A Hollywood Legend Shares Her Wisdom

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Last month, I wrote about 102-year-old actress Olivia de Havilland’s lawsuit against FX Networks for defamation of character, instigated by that network’s unflattering and unauthorized depiction of her in the first-season installment of its pay-television series,  Feud.

As often happens when I write something, my curiosity led me deeper into the subject. I did some internet clicking, and discovered a 2 ½-hour interview with de Havilland from October 5, 2006 (back when she was a mere 90 years old). The interview was conducted by the Academy of Achievement, of which de Havilland is an inducted member. Most of the interview consists of her reminiscences of her childhood, family, and acting career. It’s a fascinating overview of a life well-lived, possessing great cultural value.

The Snake Pit

De Havilland in Oscar-nominated role in 1948 film “The Snake Pit” (Getty Images)

But at the tail end, she holds forth on subjects more expansive and contemporary: the importance of experiencing foreign cultures; literacy and book reading; the lessons of warfare; the European Union; and the American Dream. Her views on these subjects resonated with me.

However, (obviously), de Havilland has more street cred than longitudes. She’s been around a bit longer and experienced a bit more. She was born in Japan to British parents, raised in the U.S., where she became a citizen and had a long movie career, and she’s lived in France for many years. Her words carry slightly more weight than this author’s.

So, here, I’m doing something a little unusual: I’m going to shut up and let someone else talk. I’m re-printing that conclusion of the Academy of Achievement interview. (To view the entire interview, click here, or to read the transcript, click here.)

Please note: this interview occurred a year before the iPhone became embedded in global culture…and ten years before the election of Donald Trump.

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“The Last Belle of Cinema,” Washington, D.C., October 5, 2006 (original source: Academy of Achievement)

Academy of Achievement: You’ve said that in addition to going to college, you believe that American young people should travel abroad.

Olivia de Havilland: I think it is terribly important for this country that the young have at least one year of university in some foreign country. It’s extremely important to understand another culture, another people. Here we are isolated, this huge continent, isolated from the rest of the world by two great oceans. passportWe don’t understand other peoples. It’s so ironic, because we are made up of people of every race whose origin—origins were other countries. We are almost completely ignorant, and we are rather arrogant in our ignorance, and we are going to make terrible blunders that are injurious to other peoples abroad, and in the end, to ourselves. It’s imperative.

Otherwise, we will be a retrogressive nation…and we are on our way. I know three university students: one is going to do postgraduate work, a brilliant girl; another, who I think will also do postgraduate work; another who is 19, a sophomore. The 19-year-old has a capacity for analysis which would be counted as absolutely brilliant in a 45-year-old woman. (But) she can’t spell. She knows her way around a laptop with these mechanisms that spell for you, but she can’t spell, didn’t think it was necessary. Neither can these other two girls. Top students they were. Can’t spell. Now, that’s retrogressive. I’ll bet you anything they can’t add either, because they’ve got the calculator. Also, one of the reasons they can’t spell is they will watch television, you see, instead of reading books. They won’t look up anything in their dictionary even. It is all done by pressing buttons.

girl readingReading! Think of what the brain goes through! It is a very, very special function. When you read, you visualize. You imagine the characters. When you go and watch television, it is not only physically passive—reading is physically passive, certainly—but it is all done for you. It does arouse your interest, your full attention, and your emotions, but by a different process. The other process, the capacity to envision yourself, is very important to develop. If you do that, you are apt to learn to spell anyway, because you will see the difference between words that sound the same, like “manor,” m-a-n-or, and “manner,” m-a-n-n-e-r, and how they are used, how they are spelled differently. Oh, it is imperative, and I think something has to be done to encourage them to learn to spell, to read, to add and subtract.

Academy of Achievement: You’ve lived in France for many years now. You speak French, and you have written very charmingly about life in France. Do you think that living there has changed your perspective?

