I was walking from my car wearing my favorite sweatshirt inside out, and a neighbor asked me, "Do you know your sweatshirt is inside out?" I replied that I did know and that it — my wearing the sweatshirt inside out — was intentional.
The sweatshirt says CALIFORNIA in large letters and CALI MADE and "Cali Life." It also shows a hand with an emerald, but I didn't know what that might mean until I Googled for this blog post "California + Emerald" and discovered it probably refers to "the Emerald Triangle": the area covered by the northern California counties of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity, known for cannabis production.
The reason I wore the sweatshirt inside out was because "Cali Made" can mean "born in California," and I wasn't. I was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, grew up in Chicago, spent much of my young adulthood at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (except for one year of apostasy at Cornell in upstate New York), and spent the bulk of my life teaching at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in Butler County in Ohio's 8th Congressional District, going from The Land of Lincoln to that of John Boehner.
And I currently live in Ventura County, CA, some 500 miles from "the Emerald Triangle." (Although the California Emerald Club is my local [medical] marijuana home-delivery service — discounts to military personnel and seniors! — but I won't be using them until marijuana is fully legal in California, or until my back issues get serious enough that I need something to supplement acetaminophen and Tramadol; and even then I don't think I'll want to advertise my dealers on my clothing.)
Anyway, it's a nice sweatshirt: still black after several washings and the right size and soft — but "Cali Made" would be a lie if it identified me as a native Californian, and I'm not living the "Cali Life" if it involves regular marijuana use nor buying clothes from the downscale Cali Life company or the upscale one. (I bought the sweatshirt at Fallas Paredes, an all-American store in the National Store chain out of Los Angeles, and one with some low-priced clothes in my size because I'm a small man and so are a fair number of Mexican-Americans.)
I'll wear "war surplus" military gear with the non-rank patches still on, if I can't get them off without making holes, but that's pretty much it with me for Untruth in Clothing. If I wear a university sweatshirt or cap, it's because I attended the school or worked there or — minimally, in the past — because someone who was associated with the school gave me the sweatshirt or cap.
Sometimes I confuse people. For example, I had on an Illini cap and someone asked me if I were an Illini fan. I feared an argument on appropriating an AmerIndian tribal name, but it turns out that wasn't an issue, so I responded, "I'm not an Illini fan; I'm an Illini." The next question/statement was the incredulous, "You played football for Illinois?"— I was about 5'2" at the time — and I said, "No, I've got two degrees from them. The school. There's a university associated with the sports teams."
Sometimes people confuse me, as when I paid too much for what I thought a painting a neighbor said was hers but turned out to be a print she'd inherited. In the context of what I assumed was an overflow area for paintings on display for sale, I thought her painting meant something she painted, not something she merely owned.
And sometimes people annoy me, as did older boys in the Chicago 'burbs who wore jackets that indicated they started for the Blackhawks, when they definitely did not. Or the marketing crap epitomized in the possibly apocryphal story of the restaurant that sold "Fresh Fruit Salad" made with canned fruit — and explained that the name of the menu item was "Fresh-Fruit Salad," which shouldn't be taken to mean that it actually contained fruit that was fresh as opposed to canned. More seriously, there was my actual, personal experience of receiving in the mail official missives labeled bills, telling me I owed money, instructing me to pay the balance, and threatening penalties if I didn't — when I owed them nothing because I was on one form or another of Auto Pay. When I called to complain, I was told, "Just ignore the bill (you can file it as a statement)." I asked the plebian on the phone to send up the corporate food chain the mostly rhetorical question, "Do you really want to tell your customers 'Just ignore the bill'?"
"WORDS MEAN" damn it!
And that words — and symbols and some significant silences — mean in complex ways is all the more reason to be careful with them.
Consider the stories of three young men, kind of Karmically balancing one another.
One was a student of mine in the early-1970s, I think, who pronounced solemnly at the close of one class, "A lie is worse than murder." I pointed out that this was indeed the traditional gentleman's doctrine and said we'd discuss it next class meeting. And then I went back to my office and spent an inappropriate amount of time fantasizing about coming to class with a starting pistol, holding it to the guy's head, saying "I'm going to blow your brains out, punk" and asking the class what I should now do. If "A lie is worse than murder," I should fire and murder the student rather than having lied about my intentions. But this was back before open-carry laws and stand-your-ground and the student might actually have been a gentleman — and I don't think I had tenure — so I just presented the idea to the class as a thought experiment.
My student was right about the gentleman's code, Old Style: "Giving the lie" to a gentleman was a challenge to a duel since calling him a liar was an insult that could be erased only with blood. But outside of a code that was starting to look silly in Shakespeare's day, "A lie is worse than murder" is nowadays — since, say, the late 19th century — itself bullshit.
