53. Getting away from it all

There are so many ways of “getting away from it all” — be it spiritual, physical, artistic, or even chemical, that considering these individually could easily turn into a philosophical treatise, or even a scholarly distraction. Only rarely are we aware that this desire may be the start of a wordless groping for a new beginning, new meanings, fresh values and the possibility of a more authentic existence. How far we have come from those Navaho tribesmen who still chant and dance:

In the house of life I wander
On the pollen path
With a god of cloud I wander
To a holy place
With a god ahead I wander
And a god behind
In the house of life that I wander1

At different stages, our modern way of life can suddenly feel like one long to-do list. It can hit us shopping in a mall, or standing in a crowded commuter train, or ferrying the children to yet another sports event. When overwhelmed by social responsibilities or work, the attraction of escape may take over. We don’t want to answer a conference call or attend another Parent-Teacher meeting. Our fatigue in overworked corporate London might lead us to dream about lying on a South Pacific beach under coconut palms or driving far away into the desert putting mile after mile between us and everyone else.

It seems ironic that the desire of the millions of those seeking to fly away from it all often end up herd-like, huddled together on a beach. When in my teens — not yet ready to accept that human beings are social animals — I wondered why Americans heading to the beach usually settled in a cluster of encamped people. Later I discovered that this was equally true in the UK, France and Spain. Ultimately the important thing for those escaping from their habitual environments was to be close to the presence (not necessarily the company) of other human beings.

I write with a certain detachment as one who has consistently strayed from the pack. I do believe that those who follow the crowd are swiftly lost in it. My mobile is usually on “off.” I am not on Facebook, avoid sport stadiums, loathe long queues and am distressed by the pollution of street noises. I do enjoy being away from it all. I do this in the calm of my garden, or just listening to music in the kitchen and reading a book on the couch. All of these can recharge my batteries in relative solitude.

The treasured teacher and author Joseph Campbell declared that having a “sacred place” was “an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know what anybody owes you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”2

While some of us may be seeking to strike out on a new and spiritual way, or a solitary visionary journey, generally our species seem to feel more at ease in social gatherings. We can observe this at music festivals, as well as popular bars, crowded restaurants (as opposed to empty ones) fulfilling the demands of our genetically driven social outlooks. There are, of course many exceptions: those who are lonely seldom feel the urge to “get away from it all.” They want to mix. One might think that those at work in Silicon Valley would feel comfortable in taking time off when they pleased. On the contrary, they lead 24/7 lifestyles in which the very thought of flying off to the Caribbean would be more stressful than working in the office.

Many workers and executives in the United States don’t even take the vacations to which they are entitled. As it is, they take less than half the vacation days of their European counterparts and when they do go away they most often take mobiles and laptops with them. Isn’t part of this reluctance to take time off a hangover from the Puritan culture in which the only excuse for a break from work was the weekly observance of the Sabbath?

The idea of getting away on vacations was a 19th Century innovation. In the United Kingdom, “vacation” referred for centuries specifically to the lengthy summer breaks taken by the law courts and the universities. The idea of traveling for relaxation or fun was exercised only by the very rich and was sometimes referred to as “going on holiday.” The word vacation was born when the industrial and banking scions of New York built fabulous “cottages” in the Berkshires and Adirondacks and would then “vacate” their city homes for their summer retreats. In due course “vacations” replaced the British term “holidays” (formerly Holy days) which simply described absence from work. Today the words are used interchangeably in much of the English speaking world.

Retirement may be like a “vacation” to those who eagerly anticipate its freedom and a “sentence” to those who fear its confinement. It is not hard to see why those who regard it with fear want to “get away” from it through travels. One of the consequences of retirement can be social isolation — particularly for those who are single or living alone. The experience of being without the structure and human contacts of a job can prove seriously demoralizing.3

The current revolution in communication technology with its mobiles, instant messaging, presence tracking, the Internet, etc. have, on the one hand made working from home feasible, but on the other have begun to alter our approaches to “getting away from it all” and vacationing. Even when going on holidays we may remain plugged in to communication networks.

New efforts at clean breaks may not be so clean: Technology critic Evgeny Morozov, for example, places his phone and router in a safe with a timer lock when he needs to be free of outside communications.4 Techno isolation for those who can only leave emails behind when they go “off the grid” or who feel “out of it” when deprived of their iPhones, GPS, smartphones and mobiles have to adjust their dependency. These devices are all to be abandoned when taking a walk in the woods, a swim in the ocean, or a vacation.*

If you’re really looking to unplug then the connection you have to sever isn’t electronic, it is mental. We are living in a remarkable era when it will be increasingly difficult to be cut off, so it may become important to learn how to live with persistent connections. This ultimately means that instead of focusing on taking temporary breaks from technology we shall have to discipline our minds to accommodate to it most of our waking hours.5

For those who do not dream of flying away to an isolated Pacific island, the more immediate possibility of floating with instant effect into the realm of music is a far easier escape. A joint, cocaine or even medications can fulfill the need to remove oneself to what Thomas Gray described three centuries ago as “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”6 What all of us must begin to recognize is that we do have the potential to “get away from it all” within ourselves, in sum to explore the muse within.


1Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, (1986) p. 64

2Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (1988)

3Irene S. Levine, “Five Reasons Retirees Need Vacations,” Next Avenue, April 23, 2014

4Julie J. Exline, Light and Shadow, ( 2013)

5Alice Fishburn, “How not to get away from it all,” FT Magazine, August 16, 2014, p. 7

6Thomas Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard, 1750

*Not being in constant touch with friends, bosses, mentors, family and social events may soon become taboo for coming generations.

52. The Incomprehensible Middle East

According to the great French poet Baudelaire, the world goes around by misunderstanding — “If by ill luck people understood each other they would never agree,” he wrote. Many people use the now fashionable word “postmodern” as a synonym for incomprehensible. I can understand this because postmodernism considers comprehension as an accident of form. Perhaps if comprehension is optional, my turbulent sea of misunderstandings can justify writing this blog on the chaos in the Middle East. Like most people I know, I continue having trouble understanding the psychology of the leading players in the Islamic world.

In Iraq and Syria the leadership of the new Islamic State, modeling itself on the caliphates of yore, is carrying out a program of exceptional brutality against fellow Muslims, the Shias, as well as Christians, Kurds, pagans and anyone who does not accept their Sunni interpretation of post-Mohammed, 7th century AD leadership. The excesses of their viciousness have alienated every nation and every religion in the world and have even convinced a reluctant President Obama to order air attacks against IS militants. Their motivation apparently was that spreading fear to all civilians with whom they might come into contact would permit them to advance unhindered. For a short while this was effective, but almost inevitably — if history is any indication — their hostility, like that of the Mongols, will lead to their own annihilation. What ails them? And what ails our media in agreeing to call them an “Islamic State?”

In Egypt the new regime of General el Sisi, now the elected President of a military dictatorship, continues to direct operations against the shattered remains of the Muslim Brotherhood. Again the fierceness of his police and the military have alienated the leadership of practically the entire world. Gen. Sisi’s ideological ally and chief underwriter remains the oil rich and democracy poor autocracy of Saudi Arabia. I am mystified by what drives a leader who is familiar with the more civilized ways of the Western world to act with such ferocity against a group of what had been a relatively tame, if misled, group of Muslims. It has certainly done little but instill fear into the Egyptian people and to detract tourists (until recently Egypt’s foremost industry) from visiting Karnak and the pyramids.

How come Hamas continues to have approval in the misbegotten Gaza enclave when, after years of massively unsuccessful efforts, it continues to fire rockets with little or no guidance, futile short-ranges, and minimal effect? It fired over 1,500 truce-breaking missiles into Israel in the latest round of attacks. The cost was enormous and the result (in part due to effective Israeli defense measures) was three Israelis killed and a few dozen injured. Anywhere else in the world the military responsible for such a long running fiasco would have been dismissed in disgrace. In Gaza they remain in control ordering more of the same missiles from North Korea and Iran. Some experts interpret this as a symbol of the desperation of the Hamas leaders. But to me the consequence of such profound despair turning into folly is incomprehensible.

I do acknowledge that there is widespread and fundamental misunderstanding of Islam but I shall not try to delve into the motivation of such erratic regional figures as Turkey’s new President, Erdogan, Sudan’s dictator al Bashir, or the ruthlessness of Syria’s blood-stained Assad. I can only shake my head in disapproving incomprehension at the lot of them.

The narrow mind-set of the American-educated leader of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is at least somewhat comprehensible and in part predictable. On the one hand his feisty approach is constrained by the medieval views of the orthodox Jews with whom he is in uneasy coalition. On the other hand Netanyahu has to consider his increasingly concerned American supporters, as well as the fractious Jewish settlers on the West Bank, a troubled military, and numerous minority groups voicing their continuing fears about the national future. What is not comprehensible to me is how an entire nation can continue over three generations to hold a million and a half human beings imprisoned in Gaza. True, the number was less than a third of that when the enclave was first created. Sex and procreation have been the only outlets for these unfortunate but innocent inmates. Global embarrassment has not, however, prompted Israel to take the necessary steps to resolve this ever more unjustified tragedy of keeping over half a million children in what has in effect become a frequently bombarded internment camp. I cannot understand how the inhabitants of a nation, created on the backs of those who escaped Hitler’s extermination camps, have been unable or unwilling to end the unjustifiable and ever more desperate conditions of the inhabitants of Gaza.*

Alas, life and politics are too often shaped by misunderstandings. I am reminded of the famous saying of Jean Cardinal Retz that “Nothing so easily persuades people of little sense as that which they cannot understand.” Since you, my readers, are full of good sense you may have understood the direction of my blog: perhaps you will even accept my misunderstandings.

