August 15, 2019
(++++) INSPIRING, OR NOT
Calendars (page-a-day for 2020): Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff; Church Signs; Turn Your Smile Upside Down; Shakespearean Insults. Andrews McMeel. $15.99 each.
Inspiration comes in many forms, and it seems as if most of them can be incorporated into calendars. The page-a-day format lends itself particularly well to the notion of giving yourself a little pick-me-up daily and then keeping it at the front of your mind (by keeping it at the front of your desk or kitchen counter) for 24 hours, then turning to yet another little nugget of wisdom. Certain inspirational calendars are perennials, turning up year after year and being just as appealing in, say, 2020, as in any other year. The specifics shown change, of course, but the basic nature of each calendar, the way each of them offers something upbeat to make daily life a bit easier or more pleasant or more worth thinking about, remains the same. The result is that there is something very comforting about the everyday homespun thinking of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and the short and often amusing offerings in Church Signs. The advice in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff is always on the serious side and takes a bit of time to read and absorb. For instance, “When you stop sweating the small stuff about money, everyone benefits. You’ll feel better, and, what’s more, you’ll probably make more money, too. Any success we enjoy is despite our worry, not because of it! Worry and excessive stress are distractions that keep us from our dreams and from our greatest potential. So as we discover ways to worry less, to ‘not sweat it,’ we ignite that capacity within us.” That is a fair amount to read for a single day’s entry, and is typical of what this calendar offers: nothing epigrammatic, just life advice that takes some time to absorb and is worth glancing at repeatedly during the day to provoke additional thought on whatever that day’s topic may be. Another example: “Learning to be satisfied doesn’t mean you can’t, don’t, or shouldn’t ever want more than you have, only that your happiness isn’t contingent on it. You can learn to be happy with what you have by becoming more present-moment-oriented, by not focusing so much on what you want.” The commentary in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff has continuity – each day’s words, although complete in themselves, also tie into the words of previous and/or following days – so the self-help aspect of this calendar builds throughout the year, encouraging ongoing thinking about who you are, what you have, and where you are going.
In contrast, Church Signs is as pithy as would be expected for actual church-sign sayings that are meant to be read and absorbed quickly by drivers zipping past places of worship in their cars. Grabbing attention for spiritual and philosophical thoughts – not all of them directly religious – requires figuring out what to say in a few words that will have value and will stay with passersby. Of course, keeping the calendar nearby means you have plenty of time to read and re-read each day’s entry, but these “little sayings to help you on your way” (the calendar’s subtitle) are still meant to be absorbed quickly, then considered at more length when you have time and inclination. The spiritual connotations are sometimes overt here: “No amount of darkness can hide a spark of light.” And they are sometimes definitely worth thinking about: “God doesn’t give you patience, only the opportunity to practice it.” But some of the sayings are quite secular: “An open mind does not always require an open mouth,” and “Every storm runs out of rain eventually,” and “Love is making somebody else’s problem your problem.” A few of the Church Signs entries are to-the-point versions of the sorts of comments to be found in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “You can have few possessions and still have immeasurable wealth,” and “May the best of your today be the worst of your tomorrows.” But most of the items in Church Signs are designed more for uplift than for traditional self-help: “Freedom is not the right to do as we please, but the opportunity to do what is right.” Not everyone will necessarily find every entry in Church Signs congenial – or every page of any other page-a-day calendar, for that matter – but one of the nice things about these calendar designs is that there is always something new on the next page, and if you do not care for one entry, you may well find that you like the next one a great deal.
Of course, if you find the whole notion of uplift in calendars such as Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Church Signs unappealing, then you probably need an anti-inspirational page-a-day calendar. Oh yes, there are those around, too. Just as epigrammatic as Church Signs but considerably more devilish, Turn Your Smile Upside Down is packed with cynicism and negative thinking. “Your fortune cookie is empty. And stale.” So says one entry here – think about it (or, maybe, don’t). “Before you judge me, try walking a mile in my shoes so I can be a mile away from you,” says one page, in a negative spin on the notion of understanding people by putting yourself in their place. “Your workouts aren’t working,” says one bit of discouragement, and “If you succeed, it is only because others have failed more spectacularly,” says another. The relentlessly downbeat – if wry and sarcastic – nature of Turn Your Smile Upside Down continues through the entire year. “Life is just endless anxiety occasionally interrupted by moments of forgetting to have anxiety,” one page states, while another offers a heaping helping of self-doubt: “Has anyone ever really been happy to see you?” As for relationship advice, here that comes in statements such as, “A good partner is someone who hates the same things as you.” True, a little of this goes a long way, and some of it will be a definite turnoff because of the periodic use of four-letter words. But as with the positive-thinking calendars, this negative-thinking one provides just a single thought (or admonition or criticism) each day, which makes its occasional misfires more bearable. Besides, if you hate what you read in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, you are simply fitting the mood of the whole calendar.
There is a certain amount of creativity in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, to be sure, but for really creative negativism, there is absolutely no substitute for the Bard of Avon, as is abundantly clear in the 2020 version of Shakespearean Insults. Shakespeare was not above writing some really nasty things (and some really profane ones, too: there is even a book called Filthy Shakespeare). It is worth learning or refreshing your memory of Shakespearean English to get the full flavor of the entries in Shakespearean Insults, because in his bid to appeal both to the gentry and to the many lower-class people who attended his plays instead of the nearby bear-baiting and similar entertainments, Shakespeare came up time and again with perfect putdowns. There is the famous one spoken by Hamlet after the prince accidentally kills Polonius, thinking and hoping that he has killed King Claudius: “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell. I took thee for thy better.” There is the description of one character by another in The Taming of the Shrew: “A whoreson, beetle-headed, flap-eared knave!” There is the wish from Henry VI, Part 2: “Mischance and sorrow go along with you!” There is a comment from Titus Andronicus that would never make it onto a church sign: “If there be devils, would I were a devil/ To live and burn in everlasting fire,/ So I might have your company in hell,/ But to torment you with my bitter tongue!” A bit of knowledge of Elizabethan vocabulary helps in conveying the full flavor of some of the comments here, such as, from Twelfth Night, “An ass-head and a coxcomb, and a knave,/ a thin-faced knave, a gull!” But others are every bit as clear in the 21st century as in the 16th and 17th, such as, from Troilus and Cressida: “He has not so much brain as ear wax.” Shakespeare anticipated so much that some of the words in Shakespearean Insults could well appear in Turn Your Smile Upside Down, such as these from As You Like It: “Let’s meet as little as we can.” But on the whole, Shakespearean Insults offers far better language, far meatier thoughts, and far more piercing negative comments than anything to be found in modern-English attempts at snarky humor. The point, though, is that if you do choose to add a little of the snide and sarcastic to your day throughout 2020, you have a number of different ways to do so, whether your tastes run to the language of today or to those of 400-plus years ago.