You raise up your head
And you ask, "Is this where it is?"
And somebody points to you and says
And you say, "What's mine?"
And somebody else says, "Well, what is?"
And you say, "Oh my God
Am I here all alone?"
But something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
—Ballad of a Thin Man (Bob Dylan)
I’m no good with idioms. That has something to do with my upbringing, I think, as a member of an immigrant family for whom English was a second language. I’ve had to learn most idioms relatively late in life—or relearn them, having learned them “wrong” during childhood.
It isn’t just idioms. Golly, I remember when Kathie had to explain to me the distinction between a sheet and a blanket. "Good God, man," she declared, mouth agape. "How can you not know the difference!"
* * *
“On the phrase ‘having an ax to grind’”
Like many expressions, this one has more than one meaning. Drat.
Some authorities assert that, if one has an ax to grind, then one is being crafty or selfish: one has “an ulterior purpose or…selfish end” (Merriam-Webster).
That meaning is surprising to me. I have always used the phrase such that, if one has an ax to grind, then one is anxious to make a point that is not sufficiently recognized—but the point need not be self-serving. According to this meaning, the Grinder of the Ax need not be crafty or selfish at all. Here, the emphasis is on the extremity of one’s interest in, or concern about, something. One is obsessive or anxious perhaps because a wrong has been done.
Some sources, perhaps especially English ones, seem to agree, more or less. For instance, according to UsingEnglish.com, “If you have an axe to grind with someone or about something, you have a grievance, a resentment and you want to get revenge or sort it out.”
Another English source asserts that, “If you have an axe to grind, you have a strong opinion about something and you express this opinion whenever you can” (EnglishClub.com).
And so there is the American “hidden/selfish” meaning; and there is the English “unusual concern/strong opinion” meaning.
In what follows, I’m going to assume the latter (perhaps more English) meaning of ax-grinding (er, axe-grinding). As such, to have an ax to grind is to have a “hobbyhorse” or “pet peeve” but with more urgency than those two expressions imply.
* * *
I recall once saying to a friend: “If you look up the phrase ‘ax to grind’ in the dictionary, you’ll see an illustration of my father talking about the war (WW II).”
Well, no, that’s not quite right. A typical ax-grinder is an otherwise normal person—e.g., an ordinary member of society and speaker of its language. My dad isn't quite that: he's an immigrant, an experiencer of several unusual and dramatic life transitions, and his grasp of the English language is typical of an immigrant of his time.
Still, he does regularly grind axes.
* * *
There are many causes of ax-grinding. One might feel that some injustice, X, has been done and since X has not yet been corrected—or it somehow persists—one is anxious to set things right, to the extent that one can, whenever the matter arises.
History, they say, is written by the winners, and there’s some truth to that. Naturally, wars tend to produce endless ax-grindings. And when the loser is branded by the winners as somehow uniquely evil, those axes can get mighty big and persistent.
My father, a German, was twelve years old when the “Good War” ended in 1945. He was just a kid. Times were tough through the war, but they were tougher after the war. He dreamed of escape to a better place, one offering opportunity for advancement, for dreams. And so, in 1951, dad, then 18 years old, got on a crummy boat headed for Canada. He wanted to immigrate to the U.S., but that was impossible, and so he chose Canada, the next best thing.
He met my mom on the boat. She was just seventeen (she turned eighteen on the voyage), and she, too, had an adventurous soul and a desire to get beyond the limitations of her home (she had fled the invading Russians in 1945, ending up in northwestern Germany, one among hundreds of thousands of refugees, a resented population).
Mom and pop stayed together in Canada. They struggled to get jobs, to survive. They married in 1953. Annie was born in 1954, and I came along in 1955. The jobs got better by then, owing to my father’s competence, reliability, honesty, and affability. (It’s a funny thing: dad is unfailingly affable outside the family, but he was never really affable within the family, until he grew old. For his kids, he often revealed a severe, disapproving side. Maybe that’s a German thing. Dunno.)
Eventually, we moved to California. That was in 1960. We became U.S. citizens in 1965.
And so I was raised essentially as a Californian, though one with very German and protective parents.
Germans are big on table talk. They eat, they drink, they pronounce judgment on people. And so I remember lots of talking, especially at dinner, growing up. Dad tended to annoyedly opine and pontificate—about big and little issues; mom tended to happily gossip or talk about neighbors and friends and goddam celebrities.
Long before I understood the phrase “grinding an ax” (see discussion above), I experienced my dad seemingly obsessing over a range of issues. He seemed very anxious to communicate to us that terrible things were done to Germans ("nobody talks about it") during and after the war, that many things commonly said about “the Germans” were false, that the German language was "better" (more consistent, hence more logical) than English, and so on.
