Monday, February 28, 2011

The power of words

WARNING: I cuss like a sailor who has missed their boat and dropped an anchor on their foot. This post has evidence of that. Ye be warned.

The first time my sister said F*$! we were watching Forrest Gump. She was six years old. But before you get your undies in a knot, I would like to make this understanding - yes, my parents let me and my sister watch Forrest Gump at the age of eight and six, respectively. We also were allowed to watch movies like The Color Purple, Jaws, and Indiana Jones (especially love the part when the guy’s face melts off in Raiders). I am grateful my parents did not sensor such films from us. It didn’t render my IQ and I didn’t develop an obsession with guns. If anything it fueled my passion for watching a story unfold. Movies helped me feel. Aww, precious.

Back to the F word. It was the scene where Forrest was about to be forced into speaking at the Vietnam rally, and the guy on stage was saying “F this, and F that.”

There was my little sister, nestled on the couch in her cloud of innocence, “What does fuck mean?”

The silence was heavy. The kind of silence that says everything and nothing. Minds were sprinting but mouths were still. One of those moments where anger doesn’t feel right, but neither does laughter. It’s a distinct form of shock, in the simplest of terms, and that was exactly the look on my parents’ face.

I, on the other hand, was already developing my tender sense of smartassery at the delicate age of eight. I started laughing. Hard. And said, “You don’t know what it means?!” Then all eyes were on me. “Ellen, do you know what that means?”


I didn’t know what fuck meant. All I knew was the “F word” was bad... and before this moment I didn’t even know what the F word was. My parents handled the situation as I imagine most would, “That’s a bad word. You’re not supposed to say that word.” They weren’t harsh, but firm - driving the point home that you can’t throw around the word fuck the same way you would banana or lasso. My sister and I both understood the message. Don’t say fuck. Got it.

Still though, it’s enough to question, what is a “bad” word? What makes a word bad or good? Who decides? All words come from the same pool of letters. Fuck is four letters, just like bird and wave. Why isn’t “bird” a bad word?

Let’s try: I birding hate you! Yeah, well bird you too, lady! Get the bird out of here! He birding shot me! I can’t believe that mother birder birding shot me!

Doesn’t quite pack the same punch, does it? And you know why? We don’t give “bird” the same amount of power that we give “fuck.” Typically when one hears the word bird, or ball, or pear, or whatever, no one’s attention is put on high-alert. It makes me wonder, if my parents had told us “fuck is just an expression. Something people say, but not very often,” would my sister and I still have felt so captivated by the F word? Would we have gone on without even realizing how powerful that word is?

Words have power because we give them power.

We can’t erase the power these words have been given. We can’t undo it. We can’t trade fuck for bird. We also can’t invent new “bad” words. There is a set of words that have power, and that’s it. You can’t just let anyone into that club, or else it wouldn’t be exclusive. It’s a club that way.

We can’t take away their power... but that doesn’t stop people from trying.

One time I had a professor forget their jump drive at home - the jump drive that secured the powerpoint lecture for the day. There was a lot of material to cover and it was a big chapter to push through. But alas, the lecture was far far away. And what words did my professor use to describe this moment of frustration and annoyance? ... “Shucky Darn”... I kid you not. This was a woman who lived during the time of the hippies, had some INCREDIBLE research credited to her name, was regarded as a figure head of science and knowledge in the state, and was one of the most profound people I have ever met. And she just said “Shucky Darn.”

Did “shucky darn” adequately express how she felt? To me, it seemed obvious it did not. I was laughing, as were my classmates, because it seemed so childish. Like someone saying “darn it” and “what the frick.” Come on people, say damn and fuck and let it go. These words exist for a reason. We gave them power as a tool for people to articulate their feelings and to snap people’s attention.

However, powerful words are not limited to the “bad” words. The same exists for words like hate and stupid.

You’ll let your kid call someone or something stupid? But you won’t let them say shitty? Scroll on any teenager’s facebook and you’ll see “gay” and “retard” being used for an umbrella of adjectives. But these words aren’t solely used by the kiddies either. Hearing a middle aged man say “that’s retarded” and “don’t be a fag” is much harder to swallow than “that’s fucked up.” At least when you say fuck or shit or another “bad” word you’re not saying something derogatory towards a group of people. When I say "shit" I am not unintentionally bashing every piece of feces on the planet.

Think about what words can achieve and the emotions they evoke. As much energy that we focus on the "bad" words it's easy to forget the power of "smaller" words. You wouldn't think that the word "God" or "under" have that much power... but look what happens when you try to take those two little words out of the Pledge of Allegiance. That's a whole other brand of power to be left for another post. (Trivia: "under God" was added to the Pledge in 1954)

We use words everyday as a way to communicate. Even though words are less than half the conversation - there are voice inflections, body language, and again, another post for all that - we pick our words the best we can. Some people make a stronger effort than others. I know way too many people who have "amazing" and "awesome" and "lame" as their only descriptive words.

