Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Failures to Communicate (Cleveland Post, January 19, 2012)

My friend Marguerite says its a miracle any time communication is successful. I used to think that was rather harsh.

One can communicate such simple things as 'Pass the salt' without language, assuming one's table partner is willing to communicate.

On the other hand, even when the words are the same, the tone of voice can give them opposite meanings. We've all been on the receiving end of "I'm sorry" when it was the truth and when the actions surrounding the words inserted a big fat "Not!" at the end.

Common knowledge should allow the use of fewer words without loss of meaning. For instance, my daughter and I both know the contents of her wardrobe. Therefore, when I remind her to get her red sweater on her way to the car, I shouldn't have to specify the new one because the old one is ratty looking and two sizes to small and she knows we are on our way to a party. I shouldn't have to, but I do.

Communicating with hypothetical people is even more challenging. On the maid's cart in the hotel, wedged between the dirty laundry bag and extra rolls of toilet tissue, I saw a spray bottle half full of purple liquid. The name of the stuff (two words, at least six syllables each, assembled according to IUPAC naming conventions) was printed in small letters. Perpendicular to this, in large capitals read top to bottom, it said 'DO NOT DRINK.' I am certain those able to read the chemical name are not in danger of drinking the stuff. My guess is that the folks who are drawn to drinking things because they are purple don't pay much attention to labels. So who was the warning for?

Even when the language and the money are the same, the culture and experience may not be, leaving gaps in context and common knowledge. On our annual sojourn North, we had an incident of this sort.

We landed in the wrong toll lane. This, after successfully paying our way over five bridges, through one tunnel, and along one stretch of turnpike (to the tune of over $20 bucks, but that's another story). The challenge lay in traveling without EZ-Pass and having to figure out which side of the toll-plaza housed the 'CASH' booth. It is a challenge we are up to and gladly endure. It is eased by the courtesy and professionalism of those collecting our cash. That is, until the incident.

We came to a stretch of road that apparently had a new toll plaza. Large, wordy signs directed cars with EZ-Pass, and trucks and trailers with and without EZ-Pass, but no sign for cars without EZ-Pass. Not to worry, experience suggested we should just follow the signs for trucks without EZ-Pass; we were not the only passenger vehicle to do so and pulled up as the car ahead of us moved on.

"You're not supposed to be here," the woman snarled and waved us on. Taken aback by this rudeness, we just sat there for a moment. Unwilling to let such rudeness stand, and trying to be helpful and not critical, I said politely, ''The signs were not clear." My husband started to pull away.

"Oh, the signs were clear," she snapped at our backs, even nastier than before. Her tone made her meaning clear: she called me a liar and hinted at stupidity.

It shocked an ugly name right out of my mouth. I took the opportunity to demonstrate to my children how to apologize for being out of control.

The woman made no sense. How could someone take an honest mistake by total strangers as a personal insult? And how could she be so sure everyone understood missing information the way she did?

No clue, until a week later. Home again, in that place where the world makes the most sense, not because it is sensible, mind, but because the language spoken is ours. Home again, and settled in to catching up on all the papers, we found a possible the answer to our puzzling witch.

You see, New York had the new EZ-Pass system NCDOT installed on I-540, the one that takes pictures of license plates and sends a bill if you don't have the transponder. Maybe it looked like we bypassed the cameras, cheated New York out of its toll and then had the gall to pretend we didn't know what we had done.

It bugged me enough that I contacted the New York State Thruway Authority for a definitive answer. Nope. There is no toll for passenger vehicles on that stretch of road. We didn't cheat anybody out of anything.

Some things we'll never know.

Maybe Marguerite has a point.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

January: In and Out, Back and Forward, Endings and Beginnings

January. Thanks to the collision of Percy Jackson (as in The Lightning Thief), Xena (as in "Warrior Princess") and social studies (as in the 6th grade curriculum on the Ancient World) with my daughter's imagination, January's relationship to the Roman god Janus is one of our current topics of conversation.

Janus: the Roman god of doorways and gates, beginnings and endings, and decisions. He was quite popular back in the day and his distinctive head (with two faces, one looking back, one looking forward) appears frequently on ancient coins and carvings. In our time, he also shows up in the name of a door manufacturer and a family of mutual funds.

Doors, decisions, financial questions, endings and beginnings are such January things. Doors open to welcome company, closed against biting winds. Year-end tax issues, charitable contributions, decisions on the benefits package from an employer, New Year's resolutions.

And another year older, both ourselves and the ones we love.

I did some looking back this fall. I asked my mother about a specific group of pictures taken by my father's parents on a trip to his home town in Georgia. She brought out what she had.

I didn't find the pictures I was looking for. I found something I needed: pictures of smiles. Smiles I was not around to witness, was to young to notice or had forgotten in the more recent years when they were thin on the ground.

I found a picture of my grandfather taken in the early days of his life with my grandmother. They must have been traveling, for a car features prominently in the background. A boyish joy radiates from the sepia image, even though he was 31 when they married. By the time I knew him, he was imposing and sometimes stern in the way of grandparents born in the first decade of the 20th century. It was hard to imagine him being young, being something other than the upright head of the family I remember from childhood, or the quiet gentleman courteously stepping aside for his rushing children and grandchildren as the world changed and his mind began to fail him. But there it was, in that picture.

I found pictures of my grandfather's beloved baby sister. She never married but lived quite a life. Pictures of friends - oh, I wish I knew how to be the friend she was. Photographs from trips to England and Italy, and to visit us. I had known how much fun she was to be with, but had been was too young to notice the beauty and confidence of a woman who had gone after what she wanted. I noticed it now because old age stole the confidence and left her with only depression and memories of depression. This sad person was the one at the top of my memory stack. It was good to be set straight.

And I found a picture of my grandmother, the woman who made by grandfather grin like a boy. She was a loving grandmother, but not the warm and fuzzy type. The box of toys she kept for us was very small and unimaginative (to my mind). She had high expectations and was hard to please. I remembered proper, grandmotherly smiles, not laughter. But my mother had snapped a picture that told a different story. There she is, at the head of the children's table one Christmas, beaming at us and laughing with us over something extremely funny.

It is a crying shame that the evils of the present can work back and eat at the love and joy that used to be. It's not that there was no pain or heartbreak, because there was. Even (maybe especially) humans that love each other can do horrible things to one another. But to remember only the bad isn't healthy.

My heart is lighter now. Looking back gave me these smiling faces to replace the weary, even blank shadows of later photographs. I have my family back in a way I never thought possible. And I have perspective that sends me forward in peace.

Healthy heart. Moving forward. Peace. January.


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(Cleveland Post, January 5, 2012)