Post 24: In the absence of language

If these walls could speak

—they would no longer be walls.

It’s been a climbing-over-obstacles-to-get-at-TWICE kind of week here in Lake World-be-gone, my new home.

First, let me happily announce that my $6 replacement Cintiq cable arrived from Amazon on Tuesday—and SOLVED THE PROBLEM! YEAH!!! I have a working Cintiq again—without losing more weeks of time or tons of money. Phew!

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I’ve made some medical progress too—of sorts. The doc took chest x-rays—four of them—and discovered something of interest. I apparently have a condition called CPOD, Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease—likely ever since childhood, due to the severe pollen allergies and attendant chronic bronchitis I experienced all through childhood. Though my lungs are apparently large—possibly because of the same childhood conditions—and otherwise perfectly healthy—there is old scarring in my bronchial passages that makes the tissue there less elastic when I breathe, and prone to exaggerated inflammation whenever irritated. Respiratory infections like standard colds and flu have always gone straight to my chest with prolonged and unpleasant results—and now I know why! I just don’t know why it took 62 for some doctor to discover this. The upside—besides solution to a long-term mystery—is a very expensive inhaler that has cleared up my breathing marvelously, and a seven-day course of steroids that has not only banished most of my bronchial inflammation, but erased my chronic exhaustion completely—loaning me a week of energy and alertness that could not be more needed and perfectly timed! Another score!

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We also had a house guest for several days this week—an author-friend from Portland—with whom we had delicious meals, fascinating conversations, enjoyable hikes, and lively board and card games—all of which he won—because he is a winner!

On Monday, Shannon and I will be going back to America to pay yet another small but significant installment on the continuing cost of living in Paradise. I have my first ever colonoscopy at 8AM on Tuesday. (TMI? My bad. But, alas, too late to untype it now.) Because of the ferry schedules—and the need to make that two-hour trip before I’ve started guzzling laxatives and liquids the day before—that one-hour, 8AM procedure on Tuesday morning will mean spending two days in Anacortes—clearing my system for these fecal voyeurs, and recovering from the anesthesia—and whatever else they may decide to manicure in there while I’m ‘away.’ Just what I needed two weeks before launching TWICE.

We’ll be back home from that adventure on Tuesday evening, with three days to finish everything before we get back on another ferry to America to take my mother to her annual family reunion in Salem, Oregon—a trip from which we will return to Orcas on Tuesday evening of the following week—just two days before the TWICE launch! All of which gives me FIVE whole actual working days to finish getting TWICE ready by June 28th: setting up Patreon, Twitter, and MailerLite accounts as well as a new project-focused Facebook page, creating, revising and polishing the TWICE website and its many attendant illustrations through Episode Two, composing announcement posts and other website content, and more!

Whatever new broken furniture and burning cars life throws into my path next, TWICE will be ready—and awesome—on June 28th, because, in this endeavor, awesome is what I’m shooting for. Even if it means postponing my next blog post for a week. Fair warning. I hate to break my so-far perfect posting record, but…a clown’s gotta do what a clown’s gotta do. We shall see.

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Now you may better understand my dereliction of responsiveness to those of you who have sent me kind comments during the past month or two, and I beg your continued patience if I continue to be somewhat AWOL for the next couple weeks.

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All of this notwithstanding, spring marches on here, like ‘time and tide,’ waiting for no cartwheeling idiot. The flowering vines, columbine, rhododendrons, and irises have come and gone, but the roses, peonies, nasturtiums, salvia and poppies have arrived in brilliant force to take their places. Some strong, clever, and dexterous animal has figured out how to dismantle the spring-mounts holding up the ‘protection cages’ on our bird feeders—which, ironically, just causes those cages to fall down permanently over the feeder openings so that not even birds can reach a seed there. The best laid plans… I feel their pain. This island just gets more and more beautiful with each passing day, and however insane the next two weeks may be, Shannon and I are trying not to lose sight of what lies all around us—an endless string of gifts, if we are wise enough to pay attention…

And speaking of paying attention, I guess it’s time to rejoin our tour of the Cirque!

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This week at Cirque du High School, we are going to head, at last, for that most enticing, titillating, dark and dangerous of carnie attractions: The Tunnel of LOVE! Buckle in, ’cause this ride won’t be nearly as short as the others have been.

That said, there is, of course, the long line just to get inside. That wait alone may consume this whole week’s post, but don’t worry; there’s plenty of small talk to share while we shuffle toward the entrance.

