A zip of the lip

A very wise man—my late father-in-law—was known to say, “He who talks often is seldom heard.”

He also used to ask, “Is all that talking really necessary?”

For someone to whom words are a profession, a hobby, a love, even half a moniker, this Word Nymph has been thinking a lot about silence.

Perhaps it’s the time of year, or the signs appearing before me in recent days. The Sounds of Silence playing on the radio. References to the evils of loquaciousness in my daily horoscope. A favorite hymn in church yesterday, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, stirred me to wordlessness. Message from the universe: Shut yer yap.

In my faith tradition, the upcoming season of Advent is much ado about silence. Many kick off the season with a silent retreat, followed by three weeks of quiet reflection, listening, expectation, focus outside oneself. Regardless of our traditions, this isn’t a bad discipline to follow.

Modern humans have spurred a society that abhors dead air and assaults it with voices. While others speak we are already thinking of what we will say next—and, ever impatient, we interrupt them mid-sentence with our treasured views. As a child whose report cards often reported that “Monica talks too much in class,” I plead talkative as charged.

Modern media have ignited an explosion of expression. Talk radio, talking heads, talk-talk-talk. Tap-tap-tap a 2,500-word Christmas letter and a 750-word status update.

Enough already.

It seems a good time to undertake a new social discipline. While word count is a key metric in my work as an editor, it never occurred to me that I could put it to use elsewhere. What if I followed the Twitter theory and kept my utterances to fewer than 140 characters?

As an experiment, I pledge to do my best for the rest of this year to use my words more judiciously. To the best of my ability I will:

  • Listen first, speak second. After all, there’s a reason we were given two ears and only one mouth.
  • Not feel compelled to fill silence with talking. Silence can create an opening to ideas, energy and more thoughtful words–while excessive talking can suck the energy out of the room and everyone in it.
  • Not overestimate others’ interest in what I have to say. That story, that memory, that dream I find so fascinating? Others, not so much.
  • Not consume more than my share of the airwaves, leaving plenty open for others.
  • Begin fewer sentences with I and My.

Join me, won’t you?

One final comment: Some of the most stirring renditions of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence are the ones without lyrics.

Word Count: 439 (still too many)

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Holidays, Music

Together again

Once upon a time, more than 30 years ago, there lived three young women who attended The Catholic University of America. Late at night, when their brains buckled under the weight of René Descartes and Saint Thomas Aquinas, they turned to music to unwind.

Within the concrete walls of 109 Zimmerman Hall, the tenor voice of Jonathan Edwards soothed our worries and helped give meaning to our lives. The turntable situated between the room’s two barred windows in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., spun folk and rock inspiration from all the great modern philosophers—Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, and, yes, Jonathan Edwards. (Not to be confused with the 18th century theologian of the same name).

Jonathan Edwards, theologian

Jonathan Edwards, musician

Jonathan Edwards’ album, Jonathan Edwards, had been in the record collection I took to college. It had come out in 1971, with just one song, “Sunshine (go away today)” having made the top 40. Everyone knows that one song, but few, I’d say, know the other 11. We played that album until there were no grooves left. Whenever the pressures of college life bore down, on us and our friends across the hall, 109 Zimmerman became our shanty.

Six of us went to see him at The Cellar Door in Georgetown in 1979 and managed to get back stage. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Buy me a glass of wine and I’ll tell you the story.”

Anyway, last Friday night, we three girls from 109 Zimmerman got together again—for a Jonathan Edwards show in Annapolis. While sipping cranberry juice, club soda and iced tea, we went back in time. We reminisced and sang. We laughed and lapped up Edwards’ stories, some of which we had heard, as others caught us up on the songwriter’s life and adventures of the last 30 years. We marveled at his still-smooth voice and his wailing harmonica, agreeing with his own characterization of his musical genre – “hard folk.”

One roomie’s husband, who graciously tolerated the reunion, picked up our dinner check.

We didn’t go backstage.

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It’s courtesy, stupid.

Humans communicate far more boldly from behind a wall than they do face to face.

Think about it. Many are quick to brandish a middle finger when cut off in traffic. Even a certain Southern Gentleman I know does it.

What is it about being safely encased in steel and glass that gives people the freedom to flash an obscene gesture or bark an expletive at a complete stranger—even if that person has done something unintentional, such as changing lanes prematurely?

