Sunday, March 6, 2011

As It Stands: Word struck? Don't let it bother you, there's probably a good reason

By Dave Stancliff/For the Times-Standard

Posted: 03/06/2011 01:30:25 AM PST

Have you ever been struck speechless? Momentarily stunned by a comment or something you saw? At a complete loss of words? Tongue-tied? I have. On my first date in junior high. It was really pathetic. I searched for words to impress my date and made croaking sounds that scared her instead!

The first time I had to stand up in front of a class to make a speech, I lost my voice. I stood, pointed at a chart and coughed. And coughed. Words barely discernible as human came out of my mouth, mocking my efforts at communication. The teacher took pity on me, pretended I made sense and gave me a passing grade.

I once saw a little Vietnamese boy carrying a lizard so big he had it wrapped around his neck. He held the writhing snout with a calm ease born from experience. The lizard looked like a miniature Godzilla to my inexperienced Western eyes.

There we stood in a rice field. The boy was in a hurry to get home but willing to stop and chat if he could “souvenir” something off me or one of the other guys in the platoon. I pointed at the squirming lizard and held my hands up in the universal gesture of a question. The boy smiled and said “Numba one chop chop!”

I smiled back and tried not to gag. I really didn't have a thing to say. I'd recently tried a local fish-head stew that smelled so bad I stuffed my nose with Vicks vapor rub in order to eat it.

 When I think about it, I've been wordless many times in my life:

 “Where have you been all night young man?”

No response.

“Who said you could take that last piece of pie?”

No response.

“What were you thinking?”

No response.

You get the idea. It's pretty common to be at a loss for words. I've given this a lot of deep thought (about five fully focused minutes), and I think it's a survival instinct. If you say nothing, it's better than saying the wrong thing. Think about it:

“Where have you been all night young man?”

“None of your business...” This is where harm comes in.

“Who said you could take that last piece of pie?”

“Grandma ... she appeared to me in a vision ... .” This is where you get to stare at the wall for the rest of the afternoon.

“What were you thinking?”

“That I wanted to get fall-down stupid drunk and tell you ... .” This is where your mate locks the front door and lets you sleep it off on the front step.

Sometimes silence is golden. Or better than a truthful alternative. Then there are times when words can't describe what you're seeing. For example, when I watched each of my three sons enter this world, I was without words. My world tilted each time but no fine speech sprang forth to honor the birth.

No mere words could describe those moments of new life I shared with my wife. I saw my past and my future. Life and death often leave us speechless. The passing of my sister and brother, both so young, left me mute with misery each time. Words were dust in my mouth.

I used to have a friend whose mother always said, “Well, hush my mouth!” He'd tell her he got an A in a test at school and she'd squeal, “Well, hush my mouth!” happily. He'd describe a fight we witnessed and she'd say, “Well, hush my mouth” in awe at the description of carnage. I never understood that expression.

After 60 years of experiencing times when words were worthless or needless, I'm still amazed at how quickly they flee in times of stress, pressure or pleasure. For example, when you get a back rub and are asked if it feels good, words seem unnecessary and a contented sigh says everything!

As It Stands, the next time someone asks you if the “cat got your tongue?” just smile like the Cheshire cat in Alice and Wonderland, and don't answer.

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