Words have their meanings, and more noticeably, they have their power. Use with caution.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

But out of here

DISCLOSURE: Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Everyone has some internal level of adventure. Whether it be skydiving, trying frozen yogurt, bull riding, or changing your shampoo, adventuresome-ness is there. For me, my latest adventure was a haircut. I like my natural brown locks so I didn’t bother to touch those. But then I couldn’t help myself, and I let it slip...the B word....That’s right folks, bangs. Snip snip, I now have bangs. Yes, I am a modern day Lewis and Clark.

Off I went, proud of myself and my new adventure hair cut. Chin up and out, I loved myself. Compliments were abound; pride was swollen. Then I saw my Aunt Rita. I grinned a little grin, the way you do when you know you’re about to receive another pride-enhancing remark....

“I really like your hair like this, but it would have been better if it wasn’t so short in the front,” said my Aunt Rita with lipstick on her teeth. Ok, I made the lipstick part up, but I want you to think less of her. Sorry, I’m bitter.

There it was. The “but.” It’s a three letter word that slams like a sucker punch. Perhaps you have not received a “but” in haircut context, so here are a few other keen examples:

“You are a wonderful employee, BUT you never show up on time or do your work.”

“You’re really good at basketball, BUT you can’t really dribble, or run, or shoot.”

“I do not judge people, BUT she should not wear that top with those shoes.”

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, BUT I peed in your laundry hamper.”

It’s the umbrella “but” that covers your butt, supposedly freeing you from any guilt of saying what you really want to say. It’s a “but” that covers a multitude of sins. It’s a “but” that allows you to make-fun of someone, keep your character intact, deliver a low-blow, and much, much more.

To effectively use this “but” it must be proceeded with some sort of buffer. The buffer has to be a statement that either offers a compliment, an apology, or a frank remark that ensures “hey, I’m not a bad person.” This will help relax the receiver before they get hit with a verbal smack in the face.

Why do we "but" into people's lives? Why do we strictly follow this format?

For one, we want to make ourselves look good. It's survival of the fittest out there and looking bad means cesspool in the gene department. So we lead with the compliment or apology, not only to make the receiver feel relaxed, but to make sure we're OK with ourselves, too. No one intentionally wants to look like a horrible person, and we like to promote just how nice we really are.

However the biggest motivation for the "but" format is this: we are scared to say what we think. We are opinionated people. We have thoughts, ideas, motivations - yet we are terrified of what saying these things really means, and what it means about ourselves.

Everyone has heard that honesty is the best policy. But come on, sometimes your over emotional friend doesn't need to hear that they're fat, or know it was you who peed in the hamper. Then there are times where opinions shouldn't be sugar coated, dipped in chocolate, and cover with sprinkles. If someone isn't pulling their weight in the office, or should ditch the dream of playing point guard, they deserve to know.

On one hand you respect the people in your life by being sensitive to their needs. On the other hand, you respect them by telling the truth when it is imperative to be told. This is what we try to achieve with our "but"s. We want to make sure you're OK, then tell you how we really feel. Just like my haircut - Aunt Rita liked it a little, but not enough. It stings because she was honest, but I don't have to hate her for it.

I ask you to be nice where it counts, be fair when you're honest, then but the hell out.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Have we no time to lather?

Conveniences are everywhere. Some would consider them shortcuts, others consider them headaches. Nonetheless, they exist.

Don’t wait in line at the post office for stamps when you can use the electronic vending machine. There’s no need to leave your car to make a bank transaction with the teller. There’s ebay, amazon, and other online shopping trickery. Self check-outs. ATMs. Frozen dinners. Indoor plumbing. E-ticketing. Car washes. Just-Add-Water pancake mix. Don’t even get me started on fast food drive-thru windows.

Not only do these conveniences exist, and a plethora more where those came from, but these systems are ingrained into our way of thinking. A silly thing like fixing a glass of water no longer requires a trip outside to a water pump, well, or river. You just turn on the faucet and ta-da! We live in a modernized society and the convenience of enjoying a refreshing glass of water does not demand planning or physical effort.

The driving force behind most modern conveniences is the concept of saving time. Don’t wait in line here, do it yourself there, click here, type there. Every action in our day is shaving off seconds, minutes, hours, who-knows-how-much time to keep to ourselves for later. So we send our emails and cook our frozen lasagnas and save, save, save.

I once again found myself having a moment of clarity while in the bathroom. Easy reader(s), easy - I was washing my hands. I pumped, pumped, pumped on the soap dispenser. I stared into my palm, and snarled my lip at the sight of the pile of light blue foam soap in my hand. I couldn’t help but think....

Have we no time to lather?

