Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

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Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be. 

 

Store Closing

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There was a time when my Saturdays were spent shopping in downtown Houston. Back then we would dress in our best duds and ride a bus to the center of the city. We spent most of our time in Foley’s department store, a multistory affair with the best buys down in the basement. We’d look at clothing, furniture, and household items hoping to find great bargains. It would take hours to peruse all of the items, but once in a while we had time to check out other stores along Main Street and even take in a movie at one of the theaters. It was always great fun, but it wasn’t long before malls were opening in the suburbs taking away much of the business from the old city establishments. Slowly the places downtown closed one by one for lack of customers and our focus turned to the centers near our neighborhoods.

By the time I was a teenager I was frequenting Gulfgate Mall almost every single Saturday. I would start at one end of the complex and browse through every store until I had reached the last store. It was a kind of gathering place for everyone, and I often encountered neighbors and friends from school while I was there. As the suburbs moved farther and farther from downtown Houston newer shopping areas opened like Almeda Mall and then Baybrook. We adjusted to the changes as they came enjoying the weekend adventures at our favorite stores and restaurants.

The time came when Gulfgate Mall was torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale with none of the retailers who had once been there. Almeda Mall also changed bit by bit until the only original merchant was Palais Royal. Only Baybrook remains as a somewhat viable shopping center in our end of the suburbs, but the hometown feeling that was once part of the experience of going there is diminished. Somehow the old weekend activity of haunting the local mall is going the way of the dinosaur just as downtown did.

It seems that hardly a week passes that we don’t hear of yet another store closing its doors. Sears is gone, leaving only memories of exciting features like a full service candy counter and aisles and aisles of tools and appliances. I first sat on Santa’s lap in a Sears store that used to be located on the corner of South Wayside and Harrisburg Boulevard. We purchased plants for our yard in the garden area there and bought our school clothes each August. It was torn down years ago and the other big Sears stores followed one by one. There are no more Sear’s catalogs or Christmas wish lists, nothing to remind us of the grand old days when the company even sold kits for building homes.

Toys R Us is in the process of shuttering its entrances, leaving behind hulking empty spaces and parking lots. I have so many memories of following my grandchildren up and down the rows and rows of toys while they carefully chose a special item. I delightedly watched two of them enjoying the huge store on Times Square in New York City when we visited not long ago. Such stores dedicated to only toys have become few and far between.

I find myself checking off so many of my favorite places that are no more. Where are Casual Corner, Coldwater Creek, Baker’s Shoes, Woolworth’s, Foley’s, Joske’s, Grant’s, B Dalton Bookseller? They have disappeared from the landscape leaving behind places that have little interest for me, and sadly there are signs of trouble for so many more that I actually enjoy. I worry about Penny’s and Macy’s all of the time because I still visit both of those places, but I hear that they are struggling to stay in business. I wonder what will become of the malls and where I will be able to go to purchase shoes and clothing. I certainly can’t do such things online.

I’m not easy to fit. I have to try on eight pairs of shoes to find one that works. Double that number for dresses. I can’t just look at a photo online and determine if it is going to be right for my body or have the quality that I expect. I find it alarming to think that my sources of basic items are evaporating before my very eyes. Target and Walmart are fine, but they don’t have all of the things that I need, nor do I get the same joy out of shopping at such places as I do when leisurely strolling through a mall. Somehow the passing of the mall tradition makes me as sad as when the downtown area withered away. Changes are fine, but sometimes I actually feel victimized by some of them.

I recall visiting Los Angeles more than twenty five years ago. At the time I was stunned to learn that so many of the banks there were little more than ATM machines. The personal aspect of having people to help with financial matters was stunningly absent and it never occurred to me that this was a trend that would ultimately make its way to my own town. The changes that are happening in retail may be making more money for the various companies, but they seem to be doing little for the customers or the people who used to have jobs in those places. Everything is moving faster and faster and we don’t seem to be willing to slow down just to walk in the town squares greeting our neighbors and friends as we purchase our goods. Instead we order online or drive through pick up stations and hurry on our way. Something rather refined is ending and we just don’t appear to have much time for others anymore. It’s become a rush, rush, rush way of life with the personalized touches fading away.

