As a child, I needed three skills to effectively communicate with humans. First was the physical capacity to vocalize. Check. The next requirement was a reasonable vocabulary. Roger. The last ability was putting my voice together with the right language to express myself. Two out of three ain’t bad.
I struggled to assemble words to convey meaning to others. It was easier to keep my mouth closed and suffer the occasional, “Why is Jim so quiet?” — uttered within earshot by well-meaning, but pain-inflicting, humans — than to give them more evidence to fuel their theories by trying, and failing, to speak. Instead, I smiled, enhancing my reputation as a happy silent child, as my frustration grew.
My younger brother Doug was my voice to the outside world. We shared a bedroom and a mind — as close to twins as siblings separated by two years could be. Beyond the home, we clung together. He knew what I needed. He spoke my thoughts.
At home, though, Doug realized his ability — to communicate when I couldn’t — was power he held over me. He became my tormentor, blaming me for his mischief. When my parents would scold me, I would stand, voiceless and frustrated, unable to formulate a defense. Rather than looking at my parents, I stared at my brother, confused by his betrayal. When the punishment crossed the border into the physical, I would glimpse Doug standing on the other side of the room, taunting me behind my parents’ backs, before I closed my eyes to the pain.
This went on for years. One time, Doug had methodically ripped every page of a dictionary in half and, again, I was in the crosshairs for his intentional misdeed. Finally, though, I realized there was a mathematical solution to my suffering. I knew what was coming. I planned my statement. I rehearsed the words I would need. And when I had my parents’ attention, I calmly made the case that it was statistically improbable to be always my fault. With that defense, the torture stopped overnight. Numbers became my lifelong companions, and my closest, cherished friends. Constant and consistent, numbers never let me down. They could save me when all else failed.
Another time, as my mother scolded me yet again, in this instance for an untidy room, my frustration at being unable to respond rose to a new height. I stood at the top of a short flight of stairs and, once more, found my voice in a new way. Lifting a line from a movie I had just seen, I pointed to the heavens and shouted, “You have earned the wrath of your son!”
It was an embarrassing awkward attempt, but it worked. Confronted with my raised voice and gesture, or perhaps just confused, my mother backed down. I latched onto the clear lesson: I could leverage memorized words and deliver them as original speech. I could play the part of an able communicator.
Finally, I had a method to fake my way through conversation. With practice, it went well beyond reenactment. I could translate the emotional content someone else conveyed on screen and repurpose it. I coopted dramatic dialogue from male protagonists to sway others. I adapted memorized comedy bits to get people to laugh — for the first time — for me, rather than at me.
And so, haltingly and consciously, I created my own voice. I mimicked others, not by imitating sounds as infants do, but by borrowing the thoughts and feelings of performers — and eventually family and classmates — adopting them as my own. I could express anger, grief, satisfaction and joy. I could influence the course of my life by using words to change the behavior of humans around me, to convey ideas and positions, to defend myself, to project intent. At last, I wasn’t merely pushed around by unseen human currents. I had a sail and rudder.
The fourth grade was my breakout year. I appeared in my first school play, as the fictional character King Henry. The name of the play was lost to me over the years, but I never forgot my first public spoken line, striding from the wings wearing a purple faux velvet and gold cardboard crown: “I’m King Henry! Where’s my son, Prince Stephen?”
I doubt it was due to my reputation for the portrayal of King Henry, but, later that year, I was plucked from the fourth grade class to be a pinch-Linus in the fifth grade’s production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I didn’t play the whole part. Instead, I was brought in to speak Linus’ complex monologue in the “Book Report” scene. None of the fifth graders could pronounce the words. The other characters around me sang — something I could never do — as I recited the only spoken words of the scene:
“In examining a work such as Peter Rabbit, it is important that the superficial characteristics of its deceptively simple plot should not be allowed to blind the reader to the more substantial fabric of its deeper motivations. In this report, I plan to discuss the sociological implications of family pressures so great as to drive an otherwise moral rabbit to perform acts of thievery which he consciously knew were against the law. I also hope to explore the personality of Mr. MacGregor in his conflicting roles as farmer and humanitarian. Peter Rabbit is established from the start as a benevolent hero. . .”
These lines, never forgotten, were mileposts in my journey to communicate. Speaking, even to an auditorium full of people, was easy enough as long as I knew what I was going to say.
Artists, writers, and even trade apprentices started by imitating masters, copying styles to adopt as their own. With practice, each student’s unique flair emerged and their artifacts became, by countless indistinguishable transformations, original. What was the difference between merely repeating lines and original speech? The boundary was fluid and the more I practiced, the shorter the lifted phrases became, as I combined them into sentences and conversations. I emerged from my probation still awkward, but with a verbal skillset I could call upon when necessary.
I never claimed mastery of language, especially not when impromptu. Conversation never came easily to me. My friends, my family and my wife accepted my verbal oddities, my long silences and my non-verbal days. They knew I was fond of repeating quotes. If I found a line I liked, it wasn’t unusual for them to hear it dozens of times in a day as I practiced and savored it, imagining scenarios where I could bring it into play.
I had enough skill to establish a career of some responsibility. I spoke well in meetings where I knew the material, but it was the workplace cafeteria conversation I struggled with. “Have you ever vacationed at Disney?” My natural response of, “No, simmering in an Orlando stew surrounded by all those bodies is my worst hell,” would not meet expectations. So I improvised. Joe Buck’s line from the 1988 film “Midnight Cowboy” as he argued with Ratso Rizzo, “How the hell you gonna get to Florida?” fell a little flat.
Last month, I travelled to our nation’s capital, as I do periodically, where my expertise allowed me to field legislative questioning reasonably. But I stumbled with the conversation in the Senate hallway beforehand. “Do you have children?” I wanted to answer, “No, I never had any desire for that human activity,” but I knew that would be unacceptable. I only had a split second. I could have repurposed Helen Mirren’s line from a February 2013 interview, when asked a similar question, with a dramatic “It was not my destiny.” I might have deflected, evoking sympathy with “Unfortunately, I am infertile,” not revealing it was voluntary. Instead, sweating, I hazarded, “No.” Then, recognizing the awkward subsequent silence, I followed up with, “How about you?” I didn’t let on there was a 2007 movie by that name.
If you dug deep enough, everything I have said would trace to others. All my words came from the books, radio and television programs, movies, show tunes and conversations with humans I observed and absorbed over a lifetime. With that raw material, I cobbled together a certain facility, enough so communication has not overly interfered with my goals in life. Brick by brick, I assembled a shaky tower of babble.