Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
“Your shoelace is untied.”
I bend down to tie my shoe.
“April Fool!” (raucous laughter)
That’s a childhood example of an April Fools’ Day prank—a trick played on the April fool that is supposed to be funny.
In the US for many Christians, Easter fell on April 1 this year, the same day as April Fools’ Day. That brought more attention to April Fools’ Day than usual, and it created all sorts of opportunities for people to share not just a church service, spring meal, or egg hunt but also pranks.
For April Fools’ Day is the day pranksters play pranks on others (then showing themselves to be April fools and then being called out as “April Fool!!!”)
What a mean tradition! But it is fun, in the right spirit.
My young great-niece gave me the best example of an April Fools’ Day prank. When we arrived at her aunt’s house for noon-time dinner, we were told that Claire had made special brownies for all of us. Since she is learning to cook and loves to do it, and since her mother had prepared homemade carrot cake and at last two kinds of cookies, complete with jelly beans and shaped like bunnies, for all of us, we just thought Claire had joined in and followed a recipe herself. Aw, how sweet!
After dinner, with all of us happy and full, Claire’s dad went with Claire to get the special brownies out of his car’s trunk. They re-entered with a covered baking sheet and offered each of us one of Claire’s special brownies. The photo of mine appears below.
What a special brown E indeed! (the paper is browner than it looks in this photo)
(Her mother tells me Alexa gets credit for the idea, but Claire executed it perfectly!)
A friend’s brother has a history of pulling elaborate pranks on his family members, though it gets harder to catch them off guard now.
That’s part of the trick of April Fools’ pranks, of course—your fool can’t be aware that it’s a trick but has to be fooled, as I was with my special brownie.
At the heart of the April Fools’ prank is that it you have to believe a lie. A gentle lie, we hope, one that does no harm, but a lie nonetheless.
That got me thinking (of course)--
What other genres require us to lie?
One obvious one is fiction of all sorts. But with fiction we know it’s not true. That’s a key distinction of fiction from nonfiction, of fictive genres versus fact-based ones—whether we are supposed to believe it is true (writers of “memoirs” like James Frey who pretend fiction is true get a lot of reader resentment and their books reclassified).
The lies of fiction are ones we know are there but pretend otherwise—the willing suspension of disbelief. There may be a deeper truth, but on the surface it’s a lie and we know it.
April Fools’ pranks we don’t know are lies. If we do, they don’t work.
Then there are jokes—funny, and usually not true, or at least exaggerated truth, but not intending to fool the listener. Again, willing suspension of disbelief in order to be amused or instructed.
Another genre that requires us to lie are childhood myths [SPOILER ALERT—do not read past if you are a child or reading aloud to a child, as I’m sure applies to many of my readers).
We create elaborate tales of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, even the Easter Bunny. For most of us, young children are told these tales as true, and we want them to believe. Just like April Fools’ pranks.
When someone finds out it’s not true (like an older sibling), we ask them to keep the secret and keep pretending the lie is true. Just like April Fools’ pranks. If you recognize the prank and you tell others, you spoil it for everybody. (There might have been some smart person in the room besides Daddy who realized what Claire’s special brownies might be, but that person did not spoil the surprise for the rest of us.)
But when you do find out the childhood tale isn’t true, there’s no laughter. No one shouts at a growing child, “Santa Claus Fool!!! Ha ha ha!!” Instead, when the truth is discovered, it’s sad. Not like April Fools’ pranks. (Unless you really were counting on a delicious brownie, I suppose)
So I wonder if the requirements of the April Fools’ prank make it a unique genre, like all genres. In this case, the prank requires you to lie successfully, and the discovery of the lie to be received as funny.
Of course, every genre has variations. Some pranksters go too far, and the prank makes the April fool mad rather than amused. I hear that many adults play the April Fools’ game that way—somehow hauling your living room sofa onto a roof, or filling your yogurt container with shaving cream, or sealing shut all the locks on your car. Ha. Not exactly funny. But the April Fools’ tradition expects the fooled one to suck it up and be a good sport, to admit that the joke’s on them. Ha ha grrr
There’s a difference between a prank and a lie, I suppose, at the heart of April Fools’ Day. Calling it a “prank” necessarily makes it less serious and all in fun.
I hope you’ll let me know if you think of other genres that depend on lies to be successful, and on others believing the lie, and for it to be a happy thing.