*FYI — Since the 1950s I have been aware of the fact that the surrounding Arab nations did not want to resolve this festering problem. Gaza served them as a convenient propaganda tool against Israel — a nation they did not and still do not want to recognize. Israel has used this as an excuse for the continuation of the deadlock. The concerted opposition of the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis and others to various proposals by Israel over the past 60 years steadily weakened the protests of those Palestinians in Gaza who desperately wanted a resolution. Now Israel finds itself in the predicament of not having any kind of effective political leadership in Gaza with whom they could communicate. Over the years, instead of educating successive generations, they have killed, driven into exile or selectively imprisoned most of those Palestinians in Gaza who demonstrated the intellectual or organizational abilities which could have enabled serious talks.

51. Towards more engaging expressions

In the beginning of civilization was The Word. It is almost impossible to imagine us without it. Word symbols gave mankind the unprecedented power to learn, understand and communicate ideas which themselves have transformed the world. And yet there are those intent on knocking words like beauty, love, truth, morality and excellence off their pedestals. Such words are increasingly losing their value and greeted with cynicism. In practice their meaning is now fragmented, pigeon-holed into syntactical structures of narrow social, psychological, political, religious or aesthetic contexts which we barely recognize. The challenge is: How to bring back the magic of the word?1

I should like young people to increase their employment of varied linguistic forms such as cockney rhymes, foreign expressions, puns, word associations, pleonasms, palindromes, oxymorons and euphemisms. This could enhance their appreciation of word magic. They might learn that some words are better than others and not merely copy what is fashionable at that instant. The uses of The Word as developed through generations is now increasingly restricted. Even the message OK has now been reduced to a simple ‘k’. This narrows both the opportunity for humor and individuality.2 I have found such impoverishment of language to be a little noticed side-effect of the extraordinary expansion of the use of the Internet.

Enrichment is possible: Words which are associated with delight and happiness, for example, arouse specific circuits in our brains. Certain words and expressions can trigger strong emotional responses: Ecstatic, sublime, supernatural, glorious, wondrous, breathless, radiant, other-worldly, sublime, buoyant, bright, illuminating, exhilarating, uplifting, nirvana-like, and divine can all spark positive reactions. So can phrases such as: vivid as lightning, gusts of splendor, superhuman joy, sudden rapture, on the fringe of ecstasy, filled with excitation, or in communion with spirits — all expressions the like of which one does not currently find in everyday communications — which enhance our pleasure in existence itself.3 Words and expressions which arouse awe in children are sometimes obvious: They love the word “Awesome!” It is an oft repeated favorite.

Euphemisms, in which a figure of speech is substituted for one which is indelicate or possibly embarrassing, are disappearing from most internet communications. Euphemisms like “collateral damage” and “adult entertainment,” are widely employed by politicians to avoid confrontation with psychologically difficult reality. However, they do occasionally open up fresh opportunities for humor. “Breaking wind” or “passing gas” are euphemisms distinctly out of date. Such “windy words” are no longer fashionable. What has become of such comic flatulent expressions as:

  • “Cushion Creeper”
  • “Cutting the cheese”
  • “One-cheek sneak”
  • “Painting the elevator”
  • “Pattler”
  • “Snappers”
  • “S.B.D.” (Silent-but-deadly)

In a less bodily context, swearing and cursing are human universals. Profane language has been with us since speech first came into existence. All languages and dialects have them. Researchers have found that three quarters of 18 to 35 year olds in the United States and half of those over 55 are used to swearing. Although swearing can be an art form — as evidenced by the brilliant ways Shakespeare used it in all his plays — the expletives on the internet show little variation or imagination.

Swearing on the internet — which is common — is very different from direct face to face encounters. The tone of voice, the look in the eyes, the positioning of the body, and the motion of the hands have been of the essence in everyday swearing. Such direct contact can strengthen the expression, making it open to more ironic, or even humorous, interpretations. Such possibilities are seldom exercised by the under 16s in communications which are minimal in terms of variation of style, context or subtlety. The younger generation is changing spellings, shortening words so they can be clicked more swiftly, and repeating items so often that their meaning is ultimately lost.

