a very specific psychological and sociological definition. But the word grabbed the popular imagination and soon came to mean a variously-defined dis-ease. How "nauseous" came to mean "nauseated" I'm not sure, but it certainly is a common enough occurrence.

Anyway, I would get one the phone with my source and the two of us would piss and moan like a couple of liberals at a white-whine party: Language might be an approximation of fact, but it deserved to be as close and approximation as possible. The anything-can-mean-anything crowd was leading us to hell in a hand basket.

I suppose our conversations were more heady and reserved and refined than that, but that's what they boiled down to: Without an effort to do as well as anyone might in a given (if imperfect) field, the field itself rotted from within and its usefulness was lost.

In the fourth grade, I wrote my first story. As time passed, I wrote more and more. And along every step where she had some interest and offered some input, my mother, a good writer, drummed it into me: If you don't know the building blocks, you'll never build a good house. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary ... you've got to learn that if you want to write. Like every youthful, budding writer, I didn't want to bother with the building blocks: This was ART and I wanted to bask in a sea of imagination and deliciousness. Never mind changing flat tires: I just wanted to drive the car! My mother, sometimes gently and sometimes not, would point out the inescapable news: Without knowing the particulars, I would continue to be more full of shit than a Christmas turkey -- a half-baked writer and a phony.

Isn't it the same in every desirable endeavor ... there's the dream and there are the particulars. Without reading the fine print, without knuckling down, a wimpy, weak and meaningless structure is bound to evolve.

Spiritual effort is the same: There's the dream that positively glows in the dark and then there are the particulars, the very real difficulties that anyone might long to evade. Yes, there is the bright light at the end of some spiritual tunnel, but more often than not that bright light betokens an on-coming freight train. Heaven, enlightenment, compassion ... woo-hoo! And then there is the very compelling fact that anger rises up, sadness comes calling, and the dog pisses on the living room rug.

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time. Heart-felt dreams are wonderful inspirations. But anyone who cares about that dream -- anyone who really, really cares -- is going to have to learn the nouns and verbs and adjectives, the day-to-day, inglorious particulars from which that dream arises.

Just because the gritty particulars cannot be avoided by anyone with a star-struck dream does not mean that that dream is somehow wrong. It just means that anyone unwilling to break a sweat would be better off forgetting about the dream ... either that, or become some kind of wooly-minded fanatic who is willing to make others suffer for his or her own laziness.

Nouns, verbs, adjectives and the dog still pisses on the living room rug. There is a wonderful light that can shine in anyone's life, but each of us has to flip the switch.

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