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Let’s begin with…well, how about the extremely problematic English word, ‘love.’ Some languages have different names for each of the many kinds of ‘love’ there are. Ancient Greek, for instance, had all sorts of different words for different kinds of love. English has one word—with so many uses. I love pastry—I love you. I love summer. Like I love a brother or a sister? Or a lover? Or a parent or a son or daughter? I can love God—or a TV show. Which of these things do we not ‘love’ in English, and which of these loves is remotely the same? Does it even matter—this dearth of English words for a ‘crazy little thing like love?’ Surely, it’s about context, not just vocabulary. We all know very well what kind of love we mean.

…Or do we?

What if, instead of words like ‘red,’ ‘yellow,’ ‘blue’ or ‘green,’ our language had only the word ‘color.’ Just that one word for any and every hue—and the rest was up to ‘context.’ When talking with someone, we could just nod or point at the lovely yellow roses, or the red dress, or the blue sky and say, “Isn’t that a lovely color!” or, “I want a car that color.” They’d know which of the colors you were pointing at, wouldn’t they? The flowers—not the leaves? The red dress—not the green one on the woman behind her? The sky—not the clouds. And if we needed to evoke a particular hue in conversation with someone who was not physically present—in a letter, or during a phone call—we could just say, “the color of a daisy,” or “the color of an evening sky”—if you also made sure to identify the specific variety of daisy you mean, or evening skies were ever only one color. Yes, surely one word for all the different kinds of colors we might need to convey would be more than enough…

And this ride we’re standing in line for, the Tunnel of Love: is it going to be about the heart? The genitals? The mind? Is it going to evoke physical pleasure, emotional intensity, familial devotion, religious ecstasy, warm fuzzy comfort (with a person, or a thing?), the intense grief of loss, obsessive mental engagement, or a mouth full of peach pie? The answer is right there in its name, surely: Tunnel of LOVE! How much clearer could we be? I love this ride! Don’t you? …Not sure yet?

As many of you are likely aware, there’s been lots of research done about the relationship between language and perception, and the thesis that an absence of language can render our perception of ‘real’ things—both inside us, and in the surrounding world—either significantly altered, or even nonexistent.  There’s been a lot of controversy, too, about this connection between language and perception—and even about the veracity or fraudulence of some of the studies often cited by media in regard to this debate. But numerous verifiable research experiments continue to suggest a real and important connection between the words we have, and our ability to perceive things. You can see one such research paper here, if you wish: The idea that what we can say alters what we mean, how we see the world and ourselves, and even what we are capable of perceiving at all.

So, how might our language’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ name for ‘love’ be altering our perceptions and experience of it? That’s a gigantic conversation, of course; much too large to scratch the surface of here. So, forget I asked. :] This line we’re in isn’t that long. Let’s just pull back, and ask what ‘love’ meant in my family. …Funny, really, that the question hasn’t come up before—at all—in any of these posts…isn’t it?

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Let’s reduce our search parameters even further by saying right off the bat that ‘love’ in my family had almost nothing to do with pleasure—physical or emotional. We very definitely did love each other. None of us has ever questioned that for a second, that I’m aware of. We cared about each other, deeply. We all went to considerable—sometimes heroic—lengths at times to meet each other’s needs and expectations. It hurt us—badly—to hurt each other—which we seemed to do fairly frequently—and when we did hurt each other, there were almost no lengths we wouldn’t go to to repair that wound. Our lives, our fortunes, our core security, and our sacred honor were almost exclusively invested in each other. There was little we would not—or did not—sacrifice at some point for love of one another. My parents endured incalculable hardship and pain on behalf of each other and their children, and we three sons suffered greatly on their behalf as well, in our own childish ways. In my family, love was proved and measured by how much it hurt to fail the one you loved—how much you were willing to suffer for their sake—validated by its costs, not its rewards. Jesus died for us, you know. Very horribly. ‘Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another.’ There was perhaps no lesson anyone in our family had learned—and internalized—more fully than that one.

And not just from our religion.

In hindsight, I’d say that both of my parents—in very different ways and for very different reasons—came to their marriage with ‘significantly edited’ language for ‘delight’ in my mother’s case, and almost no language for it at all in my father’s—with one spectacular exception, which I will get to in a moment.