Would we flip a digit at a fellow passenger who butts in line for boarding? Would we invoke the name of one’s dear mother for colliding with our cart at the supermarket? Of course not.

We’re uninhibited with our language on the telephone when we find a customer service rep incompetent or unsympathetic. Would our words be so harsh if we were looking the person in the eye? We know the answer.

If you and I travel in the same social media sphere, then you may recently have witnessed my (very polite) outburst over the way people speak about one another online. While I’ve since made peace with a number of my offenders, this provides occasion to reinforce a simple courtesy: Never say (or mime) anything from behind a wall that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.

Tuesday night, when the presidetial election results were announced, my Facebook feed erupted with hateful comments. I’m not talking about comments expressing sadness about the outcome or disappointment in the process. Those are understandable when something you’ve hoped for—even worked for—does not turn out your way.

I’m talking about comments describing those who voted differently. Not aimed at circumstances; aimed at people.

The predominant adjective was stupid, with a few “idiots” sprinkled in. “How can people be so stupid?” “Well, that just proves you can’t fix stupid.” “50 percent of the country just showed us that stupid is as stupid does.” “The idiots who re-elected our current president…”

Hey, that’s me you’re talking about. And, in quoting you here, I’ve done you the courtesy of correcting your grammatical and punctuation errors. Just so you don’t look … well, you know.

In all fairness, some of the bullies and their cheerleaders have simmered down. Some have even apologized. I’m grateful for that and for the opportunity to remember that we all need to put the “face” back in Facebook.

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Famous last words

Hurricane Sandy’s doing her thing and I’m doing mine.

Yes, I’m blogging, as so many are. What’s there to say about Sandy that isn’t already being said? What elements of the human condition are being discovered?

I’m not in the direct path and, as of now, Sandy hasn’t yet made the scene. It’s little more than a rainy Monday where I am but already I’m seeing posts of disappearing electricity from the other side of the Beltway.

A few moments ago, I re-read a text message I sent to an out-of-towner who had inquired about my welfare. My words struck me as what are quite likely to be my last words on this earth, preferably decades from now:

“I am scrambling to finish my vacuuming and ironing before everything goes black.”

Two days ago, I stocked up supplies on while they were still on the store shelves. Yesterday I organized my refrigerated goods. Today, after tending to a client project, I vacuumed the house and ironed some altar linens for the church.

An image from one of my favorite childhood movies peeked through my consciousness: The Impossible Years, starring David Niven, about a stodgy British father of two California teenagers in the 1960s.

A scene, the father demanding his daughter clean her room, resonated with me as much in 1968 as it does today:

DAUGHTER: How can you make such a big deal about one little, messy room when the world is flying apart? Race riots, people dying from air pollution, and any moment we could be blasted from the face of the earth, victims of push-button warfare. I can’t understand you, Daddy. Where’s your sense of values?

FATHER: Linda, if we’re going to be blasted from the face of the earth, you’re going with a clean room!

My sentiments exactly.

Hypothetically, say Sandy takes a spin through my neighborhood and, hypothetically, a 150-year-old black walnut slips from the loose grasp of its soggy ground and, hypothetically, slices into our guest room, exactly as one did in 1996.

Can I bear the risk of an insurance adjuster spotting a dust bunny under the nightstand? Not on your life.

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Isn’t it ironic?

I take this opportunity tonight to express my distaste for Alanis Morissette.

I take this opportunity tonight because my husband isn’t here to argue with me about it. He’s at an Alanis Morissette concert.

I didn’t go because doing so would have hurt my ears.

I’m not calling Alanis Morissette a bad musician. She might very well call me a bad writer. It’s simply a matter of taste.

Or science.

The human ear is sensitive to different kinds of sound. In some ways, my ear is sensitive as a dog’s ear is sensitive. I hear high pitched sounds many humans don’t.

Alanis Morissette’s whiny voice gives me goosebumps – and not the good kind.

Her lyrics are similarly annoying. Take one of her early hits, Ironic. Her examples of irony include “like rain on your wedding day” and “a black fly in your Chardonnay.” Alanis, honey, look it up.

Obviously, my husband and I have different tastes. Whereas I go for the deeper, richer, often whiskey-soaked alto vocals of Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Carole King (as well as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, singers with wide vocal ranges who are lauded for their ability to go low beautifully), he likes the voices that pierce my ears – Judy Collins, Barbara Cook, Charlotte Church, Nanci Griffith and, don’t hate me, Joni Mitchell.

