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Homilies, “momilies” and jingles

Seen painted on the I-beam skeleton of a building going up in Boston's Back Bay: graffiti reading, “Ryan & Dave Dad Loves You."

What an astonishing act of subversion. Right where we might expect political or commercial slogans, or might brace for random vandalism or even obscenities, there was a simple declaration of love.

At a time when the economic and other pressures seem to impinge on the humane values of the city, someone found an opportunity for unauthorized but essential communication.

One had to wonder: Do Ryan and Dave know about this? Maybe Ryan and Dave go by there every day on their school bus. Not too likely. Maybe they haven’t seen their father’s writing, but maybe that’s okay because maybe they haven’t learned to read yet. Will the boys” mother, at least, hear about it? ("Honey, you'll never believe what I did with a can of spray paint at the job today.") Part of me hopes the dad with the spray paint isn’t just a brand-new father, bursting with pride at a couple of bundles of unrealized potential. I’d like to think he’s well into his middle years, has had the guys around long enough to have gone through some grief over them, and still loves them and knows it’s important to say so, even if he has to tell the whole world because he can’t tell them. We could speculate endlessly about Ryan and Dave and their dad. But part of what was so engaging about the line painted on the I-beam was its freedom from the usual strictures on the language we see in public. It was very nearly pure free speech.

How refreshing to find honest words that travel on their own account: words not pressed into service to do the commercial bidding of this or that conglomerate that spends zillions to make us think it cares about us. Even when we reach out and touch someone by telephone (the irony, of course, is that touch is exactly what we cannot do by phone), we wonder: Am I responding to an impulse of friendship or family feeling “or to a television commercial?

Has commercial language “the rhetoric of advertising and other forms of popular culture “supplanted the more heartfelt utterances in our discourse?

In an issue of The Atlantic some years ago, Mark Crispin Miller makes the case that Hollywood movies are basically extended commercial pitches for various consumer products, particularly soda pop. And even movies that aren’t plugging such goods are still filmed like commercials.

He certainly cites plenty of evidence. And he argues that the cinematic language of the movies has been restricted because so many directors think in terms of the camera angles best suited to showing off “the product". The thought of being upstaged in one’s home by the brand names hauled home from the supermarket is disheartening, truly. One wonders whatever happened to good old-fashioned folklore. One could argue that the nursery-rhyme “muffin man who lives in Drury Lane" is a forerunner of Egg McMuffin, but that is quite a stretch. Nor is it easy to imagine someone cross-stitching the Nike slogan, “Just do it", as if it were some bit of wisdom from one of the McGuffey readers.

Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist and writer, who died in 1990 at his own hand, celebrated folk tales and fairy tales as a way to put meaning into the lives of troubled individuals. For him, the way to lead people out of the dark woods was though the enchanted forest.

We must take care not to let enchantment get crowded out, and it is hard to see pop culture providing much of it. A few years back, a writer named Michele Slung coined the term “momilies" to describe the kind of chestnuts presumably handed down from mothers to their children. The bits of advice were things like, Don’t ever leave the house wearing torn underwear because you never know when you'll be in an accident. Not particularly cosmic stuff, you'll agree. Ms. Slung published a couple of books full of these, which leaves open the question, if these gems are being passed along from generation to generation, why are people having to read about them in a book? This sounds like ordering a family tradition from the Spiegel catalogue.

That inscription on the I-beam is sure to be hidden soon as construction proceeds. When the building is complete, only a few alert passers by will know that deep beneath its skin of tasteful granite or whatever, a little cry from the heart is recorded. And we can hope that Ryan and Dave will know it is there.

From Ruth Walker of the Christian Science Monitor.

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