Olivia de Havilland: It’s been an extraordinary experience, absolutely extraordinary to learn about another culture and other people. It is an immense privilege and an exciting adventure. Not only that, but just living in Europe has been an extraordinary experience, because I have been living in a culture of peace. Those 19-year-old American boys—Omaha Beach, and up and down that coast—they didn’t die for nothing. Think of it. Europe, with all these different countries, each country separate from the other in terms of history, culture, language, all of them, for 2,000 years and more, at war with each other, generation after generation. And all of a sudden, after World War II, they didn’t want to kill each other anymore, and we now have the European Union. It is a miracle. And the culture there is, indeed, a culture of peace, and the thought of solving a problem, a disagreement through war…unthinkable. Unthinkable.

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Cemetery near Omaha Beach, Normandy, France (site of 1944 D-Day invasion)

Imagine if the United States had been created 2,000 years ago and from then until now, Nevada had declared war on California regularly all through those centuries. If Florida had been at war with Alabama, North Dakota with South Dakota, Oregon with Washington and Idaho and Montana and the rest of them, Nebraska, Mississippi, all at war with each other for 2,000 years, and suddenly, one day, they decide they don’t want to kill each other anymore. That’s what’s happened in Europe. War is a very stupid way to settle a disagreement. Unthinkable. Won’t do. And in Europe, you have the feeling that the whole human race has been raised to another level by what has happened there.

Academy of Achievement: What is your sense of the American Dream? Does it still hold true for you?

Olivia de Havilland: I think we have abandoned our dream, and we must get back to it. We must. We absolutely must.

APTOPIX France Olivia de Havilland

(AP photo)

Skiing with the Aliens

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“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

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Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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Nerdspeak and the Word “So”… What??

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I’m driving home and listening to my favorite radio station. Here’s how the radio conversation goes:

Interviewer: Can you tell us the current state of affairs in Syria?

Guest: So what we’re seeing is people now returning to Syria. One of the factors is because…

Interviewer: Have you been talking with those that have fled Jordan?

Guest: So they tell me they moved back into houses due to fear. If you have no choice…

Interviewer: What’s to account for the funding shortfall, where refugees can’t get enough food?

Guest: So it’s a political problem with humanitarian solutions, and…

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Maybe you’ve noticed it too: people putting the conjunction “So” at the beginning of their sentences. It happens during interviews, and occasionally in prose writing. “So I was in the store yesterday, and…”

The first time I heard it, I said to myself “How rude.” It sounds like the person being interviewed wants to bypass the question being posed. Instead, they continue an earlier thought. To me, it seems like an utter lack of courtesy. Maybe it is.

Although most common with young adults, this phenomenon also affects older folks. According to Business Insider magazine, it has its roots in Silicon Valley. In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped the “So” bomb four times in a row while sitting for an interview.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

So… it’s not enough that Facebook wants to dig into our personal lives. Silicon Valley has also affected the way we communicate. Talk about Revenge of the Nerds.

Maybe the techies in Silicon Valley have their own nerdspeak, and this odd syntax is only now seeping into “normal” society. Maybe their world is so cluttered with numbers, symbols, and acronyms that correct syntax can’t find room.

I have nothing against nerds. As an adolescent, I was probably one myself (and with this essay, maybe I’ve returned to being one). But their language sometimes reminds me of the robotic “duckspeak” of George Orwell’s “1984,” where nouns are linked with verbs to create a machine-like, Big Brother-approved vocabulary. In the business world, one hears the word “leverage” all the time. Isn’t there a less pretentious and less vague word than “leverage?”  Or is the idea to be pretentious and vague??

In nerdspeak, though, it’s not about Big Brother. It’s about consciously or sub-consciously conforming to sub-cultural fad. Kind of like attending prep school and feeling the urge to wear corduroy and Docksides.

I can handle fad in small doses. But lately I’ve been hearing the So-fad everywhere. On radio, television, and even during an interview with a supposed English language scholar.

Interviewer: Can a dangling participle be used as an adjunct without modifying the noun?

Supposed English Scholar: So the dangling participle is intended to…

Gosh and golly.

