Monday, September 24, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


            Two weeks back I made my personal bid for old fart status by taking to task idiots who do not know the difference between “on your part” and “on your behalf”, illiterates who use “impact” as a transitive verb, and cliché-mongers who write “passion” and “passionate about” when they really mean “interest” and “interested in”. As I wrote at the time, over-concern about the niceties of usage is often a sign of having too much time on one’s hands, and can often afflict the elderly or the under-employed. [Look up “Passionate Impacts on Your Behalf” on the index to the right.]

            Yet concern for language is in essence a concern for meaning. If there are no complainants about usage, then the world becomes even more prey than it already is to platitudes, clichés and words without meaning.

            So my complaints continue, but this time about two deadly phrases, one of which is still in full flight, the other of which seems now mercifully moribund.

            I will illustrate both these horrors with personal anecdotes.

            First anecdote. Quite some time back, earning extra income when I was researching and writing a commissioned book, I signed on with an agency as a relief teacher in intermediate and secondary schools. For whatever reason, I found that (though a secondary teacher by training) I was more often required in intermediate schools.

            One day, I was summoned to a South Auckland intermediate school and put in charge of a class of lively (that is of course a euphemism) and predominantly Polynesian 12-year-olds.

            The schedule I was given said they had to spend some time reading a book, and some time writing a story.

            They spent most of their time hallooing (that’s another euphemism), running around the class, the boys giving one another vigorous shoulder-punches and so on.

            I clapped my hands, shouted, and finally managed to get them to sit quietly in a circle on the floor around me.

            I wanted to give them some idea of the importance of reading and writing.

            I read them a story.

            They seemed to enjoy it.

            Then I asked “What are some of the things we will need if we want to grow up and get a good job?

            I was hoping some little girl or boy would say that we need to work hard and that we need to get on well with people, and that of course it’s good to know how to read and write well.

            Instead one little girl, her face innocent as an angel, said earnestly  “You’ve got to follow your dream”.

            I felt like crying.

            I didn’t, of course, because teachers have in-built tear-inhibitors in such circumstances. But it was a near-run thing.

            “Follow your dream”.

            I was devastated that this piece of Hollywood-ese had percolated down to malleable little school-children, who had doubtless been told it in a social studies or values or guidance class, so confidently did the little girl say it as if it were a well-learnt lesson.

            What can we unpack from this dreadful phrase?

            Yes, it is good to have interests and ambitions and some focus about where you are going in life. But the term “dream” suggests that things come easily – that you’ve only got to wish for them and they are your’s. For impressionable kids “dream” also means Hollywood-esque, fashion magazine-ist, gossip column-ian “glamour”. Follow your dream and be a super-model, rock star, sports hero. And, of course, the personal and individual “dream” is a narcissistic thing. My daydreams have nothing to do with how I get on with, relate to, or do good for others. “Follow your dream” is an invitation to separate yourself from the herd and massage your ego.

            Also, for kids who have not worked at acquiring any skills, it’s an invitation to disappointment. Follow your dream, don’t work at acquiring any skills, and see your horizons shrink.

            I know that “follow your dream” is meant to emphasize individuality, and the uniqueness of each person’s tastes and ambitions. But the phrase is used in contexts which really emphasize the uniformity of media-formed tastes.

            It is anti-social. It is profoundly misleading. It morally corrupts children. Could we please ban it?

            Second anecdote, this one of the overheard-in-a-waiting-room variety.

            Within earshot of me, two men are talking. They are discussing their kids. One of them is, I deduce, divorced or separated. He tells the other that he has custody of his son every second weekend. But, he says, it is “quality time”, because he always takes his son on a special outing to the zoo or the amusement park or some such.

            Now I admit I don’t get het up any longer about this particular evasive piece of cant. I think “quality time” has done its dash, is no longer used as commonly as it was a few years ago, and is readily understood to be somewhat dishonest.

            For what it’s worth, however, I will spell out what is wrong with the phrase and why it is dying a well-merited death.

            In all our relationships with people we know (family and children, friends, colleagues etc.) there will be some times when we are more engaged than others. “Special” times when we really discuss a problem with a colleague, really show an interest in the kids’ hobbies, really help a friend get through difficulties. Okay – you could call them “quality time” if you wished.

            But the trouble with the phrase is its suggestions than you can build a real relationship only on those moments of heightened engagement. Ignore your friends, family, children and colleagues nearly all week, don’t be there for the ongoing jostle and interaction of quotidian, routine, non-“special” life, and then make up for it all with a few hours of “quality time”.

            To be an effective parent, you have to be there for the boring stuff too, preferably living in the same house with your offspring, but at least available at most times. You have to know how they talk at dinner time or whenever you see them regularly; who their friends are; what they like doing day-to-day. No – you don’t distrust them and watch them like hawks 24/7. You give them space and time to go off and get out of your way and enjoy not being in your presence. But you are still available and there at need.

            Sorry, I’ve gone all ranty and am beginning to sound like a right-thinking guide to parenting.

            But then (having admittedly never researched its origins) I do suspect the concept of “quality time” was invented so that that dad in the waiting room could feel good about seeing his son for just three or four hours once a fortnight.

            Comments welcome if you wish to disagree.


  1. I think it was in the film “Manhattan” that Woody Allen directed and acted in, that in one scene his divorced character was with his young son with whom he had some court allocated time. They and other men and young boys were playing in a park and wearing T shirts with the inscription “Divorced Fathers and Sons Club”. Like much of Allen’s observation it was mixture of the awful yet funny. I do not believe I am heartless but others watching the film with me were appalled that I could find it funny. I was mocking ‘quality time’, they said. I do happen to consider split up of families and allocated time with children as a serious business. My point is, though, that the best reaction to sloppy phrases like “quality time” is to laugh them gto e xtinction.
    The same for “follow that dream”. What about if I dream I am stark naked in a public place or sitting an examination in a foreign language of which I understand not a word (two common anxiety dreams I gather)?

    1. Yes, thanks for that Anonymous (of Wellington, I believe). I had thought of that one. If I followed my dream I would be a teenager and having a lusty affair with Claudia Cardinale (or at least with Claudia Cardinale as she looked when I was a teenager); but somehow I think I'd be disappointed in tat one. In fact, I'd be more likely to walk into my other dream - which is turning up to teach a class with nothing prepared.

  2. Not quite disagreeing with you Nick, but aren't both phrases well on their way to entering the dictionary of proverbs, and won't they be analysed to death by writers of doctoral theses 200 years from now, and probably taught to unwilling schoolchildren 2,000 years from now? (See this wonderful Latin site: http://latinviaproverbs.blogspot.de/ )
    And of course they make wonderful book titles: not even 250,000 words would exhaust everything that could be unlocked from the debate over "Follow your dream", which is usually a euphemistic way of saying "Go with your kink," or sometimes, "Break the law." I find it rather delightful that your angel-faced little girl quoted it in complete unawareness of all its implications.