At a Loss for Words

The average English speaker makes seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue each day and fails to think of the right word another two to four times according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book Um.

My life validates his research.

In fourth grade, asked to read from a book called Pesky Penelope, I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked to me: pen-e-lope, rhymes with cantaloupe. When Mrs. Thomas corrected my pronunciation, I flushed with embarrassment while my cousin Blake laughed so raucously he fell off his chair. I still question his worth.

Then, years later in high school, I was asked to give a speech in church about one of my pioneer ancestors. As always, I discussed the topic with my mother, and she suggested I talk about her great grandmother. I read a brief, handwritten history of our plucky ancestor then wrote and memorized a speech destined to be a humdinger.

On the assigned day, I donned my Sunday best, slicked my bangs and walked to the podium radiating confidence. But when I began by describing how my mother’s great grandmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had carried her baby and walked across the plains from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Mom looked startled.

“Do I have bits of breakfast stuck to my teeth?” I wondered, “I brushed them, didn’t I? She’s probably surprised I came up with an attention-getting introduction by myself.”

But when I joined my family after the services, one of Mom’s best friends, a giggling Adele Evans, was saying, “Myrl, I had no idea your great grandmother wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was that before or after she crossed the plains?” Then they both laughed in an unladylike manner.

My stomach sank; my face flushed; and I earned my status as a snide teenager by thinking, “Well. I may have confused my ancestor Harriet Bradford Simmons with a famous author, but I know better than to guffaw and snort at the mistakes of others while leaving church.”

As a result of misadventures with my wayward tongue, I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”

I’m especially partial to the gaffes of President George W. Bush because he modeled an effective way to handle verbal mishaps. When asked what it was like to be raised in Midland, Texas, he responded, “It was inebriating.” Then, realizing what he’d said, he laughed at himself and repeated his blooper for the amusement of others.

I wish I had used the president’s tactic when the junior high school principal was observing my teaching for the first time and I told my students Romeo and Juliet was a great Shakespearean travesty.

Slow Off the Mark

Man o' War in 1920

Man o’ War in 1920

When I was in elementary school, my dad told me I ran like the great racehorse, Man o’ War, but with a fatal flaw: I didn’t know what go meant.

What was he talking about? I learned the word go in first grade: “See Dick go. Go, Dick, go.” Fortunately, Mom saw my confusion and explained; Man o’ War and I both had long strides, but he started quickly.

And I understood. As a racer, I toed the line and listened intently to “on your mark” and “get set” but “go” flummoxed me. Then, while I gathered my scattered wits, my competitors raced away until even a Man o’ War stride couldn’t make up for the time I’d spent in a stupor.

I’m no longer a racer, but my tendency to be slow on the uptake continues to plague me.

Is there anything worse than realizing you have five markers in a row ten seconds after your infirm aunt and daft little sister have shrieked “Bingo” in tandem and won the prize?

Is there anything more humiliating than hearing the same announcement as the other travelers waiting at a gate, then watching, stupefied as they sprint to the customer-service counter to rebook their cancelled flight?

It’s especially embarrassing when Joel leads the mad dash through the airport, cleverly calling reservations on his cell phone while he runs, and I’m left chugging along in the stampede’s wake, hoping he’ll remember I’m with him.

Joel and I also dance a two-step stutter when we walk busy city streets. I drift along, mesmerized by the staccato sound of heels striding purposefully, brake lights blinking like fireflies, and the optimism of street entertainers. So when we approach an intersection, Joel sizes up the situation, sees a window of opportunity, grabs my hand, and strides into the street.

I take a step, hesitate, pull back, stop, and look both ways like a well-taught toddler as the window closes and Joel joins me on the curb with the head-tossing, feet-stomping impatience of a reined-in Man o’ War.

Unlike my husband, I find my failed jumpstarts amusing. With one exception. Several years ago, my tendency to hesitate cast a bleak shadow on my long-anticipated visit to a fabled foreign city.

I walked Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro just as a moisture-laden twilight made it difficult to distinguish the widespread arms on the statue of Christ that guards the city. Weary from the workshop we’d taught all day, five fellow teachers and I strolled barefoot in water-lapped sand through air smelling of salt, fish and wood smoke.

Suddenly, shadows surrounded us, took form, shoved in among us, grabbed at wrists and backpacks, threatened.