One would expect a grammar egghead to know that the conjunction “So” is frowned on at the beginning of a sentence. It’s like starting a sentence with “But” (something I admittedly do all the time). When “So” is used as a conjunction, it should arrive in the middle of a sentence, since it follows a statement and introduces a consequence (“The NPR interview made no sense, so I turned off the radio.”). But it’s even more irritating when “So” is used, not only at the beginning of a sentence, but also at the beginning of an entirely new thought.

In addition to being used as a conjunction, the word “So” can also be an adverb, as in “That egghead is SO wrong,” or “Zuckerberg is SO nerdy.” These uses of “So” are acceptable.

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I’m tempted to call the radio station every time I hear one of these So-people abusing English syntax. But I know how the conversation will go:

Me: Why do you always start your response with the word “So”?

So-person: So what’s wrong with that?

Me: It’s not proper English. It’s almost as bad as pronouncing “ask” as “axe.” You’re chopping up the English language.

So-person: So sue me, ok??!!

It’s a losing battle.  Quack-quack.

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Get Smart with Your Smartphone

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Last month I was in Wisconsin and had an interesting conversation with a graduate student about the weighty topic of technology and dehumanization.  We were sitting on opposite sides of a table.  After about five minutes, I dropped the name of movie director Stanley Kubrick (DR. STRANGELOVE, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, etc.).  I noticed his head also dropped.  This happened several times later.  “Is my conversation that boring?” I thought, believing he was having trouble staying awake.  It turned out he wasn’t dozing: he was punching information into his smartphone, which I didn’t see because it was on his lap and hidden by the table.

He was a nice guy, and I give him credit for wanting to learn about Stanley Kubrick from Wikipedia.  But it was a little annoying having to talk to him without eye contact.  Similar things have happened other times with other people.

It wasn’t long ago we didn’t even have smartphones.  Even mobile telephones have only been around a couple decades.  Nowadays, though, we often look like an army of secret agent Maxwell Smarts with miniature shoephones up to our ears.

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I know I’m getting gray at the temples and cling to the past.  I’m also aware that we live in an age of instant communication, and I haven’t totally embraced it yet.  And I plead guilty to rudeness myself.  I once glanced at my cellphone during a meeting at work – I don’t always agree with my boss, but he was right when he admonished me to “Keep it in your pants.” (Sorry about that, Chief).

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But although digital technology has enormous societal benefits, like so many other things it’s also an excuse for silliness and sloth.  There’s a difference between using your phone to broadcast to the world a violent street scene, and texting “LOL” and “OMG” during a social occasion.  Advertisers like to push the idea of cells and smartphones as fashion accessories, but good manners are always fashionable.

I remember being in school when the dining hall monitor posted Amy Vanderbilt’s top ten rules of etiquette.  We made jokes about it because we thought he was acting like an old lady.  But he had a point.  Rules of dining etiquette may not mean much when you’re a self-obsessed teenage slob, like I was, but they become important when you have to socialize later in life.  It’s not so much about adapting or fitting in, but rather respecting yourself and others.

I feel the same way about I-phones, Blackberries, cell phones, I-pads… whatever.  Good manners never go out of style, but in the global village, they often seem to be going out the window.  You don’t have to answer every call or text immediately, or finish that game of Candy Crush, or check your Facebook page for updates every 20 minutes.  Unless it’s an emergency or something very important, keep the toy out of sight until you have some private time.

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This blog is just a hobby for me, but there are people who get paid to write what I’ve just written.  I checked out a few of their articles.  I’m not sure these paid professionals quite get it, either.  The first article I saw discussed “smartphone decency” and advised “Do schedule some offline time with your family.”  Really?!  Gee, what a novel idea!  To actually pull yourself away from your gadget and spend time with your loved ones!

Another writer discussed smartphone etiquette and dating.  She advised not using it on a first date.  I guess the inference was that, on subsequent dates, it’s ok to LOL and OMG and ignore your partner.

Like I said, these folks get paid for their writing, so maybe they know more than me.  I wonder if they know who Stanley Kubrick is.

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