In these days when we can probably all think of lots of successful lies that aren’t particularly funny, and we hear more from trolls than from pranksters, it’s good to remember that being fooled isn’t always a bad thing, and that it can be good to laugh at ourselves. But let’s serve each other brown E’s rather than locking each other out
The past year has had its challenges for all of us, some more than others.
And the past year has had its joys for all of us, some more than others.
May your own new year glitter with possibilities, offer safety and solidity, and make you laugh.
Happy New Year, one and all!
I’m late with my blog this week, which seems appropriate for today’s topic since I’m almost always writing my holiday greeting cards at the last minute.
Hanukah has just begun (Happy Hanukah to those of you who celebrate it!)
Christmas is two weeks away (Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it!)
Kwanzaa follows right after Christmas (Happy Kwanzaa to those of you who celebrate it!)
The Solstice arrives next week (Happy Solstice to those of you who celebrate it!)
And to all of you who celebrate other holidays this time of year that I missed, and to those of you who celebrate none of these holidays, Seasons Greetings!
How we greet each other at this time of year has been a bone of contention, to coin a phrase. Some claim we’re stealing their Christmas if store clerks greet customers with “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Old-fashioned office Christmas parties have generally become holiday parties.
It might complicate things a bit, though, if we noticed that the word “holiday” originates from “holy day.” So I’m not sure changing to “holiday” is as inclusive as we might want (yes, meanings change, and most people don’t associate “holiday” with “holy day” anymore, but I like noticing such things).
When I write my holiday cards (which I have still been doing on paper with some old friends and family members, in spite of the more eco-friendly online alternatives), I start with a selection of cards with different greetings, including always one “Seasons Greetings” for those whose preferences I don’t know or whose non-religious status I do know.
But I’ve never done a photo Christmas/Holiday card. I’ve received some wonderful ones over the years, especially from my artist friend Pat who incorporates the family headshots into some wonderfully funny painted winter scenes every year. And I’m always happy to see family photo cards. They help me keep track of the growth of children and families who I don’t see as much over the years.
Those family cards are also a bone of contention for some, and this year I’ve learned about a twist on them on Twitter—single people posting their family’s couple-loving, single-isolating family Christmas cards. Family photos full of joy for all the couples in the family, plus the one lone single person off to the side.
Supposedly, the originator of pointing out the single-person-in-the-family-Christmas-card was @kbobby_22, who posted his own family photo.
For those of you not on Twitter, or if my Twitter images don't load, Lisa Gutierrez wrote a story for the Kansas City Starfeaturing some of the best photos. In the original, each couple is holding a sign--parents' sign saying "Excited," surrounded by a couple whose sign says "Expecting," another whose sign says "Engaged," and @kbobby_22 with a sign saying "Egg Salad." In Emily Seawright's homage, her own sign says just "Emily."
Sure enough, even family Christmas cards are loaded with meanings we don't always notice until someone points it out. My favorites in this new Twitter meme are the ones who post their old, ordinary, usual family Christmas cards, no signs added, only now we can see it. Now we can see the happy couples in the family embracing and embraced, with the one solo member stuck on the side.
Tweets are showing the humor in the situation, though the sting obviously still remains. It's not fun being the egg salad instead of the engaged or expecting or excited. But folks are clearly having fun with it, many using it to celebrate their singledom.
Once we notice something--an underlying statement in a family photo--we can choose what to do with that noticing. I love the humor that Emily Seawright and @kbobby_22 show in their tweets, and the many others who've followed. Especially because, once we notice something, we can't un-notice it.
Now I see it everywhere--the family shots with the single person to the side, behind the couch, hands in pockets instead of around someone. Nothing malicious intended there, I'm pretty sure. But boy, it does show us something about how we see people.
So there's another complication of holiday greeting cards to pay attention to. Include the holiday--or non-holy-day--that the recipient celebrates. Take family photos that show just how much you value every individual in the group.
I still haven't sent out my cards, but there will be no photo again this year. There's another thing to notice--who does and doesn't use family photos for Christmas cards. Does it depend on having children, whether newborn or adult?
So much to notice, once you start noticing. It's exhausting. As if we don't already have enough challenges this time of year, just getting things done. But noticing--and pointing out to others what you've noticed--is how change happens. Lots of noticing and calling out going on around the world right now. Notice it, tell others about it, change it.
Meanwhile, we can laugh at the single people statement photos on Twitter. We can send out our cards, paper or electronic, with appropriately chosen messages. And we can enjoy each other's company face to face, no photo needed, and embrace one and all.
So here's to my readers this season. I notice you, and I wish for each of you time spent with people who make you feel good about yourself and peaceful time with yourself.
