If You Have a Crutch, Use It! Language crutches and discourse markers

On a recent phone call, the person I was talking to ended nearly every inquiry with “Perfect,” even if it had no application to our topic of discussion. I eventually realized she was using this as a filler word, also called discourse marker, to fill in the silence that accompanies speech between humans. People used to commonly use “awesome.” Others over the years have included the British “brilliant,” the old-fashioned “groovy,” the hipster “right on,” and a slew of others, including “um,” “ah,” and “like.”

Discourse markers fascinate me. Although they do nothing to add to the content of speech, simply slowing the discussion down and, if extreme, distracting listeners who start counting the number sprinkled here and there. They can give hints about the speaker’s age and, I believe, a bit about his background, educational level, gender, lack of social ease, and social class.

Women tend to use them more than men, as if fearful that silence equates to boredom. Men tend to overdo the F-word. I’ve eavesdropped on men talking to one another during which a variation of “f—-ng” served as noun, verb, object for nearly the entire conversation.

My grandson picked up a filler word relatively young. At the age of six, he started prefacing his discourses with “literally,” which he probably heard his big brother using. It does serve to facilitate his language because (1) it sounds somewhat adult, (2) it grants him a few seconds to organize his thoughts before spewing. His big brother seems to avoid many of the common discourse markers. For some unknown reason, he doesn’t feel obligated to fill in every second with speech. On the other hand, my granddaughter could serve as the poster child for filler words. Like a traditional Valley Girl (which she is not), she uses the word “like” in every sentence.

I figured out why. Her brain is speeding so quickly, she has to allow her mouth to catch up. There are some valid reasons to use discourse markers. Some others are to slow down your news, particularly if it’s bad; to show you’re thinking; to stall for time. In my example, my phone partner indicated she was listening to me and working to resolve our problem.

This verbal shorthand seems to operate well only when talking out loud. Still many experts say using them too much makes the speaker appear unprofessional and scrambling or pompous and wordy. Best to try to avoid their overuse.

Can you imagine how boring a written passage would be if laden with filler words? Hmmm. Maybe not. Might make the story ultra-realistic and relatable. As a writer, I find the idea intriguing and challenging. Perhaps it’s exactly what I need. You know?

SOME GOOD THINGS ABOUT AGING

The idea of getting old isn’t a happy one in our culture. Maybe in the centuries gone by the Chinese revered their elders; perhaps aging folk in other societies earned respect, a cozy place by a fire, and the finest tidbits of food. Certainly not true in our times. Even discussion about being old is abhorred by many of my friends.

In fact at a recent gathering of a small group, the others reacted like irate cats when I said we all are now old. “Don’t call me that,” one snapped. “I get around just as well as I did twenty-five years ago,” said another. “Old is a matter of attitude,” chimed in a third.

I admit that the term old has such a negative spin that I cringe every time I hear it, particularly since it’s usually associated with negative qualities. Why? At its heart, old is just a description, along the lines of tall or blond or thin. A state of being or existence, not necessarily to be associated with any value judgment.

I’m not naïve enough to believe my own statement. Descriptions most often carry an appraisal, a worth. So in an attempt to qualify old with some positives, I started thinking about what I’m finding is good about my increasing age.

I don’t have to pretend I care about nonessentials. I don’t like dogs, wasn’t raised with ‘em, am scared of them. My neighborhood runs rampant with the creatures, and some of them are aggressive, others bark or bound all over the walkway, most of them are irritating (shoving their noses up my privates). And, know what?, I’ll say something if they’re bothersome. Your babble about “he’s nice,” “he’s friendly” mean nothing to me. I never let my kids chew on people’s shoes or legs or lick them, and you shouldn’t allow your pet. Nowadays, I’ll tell you so.

My appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all of my personal concerns. Men don’t eyeball me whenever I’m out, and I’m relieved. So what if I failed to apply makeup or tint and curl my hair? The public doesn’t even register the attractiveness of aging women, and a little lipstick isn’t going to change this. Ditto about clothing. As long as I avoid flaunting nudity or dirt, that’s all that matters. I may have come by this attitude through genetics. My mother traded wearing bras for comfort at about 65. My dad, always eccentric, once wore rope for a belt. He opted for flannel and Hawaiian shirts as his uniform when he became eligible for Social Security.

Good nutrition often can be ignored. Within reason, my eating habits built over the years, including attempts at maintaining my weight, are so reflexive, they affect me automatically. I’ve stopped reading labels, juggling calories, wondering if an additive or preservative is going to negatively impact me. Thrown away my calorie and carb counters. Freedom!