My mother’s parents were from two large, prosperous, reasonably happy and comfortable farming families of German extraction in and around Salem, Oregon, where they had been settled for generations. I knew many of them as great-aunts and uncles as a child. They understood fun, had great senses of humor, and clearly felt deep affection for one another. But the words, “I love you,” while conveyed and understood in countless small ways, were never said aloud. And while there was always lots of animated conversation and laughter, there was never any hugging, kissing, or affectionate touch of any kind. It just wasn’t ‘in the language.’

I’ve been told that when my mother’s parents first met my father’s parents, my Italian grandmother (who loved her soon-to-be daughter-in-law) walked up and welcomed my German grandmother with a big, warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. My German grandmother apparently went stiff as a board, wide-eyed with alarm and confusion—such effusive touch being utterly exotic to her.

Even more telling is the story about a great-aunt on my mother’s side, one of half a dozen children raised on her family’s large, happy farm, who was called to the house for breakfast one morning by her father, who apparently astonished her by using her first name. They tell me she’d had no idea until that moment that her father even knew her name. …I swear, that’s exactly what I’ve been told—on more than one occasion. The use of ‘names’, apparently, just wasn’t a regular part of that family’s otherwise cordial and comfortable family culture. ?

My mom herself came to marriage a reflexively (my father would—and did—say excessively) cheerful woman, well liked by numerous friends, with a life full of interests and activities. As I’ve mentioned, she met Dad while attending Mills College in Oakland, CA on a substantial scholarship. She studied music and languages, and graduated imagining an international career of some kind—perhaps in Paris—before marrying my father and spending her life raising four ungrateful boys—among whom I count my dad—instead. But she, like the rest of her family, would simply never have thought of hugging anyone, or saying, ‘I love you,’ even to her husband or children. Surely her love was self-evident. My parents did have sex, obviously, and one presumes touch was involved. But even between themselves, the physical affection they must have shared was virtually never visibly manifest in our presence.

The paternal Italian side of our family was—as I have mentioned in various previous posts—considerably grimmer. They laughed even harder than my mom’s family did—when they laughed at all, and hugged more freely, and fought more openly, and cried more easily. They were quite Italian that way. But their lives had been too deeply shaped by poverty, hardship, loss and grief, and, of course, both profound religious shame, and cultural shaming in this country. And beyond the hardships already described in other posts, the little bits of their internal family history I have heard are mostly even darker. Some breathtakingly abusive things had quietly been done to members of that family by other members of that family—in the old country and in the new. Horrific transgressions played out over lifetimes, which I will not go into here for reasons both of propriety and brevity—if you’ll excuse me for daring to utter either of those terms, as if anything about this series of posts merited or even allowed their use.

By the time I knew my Italian grandparents, they had achieved a fair amount of financial success and social respectability. But achieving that life had been an unimaginable ordeal, and the cost was weathered into their walnut-wrinkly faces, spoken in my grandfather’s taciturn silences, lamented in my grandmother’s mournful, half-whispered conversations with herself, barely audible little cluckings and moans as she went about her work; “But, but but…” under her breath, as if surrendering to some inevitability. “But, but but… What you gonna do?...” as she worked in the house, the kitchen, or the garden; for they were always working—quietly—at something. Their lives were almost entirely about forging on, keeping up, making do, patching, building, repairing, cleaning, cooking, saving, praying and shoring up, all as tireless as it was reflexive. By the time I knew them, they had money, but never a cent was spent on anything ‘unnecessary.’ Clothing and furnishings were meant to last until they fell apart completely. Plants for the garden were grown from seeds. They had leisure now, at last—invariably spent on useful, productive, repetitive tasks. Concepts like ‘delight’—frivolous, self-indulgent fun, much less luxury or sensual pleasure of pretty much any kind—had simply fallen off the map entirely somewhere long, long ago—again, not in some conscious rejection of or abstention from pleasure or delight, but in apparent obliviousness to the very possibility. His family were rarely the abbondanza kind of Italians—with that one giant exception I hinted at earlier.

FOOD!

