May days and maydays

Harry Drabik

It’s safe to say there’s a general consensus along the shore that it’s about time May showed its face. We have the hope, in some cases a blind faith, that in time the goo mud side roads will in time billow up in dusty clouds behind us. Patient experience assures us that given time the last holdouts of winter hiding in the shade under sheltering balsams will melt away and one sunny day coming our way will see the inland lakes be free of ice. We have that solid confidence and the assurance that sometime in the weeks before July 4 we’ll see lilacs bloom; mostly the purple sort but some others too.

We’re accustomed to seeing a few sunny days in a row build hopes that are followed by a string of frosty mornings. We know better than plant corn in these parts unless it’s the frozen kind that thrives in an indoor freezer. And whether we plant fruit, vegetable, or flower we’re accustomed to holding off until June not only for better weather but to give the deer a chance to spread out into the bush. A spring season deer will eat darn near anything, and especially so if there is even the remotest suggestion some human has in optimism planted it. Deer appear as innocent and benign browsers but are most ways malignant killers of hope waiting for us to plant a moment too soon. Deer know the growing game; if the frost doesn’t get the new green shoot the deer will. 

Mixed as May is up here it still seems some way odd that a month in the common calendar that’s so known for festive welcoming of spring is also associated with distress. It would be interesting to track down the path that took expectant May to a well-recognized distress call used by ships and aircraft. Radioing out mayday, mayday is a call for help, though in China and the Central African Republic and many other places I’d expect a different non-English expression would be favored. If the seasons are truly reversed from Northern Hemisphere to Southern then calling out Mayday would amount to warning of November-day. Doesn’t have near the same ring does it? A change to October-day isn’t much help. My experience watching deer graze patches of fresh growth down to bare soil makes me think the deer have something to do with all this. A deer’s placid face is a disguise. I’m sure of it.

Use of words, language, and communication has long been my special interest. I’m told I was quite “verbal” as a child. I suspect use of “verbal” is a nice way to say I was annoyingly talkative. This sounds accurate to me who looked upon vocabulary tests at St. John’s as amusing tidbits. It seemed normal to recognize placement of modifiers in sentences and to be wary of misusing the pesky participle able to make comedy of a sentence intended to be informative. On the other hand I could and did often side with the functional grammarians who held that any statement we’re able to understand is successful use of the language. There’s no cause to use our language habits to lord it over others. Being well spoken doesn’t matter for much when your facts or logic are off the mark.

Numbers of times in recent years I’ve been left mouth agape by what recent college grads do not know. In place of familiarity with the Four Forms of Formal Discourse or knowing mechanics of the two sentence types (these are NP+VP and NP=PN or PA) the newly schooled are told the precious value of feeling good about what they say and write. I’ve wanted to say “Child, feel good if what you say or write is good, and not when the product is blither.” Factual accuracy is a matter of diligence more than it is one of feeling. This is not something you stumble on knowing by reading “dark” books about wizards. It takes a hard headed stickler to put a head on it saying “Too much Pathos and not enough Logos” to bring childish expression to maturity.

But aside from the mechanics of knowing your way through the dynamics of communication there is a question of something I can’t put into anything better than character. Careful attention to communication as a process between people develops character in a way that hyping self-expression appears almost utterly to fail at accomplishing. Self-expression is only one part of communication. The rest and larger part is the more difficult process of working through the mesh and clash of thought as we work toward or attempt understanding. Understanding includes others and their views in a way self-expression all but ignores. The cost from setting aside understanding to favor expression is a price much heftier than it is wise.

I’ll try to give an example. Superficially the increase in vulgarity and profanity as normal in public talk is a symptom some might bemoan as a loss of civility and others might cheer as a rise of expression freed from limits of conventional expression. My personal slant on the subject takes me back to my St. John’s grammar school days when my schooling instructed “Empty barrels make the most noise.” I was not a fond admirer of Barbara Bush, but I found nothing much worth admiring in the spew some so gleefully expressed and were rewarded with attention for doing so. Communication is an activity attempting to bring understanding among us. When that attempt is lost or is replaced by pursuit of ego the result seems to be a distinct loss of communicative value and a cheapening of the values we should see rise from personal character.

In the backward old days of my schooling I was given a phrase I’m still able to kick around with wonder. “The style is the man.” The style is the person. The ways and whys of our expressions are us. As you speak so shall you be. Our character is what we express.