Commentary: Change

By Louis A. Zona

My parents often used words that were a part of their youth but had become antiquated. Predictably, time altered the language.

For example, Mom and Dad had referred to a suitcase as a valise. I recently heard valise on “The Andy Griffith Show” when an elderly friend got drunk on moonshine and mispronounced valise, calling it a valoose.

In our home we referred to our living room or family room as the parlor, another antiquated term that probably originated decades ago and that might bring to mind a room of lavish furnishings that includes plants and colorful wall coverings. It might have contained a piano, even a grand piano, or console radio.

One seldom hears the word parlor these days as well as the word “dear,” as in “expensive.”

I remember giving a gift to my mother on her birthday and her asking me if my gift was “dear.”  She was asking me if I spent too much money on her gift – and yes, it was dear and by the way she was dear in a different sense. 

Everything does indeed age and change with the passage of time. One of my teachers liked to say that everything made by man ultimately turns to dust.

Even within our lifetime we experience the power of time to alter just about everything, from the words we use to the cars we drive.

Do you remember the concept of built-in, or planned, obsolescence, a criticism once thrown at the American auto industry? The unfair accusation was that Detroit cars were built so that they would last only for a short number of years before customers needed to replace their Fords, GM models or Chryslers.

I always believed that “planned obsolescence”was hogwash (speaking of antiquated terminology). Even if planned obsolescence had some truth behind it, we can all be proud that today’s American auto industry is building many of the highest quality vehicles seen anywhere in the world.

There is a painting by the famous New York artist Alfred Leslie that hangs in The Butler that depicts Youngstown people standing in a row. Called “Americans Youngstown, Ohio,” the painting demonstrates just how quickly clothing styles age and dramatically change.

The painting was executed in 1979, not that long ago, yet fashions in that brief period of time have aged amazingly.

When Leslie planned the painting, he asked that everyone chosen to be included wear clothing that they would wear as if going to the movies. The clothing everyone wore in the painting included bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes. In general, the clothing in the painting looks as though it is 100 years old, yet is only a few decades old.

Gee, I thought my purple tie was thinner than that. I suppose we could claim that clothing designers definitely build in planned obsolescence, couldn’t we?

Perhaps the one area of human existence where we find mostly unwanted change over time is in sports. When the forward pass was introduced in football, I am sure that football purists were unhappy at the new rule.

It probably was seen as a weakening of the sport, not an effort to create more scoring. I can imagine that the earliest football games looked somewhat like their British counterpart, rugby. Aficionados of the sport claim, “Rugby players eat their dead.” Football is a tough sport but measures to protect the quarterback, for example, led Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert to say that “quarterbacks should all wear dresses”.

Perhaps no sport demonstrates more clearly that time has had a detrimental effect than baseball. Thought to be too slow for today’s average fan, the pace of baseball has been tampered with and tampered with by the club owners to the point that Babe Ruth probably would not recognize the sport.

The ball has been “juiced,” the fences brought in, video replays have further slowed the sport, and the ballplayers union will not permit a salary cap to ensure a level playing field, thereby giving an advantage to big-market teams.

Recently, baseball is experimenting with ways to speed up the game such as placing a runner on second base to start the 10th inning.

What’s that old saying about not fixing what’s not broken? Some believe that the tradition of the pitcher batting should be maintained. Others believe that the designated hitter adds more interest since there’s more scoring when the pitcher doesn’t bat.

Maybe I like pitchers striking out with the bases loaded! In any case, I long for tradition and slow and natural alterations to a sport that was so perfect that it could have been created by the Almighty himself.

And don’t get me started about basketball. What ever happened to “traveling” being outlawed? When I played the sport (and poorly) you’d better not be caught running with the ball without dribbling it.

And why not consider raising the hoop since players are so much taller than when James Naismith invented the sport?

Music! What the heck would George Gershwin say about what passes for music today? I ask: If we believe that Gershwin was America’s greatest composer of popular music, how can what we heard on the Grammy Awards be music, let alone quality music? When “If I Ruled the World” came about (hey – how about that?) I’ll try to clear up these issues.

When we think about language being affected by the passage of time, both the good and the bad, we merely take note.

When we see that our music and art are on an aesthetic decline, we begin to wonder. And when our leaders are seemingly proud of their lack of knowledge of our cultural history, we realize that the culture as we know it is on the decline.

We’re not just talking about changes meant to improve a situation. We’re talking about significant evolutionary change.

What the country has experienced since the end of World War II should tell us that not all change is good and that our very culture is vulnerable when change is more than our living room once called a parlor.