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My father’s family’s entire capacity for sensual self-indulgence, joyful celebration, and unbridled excess, seems to have been invested in food. Perhaps because gluttony is the one ‘deadly sin’ no Italian Catholic I’ve ever met seems to take seriously? My grandmother, an illiterate goat-herd from the mountains near Genoa, was a cook of incandescent talent. Even I have no words sufficient to do justice to what she could put on a table. In this one way, at least, I am sorry for you all. You have never had Italian food like the food I ate—all the time—at my grandmother’s home. You may have been to Italy—lots. You may even have had food there as good as hers—but not like hers. Her cooking was unique. She was a legend in the kitchen—and, of course, there were no recipes. She didn’t use recipes, didn’t seem to understand the concept. She’d grown up unable to read, after all. Nonetheless, we tried to get them! More than a few of us followed her around as she grabbed pinches of this, and handfuls of that, and chopped up or ground out piles of the other things, forcibly swatting these ingredients out of her hands at times to measure and record them before she threw them into her old cast iron pots and pans. And, each time, the lists we documented so carefully proved entirely different from the last list captured during preparation of the very same family delicacies. Yet her dishes always tasted the same! It was magic, clearly. Old-country magic. My grandmother was not a ‘cook.’ She was an artist—if not even a sort of Christian witch—no strange concept at all if you know anything of old-world Catholicism. 

Meals at my Nonnu and Nonna’s house came to table in course, after course, after course. Actual entrees didn’t appear until at least several lighter entrees had already been consumed—and those after antipasti. My maternal uncle Bob talked virtually until the end of his life about the dinner he’d eaten there while Mom and Dad were courting. After two helpings of my nonna’s un-reproducible ravioli in mushroom sauce, he had apparently leaned back and called it the best meal he’d ever eaten—eliciting a moment of confused silence, then a round of stifled laughter from around the table as my grandmother started bringing out the platters of meat and poultry, rice torta, stuffed peppers and zucchini... Poor Uncle Bob was so out of his depth.

Not until everyone was slumped half out of their chairs, clutching their distended bellies and writhing in pain could one claim with a straight face that a Ferrari family meal was—well, nearly halfway over. And that did not count dessert—usually pineapple pie, amaretto cookies sprinkled with pine nuts, fresh walnuts, and Torrone flavored nugget candy. Unless it was a holiday meal, in which case a big, florid rum-cream cake and a pumpkin pie would be added to the menu. EVERYTHING my father’s family knew about ‘delight’ was served up in this one, extraordinary, basket—again and again—all cooked by her. She, and her daughter, my aunt Irene, were also the only ones who hugged: big, sloppy, face-buried-in-bosom hugs—that I always endured with queasy dread as a child.

The rest was all just waiting for the inquisition to arrive. Or for hunting season. Whichever was closer.

Oh look! I think the line has moved a bit! Guess I’d better speed this up.

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All of which is to say that, yes, we did know something about delight and pleasure in my family. They were things we ate—and not infrequently. Otherwise, we had virtually no language for ‘delight.’ Especially physical pleasure or affection. These were not just ‘indulgences’ or ‘temptations’ we scorned or sacrificed for some reason. They seemed literally outside of our ‘experiential vocabulary.’ We didn’t ‘resist them.’ They just never occurred to us.

Thus, the forms of enjoyment or excitement that I came to adolescence acquainted with were all of various creative, cerebral, and/or social kinds. I loved a good movie or book as much or more than most. I loved music—of nearly any kind, and listened to it obsessively at home. I loved nature and the out-of-doors—particularly the ocean and everything that lived in it. When we visited the seashore on our summer camping trips, I often ran out to the beach as soon as we arrived to stand on some rock in the surf and greet the sea by singing to it—literally—at the top of my lungs. I loved to hike—alone—up in the mountains we visited every summer as well—which, for some inexplicable reason, I was allowed to do—all day alone in trackless bear country. (Did my father trust me more with nature than he did with civilization, I wonder? Or was he just more open to the possibility of losing me out there somewhere than to losing me at home? …come to think of it, I did sort of learn to swim by chasing small change my father used to toss into the deep end of any pool we happened by… But I digress.) I loved to draw pictures, and make little models of all sorts of things—not from kits, but from scratch and household junk. I loved aquariums, and shells and mineral specimens, and dead butterflies pinned to mounting boards. I loved Christmas more than any other annual event—the lights, the music, the glitter and the FOOD! And I loved, loved, loved approval—from anyone. Impressing someone—anyone—for almost any reason—made my day.