As I grew older and more informed, I realized what was happening. My father is not a liar; nor is he a story-teller. But it became clear to me that he bore the scars of receiving the pricks of the many tiny needles and occasional daggers of that sprawling, self-serving blob that is (or was) the “received view” in this country about Germans:
Gosh, the Germans were Nazis, and Nazis were cruel, racist monsters who wreaked untold destruction and death upon innumerable innocents in Europe and around the world. Luckily, we (the Allies) were good and strong and virtuous, and so we vanquished the vicious evil that was Germany.Because it became clear to me that my dad was grinding an ax—that is, that his experiences with the omnipresent received blob made him angry and resentful and inclined to spew endless alleged (and sometimes implausible) counter-factoids—and because, at least by the time of college, I had discovered the possibility of knowledge and objectivity, I have always seen myself as a kind of referee between dad and blob, one with sympathy for both sides. My hope, as always, was to be fair to these sides and to get to the truth of the matter, whatever it might be. (One could argue that one’s development is generally a matter of working out such dichotomies.)
I believe that, mostly owing to my training as an academic (and my own uncompromising and eccentric tendencies), I steadily grew more able to see what is right and what is wrong with the received view. At the same time, I became clearer about the nature of my father’s perspective. He is honest and intelligent and fair, but he is also unsophisticated and inarticulate—a very nonverbal fellow, really--which is odd, considering how verbal each of his children turned out to be. (Also, like Herman Melville’s Billy Budd [and me, I fear], dad tends to flail and strike out uncontrollably when confronted with perceived injustice.) I believe that I have become better able to get from his routine spasms of anti-blobbery what is worthy in them. (Because my dad has no conception of fair or objective discourse, this can be challenging.)
For instance, it is very clear to me now that, whatever the Received Blob has to say about the “German people,” in fact, most Germans of the thirties or forties had little or no interest in racial politics and they viewed the war effort as an increasingly desperate attempt to defend their home (I refuse to say “homeland,” a loaded word that steals what should be earned), not some ideology. Few Germans gave a damn about Naziism.
Were the German people racists? Of course. But racism was and is widespread. Nazi racial politics was special. But only a minority of Germans (and not only Germans!) were Nazis; the average German’s racial attitudes were typical of Europeans, sorry to say. But they weren't Nazi attitudes.
Did the Allies conduct themselves humanely and decently during the war? Without going into irrelevant comparisons, we can agree that we must answer: of course not. There has been a kind of suppression of that story, but I do believe that those pressures have died down to a considerable degree by now, and we can expect to see an increasingly objective account. Good.
It seems to me that, these days, Germans are viewed much less cartoonishly than in the past. They are allowed to be what they are, just people, “like us," only liable to build Bimmers, not Mustangs. My father would be surprised to hear it (no matter how many times I’ve explained it to him; he cannot hear me), but I have been very conscious of the blobular anti-German caricatures and distortions. But I have also been vigilant in noting signs of improvement.
Things are now better than ever, I think.
* * *
Question on the KNKT information website:
When does a kittens [sic] umbiblical [sic!] cord fall off?
Take to vet dude, don't mess with it you can do something wrong to the kitten.
Today, during lunch, dad grinded his ax again, sort of.
We were discussing a certain relative (by marriage; let’s call him R). Nice guy, a cop. But some of us had reservations about him, it seems. (Reservations? I try to steer the folks away from such unseemly fish-wifery, but to no avail.)
Dad recounted how he had told R, who is from Yugoslovia, about Marshal Tito’s sending German POWs into caves and then blowing shut the cave entrances. (One wonders why Dad would bring that up with R, who, like many former Yugoslavians, probably regards Tito as a national hero.)
According to my dad, R responded by saying something of this sort: “Well, Tito did what he had to do.”
Mom looked at dad; she expressed her strong disapproval of R’s answer. I said nothing.
Did the atrocity that dad described actually occur? Was my dad simply repeating a story that he heard, long ago? (He does that.) I’m not strong on that history, but I did some quick reading and it seems clear that Tito has been blamed by some for significant “human rights violations” against retreating German soldiers. (This is not surprising. Generally speaking, the story of retreating and surrendering Germans at the end of the war is a very sad one.) I scanned some articles for any mention of caves, but nothing came up. Of course, that caves were involved is ultimately irrelevant. Dad’s point was that Tito had done terrible things to the retreating Germans, and that is likely correct. (That it was Tito who ordered these actions is also ultimately irrelevant.)
