Saturday, December 31, 2016

Keep Calm II - The Spawning


Surely you’ve seen many variations on the old British “KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON” poster.  And possibly you’ve even read “Keep Calm and Read These Quotations.” In that post I gave some background about the original “KEEP CALM…” poster, and then shared a number of quotations from my “KEEP CALM…” desk calendar (with commentary, of course).

Well, nothing says efficiency like “uninspired sequel,” so in this post I recycle my earlier idea, having gathered up the best (and better yet, the worst) of the quotations from the second half of my calendar.  I promise this essay will be more entertaining than TV coverage of the ball dropping in Times Square.  If I become aware that you watched that parade but didn’t read this post, I will find you, and I will kill you.  No kidding.  (Yeah, kidding.)

(Wondering about “The Spawning”?  I like to tack that on to the name of any sequel I happen to generate.  I got it from James Cameron’s first feature film, Piranha II – The Spawning, which, oddly enough, wasn’t actually a sequel but was billed that way to seem more appealing.  Weird, huh?)

Keep calm and mull these over

“Never retract, never explain, never apologize—get the thing done and let them howl.” —Nellie McClung, Canadian politician and social activist

This advice could easily be trotted out in support of retrograde parenting techniques like spanking kids, or telling a kid to do (or not do) something “because I said so.”  The problem with a platitude like this is that it makes sense only in context—and yet it uses the word “never,” which seems so absolute.


“I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” —Zora Neale Hurston

This quip seems fine in the context of its narrator, who lives among those who, being victims of racism, “hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal.”  But out of context, this quote is troublesome, given that oysters are rich-people food, and so few oysters contain pearls you’d need access to a vast quantity to complete the metaphor.  It’s easy to imagine this statement coming from the wrong narrator, like some callous 1-percenter shucking off the plight of the 99-percent.  And “oyster knife” is even worse than oyster, since all these single-purpose kitchen gadgets carry a strong whiff of Sur La Table.  Very confusing messaging here.


“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” —Matthew 7:7

Again, only a highly specific context could make this quote meaningful.  As generic advice dispensed by a desk calendar, it’s useless, and a classic example of the weakness of the passive voice.  Who will open the door?  Who will give stuff out?  Success of this kind depends entirely on who hears the request or the knock at the door.  If Matthew is willing to step up and say, “I’ll open the door to you” and “I’ll give it to you,” then we can safely abbreviate this expression as  “Go ask Matthew.”  That would actually be kind of handy.  “Dad, can I have ice cream?” / “Go ask Matthew.”


“You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning.” —Margaret Thatcher

I cannot find inspiration in this quote because I cannot understand it.  What the hell does it even mean?  I am so lost.  Is it a riddle?  A vague reference to ballroom dancing that I cannot make sense of despite having taken months of ballroom dancing lessons?  The only food for thought I find here is a long-debated matter of family history:  did my father, or did he not, actually once say to me, “You’re not very bright, are you”?


“You can’t build a reputation on what you intend to do.” —Liz Smith, gossip columnist

This strikes me as very true … and yet people—and moreover companies—attempt this pre-fab reputation thing all the time.  I’m reminded of these little Lucite plaques I saw strewn across cubicles at a startup that read, “Commemorating our launch and future success.”  How do you commemorate something that hasn’t happened yet?  (Congrats, Liz … so far you’ve given better advice than a politician, a great writer, a biblical hero, and a former Prime Minister.)


“No one can figure out your worth but you.” —Pearl Bailey, American actor and singer

I totally disagree with this one.  I believe one’s self-assessment of worth is not always (or perhaps not even often) very accurate.  Think of Luke Skywalker going off to fight Darth Vader, against Yoda’s advice, before completing his Jedi training.  Remember how that came out?  Luke got his fricking hand cut off, and—even worse—spawned the next movie, Return of the Jedi, which royally sucked!  Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people with low self-esteem who sometimes need to be nudged toward success by somebody (e.g., a boss or parent) who has greater faith in them.  I for one am gratified at having achieved things beyond what I’d have attempted on my own volition.


“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way that you carry it.” —Lena Horne, performer & civil rights activist

I like this quote, even though—or perhaps because—it’s not inspirational.  Note that Ms. Horne is not necessarily saying “You can bear this load if you carry it properly.”  She could be saying, “You are carrying it wrong and will be broken down.”  Why do I like this if it’s not inspirational?  Good question. I’d love to be inspired right now … it’s been a tough year.  I guess I’m feeling cynical, so my BS detector has been turned up to 11, and find this quote refreshing.


“If you have education and intelligence and ability, so much the better. But remember, thousands have reached the top without any of these qualities.” —Frank Loesser, composer & lyricist, in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

Now we’re talking!


“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” —W.C. Fields

This is very prescient, prefiguring our modern “fail fast” ethos.  The trick, of course, is recognizing the right time to bail.  As the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote, “In most things success depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.”


“Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on your head.” —James Baldwin, American writer

This is almost inspirational, except for its undertones of nepotism and the notion that most of our politicians have been bought and paid for by big business.


