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“When in Rome”

May 7, 2010

The cliche phrase roles off the tongue without a second thought; it usually disguises itself as a casual comment with no underlying malice or harmful nature. Perhaps it is accompanied by an adventurous smile or even a cheesy wink. Yet, if you think about it a little longer, the phrase “When in Rome…do as the Romans do” is just a command to conform. When it is said, it means the person speaking is pressuring you to comply without thought, question, or objection to whatever is being asked of you. And I must say that I don’t like this.

At times it is perfectly fine, and often good, to acquiesce to the culture around you, at least until or unless you have a reason to rebel. What makes me mad about it is the implication that you shouldn’t question anything first. Don’t think; just do; do as the Romans do. Very fitting that it is Rome this concept is named for, since first a gigantic, militaristic empire was in power there and then another harsh and militaristic empire, this time disguised as religion, reigned from Rome. I think it’s fair to say that, in both, not doing as the Romans probably meant arrest and/or death.

Anyway, all of these thoughts were stirred up in me by one of my favorite bands – Nickel Creek – and I had a feeling that yall might appreciate this song and this message. This is a sort of pop-bluegrass style of music. Much less cheesy and much more intelligent than either country or pop music, and more poetic than bluegrass usually is. The lyrics and music video are below.  (I actually only wanted to include the song, not the video, but the site doesn’t let us upload MP3s?) I bolded my favorite stanza; I think it makes an excellent point. So, listen to the song; it’s good!  Perhaps we should each make posts about our favorite songs? I would be very interested to learn everyone-else’s tastes!

Where can a sick man go
When he can’t choke down the medicine,
The old Doc knows.
A specialist came to town, but he stays at home,
saying no one knows, so I don’t, Honey, when in Rome.

Where can a teacher go?
Wherever she thinks people need the things she knows.
Hey, those books you gave us look good on the shelves at home,
And they’ll burn warm in the fireplace, Teacher, when in Rome.

Grab a blanket, sister, we’ll make smoke signals.
Bring in some new blood
It feels like we’re alone.
Grab a blanket, brother,
so we don’t catch cold from one another
Oh, I wonder if we’re stuck in Rome.

Where can a dead man go?
A question with an answer only dead men know.
But I’m gonna bet they never really feel at home,
If they spend a lifetime learning how to live in Rome.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2010 1:03 am

    i love this post! i LOVE NICKEL CREEK! i love this SONG! i’m listening without watching the video because i’m finding it too too distracting. i’ve never heard it before, so thank you!

    one of my favorite songs is Jeb Loy Nichols’ “Heaven Right Here.” i’ll see if i can get a link. such great lyrics, and since i looooooooooooove HOME it’s just right for me 🙂

    mercy me… i found this video: (i suck at these links in the comments section)

    hope it works. the video is some dude polishing his bicycle and dancing to the song with a pink rag. i just laughed out loud so much!

    the lyrics (which i had to wade through pop up porn to get despite me having all sorts of filters on which is why my children will not use the internet until they are 18 years old thankyouverymuch) are:

    I got penny change in my pocket
    I got heaven on my mind
    I got a gravel road, twenty miles
    Gonna spend a little time
    For the ways of the world seem to frustrate
    Always stealing food off of the next plate
    Only hate is our fate and it¹s too late
    All we get is a crumb from the big cake

    So I¹ll just take my time
    And relax my mind
    So I¹ll stop – slow down
    Watch the sun go down

    Come on over to my yard
    Sit around and let your troubles all disappear
    Come on over to my yard
    ‘Cause right now heaven¹s right here

    It was bright and sunny in the morning
    Afternoon clouds gave chase
    I don¹t wanna take my place in their rat race
    As for love there¹s no trace on their face
    It chills me right down to my back bone
    And it¹s lonesome when you¹re so far from home
    And when the world that they¹ve made starts to fall down
    I¹ll be here so why don¹t you just come around

  2. May 8, 2010 1:05 am

    i like the all the number ones instead of apostrophes… don’t you? LOL don’t know how i do it. again and again.

  3. May 9, 2010 12:08 am

    I’ve been thinking about the whole integration issue a lot, too, for various reasons, but first off, I think it’s important to note that there’s a certain amount of necessary conformism – it’s partly because of the way popular culture works that conformity has become something wholly negative. Yet we all agree on things such as the law – and we are bound by it, to conform to it.

    My opinion here is a rough parallel to my opinion about openmindedness (keeping organs where they belong!) – some conformity is essential for human beings to be able to function as a society. Throw it all out and you just have stupanarchy, which of course is stupidiocy. And rebellion for the sake of rebellion is as dumb as conforming for conformity’s sake. Actions – be they ‘rebellious’ or ‘conformist’ – should be based on considered principle, not stupidiocy. It’s principle that saves it from the ignominy of the other two.

    That stuff aside, I totally get your feelings. It slams the idea that anything but the prevailing power has any social value or cultural validity – which of course is great news for all the non-Romans of the world (i.e. most of it). On the flip side, ‘When in Rome’ could be a kind of practical guide to lubricating your social existence. It’s saying that if you want to pass through with the least friction or resistance, this is how. Maybe it’s a kind of friendly suggestion?

    It’s never occurred to me to think about this phrase too much before – I expect every time I hear it in future, it will irritate me. Thank you!


    Your post makes me think of this, and this always makes me a little sad (partly because this song says ‘Egypt’ to me and makes me miss it):

    • May 9, 2010 11:19 pm

      omg, what a great song. i don’t even have time (gah!) to finish it right now but i looooove the 1:30 minutes i’ve heard. will come back!

    • May 10, 2010 2:11 am

      Yes, I understand what you mean about necessary conformity – agreement on social standards and laws of order. I always end up coming back to the principle that there is a balance for everything – no extreme is ever the right way to go about things whether it be rebellion or conformity. Extremes are easy; balance is hard. And I love the song! It really hits on what I was trying to say: unnecessary conformity, conformity that damages, conformity that becomes stagnation. And thanks for the other song Maryam! “Rat race” (line 17) – another good phrase to describe my feelings.

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