I looked at the hand on my arm and the impassive face of the teenage boy who gripped me. While my friends broke free and dashed away, I watched, helpless and terrified, as other shapes turned toward me.

Then a man in our group turned and shouted, “Janet, RUN!” He grabbed my wrist and wrenched it free, then dragged me along until my feet came to life and the attackers faded back into shadows.

I lost my sense of safety in a city I had begun to love.

And I’m still unable to laugh about it.

 

You’ll Regret It Someday

clipartpanda

clipartpanda

I stifled a wail when I read Mike Spoor’s BuzzFeed list of “Thirty-seven Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old,” because I’m a shining example of his regrettables. Mr. Spoor provided the bolded descriptions of youthful follies; the confessions are mine.

Not learning another language: I sensed in 4th grade that I wouldn’t be a linguist when I failed to master Pig Latin. Then in high school and college, I took every literature class offered, which left no time to study another language. To me, analyzing Moby Dick seemed more entertaining than conjugating French verbs.

As a result, when visiting foreign countries, I repeat phrases from a traveler’s dictionary with increasing volume to any approachable stranger and receive confused shoulder-shrugs or incorrect information due to my mangled pronunciations. A dapper gentleman once led me two blocks to a zoo when I asked for directions to a restroom. Conjugating verbs has its rewards.

Not Using sunscreen: In the sixties, my high school friends and I believed we’d be more attractive with a deep tan. So we slathered baby oil on any exposed skin and lounged on top of Meldrum’s chicken coop, miserably roasting in the sun, hoping to look like Annette Funicello — and failing.

Then my college roommates and I sunbathed on the thick grass of a cemetery that bordered our dorm. We misted water on our hot skin with a spray bottle, poked one another to test for doneness, kept a wary eye out for cemetery workers and suffered unsightly sunburns that drew looks of pity rather than admiration.

Years later, my youthful skin-toasting financed my dermatologist’s second home..

Being afraid to do things: Some things frighten me — deep water, selling things and fried liver; other things don’t — spiders, public speaking and Jack Nicholson in The Shining. My fears of climbing a Colorado fourteener and traveling by myself faded when I did those things, but no matter how many times I drive big-city interstates, my hair stands on end, and I hyperventilate. My age has nothing to do with it.

Caring too much about what other people think. When sunburn didn’t make my teenage face flame red, embarrassment did: “But nobody else will wear a coat; I’ll look stupid.” “I hate it when Dad sings while my friends are in the car. They look at each other.” “Why is it when I drive up with one of my boyfriends, Blaine and JL greet us by riding around on the tire-less rims of our old bicycle? They look deficient.”

Eventually, as they matured, my family quit embarrassing me. It’s nice.

Worrying too much. Evidently it’s OK to worry a little. I’m an outstanding worrier, so I’d hate to give it up completely. During the last five minutes, I fretted about my cravings for dessert, the sharp pain I had yesterday behind my eye, and whether the weatherman feels bad about his poor forecasting record.

With age, I’ve begun to realize the futility of some of my worries like fretting that I won’t be able to open an airplane’s emergency door after I assured the stewardess I could. But I still worry that not worrying about something will give it permission to happen.

Home Nursing

Not my mother

Not my mother

When sick, Mom maintained a stoic silence and went to bed, telling my siblings and me to move our squabbles beyond her hearing; so we dutifully went outside when thumping one another became unavoidable.

She expected the same bed rest and silence from us when we complained of swollen glands, stomachaches, or ingrown toenails, “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.” Her job description didn’t leave time for entertaining us or clucking over our earaches and bee stings.

One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had taught Blaine and JL an exciting new game in which she threw rocks and they dodged them. When Mom went outside to investigate and discovered the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, applied tape and told him to go take a nap. She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.

When a chronic problem, unusual symptom, or something she couldn’t fix prompted a visit to the doctor, she enforced any recommendations with rigor. After we bared our behinds for penicillin shots, we stayed in bed until well, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer. As directed.

I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.” One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and showed her how to do so. That night, she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution and attached a tube to it with a special nozzle I had to stick up my nose.

She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip. Oh, the caterwauling and grief. Water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I gagged and pleaded; but the water continued to flow. So I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.

“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept. We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for the evening entertainment.

We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to the sicknesses of his loved ones with indignation and expressed his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”

Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he just go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, giving me hourly updates on his symptoms.