In terms of the medical community, health care professionals tend to be laid back about tests, medications, and advice. Pap smears, breast exams, my Type 2 diabetes pills, the quantity and quality of my bowel habits, the push for dental implants, all have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps doctors realize, like a wise parent does, that I’m not making major changes at this stage of my life.

Also related to physical condition, some positives actually occur in the body. Oldies tend to get fewer colds. Not infrequently allergies lessen their impact on you. Mental capabilities for a number of areas can even improve–vocabulary, spatial orientation, verbal memory, and problem solving abilities. Age can provide a helpful perspective about what’s important and accumulation of certain types of knowledge.

Another good thing: age becomes a card I can play when I’m in a tough or delicate situation. When pulled over by a police officer years ago, I used to bat my eyelashes and flirt like crazy. Nowadays I do my best to emphasize my grandmotherly qualities. Who wants to envision a harmless little old lady being dragged to jail. Ditto on clumsiness, acting grouchy, forgetting an appointment or a fact. People have a great capacity for overlooking these errors once they realize I’m getting along in years. “Aaaah,” people breath in sympathy.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to me personally: I no longer feel a responsibility to resolve the world’s evils. Guilt no longer dogs my every thought. Used to be an incident of child abuse, domestic violence, international armed conflicts, starvation and failure of crops, the impacts of hurricanes and natural disasters, children isolated alone in armed encampments resulted in a round of obsessive thoughts. What can I do? What should I do? Why can’t our so-called leaders see what’s right the way I can? Evil has a finite limit. At the least it will come to an end for me when I die. And if I’m activated to do something, I can contact officials and call them assholes with impunity because I don’t worry if they think I’m impolite or stupid.

This comes down to just not giving a damn any longer. I know I can’t do much, so I give myself permission to stop worrying. Aging brings me a blessed relief and release. When I’m tempted to resume my burden, I recall a cartoon I saw years ago. An aging man sat at a table, his face wrinkled with apprehension. He said to his wife, “Don’t tell me I’m as old as I feel. I feel like I’m a hundred and seventy-eight.”

Finally, my rose-colored glasses have vanished

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Music has a remarkable ability to connect a person to memories and emotions. Hearing tunes probably is good for us. Studies say listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain. Recently I plugged in a CD (yes, I still listen to those) and popped in a Dylan album. I was immediately plunged into a sentimental voyage back to days when wild parties were fun and people’s politics were more important than the size of their bank accounts.

As the CD rolled on, I first became uneasy, then upset. Instead of a shimmery, warm blanket of nostalgia, anxiety welled up. The words were replete with messages, cautions, insights. The memories they resurrected were of marches, demonstrations, agitated arguments. “The Times They Are A-Changing” was the most poignant to me.

The order is rapidly fadin’

And the first one now

Will later be last

For the times they are a-changin’.

Did Dylan really believe his lyrics? Did I? I certainly claimed I did not; even then I was posing as a cynic. But as I hear the song again, and anguish wells up in me, I realize that I never acknowledged I’d been silently hoping all those years ago the times were changing. Now at the distance of decades, I shake my head at my own naiveté.

If anything, we seem to be regressing to much worse earlier times, in which people felt free to say anything they wanted and threaten anyone who didn’t agree with them. In which leaders bragged for taking advantage of those poorer, weaker, more disadvantaged. A period when evil could be implemented with impunity because it was the law, and no one questioned whether the law was good or bad. Robber baron industrialists were touted as heroes. Native American children were exiled to schools that only taught the white man’s history, and many groups of immigrants or ethnicities could only hope for the lowest, most degrading employment.

I thought about the advances I believed our country was making all that long time ago in the 60s and 70s— reducing discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and income; improving the education and health of the general populace; speaking out loud and clear about malevolent practices as we identified them be those environmental, legal, or social. Many of these were driven by Dylan’s insights and expression.

Nowadays, not only are we not treading water or staying even with social change, we’re sinking swiftly into a morass of inhumanity, ineptitude, and immorality, as children die on our borders, families are ejected from homes and jobs, talented students can’t afford to get advanced education, and the grossest tirades and accusations are leveled irrationally by our leaders.

Dylan may be a musical and literary genius. Makes no difference to the validity of his works. It’s time to return to yesteryear, and strengthen our consciences and wills. It’s past time to crack out these protest songs by Bob Dylan and others once again to inspire, enrage, and toughen our resolve. The least we’re required by good sense and conscience to do is be aware of what we’re losing. Perhaps we can resuscitate our collective integrity, pester ourselves to action. Once we do, I’ll decide if I should hunt down another pair of rose-colored glasses so I finally can convert to a full-fledged optimist.

