Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tools You Can Use

I’m a tool collector. My favorite category is words. I love words, in fact I prefer to use them more than any other tool set I own. I have books of obscure words and collections of quotations and aphorisms and dictionaries and programs that define and even translate expressions, slang and word origins. All of those are tools I can use. I prefer, however, to keep my special collections for inspiration and the pure pleasure of discovery and understanding.

The tools I use most are everyday words, in ways that help me tell stories that readers can understand and appreciate. When I’m reading, and have to stop and reach for one of my chair-side dictionaries, the author has lost me at least for a few minutes, and sometimes that loss is permanent. Writing, at least for me, is a way of sharing something I feel or understand or find mystifying, but if I cannot communicate that to a reader or listener or viewer, then I have failed at what I do.

Sometimes though, I use those tools to absolutely confuse or distract. Even when I was very young, I would try to defuse or deflect an antagonist with words. Sometimes it worked, and at others I would eventually have to resort to physical means to escape from a bad situation. Being taller than most of my peers, and skinnier than a beanpole, I somehow seemed to be a target for playground bullies, but overall, I didn’t have too many fights or bad times. When I did have to fight, my long arms would give me an advantage, and eventually the one trying to beat up on me would give up and go find another target. Still, I persisted in using words to defend myself. Later I learned how to use them to assert myself and remain in control.

 Once, when I was no longer a kid, I was asked for advice by a young person of my acquaintance. She had fallen into the target area of a larger, older, bullying kind of girl in the public school she attended. Her purse had somehow disappeared from her bookbag or desk, and a day or so later, in the girls restroom, she was approached by the older, larger girl. “Wanchapurseback?” The older girl ran the words together so quickly that the intended victim had to ask her several times to repeat it until she understood the question: “Want your purse back?” Then she had to parse “Whatchagonnagimmeforit?” which ultimately translated that into “What are you going to give me for it?”

The person seeking my advice told the bully that she had no money. It was later that day that my advice was sought. Here’s what I suggested she say: “I lost my purse. I don’t have it anymore. If it’s gone, I don’t have it. If I get it back, I will have it, but if I don’t, I won’t. If I don’t have it, its gone. What’s gone is gone, and won’t come back.”

The next day, when the two were alone, the younger girl trotted out the words I had offered. At first the bigger girl just listened, then (according to the younger girl), she blinked, she looked confused, and finally, saying nothing, walked away. Later that day the purse magically appeared on the desk of the intended extortion victim. It was a lesson well learned.

Just as a hammer will drive a nail, or mash a finger, words can help us do things we need to do, or cause us to do things we don’t want to do. But words, like a hammer that hits the nail, bends it and then lands on a fingertip, can have unintended consequences. It is necessary that we learn how to use the tools we have. Even then, you can’t always know what the ultimate use of those skills will be. For my young questioner, use of words became a skill that, later in her life, she used as a crisis and hostage negotiator.

You never know, when you pick up a tool, what the end use will be.


  1. Words is fun......

  2. Having always been quite articulate, and praised by my parents for being such, it really struck me in my teens when a girl (who I liked a lot) told me that I sometimes used my words as weapons. I asked my parents about it, and they said that yes, when you have a gift in something, it's always tempting to misuse that gift and that I couldn't be expected to be above that temptation, though now that I was aware of it, it was something I should address. It really had an effect on me and I still remember it today if ever I feel I'm on the verge of using my words as such. People forget how exceedingly powerful words can be, especially from (and to) those that we love.