The discussion of R continued. He’s a cop, and he impressed us all a few months ago when he agreed that the two cops recently charged with killing a homeless man in Fullerton were clearly in the wrong. Good for R, we thought.
Ah, but there were other conversations. According to my dad, evidently, during a discussion he and R had about some cops beating up a prisoner in a jail—something that had been caught on camera—R said something like: “Fools! Everybody knows there are blind-spots in every jail.”
My mother was aghast: “He said that!?”
Now it is very like my folks to ignore context or to repeat someone’s words inaccurately, unaware of the crucial significance of differences in paraphrases. So you’ve got to be careful with this kind of story.
I made the mistake of explaining this. Well, I said, I can imagine someone jokingly saying, “Yeah, if you’re gonna beat up on some guy, you really oughta find the camera’s blind-spots first!” They might assume you agree that beating up on the guy is beyond the pale. (OK, maybe this kind of humor is foreign to some people.) On the other hand, they might really think that cops ought to beat up on guys sometimes—away from prying eyes. And that, of course, would be very disturbing.
Are you sure R wasn’t making that first “joking” kind of comment?
As often happens, neither of my parents seemed to comprehend my point. My attempts to make it clearer were fruitless.
Something rather dreadful happens at such times, for my parents (and Annie) have a very ready category for the Roy of such moments: “We have no idea what he’s trying to say but we’re quite sure he’s nitpicking and arguing like a ‘lawyer,’ which he tends to do, oppressing us endlessly. So just disregard his point, for he is just a troublemaker.”
Perhaps part of the problem here concerns my folks’ habit of putting people either on a shit list or a “good” list, and one’s recognizing both the good and the bad in someone is (according to their way of thinking) a sure sign of confusion or stupidity.
I recall a conversation at the kitchen table back in the 60s. For some reason, my dad hated Barbara Streisand. I think that stemmed from my dad’s dislike of opinionated women, which was much more accepted then than it is today. (To a great extent, he’s overcome that prejudice, I think.)
I said, “Yes, I guess she’s terrible, but she sure can sing.”
My dad became angry. No, she’s a terrible person. She has a big mouth. She can’t sing.
I had no allies at that table.
It wasn’t until years later that I could look back at such episodes and know that I was on the side of reason. (To be honest, my folks have largely abandoned this particular fallacy in recent decades. I do believe I’ve even heard my dad say good things about Babs.)
Back to today’s kitchen nightmare.
(Note: at present, I am concluding a sabbatical which has allowed me to join my folks—and Annie—for lunch; that has been going on since May! I went along with this because my folks are growing older and I want to take advantage of this opportunity. But it has had its challenges.)
Conversation can be difficult at the lunch table these days. Our usual practice is that someone speaks and the rest (three) of us listen. Oddly, sometimes, without warning, mom and Annie will break into a private conversation, leaving either me—but usually my dad—stranded, forced to carry on now with only one auditor. It’s a ruthless thing, really. Those gals can be ruthless in other ways, too.
This time, somehow, we were all listening together, like kittens before a buzzsaw, and my mother was speaking. The conversation had somehow turned to “holidays,” and my mother said something like: “Did you know that, in Germany, today is a holiday?”
To me, the remark was odd. For, to say that, in Germany, today is a holiday, is to imply that it is not a holiday here, i.e., for us, today. But, in fact, it is a holiday today, here, for us.
I tried to ask what she meant (fool!), but, almost immediately, she got into some confusion with my dad, who commenced lecturing us about the practice of making a Monday a holiday because some other holiday fell on a weekend.
Yes, we are all aware of this. No, we do not need to be lectured about it.
Finally (what was I thinking?), I got the chance to ask what mom meant by saying that, in Germany, today, it is a holiday.
She stared at me, uncomprehending. “What do you mean?” she said.
(Uh-oh. She already had that look: “He’s being THE HIDEOUS, TROUBLE-MAKING, TRUTH-HATING LAWYER again.”)
I said: “Well, if you say, ‘did you know that, in Germany, there’s a holiday today’ you imply that it is not a holiday here, today, in the U.S. But it is a holiday here, today, in the U.S.”
For some reason, my folks then felt the need to explain to me that, sure, there is a federal holiday today, but not a state holiday.
(Huh? They had handed me a bone. What does that distinction have to do with anything? I’m clueless.)
No, I said. You’re implying that there’s no holiday today for us, but there is.
Said my mom, “We have a day off today, but no holiday.”
(Huh? Yet another bone.)
“No,” I said. Exactly because many people have a day off today, it is called a holiday.
