Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Winter word riffs

"One kind word can warm three winter months."

—Japanese proverb

Yes, and a hard one can freeze three in summer. A dishonest one can keep the flowers from blooming in spring. And an ignorant one can take the colors out of the most vibrant autumn.

Words matter on both the obvious plane and in the private psyche of each person. It is important to get them right, whether speaking or writing, and equally important when hearing or reading. Though I have seen it attributed to both Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, the maxim "The difference between the right word and the just-right word is the difference between the firefly and the fire" reiterates the power of the word.

Words, of course, are used to justify war, in pursuit of love, to sell automobiles and hamburgers, to describe the mechanics and consequences of governments and nuclear reactors, to make understandable to laymen the work of brain surgeons and philosophers. The job of words is to tell a story, and, keeping in mind that a word is not the thing described in the same way that a map is not the terrain itself, words do their job, though often enough the story told is not the one the storyteller intended.

U.S. presidents have been masters of the word telling the unintended story. None, perhaps, have surpassed Bill Clinton's near haiku, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," though George W. Bush made up in quantity of unintended stories what he lacked in quality. Bush's dinner-speech quip "You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on" is pretty good by any standard.

But American politicians get picked on and picked apart all too often and easily for the words they use and misuse and misspeak and can't recall. Catching politicians and other public figures telling the unintended story is, as the old idiom has it, "Like shooting fish in a barrel," which might be necessary and can be fun but it kills the fish. And in a democracy the metaphorical fish and the shooter are not separate, a point deserving of more contemplation than, in my view, it appears to be getting.

Each person—you, me and the nearly 7 billion people and growing by more than 160,000 a day on this earth—has far bigger fish to fry, so to speak, than the politicians of the day in his sights. As one who writes, it seems to me that choosing one's own words while at the same time noting those of others carefully is a good place to start anything.

Keeping in mind Rita Mae Brown's observation that "In America the word 'revolution' is used to sell pantyhose," the just-right word(s) have the capacity to start more traditional revolutions, even personal ones.

The phrase 'Say what you mean and mean what you say' is an excellent modus operandi when speaking or writing, assuming, of course, that reality and meaning are somehow connected and that all involved acknowledge and understand things like irony, satire, understatement, exaggeration and nuance. Also assuming that you have the courage of your words and are not hiding under the coward's cloak of anonymity and being mean rather than saying what you mean.

A few months ago an American citizen was murdered by pirates while jet skiing on Falcon Lake on the Texas/Mexico border. People had been robbed on Falcon Lake before, but this was the first murder. Not long after this event I wrote a column in praise of a politician I admire but who is not admired by all. What politician is? One of the comments to the online version of the column from someone who goes (anonymously?) by the name Taco read "Dick and Pat (Murphy) should both jet ski to Mexico." In other words, what this writer means is that Dick and Pat should be murdered because the words we write are not in accord with Taco's worldview, or, at the least, political persuasion. I personally, professionally, philosophically and politically am not in favor of murder in any circumstance, but advocating it for exercising a citizen's rights (and, in my view, duties) as spelled out in the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution courageously accompanied by the authors' real signatures, including George Washington and Ben Franklin, is troubling.

To be kind, perhaps Taco just had a bit too much hot sauce and sees humor in spewing easy if thoughtless, anonymous words about hard realities.

Emily Post advised never discussing politics or religion at the dinner table. That's a good guideline at most but certainly not all dinner tables. It can sometimes be easier on everybody to not let food for the body be compromised and upset by food for thought.

But if there's no way around discussing politics, a good set of words to stick with is the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment, which in my view is composed of kind words of the tough-love variety. The First Amendment will warm the coldest winter.

And if religion arises, remember the Dalai Lama's words: "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness."

Words to take and freely speak and write through a long, cold winter.

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