There was a time when we knew the man who fitted our shoes personally. He would take half an hour to make certain that our feet would be caressed by the leather that we put on them. He talked with us about our lives and knew about our ups and downs. Now we look through boxes trying to find our sizes and then walk around hoping that the shoes will feel okay after we have taken them home. Nobody helps us until we walk through a long queue line and get to the cash register. The idea of customer service is almost a thing of the past, and it saddens me. I miss those wonderful days of elegant window displays and retailers who really cared. I truly hope that we don’t throw it all away.

Doing God’s Work

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I recall feeling as stunned by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King as I had been when President John Kennedy was shot in Dallas. I had to choose one person that I consider to be my the most extraordinary hero of the twentieth century it would have to be Dr. King. When I heard the news of his death I was stunned and as I was washing dishes I became so upset that I dropped a plate that I had been rinsing and it shattered along with my dreams. I was only nineteen years old at the time, and I felt as though the world had gone mad. It was days later before I was even able to process what had actually happened and it was then that I fell apart.

I remember wanting to desperately to talk with my not yet mother-in-law because I knew that she had been as impressed by Dr. King as I was. Several days had passed before I finally saw her and I found comfort in knowing that she was as shaken and grief stricken as I was. Neither of us said much and our words for each other were not particularly wise, but our common bond of love and respect for this great man was palatable, Just sitting quietly with her sustained me as I quietly thought of how great our nation’s loss had been and of Dr. King’s  a martyrdom for a noble cause.

The fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death occurred just this week, and I found myself once again feeling quite distressed at the thought of how horrific his murder was. He is undoubtedly my number one hero from the twentieth century and over the last five decades I have often longed for his wisdom and leadership. There had been a time when I had believed that he might one day be President of the United States. His influence in bringing about the passage of the Civil Right Act cannot be underestimated and I thought that we would honor him with our gratitude rather than cutting his brilliant life so short. His courage and incredible speaking ability allowed him to become a voice for all people who have endured prejudice and injustice. His “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the finest in the history of mankind, ranking with the Gettysburg Address and other great rhetorical masterpieces.

I remember being quite surprised when I realized that Dr. King had been somewhat small in stature. Somehow he had loomed so large in my mind that I imagined that he must be a giant. The monument of him in Washington D.C. is carved out of an enormous boulder and seems to be a fitting representation of his impact on the history of our country, and yet he was always a humble man who worried that he was never doing enough to hurry the pace of integration and civil rights.

I have literally felt his spirit when I went to Birmingham, Alabama and placed my hands on the jail bars that once imprisoned him. I felt the same rush of something quite spiritual when I walked through his boyhood home in Atlanta, Georgia and again in his parsonage in Montgomery, Alabama. When I gazed up at the balcony in Memphis, Tennessee where he was standing when he was shot I felt as though someone had kicked the breath out of me. I almost saw him standing there, feeling so tired and wrestling with a sense of foreboding that his days were numbered. He was a target for the worst instincts of humankind, but he continued to preach a doctrine of civil disobedience rather than violence. He was always first and foremost a minister of God’s word. In that spirit he dreamed of a world in which we all might follow the commandment of love,

Martin Luther King was no more perfect than any of us. He admitted to his own failings which included bouts of depression and times of doubt. He sometimes wanted to leave the limelight and quietly live a more comfortable existence, but each time he considered such ideas something in his mind told him that he was supposed to continue his work. I have often wondered where he found his strength, but then I remember that he gave full credit to his faith in God. He felt that he had been chosen for the difficult task and he followed his vocation even when it became brutally difficult. The attacks on his character came from both his enemies and those who called themselves his friends. Sometimes he felt quite alone, but then he always remembered his God.

Somehow there have been great men and women who rose to the challenges of different situations. Some say that Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War completed the task of creating a society in which all people had unalienable rights. The reality is that a hundred years after the Gettysburg Address and the abolition of slavery there were people in our country who were treated abysmally. The sons and daughters and grandchildren of slaves were still being denied the rights that should have been theirs and it took the dedication of countless individuals to overthrow the horrific practices that were still protected by laws of segregation and inequality. All of those souls played an important part in the outcome of the civil rights movement, but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was their voice just as Lincoln had been for the slaves.

I know that there are still problems in our country that must be resolved, and I hope and pray that more and more of us will do our part to insure that no person is treated differently due to race, sex, or religion. We have come far, but it would be premature to believe that the work is done. If Dr. King were still here I suppose that he would be able to express the problems in an elegant manner that everyone might understand. Out of honor for his work it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to honor his memory by living the way he wanted all of us to be. The process of justice begins one person at a time, and it is our duty to do what we can to protect even the most vulnerable among us.

