Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I watched Blast From The Past with Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone yesterday. It's a cute little fable about communism and fallout shelters and paranoia and the nature of respect that reminds me so much of how things were when I grew up.

Respect is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days but people just don't know what it really means, just like gentleman and lady. In the movie, Alicia Silverstone's roommate explains what Brendan Fraser told him about the definition of gentleman and lady: someone who makes everyone around them feel at ease. Those words have come to have such different modern connotations and, unfortunately, not for the better. The same goes for respect.

I was taught that everyone around me from the creepy old guy who watered his lawn in the middle of the night to my far flung relatives deserved respect because they were my elders. Even the jerk who persisted in calling me names every time he saw me deserved respect, not for how he treated me but because he was another human being. His actions did not and should not determine mine. Respect was a form of social grace, a courtesy, in essence nothing more than simple politeness. It was all part of the idea that no matter how another person acted or what they said, it was up to me to set the tone and give decency for evil. I haven't always allowed that rule to govern my actions, but for the most part it is how I treat others. Titles like mister or ma'am, aunt or uncle, grandmother or grandfather weren't earned, they were facts I didn't question and I used them out of respect for others, out of respect for my parents who taught me how to behave, and respect for myself.

Because my father was in the Army, we moved around a great deal and seldom saw our far flung relatives. Mom's parents traveled with us once and we saw them more often than any of our other relatives, but Dad's parents, or rather parent, his father, we seldom saw. I vaguely remember him as a leather-skinned old man with a quick smile and eyes that twinkled like my Dad's. There are home movies of him waving from a train engine (he was an engineer who worked for the railroad) and pictures of him holding me in his arms and waving while he stood in what I thought was the same engine. He was simply Grandpa.

Mom's family seemed endless while Dad's family was clustered around the small town of Cynthiana just down the street from the general store that also housed the post office and two-pump gas station. It was a wide spot in the road and nothing more. Dad's grandmother, my great grandmother, was an elfin woman with sparkling blue eyes who smoked a corncob pipe she stuffed between the arm and the seat cushion every time her daughter Helen came into the room, mischief turning up the corners of her lips and making her eyes dance. She never gave me gifts or sent cards on my birthday or for the holidays, but she was Grandma just the same, Great Grandma. It was a term of respect and a matter of fact. It never occurred to me to withhold my love or honor my relatives any less because they weren't around all the time and they didn't send cards or gifts to mark special occasions and I still remember them fondly.

Disrespect is a commonplace word that has become a shorthand version of "what have you done for me lately". There is no real respect in the word any more; it, like so many other words and civil addresses, has been devalued. It is a commodity with a price tag that far out stripped the national debt and inflation. Even the word itself is diminished: diss.

While Brendan Fraser's demeanor and childlike decency are at times comedic in contrast to the people around him, his actions should serve as a reminder that it costs nothing to be polite and respect should never have a price tag. People treated him badly at times and he responded with civility, not because they paid him or could do something for him but simply because they existed as fellow travelers on this planet. His manners made those around him think he was a serial killer or simply deranged. That's a sad commentary in a world where everything has been reduced to dollars and cents and when it should simply be a matter of sense -- common sense.

That is all. Disperse.

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