The second young man is introduced in a story in The New York Times on line with "Joel Pavelski, 27, isn’t the first person who has lied to his boss to scam some time off work." This is followed by a significant But: "But inventing a friend’s funeral, when in fact he was building a treehouse — then blogging and tweeting about it to be sure everyone at the office noticed? That feels new." Mr. Pavelski, his company's director of programming (which sounds like a job with responsibility) got a week off — or as much time off as he needed — from a boss sympathetic to the pain he supposed Mr. Pavelski was feeling over the death of a friend. Pavelski's boss was surprised to come across a tweet directing on-line folk to "a link to Medium, a popular blog for cathartic, personal essays. In a post titled, 'How to Lose Your Mind and Build a Treehouse,' Mr. Pavelski wrote about feeling burned out at work," plus the recent end of a long love affair, a ten-year anniversary of what appears to be a brother's death, his parents' impending divorce, and a friend's continuing emotional problems — none mentioned in the Times article — "and wanting to rebuild a childhood treehouse as therapy. The first line read, 'I said that I was leaving town for a funeral, but I lied.'"
Except Pavelski may have misled his boss but not exactly lied: If, but only if, his story on Medium is generally true, "It turns out," he "did come back for a funeral, of sorts."
Literally highlighted (in green) on the Medium article is the line "It’s easy to say someone died. It’s much harder to say, 'I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.'" More exactly, as stated earlier in Pavelski's essay, "People get visibly uncomfortable" when you tell them someone died. "They clam up and offer condolences, and then pretend that you didn’t mention it at all. They don’t ask any more questions." And Pavelski didn't want questions then but did want them later: he posted the essay in Medium and got the word out that it was there. He lived the cliché, "a cry for help" or at least he got out an appeal for understanding, or published a confession.
Pavelski and Ben Widdicombe, the author of the Times story (the third, youngish looking man), say a lot here about truth.
Pavelski doesn't believe that "A lie is worse than murder" — which is wise on his part — nor even worse than getting fired for admitting problems and looking too weak to handle work-related and personal stress. Nor does he have sufficient superstitious faith in the power of words that he'd avoid killing off a friend, so to speak, by lying about a death: many of us would hesitate to make up a death among family or friends because of a vestigial fear such words could have magical consequences in the real world. And the Medium essay is silent on the lie as a betrayal of Pavelski's own integrity or of his relationship with his boss and colleagues — or a lie as pulling a thread or two out of the social fabric, a figurative brick pulled from the foundation of society and community, nor a very nonfigurative shifting of work to Pavelski's associates while he gets his head together and a tree house built.
For his part, Widdicombe oh-so-fastidiously provides a link to the Medium essay, but in his text, under the logo of The New York Times, he omits enough to twist the meaning of Pavelski's story to give himself an excellent opening sentence and an easy example of the problems that arise "[…] When Millennials Run the Workplace."
* * *
There's a spectrum from outright lies at the one extreme to the Internet Movie Database's having you click "On Tonight" to find out what's on television at 10 in the morning, from wearing a jacket saying you're a starter for a professional hockey team to wearing a police uniform to make it easier to pull off a hit. And there's distance on that spectrum between the flippant, self-serving lies Ben Widdicombe suggests Joel Pavelski told, and the maneuvers of the over-privileged but sympathetic character that comes through in Joel Pavelski's Medium essay. I stated that carefully with "character that comes through": we can't be sure whether the story told is mostly true to Joel Pavelski's real-world story, with some modifications for narrative effectiveness, in the tradition of the personal essay, or if it's very different from the story of the actual human being, Joel Pavelski, following postmodern practice in, say, the "On the Rainy River" chapter in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried.
From the most innocent to the most pernicious, however, all of these slippages from the truth taken together are significant. Taken together, they form the rich manure out of which can grow not so much Donald Trump himself but "truthiness" and the tolerance for untruth that lies near the center of Trumpism.
It's no big deal if I wear a sweatshirt identifying me as CALI MADE; but it was easy to turn the sweatshirt inside out when I put it on to sit down to finish this blog post. It's no big deal if you wear a gift T-shirt that says "WORLDS BEST GRANDPARENT" if you know you're not even close; but it's not an article of clothing you should buy for yourself, not if you've got the time on your hands and other resources to be reading blog posts and aren't desperate for cheap clothing to cover your body.
A lie is not worse than murder, but "Words Mean," and we should be careful with our words. Even as we should kill other people only if we really, really have to — and as less than a full-out pacifist I need to make a statement like that; even so we should try to limit our lies to when we really, really need to, and, as much as we can, communicate with truth.
"Tell truth and shame the Devil" — or at least make it more difficult for the Donald Trump's of this world to attain and hold dangerous power.
FASHION & STYLE section, "What Happens When Millennials Run the Workplace?"
By Ben Widdicombe, 19 March, 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/fashion/millennials-mic-workplace.html?mwrsm=Facebook&_r=0>