At what point does the concept of convenience reach extreme? If I continue with the theory of convenience as a way to save time, exactly how much time am I saving by not having to lather? Perhaps if some divine power swooped in from the sky and was able to tell me, “Brook Ellen, you have spent a total of eleven hours of your life lathering your hands,” then I might be able to fully appreciate the gravity of working soap into bubbles.

There are certainly modern conveniences that do seem to be worth their weight in awesome. For example, we no longer have to hunt for food or chop firewood. Now many people actually consider doing these things “vacation,” alas that is for another post, indeed.

We save our time, and for what? To spend time with our family? Friends? Hobbies? Facebook stalking? It seems we save time and use it towards some other time-saving task, and if you’re lucky, you save a little time to sleep. Do you realize there are still people who use a scrub board to do their laundry? Imagine what kind of time THAT would take. Aren’t you lucky? Go back to sitting in traffic now.

Time is fickle. It can be a most trusted companion or a heartless enemy. One can learn in time. Trust in time. Grow bitter in time. Forgive in time. You can not have enough time. Time can be cut short. Time can go slow. Time can fly. Save as much time as you can, and then try to do something with it.

My New Year resolution was about making the most of my time. Oh, right, New Year’s resolutions. Remember those? It’s that promise you swore to keep to yourself about six weeks ago. I have certainly been making time for more posts, aren’t you lucky my reader(s)? But it brought me to the conclusion that there is an absolute difference between saving time, and making time. Perhaps answering a few emails on your Blackberry will save you some time, or perhaps you could make that time for you, your loved ones, or watching the Netflix you've had on top of the DVD player for two months.

So go, bundle your conveniences. Make your time yours. And please, don't forget to wash your hands.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Too nice to be honest

Hi, my name is Brook, and I am addicted to everything bagels.


They have sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, little onion bits, and shoot, everything. As someone who goes for the savory over the sweet, it is quite the perfect meal. It also enables my inherited cream cheese addiction - in which scientists believe there is no cure.

I was in the restroom washing my hands when I decided to do a teeth-check. There it was. A massive, stubborn, in-your-face poppy seed stuck between my two front teeth. After the initial “oh, gross” wore off and I maneuvered that beast out of my teeth it occurred to me....

I ate that bagel over an hour ago. Since the bagel, I made small talk with the check-out lady while purchasing lighter fluid and kiwis (don’t ask), conversed face-to-face with my sister, and gave a super huge smile as I held the door open for a guy carrying a colossal amount of groceries. Why didn’t one of them bother to tell me, “Hey, person, you have a big black thing stuck in your teeth?” And don’t tell me, “Oh, I didn’t see it” because of course you did! There’s some jerk working for NASA analyzing satellite footage right now and getting a big laugh out of the meteor wedged between my teeth.

This moment is by no means out of the ordinary. Sometimes it’s a little crusty bit on the rim of your nose. Sometimes it’s food in the corner of your mouth. Sometimes it’s something in your hair, or a thick clump of mascara, or your fly is down.

I have always prided myself on being one of those people you can count on to tell you, “Hey, you’ve got some crud on your face.” I would want someone to tell me, so I’m going to tell you, right? And I stand by my word. I lean in to my friend, family member, whoever, and give a subtle acknowledgment. There is zero embarrassment to be had because we have all had these moments of food-in-teeth, and the like.

That’s right. I won’t let you walk around with mustard on your chin or that awkward lip-goop-build-up. I am your friend.

At least I thought I was until my pal, Candice, got out of my car with a toilet seat cover hanging out of her pants. There was a twinge in my stomach as the “tell her, you idiot!” instinct hit me. My mouth opened, my jaw slacked, and the moment passed. She had closed my car door and I watched as the white paper strip dangled from the back of her pants.

Sure, I could have rolled down the window and yelled for her. There’s always a choice. Fight or flight. And I was in the middle of my flight like no body’s business. Why didn’t I do something? Why didn’t I stop her? Why didn’t I tell my friend the truth? It’s because I didn’t want to embarrass her. I didn’t want to be responsible for her moment of shock when she realized she had the toilet seat cover in her pants ever since we left the restaurant. I wanted her to have this awkward moment alone, in the privacy of her own home.

It’s because I was too nice to be honest.

But was I really protecting my friend? Just like when I had the poppy seed in my teeth, were these people really doing me any favors? I still felt embarrassed and silly. If someone would have told me about the boulder in my teeth it would have at least cut down on the exposure time.

We think we're doing the right thing by keeping silent. But what are we really doing? We are being too involved with images and self-perceptions that we lose the basic truth to it all: it's just a poppy seed. It's just a mustard stain. It's just an open pair of pants. It's just a toilet seat cover. In the scheme of life it is one of the smallest details, and if it's the worst thing to happen to you then that's one lucky day.

So, shoulders back, chin out, no smiling, and tell your human neighbor to get that stuff out of their teeth.