But you may notice that none of these are physical or sensual loves. Never in a million years would I have thought of acquiring some piece of clothing because it ‘felt good.’ A soft sweater? A silky shirt against my skin? A cushy pair of socks? What, are you from Venus? By my sophomore year in high school, I had developed such a frequently recurring ingrown nail problem on my left big toe that permanently disfiguring surgery was finally required to prevent the infections this kept causing. When the doctor saw my hard-soled, leather dress shoes, he became almost angry. “That’s the problem, right there,” he told me fiercely. “I want to see you in tennis shoes from now on! Something flexible that breathes!” My father wouldn’t hear of it, of course—even then. As I’ve noted in a previous post, tennis shoes sent too scandalous a message to others about my morals and discipline—not to mention the dangerous message being allowed to wear them might send me—that it was perfectly permissible to be a juvenile delinquent. So I remained in hard-toed wingtips—and hardly minded. I understood as well as any of us did that clothes were about practical functionality—like covering my body and easy washability—and about conveying a message of respectability to others—my parents’ friends, at least, if not my own—but not, in anyone’s wildest imagination, about ‘comfort,’ much less pleasure. Bath towels were for getting water off your body and keeping the floors dry. Sheets and pillow cases were there to keep smelly boy-grime off the mattress and pillows, not for pleasure on the skin. Who’d go there? Why? ‘Febreze’ was a French word not even my mother understood. Nothing in our house was ‘soft’ or ‘smelled good.’ I’ve never stopped ribbing my mom about the time I asked to attend some evening event in high school, and she told me I’d “already had too much fun that week.” With a straight face. (It disgruntles her when I bring this up. She always points out that she only said that once.)

And all this was doubly true when it came to physical contact. Even as children, we were rarely if ever hugged, never kissed that I recall. There was no sitting in laps or ‘snuggling,’ no patting faces or heads or shoulders, no neck-rubs or stroking arms or massaging feet. We never even had furry pets. I was allergic to them. No one in our home ever got their belly rubbed, for heaven’s sake. My god, what a bizarre notion—except we never actually thought anything like that, because we never thought of any of those things at all. There was – no – language for such things in our lexicon—as a family or as individuals. Neither of my parents had been raised to such experience or expectations, and there was no recognized need of them for any practical purpose at home. I didn’t even want any of that marvelous, sensual food to touch my lips as I ate it! Remember that fork scraping my teeth in the first grade? …It went deep—this ‘touchless’ thing.

What little touch did occur at home as I grew up was either functionally necessary, or punitive—though my parents decided that spanking us was not constructive when I was about seven or eight, and stopped doing it. When my wife and I were first dating, she expressed concern on several occasions about the way I sometimes flinched when she leaned in to hug or kiss me. She reminded me of this a couple days ago, as we were discussing this upcoming post, and of what I said to her about it one night back then. “Well, you know, my body’s not really attached to my brain,” I joked. “I’m not sure I was ever even touched at home—after the spanking stopped.”

And therein lies the point of all this in-line small talk. I came to adolescence with a body virtually unplugged from the rest of me. I had simply never much noticed my ‘container,’ except when there was something wrong with it—and even then, it took more pain or dysfunction than you might expect—especially from a child—to draw my attention, much less complaint. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I received allergy shots several times a month for many years starting in junior high school, and one afternoon, the needle broke off in my arm. I just grinned up at the mortified nurse administering that shot, bent my arm, actually flexing the muscle in which that needle was still embedded, and said, proudly, “Been eating my Wheaties!” Not so much as an, “ouch!” No, real recognition of pain at all. Looking back at that grammar school fight in the park—where I was straddled and hit in the face over and over—I remember much more vividly what was going on in my mind at that moment than what it felt like in my face. Not sure I really paid half as much attention to the physical pain as I did to the emotional content. My body was then—and, to a much smaller degree, still is—just a sort of tractor that carries my brain around in a pickle jar to wherever it needs to go. I don’t ‘feel it’ much more than a corn farmer ‘feels’ his combine. Beyond the enormous exception of eating, of course, physical sensation of any kind, much less sensual pleasure, was more like vague—sometimes irritating—background noise for me than focal experience…

…until I started getting erections.

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Oh my! This line has really picked up speed! We’re practically at the entrance. Better save the rest until we’re inside, huh?

No need to go find your rain coats, though. Not that kind of ride. We’ll be keeping all extremities safely inside the vehicle in this tunnel—for whatever comfort—or disappointment—that may bring you. But one warning: though you’ll have no cause to close your eyes, you may very well be rolling them—a lot. It might be wise to do some eye-rolling exercises this week, so you won’t strain those muscles when you see what ridiculous thing brought my rising star crashing back down.

See ya next week—or not, cyber-pals. :] (If getting TWICE launched and two days in America for a colonoscopy doesn’t force me to postpone it for a week. As always—the future is uncertain at best.)

Mark Ferrari4 Comments