I cry tears of both joy and sadness when I think of Martin Luther King. I am happy that he accomplished as much a he did, but I worry whenever I witness racism and realize that it is alive and well while such a great man is dead. In this Easter season we often think of the life of Jesus Christ whose words should guide us just as they did Dr. King. If we truly wish to do God’s work we must continue the work that Martin Luther King showed us how to do.

The Children Will Lead Us

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Back in the late nineteen sixties many members of my generation became actively involved in protests against the Vietnam War. We voiced our concerns by taking to the streets and marching to draw attention to the cause. On one occasion there was a rally that was described in an article in our local newspaper as a gathering of long haired hippies. My husband reacted by sending a letter to the editor in which he suggested that it might have been more fruitful to listen to the arguments of the protestors instead of focusing on superficialities like appearance. A few weeks later he received a response in the mail from a rather famous older man who had written a single question, “What’s wrong with a little conformity?” Obviously this individual had missed the point of my spouse’s argument which had been that perhaps it was time to consider what the young people of the country had to say.

Ultimately the Vietnam War came to a close and over time the evidence supported the view that the government had known from almost the outset that the conflict was unwinnable, and yet they had continued to draft young men and send many of them to their deaths. It was only after there was no way to hide the realities that the United States withdrew, leaving South Vietnam to deal with the North on their own. It was the first time that the United States was forced to admit defeat.

Today we have a new generation of young people marching for the cause of gun control, and once again many who are older are choosing to either ignore or make fun of their efforts. I see a number of posts on Facebook and Twitter that are derogatory and insult both the students’ behavior and their intelligence. They are accused of being spoiled and arrogant while also knowing little about the government and how it actually works. Instead of just listening to what they have to say, opponents of the protestors have reverted to name calling and mockery. Perhaps it would better serve us all if they would instead calmly sit down and hear what the kids have to say. After all, just as it was the youth who fought in the jungles of Vietnam with the strong possibility of dying, so too is it the children and teens who are being killed inside schools. They have a legitimate stake in the discussion and we older folk would do well to consider their ideas.

I remember a time when President Nixon felt frustrated by the anti-war protestors. He learned that many of them were having a sit in near the Lincoln Memorial, and so he decided to go talk with them. Sadly instead of attempting to learn what they were thinking he spent most of his time arguing with them. I always thought of how different things might have been if instead he had actively listened to them and then attempted to incorporate some of their beliefs with his. Perhaps he would have become a revered leader. Instead he only became more and more paranoid about those who disagreed with him and ended up breaking the law because of his insecurities.

I think that the students who marched across America this past weekend sincerely wish to make a positive difference even if some of their ideas are a bit over simplified. It would have been incredibly positive if all of our lawmakers had joined the ranks of the protestors not so much in agreement, but with an eye to letting our young know that all of us are proud of their activism and really do understand that they have concerns. This was a grand opportunity to hear rather than talk, and to find areas of agreement, for surely it is apparent that we must attempt to find answers that will make our schools safer than they presently are. At the same time I would suggest to the students that they be open to ideas as well. It is counterproductive to insult entire groups of people with foul language or to indict leaders who are attempting to find solutions that may be different.

Right after the shootings in Florida many of the leaders of the current movement appeared on the Dr. Phil Show. A wonderful discussion ensued, but Dr. Phil advised the students to take care in how they presented their arguments. He noted that people will tune out anyone who yells at them or insinuates that they are somehow bad people. He agreed that the kids have a very worthy cause and he expressed his deep admiration for their courage while coaching them in the best methods of persuasion. Some of them appear to have followed his advice while others have veered into a more argumentative posture which probably won’t be particularly successful in changing minds.

Many of our Founding Fathers who created the foundations of this country were very young at the time that independence was declared. Alexander Hamilton was only twenty one. James Madison was a mere eighteen. Sometimes it take the adventurous spirit of the young to show us all a better way to live. Preventing gun violence is a worthy goal, and we should be quite proud that some of our young are willing to take on such a complex topic. They are attempting to find answers to questions that are long past due. If we are to demonstrate our own maturity we should be willing to model the kind of respect that everyone with a stake in the debate deserves. I’d like to think that we are capable of helping them to forge an agreement that will have meaning for everyone. Let’s cheer for them rather than casting aspersions. What they are doing is noble indeed.