(Then I perceived it plain: I had become THE LAWYER, the SOPHIST, the HATER OF GOODNESS—not that I could mention sophistry or Sophists; they’d only start accusing me of being THE DEMON anew.)
Annie and my dad then went off to the kitchen, making noises to the effect of, “Oh, he’s being awful again, making trouble, what with his hideous, hair-splitting ways. What Ma said was perfectly clear, and so the bastard is just picking nits.”
“Just drop it,” they advised my mother, from the kitchen.
(But wait! I’m just trying to understand what mom said! I am human, and humans speak to each other, and I want to understand! And surely she can’t be serious in saying that it isn’t a holiday today! Surely I can make her see!!)
Anticipating my fate, I said: “Oh, it’s everyone against me, again. Is that it? Great.” (I said that loudly, so that my sister could hear, in the kitchen. Annie will take any opportunity to join with my folks in the “He’s being a jerk again” response.)
“You don’t have to yell,” said my dad.
“I’m not yelling. I just wanted Annie to hear.”
“Just drop it,” said my dad.
This, of course, was good advice, even if it was based on the incompetent notion (from my perspective, anyway) that I was JUST BEING A TROUBLEMAKER.
Like me dad, I have a strong sense of justice—or, rather, injustice.
I turned to my mom: “Look, maybe you mean to say that the holiday known as ‘Christmas’ extends over two days in Germany, and it doesn’t do that here. Here, we have a one-day holiday called "Christmas," and Christmas this year happened to fall on a weekend, creating a Monday holiday! So, your point isn’t that there’s no holiday here, today, but there is one in Germany; rather, your point is that Christmas extends for two days in Germany, but not here. Right?”
My mom again stared, uncomprehending. She was exasperated with me.
I stared back. “You people are so confused,” I said. (Oh-oh.)
(A few days ago, I happened to mention that, to most Americans, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Day. Because our family always followed the German tradition—something, by the way, that I much prefer—we always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. ¶ My folks stared at me: “What do you mean?” I said: Well, sure, I know that there are some Americans who make a big deal of Christmas Eve like we do, but most do not. Most make a big deal—they open their presents, etc.—on Christmas Day.” ¶ Again, they stared. ¶ One of ‘em said, “Lots of Americans open gifts on Christmas Eve, just like we do. ¶“Yes,” I said. But most don’t do that and they actually find it odd that anyone does. ¶ My mother then launched into a defense of our family’s practice of having a special meal and opening gifts on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. I interrupted her. I said: You seem to be defending that tradition. Why? Nobody’s attacking it. Certainly not me. I like it. ¶ They responded: lots of Americans are just like us, they open gifts on Christmas Eve. ¶ I waited for some sound or disturbance to change the subject. I thought a heard a pop. I left.)
“You know,” says my mom, “it’s getting to the point that I can’t speak with you anymore.”
“Good,” I said. “Let’s do that. Let’s drop it.”
My mom then did what she does: once she’s decided that she’s being wronged by someone (especially me), she takes that theme and speechifies about it forcefully, allowing no one to interrupt her, driving the damn thing way into the ground. This is always attended by manifest and dramatic self-pity, as though that were some kind of virtue. It’s quite stunning.
Luckily, my dad swept in again and said, “just drop it.”
“You people are so confused,” I said.
My mom started a new speech.
“Just drop it,” said my dad.
Next time: on the idiom, "having a chimp on one's shoulder"
* * *
Though at the time Captain Vere was quite ignorant of Billy's liability to vocal impediment, he now immediately divined it, since vividly Billy's aspect recalled to him that of a bright young schoolmate of his whom he had once seen struck by much the same startling impotence in the act of eagerly rising in the class to be foremost in response to a testing question put to it by the master. Going close up to the young sailor, and laying a soothing hand on his shoulder, he said, "There is no hurry, my boy. Take your time, take your time." Contrary to the effect intended, these words so fatherly in tone, doubtless touching Billy's heart to the quick, prompted yet more violent efforts at utterance—efforts soon ending for the time in confirming the paralysis, and bringing to his face an expression which was as a crucifixion to behold. The next instant, quick as the flame from a discharged cannon at night, his right arm shot out, and Claggart dropped to the deck. Whether intentionally or but owing to the young athlete's superior height, the blow had taken effect fully upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the Master-at-arms; so that the body fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp or two, and he lay motionless.
"Fated boy," breathed Captain Vere in tone so low as to be almost a whisper, "what have you done!....
—Billy Budd, upon having been falsely accused of villainy by Claggart, the wicked Master-at-arms (Billy Budd)