In other words, he has a high tolerance for high-pitched whining–which, come to think of it,  might just explain nearly 27 years of marriage.

Ironic? Not really.

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Legally bland

For most of yesterday, I had no name, only a number – 23. Juror #23.

While my number was unique, I’m fairly certain my attitude about jury duty wasn’t.

Part of me hoped to get out of serving altogether, to not disrupt my work schedule, inconvenience my clients, or sit still and unplugged for hours. The other part of me craved a front row seat to a steaming courtroom drama. Surely the other 349 in the pool were feeling the same way.

I’d been called to jury duty only once before, in 1992. I wasn’t chosen then either; but I remember two things about that day.

The first:  More than a few of us were reading A Time to Kill, John Grisham’s first novel. The book had come out three years earlier, but it had gotten little attention until Grisham’s next legal suspense thriller, The Firm, came out in ’92. Jury selection was a central part of A Time to Kill and those of us who arrived with paperback in hand were dying to be selected. The second thing I remember:  Even though I wasn’t selected, I felt sequestered. A full work day at the courthouse without any contact with my office was nerve-wracking.

As I prepared to report for my civic duty this week, I failed to consider the technological advancements of the last two decades. I somberly told my friends, family and clients they’d not be able to reach me. I even put an out-of-office notification on my e-mail.

How sick was my disappointment to be allowed full use of my smart phone? To learn that the jury room had free wi-fi? To see a dozen computer stations available for any use ranging from e-mail to Solitaire? That’s no fun.

While I awaited assignment to a courtroom, I made my own fun – mostly by counting errors in the orientation video. (By the way, Montgomery County, the translation of voir dire is not “to see [and] to hear.” It is “to see [and] to say.”)

I listened in on my fellow jurors’ cell phone conversations, rolling my eyes as they overstated the drama to their loved ones and colleagues. I could only imagine their exaggerated tweets.

Finally, I was assigned to a courtroom where I was sure there’d be real action. The judge outlined some basic facts about the snoozer of the case—a personal injury incident taking place four years prior. He conducted the obligatory voir dire, which revealed nary a trace of conflict.

And then the judge spoke: “Madam Clerk, may I borrow your stapler?”

And then I was dismissed.

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Hair today…

Okay, this is getting a little scary. I have two things in common with vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. You might remember, we’re both Fletch aficionados.

Much has been made of Congressman Ryan’s facial likeness to classic TV character Eddie Munster. I’ve heard their shared trait described a number of ways, including “that Little Hair Triangle-thing That Drops Down In the Middle of His Forehead.”

Does no one remember the correct term for such a feature?

It’s called a widow’s peak.

Unlike most people, whose hairlines run straight across their foreheads, fewer others have a V-shaped point in the hairline in the center of the forehead. Unfortunately, these others include me.

I say unfortunately for two reasons – one, the belief, going back to the mid 1800s, that a downward point in one’s hairline, which resembles peak of a widow’s hood, portends early widowhood; and two, I have always considered mine an ugly genetic deformity.

When I was an adolescent in the 1970s, the fashion was for girls to wear their hair parted in the middle. My role model at the time was actress Susan Dey, whose hair cascaded in perfect symmetry from the center of her hairline. My widow’s peak—and several other traits—stood in the way of looking like Susan Dey or any of the girls in my school. If I tried to part my hair in the middle, it curled at the hairline, each side bending in its own rebellious pattern.

I tried a number of things to tame my freakish triangle.

At bedtime, I’d take the hair on both sides and tape it down to my face, believing I could somehow train it to fall uniformly. But alas, I’d wake up covered in masking tape, which had by morning gotten all tangled up in my hair–and quite likely my orthodontic headgear.

One day I got the bright idea to take that whole darn triangle and rip it out by the roots. I drew a nice neat line where I wanted my hairline to be, twisted the widow’s peak into a tightly wound rope and yanked it right out of my head.

My parents were none too pleased with this self-mutilation; I might even have been punished for it. But punishment came anyway as it started to grow out – into a stiff vertical geyser, much like Martin Short’s Ed Grimley.

Isn’t it every young girl’s dream to look like Ed Grimley? Or every middle-aged woman’s to look like Paul Ryan?

Well, they’re no Susan Dey.

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Filed under Beauty and Fashion, Foibles and Faux Pas, Politics