Monday, December 17, 2012

Irony or Something Like That

I have edited and read enough literature and critical thinking and language-conscious books to realize that I am no longer certain of whether I understand the concept of irony in its true sense. I did look it up in the dictionary and see that the idea of incongruity is part of it, but I am still not certain that the story I am about to tell should truly be labeled irony. I know that the term is frequently misused and that language aficionados shake their head in dismay at the decline of Western civilization when they hear these misuses. And I am a pretty literate and language-loving person, but still, I cannot quite wrap my mind around that definition of irony. But here comes the story.
     I was out on a walk the other day, doing my usual, by which I mean picking up the detritus that others leave along the way. And there, beside the curb, was a can--one of those tall drinking cans that are so abundant these days: 24 ounces of something that I cannot imagine ever putting to my lips. I picked it up to discard in the recycling bin and discovered a brand I had never seen before. Peace Tea, it was called, with a big peace sign on it, and drawings of hippies, and a hand making the peace sign.

I wanted to make this image large so you could see the "sayings" that come on the can: "Don't tread on me," and "We are in this together," and especially this one: "True freedom comes with great responsibility."
     "Ironic," or at least incongruous or just plain depressing to find these lofty sayings on a discarded can that someone has left as litter in the gutter. Right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Misinterpretations and Surprises

As you know, I am a walker. Every day, just about, I go for a long walk around my town. Because I live in a town that was one of the former homes of Frank Lloyd Wright, I pass a number of the homes he designed as well as the home and studio where he lived. This place attracts tourists from all over the world, and often long lines of people surround this house, gathering for the tours, and often people stop and ask me for directions, with many kinds of accents and more-or-less commands of English. I am always happy to help these people, as I have often been helped by friendly people when I was in foreign places. Sometimes people are on the right track. They simply need assurance that, yes, "It's right up there at the corner." Few people with a destination in mind want to walk blocks or miles in the wrong direction. Anyway, here is a photo of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio. It plays a background kind of role in the story I am about to tell.

So there I was, one afternoon, approaching the corner on which this architectural attraction stands, and coming along at a perpendicular, I spotted a group of teenage boys. Maybe 8-10 of them. Not as stereotypical as the photo I am about to show, but you get the idea.

They were of multiple skin colors and sizes, and the timing was such that just as I was about to get to the corner, they too would reach the corner (remember, we were coming at perpendiculars), and then the situation would be that I would either find myself among them or be walking in front of them. This was in the afternoon, and we would be walking on a well-traveled street, so it wasn't EXACTLY that I felt endangered, but I never like it when someone is walking behind me at close range (I generally turn around to see who is there), and I especially didn't think I would like having a group of teenage boys behind me. A lot was going through my mind as I approached the corner.
     When I actually encountered these boys, however, I saw that some, not all, but some were carrying garbage bags. They were doing it in a kind of self-conscious way--like, please don't notice that I'm carrying this big floppy thing. But you know me and garbage bags. I'm a litter-picker-upper, and I recognized right away that this was what these boys were up to.
     "Are you guys picking up litter?" I said, in a burst of uncharacteristic friendliness and extroversion.
     "Yup," they said.
     "I do that too," I said, "but I don't have my bag today."
     And then some of them really got into it and started saying how they were good people, and doing good for the community, and giving me the peace sign, and all the rest. And we probably would have high-fived or fist-bumped, but I've never been very good at either of those, and plus I didn't want to get carried away, so I walked on (them behind me), and when I noticed a piece of litter along the way, I signaled to them.
     I mean, here's the thing. You just never know. About 15 minutes later, I ran into them again, heading toward the high school, where an adult was there to meet them to collect the garbage bags, and some of them waved to me, and I waved to them, and it felt really friendly.

And as a sidelight, on the issue of language, if you do a Google image search for "gang of teenage boys," you get a completely different set of images than you do if you search for "group of teenage boys." I'm sure you'll be able to guess what some of the differences are.