“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” —Mary Anne Radmacher, American writer

Great quote, emphasizing character vs. personality (cf. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and inward resolve vs. brash public display.  And it ties in nicely with the next one:


“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.” —Edmund Burke, 18th-century British statesman

I love this quote, and not only because I dislike grasshoppers. Is my dislike anthropocentric?  Maybe.  And perhaps, as with the Aesop’s Fable of the grasshopper and the ant, this anthropocentrism is unfair.  Speaking of glorifying ants, consider this next quote:


“With patience and saliva the ant swallows the elephant.” —Colombian proverb

Has this ever actually happened?  A single ant managed to gradually dissolve and consume an entire elephant?  How did the elephant not defend himself?  Really bizarre imagery.  In considering that vast amount of saliva, I’m reminded, unfortunately, of a joke I played on a temp once.  Our office had this little envelope-licking device consisting of a small vessel with a foam brush attached.  The vessel had run dry and I said to the temp, “Look, I hate to have to ask you to do this, but could you possibly refill this for me?”  He was like, “Well yeah, no problem … I mean, I just take it to the sink, right?”  I replied, “No, no!  You can’t seal an envelope with water!  You have to—” and here I pantomimed repeatedly spitting into the vessel.  He looked horrified for a moment, until I burst out laughing.  Is there a moral to this story?  I hope not….


“It’s more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly. Do not mistake activity for achievement.” —Mabel Newcomer, American columnist

I like the second part of this quote, but the first part is problematic.  Do we ever really know where we are going?


“If there’s one thing you’ve got to hold on to, it’s the courage to fight!” —Bessie Delany, American dentist and civil rights activist

This is a fine quote, but why does my calendar mention Ms. Delany’s being a dentist?  Obviously her moral authority derives from her work as a civil rights activist ... why dilute it with her dentistry? What is it that dentists have the courage to fight?  Plaque? Or is the point that she had the courage to tackle a career in this male-dominated field? Could be. After all, have you ever met a female dentist? And for that matter, have you ever met a male dental hygienist?  (Okay, I feel like we’re getting off in the weeds here….)


“The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.” —Florence R. Kennedy, American lawyer and activist

Hear, hear!


“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” —Moms Mabley, American vaudeville comedian

This is obviously meant as a warning against refusing to embrace change. As such, it’s not strong enough. If you always do what you always did, you may end up getting nothing. That is, even if you take comfort in predictability, and are complacent about the status quo, don’t assume you’re okay—you may soon become trodden down by the march of progress. Good advice, but can a warning like this be inspirational? At the moment I’m more inclined to sigh than to beat my chest.


“Go forth to meet the shadowy Future, without fear, and with a manly heart.” —Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 19th century American poet

Generally, when confronted with sexism from a long-dead writer, I try to give him or her the benefit of the doubt (in the spirit of “those were different times,” etc.), but what word could we substitute here for “manly”?  We could try “bold,” but then the quote becomes redundant since “without fear” and “bold” are essentially the same thing.  When we also pause to consider whether “Longfellow” was even this guy’s real name, it’s tempting to conclude that he’s basically saying “Don’t be a chick.”  Now, I do want to cut this guy some slack—after all, as I described in my previous Keep Calm post he did demonstrate real heroism during his life—but my calendar should have found a better quote from him.  For example, this one: “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”


“Fame is an accident; merit a thing absolute.” —Herman Melville

First of all, Melville is the man.  (I don’t mean that in a sexist way, mind you … this expression has become gender-neutral.  For example, Virginia Woolf is also the man.) If you haven’t read Moby Dick yet, it’s time.  Second, I love this quote even without the authority of its source.  So many people get famous who shouldn’t be, like Paris Hilton.  Others have huge merit, like Jo Ann Beard, without gaining nearly the fame they deserve.  I hope people like Ms. Beard intrinsically value their own merit so they don’t become bitter.  And let’s not forget those who are chock-full of merit who don’t even want fame.  (Can I think of an example?  Nope.  That’s how effective these fame-avoiding merit-blessed people are!)


“All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” —Julian Norwich, 14th-century Christian mystic

There’s nothing very mystical or even profound about this. Nobody would think anything of this quote if it were anonymous; like so many of its kind, its putative importance comes only from the assumed authority of its source. In that sense it’s perhaps the predecessor of the celebrity tweet.  My other issue with this notion is that it’s demonstrably false in so many situations.


“For us is the life of action, of strenuous performance of duty; let us live in the harness, striving mightily; let us rather run the risk of wearing out than rusting out.” —Theodore Roosevelt

These are great words regardless of the source.  Meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt really did live by them, working tirelessly throughout his life instead of resting on the laurels of becoming the youngest US president in history at age 42 and winning the Nobel Peace Prize at 47.  I admire the spirit here of focusing on the work, not just the achievement that it (ideally) leads to.  Unless something better comes to mind, I plan to make “live in the harness” my New Year’s Resolution for 2017.  (To be clear, this harness doesn’t just mean my career, but all the things I’m harnessed to:  work, parenting, cycling, blogging....)

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