In my blog, I’ve regularly chosen a timely holiday as my topic, taking the event of the moment to explore how we shape our lives and how our lives are shaped.
Some, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween, let me explore personal meanings. Others, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, have let me learn more about the holiday and even push back against some of the ways we’ve ended up acting within them. Occasionally, a holiday has let me play and make a fool of myself (yes, I’m thinking of my versions of the Twelve Genres of Christmas!)
But Veterans Day? I began at a loss. The day must celebrate Veterans, right? I mean, that's what it's called.
It took learning more about the other things this day has been called for me to understand what this day could—should—be about.
Words do matter.
Although Veterans Day hasn’t been a holiday our society has done much with recently, veterans are getting more attention in general now than the not-so-distant past (since 9/11?). They’re regularly brought center stage and applauded now at sporting events, given priority boarding at airports, offered discounts everywhere. And for Veterans Day, I’m sure that the holiday must also have received more attention recently. In my own town, the locals did resuscitate the Veterans Day Parade for the first time in many years, and people joined the parade or stood in the cold and mist to recognize Veterans Day.
But how else is the day acknowledged? We don’t get mail delivered that day, so opening our empty mailboxes may remind us that it’s a federal holiday. Do we even know how it differs from Memorial Day? They’re both about honoring soldiers, right?
I was pleased when I found the history of Veterans Day on the US Department of Veterans Affairs website because it showed me origins and meanings of the day that go well beyond what I understood. It showed me the original name--Armistice Day. And it showed me the original words of the proclamations. I found those words moving, and ones we should do better at sharing and acting upon.
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
“It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations”
“This date,” of course, refers to November 11. The date is not a random one. The original Armistice Day celebrated the armistice, as the website explains: “an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of 'the war to end all wars.'”
After World War I did not end all wars, after World War II, after Korea, the day to recognize the Armistice, the cessation of hostilities, became Veterans Day, the day to honor the veterans of all wars. From commemorating a ceasefire to commemorating soldiers.
We may have given up on the notion that we can end all wars, but the “optimism of will” that created this day originally should persist in how we honor this day. After the horrors of World War I, the people of the United States resolved not to honor their veterans but to honor the armistice and to keep the armistice going by rebuilding connections with other nations and other peoples.
The concurrent resolution by the US Congress on June 4, 1926, deserves to be read in full:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Notice the celebration of the resumption of “peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”
Notice the commemoration through activities “designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Notice the invitation to the people to observe with ceremonies “of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
We understood then.
Having undergone the devastation of a brutal war, the hostility between nations, we understood the need to build peaceful relations, mutual understanding, and friendly relations with “all other peoples” and their nations.
We understood then.
What a different response to the situation today. The VA website ends with a statement of the important purpose of Veterans Day today:
"A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good."
Only some of the original meaning remains in that statement. Certainly, we should honor veterans of all wars. Certainly, veterans deserve respect for their service and sacrifice.
But let’s notice those last four words, “for the common good.” And let’s define “the common good” as it was in the origins of this armistice day, as what was good for all peoples of all nations—mutual understanding and friendly relations. Let’s recommit to “patriotism” and “love of country” as doing what is good for our country by building global understanding and peaceful relations.
The world is different today, I know. September 11 has changed the meaning of November 11, even if the word for the day had never changed. We can’t depend on relations among nations to preserve peace. Some reject the possibility of mutual understanding; others are unwilling.
But how does it change the meaning of November 11 to focus not on the armistice but on the veterans? I’d like to think our goals remain the same—peaceful relations that will reduce the chance of more people becoming veterans of wars. In the Commonwealth of Nations, Armistice Day evolved into Remembrance Day.
So let's remember what we're remembering.
Let’s honor our veterans by recognizing what they have sacrificed and by doing everything in our power to keep others from having to make such sacrifices in the future. Let’s honor our veterans by reducing the number of future veterans.
Next year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the moment of the ceasefire, I will remember how it began, and I will understand better, and I will look for ways, even in these times of divided and dispersed hostility, to rebuild mutual understanding and peaceful relations with all peoples.
I feel a bit like Linus at the end of the Charlie Brown special proclaiming the true meaning of Christmas. But I hope a difference here might be that some of you, like me, might not have known of the original call behind Veterans Day, the original commemoration of armistice,
“to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding.”
That’s a purpose that calls for a different sort of response.
We understood then. Can we understand now, too?
Let's all meet for Armistice Day