But the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever; and the father who visibly worried about Carolyn and checked on her as soon as he got home from work are part of me as well. I learned from my parents to respond to serious illnesses with attention and sympathetic care.

Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is knowing when to nurture kindly and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.

Frankly, er, if you will 

Clip Art Panda

Clip Art Panda

A few months ago, I read the following letter in Dear Annie’s newspaper column: “Over the years, my husband has developed an odd habit. When asked a simple question, such as, ’Would you like another cup of coffee?’ he replies, ‘If you are so inclined.’ I find this peculiar, not to mention condescending, and it’s driving me crazy.”

I’d have advised her to run away from home.

The mindless use of words or phrases we develop a fondness for and sprinkle throughout our conversations can be irksome, especially to our loved ones. My normally patient mother looked grim when my father, preparing his bowl of oatmeal, habitually said, “Please pass the shug, Shug,” Seems a small thing, but hearing it several mornings a week, year in and year out, might wear on a person.

Sometimes Joel mentions a flaw in my operating system, such as letting me know he hates it when I assume he’s finished and put his coffee cup in the dishwasher. After I give my routine reply, “I know you do, Joel,” I’m struck by his resemblance to my mother on oatmeal mornings.

My sister Barbara developed a conversational habit when young that turned her siblings mean. When asked a question, she’d answer it and add, “Hint hint.”

“Barbara, would you quit banging on the piano?”

“No I won’t. Hint hint.” Our days were filled with hint hints and thumps.

My first principal relied heavily on behoove. He behooved the staff to use less construction paper, the students to walk in the halls, and the school board to think twice. Every staff meeting ended with “And one last thing: it would behoove you to include more detail in your lesson plans.”

The oldest member of the staff began entertaining the rest of us during staff meetings by dropping his pencil to the floor each time he heard a behoove. He quit after a record-setting fourteen drops because bending over to retrieve his pencil so many times made him lightheaded.

While on a cruise, Joel and I along with fifty other good-timers crowded onto a powerboat that ferried us from our ship to the port of Belize. A young Belizean welcomed us aboard and explained the rules, relying heavily on “right” to check our understanding: “Life jackets for adults are under the seats, right? You should put them on children first, right? And please stay in your seats until we arrive, right?”

He had more than his share of charm and a bright smile, so the passengers began teasing him with a good-natured “Right!” in response. His smile increased, especially when he had the last laugh, “You don’t need to say right every time I say right. Right?”

I sometimes watch a cable talk show during which a panel discusses political issues and current happenings. One of the moderators begins most of her opinions with “I’m sorry, but….”

I long to tell her, “Frankly, my dear, it would behoove you to buck up, if you will. In other words, quit apologizing. Actually, you know, I don’t think you’re really sorry, get it? Like, in all honesty, if you’re sorry, technically, you, um, wouldn’t continue. Right? Hint hint.”

So anyway, I’ve lost my train of thought, OK? Could you, uh, share with me where I was? If you’re so inclined.

Moments of Clarity

 

janet-and-grandchildren

Throughout my life, I experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future: moments of insight that arrived unbidden and surprised me with their power.

At fourteen, rather than going home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, five friends and I took a joyride through the countryside in an old Ford. I climbed into the back seat with the Anderson sisters as we defied parental authority and took a joyride through a lake-tinged night.

The newly-licensed driver, the oldest among us, chattered nonstop, her ponytail swishing as she turned her head to look around, waved her hands for emphasis and ignored warning signs about an upcoming curve.

The sisters — made anxious by the speed, the darkness and the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover this crazed ride — held hands and worried in silence. But a sudden understanding liberated me and filled me with anticipation: I had lived my life based on the expectations and conventions of others; but as I traveled into my future, I would have the power of choice. My decisions, wise or foolish, would decide my future. Sensing my coming independence, I laughed aloud in the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my special-needs charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a 4th of July party where everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon. We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with garbled speech, multiple disabilities and the mental age of a child, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return. I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree, glad my husband Joel and our daughter Jenny were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Grahame Green’s Jabberwocky and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure, and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, felt I was an interloper. Then, on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children and their siblings, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but when they do, they enrich my life.

What’s So Funny About That?

jeering

“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.

“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”

The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.

“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”

In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”

“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.

I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.

I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”

This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”

My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.

Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”

“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”

Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”

The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.

After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:

“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Charlie Chaplin

He then dismissed us.

As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.