 

On Being a Redhead or Simply Being With One

I just found out that January 10 is Kiss a Ginger Day. In case you don’t know, a “ginger” is someone with red hair. I have two reasons for being interested: I’m working on a short story about my neighborhood, which has an inordinate percentage of redheaded children, and I have two gorgeous ginger grandsons.

Contrary to the old perception of redheads, which was that they had fiery tempers, bad teeth, and were generally less attractive, I always liked red hair of every shade, from strawberry blonde to deep flaming tresses. My first boyfriend in the sixth grade had red hair, the smartest boy in the class. He also had the traditional less-desirable traits: glasses, lots of freckles, and already a nerd at the age of eleven. I imagine he went on to discover a cure for some dreadful disease or head a space research lab.

The prejudice against redheads is in rapid decline. Where once paintings of shifty, evil Judas Iscariot frequently portrayed him with red hair, now we know redheads have higher pain thresholds (although some websites say the opposite) and can manufacture more of their needed Vitamin D. Where once they were thought to be sneaky, now they’re believed to have stronger sex drives (I guess this wasn’t desirable in days gone by), There used to be a Kick a Ginger Day. No more. If you’re cautious with your kisses, in addition to the January 12 kiss-fest, there’s a separate Hug a Ginger Day on February 22. England, France, Sicily, and Italy have national festivals to celebrate their collections.

If you’re a redhead, or you like redheads, you’re in good company. Julianna Moore, Prince Harry, Jessica Chastain, Michael Fassbender, Reba McEntire, Sean White, Christina Hendricks, Damian Lewis. My very favorite is actor Colin Firth, who once was rejected for a major role because he was “too ginger.” Since that time he usually has dark hair in his films, edging toward gray nowadays. Speaking of gray, redheads tend to skip that stage, retain their red coloring until they turn white. If you wish you were redheaded, a dye job is easy to come by.

When people see my two redheads, I’ve been congratulated, then told stories about their positive traits—individualism, intelligence. So let’s hear it for the gingers. As a tiny percentage of the world’s population they’ve fascinated and frustrated us, tempted and taunted us. As for me, I’ll give my two gingers a big smacking kiss and hug for being the bright, wonderful people they are.

 

ORDERING FROM THE CHILDREN’S MENU: the brain-body connection

Everyone knows this country has an obesity problem. You don’t need statistics like the survey revealing that rates have increased significantly since 1999–2000, when 13.9% of children and 30.5% of adults were obese. In 2015-16, the survey found 18.5% of children hit the target while 39.6 of adults were obese. Rates differed by ethnicity, too, with whites less susceptible, and the higher-income and better-educated folks also less likely to over-indulge. A friend of mine used to chuckle over the stereotypes running rife at “natural foods” stores like Wild Oats and Sprouts, where skinny white women seemed to hold sway.

Fast food comes in for a hefty amount of criticism for its supposedly unhealthy ingredients and large portions. Servings in these establishments have grown parallel with the average body weight of a person from the 70s to now. People tend to eat the complete meal or serving regardless of feeling full or not. We’ve gotten used to larger portions, and we expect them. Common opinions include “I want my money’s worth,” and “We love coming here because the portion sizes are huge.” Most restaurants serve two to three times more than the healthy portion sizes recommended by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

There’s a simple solution, but one not generally supported by the food service industry. Order from the children’s menu. Most menus have a warning that diners must be under ten or twelve to order from the kids’. A few also allow senior citizens to indulge from the list, but many simply prohibit the practice.

Why? Rather than passing laws to ban “unhealthy” snacks in schools, why not insist that restaurants and places where people buy large helpings of food also offer smaller servings and approve ordering food by size rather than age?

Take a look at the average calorie content for McDonald’s children’s meals. A Hamburger Happy Meal clocks in at 475 calories, a 4 piece Chicken McNuggets® Happy Meal at 405 calories, and a 6 piece Chicken McNuggets® Happy Meal at 495 calories. Over at Olive Garden, eaters can easily keep their caloric intake at about 500 to 750 by selecting from the kids’ choices. These are reasonable amounts for many adults to eat, too.

The restaurant industry is generally not supportive of this move. I’ve landed in several major brouhahas with my determined requests to act childish. Well, if the businesses don’t favor this approach, why not cut the average size of a portion by 50% and reduce the price by only one-third?

I remember a Weight Watchers’ leader years ago telling the audience, “You’re the customer. Ask for what you want or take your business elsewhere.” Sounds like good advice to me.