Monday, March 27, 2017

how do you spell STOP?

You see the signs adorning quiet corners: STOP MEANS STOP. The declaration serves as an addendum, a gloss, on the larger sign on the same metal post sporting the familiar white on red octagon commanding drivers to halt.

This codicil strikes me as a suburban phenomenon, reflecting a hyperattentive concern for propriety and rectitude. It’s hard to imagine seeing these persnickety postscripts on the boulevards and avenues of a major city. The thousands of add-ons would cost too much. Besides, who would have time to read them? Move along, people. Nothing to see here.

The ubiquitous STOP is a verb, not a noun announcing the type of action required at the junction. STOP MEANS STOP presumably means drivers who are supposed to be stopping are merely pausing. Or not stopping at all. If we are going to parse propriety, let's go further. Perhaps the editorial sign commenting on STOP should instead say: “'Stop' means stop, not the simulation or approximation of the cessation of forward movement. Now please leave our perfect patch of Paradise.”

What does the law say? What is the required duration of the driver’s pause? It’s not really a matter of duration. The answer varies for each state, but typically it means a complete or full stop, meaning no forward momentum, the needle on the speedometer at 0. (Speedometers don’t have needles any more; call it Digital Zero.) It means, your car wheels can’t be moving. The popularly believed 3 seconds required for a stop seems more myth than reality. (“Full stop.” That’s how our British friends refer to the end punctuation we call a period. Try using that phrase in your next argument. See if it puts a full stop to the debate.)

The notion of a proper duration at a stop sign invites the question: Can you stop for too long, say, the duration of one lap around the rosary beads or malas reciting your mantra?

Can you be prosecuted for indulging in the full metaphysical fruits of your quotidian caesura?

And what about pedestrians? At the octagonal red and white sign, must pedestrians take a deep bow and exhale? It might be the one pause in your day that refreshes.

Buddhists talk of the value of stopping, the reward of pausing to gaze at the interconnectedness of all manner of things.

Is this what we are called upon to practice when we see STOP MEANS STOP?

The problem with STOP MEANS STOP is that it risks sending the opposite of its intended message. You would never post such a message unless the word "stop" were being routinely ignored. So, how does replicating the word, repeating it, strengthen its force? Does it not weaken the word "stop"? Does it mimic the situation of a parent remonstrating a child, perhaps loudly, as the child clearly knows the word carries no force if not enforced?

This invites comparisons with other reduplicative expressions, some of a more serious nature. “No means no” surely delivers an unequivocal expression regarding the lack of sexual consent. What about broader, societal applications of this syntactic formula? We can explore endless variations.

Peace means peace. War means war. Love means love. Hate means hate.

Stop this already means stop this already!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

watch your head

You’ve heard it, often. “Watch your head.” Someone is caring, urging caution to protect you from injury or pain. Parents say it to children, spouses to each other, friends and coworkers, too. “Watch your head.” Long ago, as a cheeky wiseguy, I chirped, “You can’t watch your head. Not literally. Your eyes can only do that partially. You can watch your nose, part of it. Oh sure, you can watch a reflection of your head. But that’s different.”

Not that funny then and not that funny now.

Despite the challenges of literally watching your head — and only a fussbudget would notice this — we know what the person who says it means. We understand we are being told to proceed with attentiveness. We are are being warned to slow dowm. Does it work? Does proceeding in such a manner guarantee less chance of injury? I’m not sure. An athlete or warrior in the heat of battle might interpret it to be “Be alert.” But you wouldn’t necessarily slow down. On the other hand, I have personally found the dictum “the faster the slower,” from UCLA basketball great John Wooden, valuable when I am tempted to anger or quick to say the wrong thing.

From another perspective, “watch your head” proffers a different aspect of wisdom. If the phrase is telling us to practice introspection, some rewarding results might be forthcoming. If it means, “as a person thinks, so they will act,” then it’s a good reminder. Recovery programs talk about a “thinking disease,” meaning that addicts and others fall off the beam long before a substance is ingested or otherwise taken. It’s the addictive or alcoholic thinking that precedes the action, they are told. So, “watching one’s head” in that context would presumably signal awareness and vigilance.

In my youth, Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick sang “feed your head” repeatedly with fervor at the conclusion of the hit 1967 single “White Rabbit.” The lyrics were considered one of pop music’s early instances of a drug reference, albeit oblique. But the song is filled with characters from Lewis Carroll’s  “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and on that level alone it is delightful. I have long admired the Airplane’s unbridled evangelism for expanding one’s mental and spiriual horizons. They put it out there, without apologies. And why not? I’m not belittling the serious risks of the misuse of pharmaceuticals, legal or otherwise, but I salute the song for being consistent and honest and unabashedly provocative.

I am mildly surprised that booksellers or educators haven’t seized on this notion of “feed your head.” Perhaps they have. Granted, feeding and watching your head are two different concepts. (Notice how I’ve drifted slightly. That’s how my mind operates.) But they go hand in hand. If you watch what you are feeding your head you can reap the most benefits. 

Somehow that doesn’t ring true. It signals a cautionary manner that might stifle curiosity. Can these two notions — watch your head and feed your head — coexist within one person? I suspect they can. I’d go so far as to say they must. They represent a dynamic that plays out in all of us: temperance vs. abandon, safety vs. risk, prudence vs. recklessness. So watch your head, but be sure to feed it, too.

Now excuse me as I take my chances out there, bruises and all.