Swear words are principally drawn from bodily functions, sex and the domain of religion. What counts as taboo expressions in a given culture are often a mirror for the fears and fixations of its users. The outstanding science writer, Natalie Angier, has noted that swearing is a widespread but perhaps under-appreciated technique in anger management. Researchers have pointed out that cursing is frequently a mix of spontaneous feeling and targeted cunning, invoking close relationships with family members as well as past or present lovers. On the other hand, it can be shocking to hear a loud volley of expletives erupting for no apparent reason from the mouth of a teenager or an adult. Such outbursts frequently target racial backgrounds or parental ancestry. Evidence suggests that cursing and swearing also can be effective ways of venting aggression and thus forestalling physical violence.

Many modern Italian taboo words are rich expressions of regional origin. Alas, regional variations are disappearing almost everywhere. The different forms of insult humorously relating to women in Italy is revealing. Italians still enjoy the complex side-effects when playing with such words as:

  • cavallona (street walker)
  • cravattona (a lesbian prostitute)
  • drondona (outspoken prostitute)
  • putanella (a sweet prostitute)
  • scopona (a sweeper prostitute)
  • vaccaccia (a cow-like woman)
  • zingarona (a gypsy woman)4

Swear words and curses using the name of god or gods go back to the days of ancient Babylon. Swearing by the name of a god was at that time an assurance that those uttering such a taboo were not lying. People believed that swearing falsely would bring the dreadful wrath of that god upon them. The biblical commandment that one must not “take the Lord’s name in vain” was a warning against abuse of the sacred oath. The Jews held the very name of “God” so highly that it could never be pronounced or used in writing or speech. Instead, references to the almighty included substitutions like lord, king, celestial master etc. Among Christians, the stricture against taking God’s name in vain extended to allusions to Jesus or to his corporal sufferings. Swearing which included the word “blood” was taboo. Invoking the name of God was to some a way of adding impact to an assertion. Today the quaint expression “Oh golly!” is considered almost comically, but golly is in fact a compact version of “God’s body” which once was held to be profane. “Blimey!” is a euphemism for “God blind me” and the exclamation “Zounds!” refers to God’s wounds.

Shakespeare could hardly quill a page without inserting profanities of the day like “Sblood!” or “Zounds!” These words aroused his audiences and delivered verbal jolts. Today the expressions hardly draw any notice. Now the free flow of foul language often is regarded as a sign of being at ease. While four-letter words in a brawl can lead to violence, those same words in a living-room setting can be interpreted as an expression of trust and social acceptance. While I tend to admire well-venomed retorts, I am appealing for the greater use of more imaginative expressions in our everyday language, words which will augment our appreciation and engagement. Cockney rhymes, for example, are a witty, slanguage way to titillate the brain. For example: “heavens above” matches love and “threepenny bits” is a rhyme for tits.5

Students in school are seldom exposed to cockney or different ways to enrich their language. Teachers should urge their pupils to play with words and to develop their verbal imaginations for ultimately the enrichment of our language depends on the variety of used expressions. It is true that new words, like bitcoin and selfie, are entering our vocabulary all the time. (Chambers English dictionary added a thousand new entries in July). However, most of these newcomers involve our rapidly expanding technologies but do not widen our psyche’s horizons.6

Language, which depends on words, can trigger much that is positive in us. Admittedly, some people are so embarrassed by contentious words that they prefer to mumble as a way of covering up what they don’t really want to say. Famously, Alan Greenspan pronounced: “Since I have become a central banker, I have learned to mumble with great incoherence. If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.” Perhaps mumbling may be one technique which could lighten up the tired feeling now surrounding the over-use of four letter anglo-saxon expletives! Whimsically, instead of using words we could stutter: ffffff! shshshsh! or susususu!

1Yorick Blumenfeld, Towards the Millennium: Optimistic Visions for Change, 1997, pp.94-96

2Mississippi folk humor used to be filled with expressions which captured the spirit of the local inhabitants. For example, a stout woman was “beef to the heels.” An inexperienced youth was described as being “So green that when it rains he’ll sprout.” A politician’s aggressive pursuits were described as “He was after it like the stink after onion.” A fellow with inertia was said to “have been born lazy and had a relapse.” B.A. Botkin, A Treasury of Southern Folklore (1949) p. 674

3Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy, 1961, p 245

4Salvatore Battaglie, La grammatica Italiana, (1957) pp.135-136.

5Leonard Ashley, “The Cockney’s Horn Book,” in Opus Maledictorum (edited by Rheinhold Aman)1996, p.54

6Lauren Laverne, New Vocabulary, The Observer Magazine, August 10, 2014, p.7