Monday, February 13, 2017

Stories that are now moot; or -- Two women, one house; or -- Three English words: privacy, nice, and moot

Moot. From the ME [Middle English] mote, via OE [Olde English] mot, gemot, a meeting, and prob. ON [Old Norse] mot, both from the IE [Indo-European] base mod, to encounter -- "an early English assembly of freemen to administer justice, decide community problems, etc.;" ... "a discussion or argument ... subject to debate" ... finally, "so hypothetical as to be meaningless." As in, a moot point.  

Many years ago there was some kerfuffle in my family about my grandmother perhaps moving in with us. I was perhaps sixteen, my parents in their fifties. She did move in, briefly, but it didn't work out. When the mistake became inarguable my father ruefully and sympathetically sighed and said, as if it was the wisdom of the ages -- "Two women cannot live in the same house."

It was the wisdom of the ages. He was standing in the kitchen as he said it, so I think of him also as saying "two women cannot run the same kitchen."

I proceed carefully because the analogy I am going to draw will link ever so discreetly to the workplace, and I remember the famed blogger "Dooce" who got fired from her day job for just such writing. To be sure, that was in the primordial ages of the internet, when privacy still mattered perhaps, and when there were so few bloggers that all five or six of them stood out, and their bosses read them and got mad. Things have changed, completely, by now. Everybody blogs, or has moved on to Instagram and Snapchat. Privacy is unknown (from the ME priuace, pryvat, by way of the L privatus, "belonging to oneself, not to the state" (ah hah!); from privare, to separate, "prob. akin to the OL pri, see PRIME"). How do I know the dangers of blogging indiscreetly are less? Dooce herself, Heather Armstrong, relates breezily that now "blogging is so flush with money" that the writers of them, no longer five or six but numberless, simply skip over telling the "messy" personal stories which earned them their salaries at first (no kidding?), and instead "curate," "monetize" images of their lives, a la Instagram. I'll say. Remember the beautiful young fashionista who directed me to a fashion blog for seventy-year-olds? She had a baby. She now therefore understands all about refugees, through nursing her infant son and wondering how she would ever do that, and get fresh diapers and things, if she were a refugee. News reports seem to show that most of the strong young men who are refugees have other concerns, but we move on.

In sum I think I may link my dad's wisdom of the ages, from a girlhood kitchen to a current workplace, without worrying too much that it will be seen and will offend. Besides, my small tale of one woman coming into a job and supplanting another woman who thought the job was hers, can be quickly told. Here's the real interest -- is it possible to read someone else's thoughts?

Of course you can guess people's thoughts by their behavior. The annoyed sigh, the rough picking up of a phone when the newcomer is not familiar with all the buttons; months later, the soft "tsk-tsk-tsk" (so faint I almost don't think I heard it), and the pointed walking away, when a certain plan is not what the Other would have allowed.

But can you read someone's thoughts merely through the air, when behavior is nice enough? (Nice: interestingly, a word derived from the Latin nescire, to be ignorant, as in ne, not, + scire,  to know, see SCIENCE. In ME the word nice meant "strange, lazy, and foolish," and has since gone from what I think of as eighteenth-century-novel meanings -- delicate, precise, subtle, "minutely accurate" -- to our own "generalized term of approval" for anything pleasant.) Is it, mind-reading, a vital human ability or is it just imagination? I remember learning somewhere the psychological opinion, the result of a survey perhaps, that most people perceive positive comments as neutral, and neutral comments as negative. We hear "you have a pretty houseplant" as houseplants are pretty and we hear "houseplants are pretty" as ... yes, but not yours. Now in my workplace we both of us have pleasant, light conversations about family or romance or the weather, and yet our hearts don't seem to be in it, not remotely. But am I right, and can I therefore read thoughts, and she the same? Or am I hearing positive-as-neutral and neutral-as-negative, and she the same? Of course the tsk-tsks and the pointed walking aways do linger in the memory. I'm sure whatever I've done lingers in hers. I exist, mostly.

One great proof of two people not getting on must be the absence of good-natured everyday mockery between them. There wasn't much of that sort of fun when Grandmother moved in. If you know someone well enough to see his flaws but still enjoy his company, happy mockery is possible. Lacking same, mockery is too dangerous a ground to tread on. I wouldn't dream of making light fun of my co-worker who thinks I have her job, and she the same. We're just nice. 

It matters because if something could be done to improve the relationship, if we could stop reading or sending thoughts or if we could dismiss it all as imagination, then that would be good. So much more relaxing, so much less silly. A certain amount of bitter, piquant excitement would be lost, which I am sorry to say does keep human feuds boiling doesn't it, whether between persons or families or nations probably. Love can cool, perhaps it matures, but hate is always fresh and fun, always righteous. We don't hate, my co worker and I. How else could we talk nicely? But I see workplace hatred elsewhere and so I see the freshness and the excitement of it every day. So do we all, if we look at the news.  

Which brings me to this: now don't blanch: we laugh along when Harriet the Spy asks "what kind of a pill brings a Bible to the beach?" (or lugs the Bible into everything) but this does shape our civilization. You have heard it was said, do not kill; I say, do not be angry at all ... you have heard, do not commit adultery; I say, do not even look; ... love your enemy, greet more than just your brother; be perfect. All this is from the gospel of Matthew, chapter 5 only. Here we have instructions not just to control our behavior but, almost ferociously, to amend and control our thoughts.

Why on earth? Unless yes of course they can be read, and they are the source of everything?

Years ago Grandmother eventually moved in with independent granddaughters, and later, when it was inevitable, to a nursing home. Two days ago co-worker got the news that she is moving on, too. So it's all moot. "An assembly of freemen ... debatable ... so hypothetical as to be meaningless."

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