Friday, January 1, 2010

Meeting Tom, Dick and Harry, or On Learning Language

Beach
My three vacation companions...

My body recoiled against the cold last week, wishing me back into a warm building rather than the stale cold of my car. I tried to guess what the temperature was, with and without windchill as the car hummed back to life. As I drove past a digital sign flashing the temperature, I noticed how wrong I was.

I have lost my touch.

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When I was in high school I became very good at determining how cold it was outside. After school every day someone would stick a thermometer in the snow, and bring it in to our ski team to report what kind of wax we would be using.

Temperature matters a lot in cross country skiing. If the snow is close to freezing, it is fast. If it is far below zero, painfully slow. There is wax for warm snow, cold snow, new snow, old snow, and every combination in between. If the temperature shifts ten degrees, there’s a good chance you’ll want a different wax.

And thus, knowing exactly how cold it was every day I went out to ski, I became very familiar with what certain temperatures “feel” like.

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When I was in college I did some research on the Eskimo population and culture. One of the most interesting things I learned was how many different words they had for snow. While the author tried to explain why this was important to their culture (while insinuating it was not as important for our own), I understood instantly. I could think of countless times where different descriptive terms would have been helpful in describing snow conditions.

As an English teacher I struggle to urge my students to use good descriptive words. “In your list of descriptive adjectives, I don’t want to see any words like ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘nice’, or ‘mean’. Be original. Make me feel like I really know something about what you are describing.”

Circulating the room I will hear them reminding and chastising each other: “She said you can’t use ‘nice’. No, ‘good’ won’t work either.” Words are powerful, I try to remind them. We play games with Thesauruses. We make lists of vocabulary words. Still they seem to prefer boring generalities, like “snow”.

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I recently vacationed with my husband and two friends, all three of which are in graduate school for medical professions. With two doctors and one physical therapist, conversations sound less than standard as we sit around for dinner. “I strained my arch walking on the beach today,” I comment.
“Where does it hurt?” my husband asks. Next, the physical therapist traces her finger along the line on my foot I am pointing to.
“I think it’s Dick, of Tom, Dick and Harry” Curtis comments, referring to the mnemonic he used in memorizing the tendons.
“Yes” she replies, “though it’s commonly mistaken for plantar fasciitis”
“So what is it called? This tendon I strained?” I ask, as I spoon another helping of freshly squashed guacamole onto my plate.
“The flexor digitorum longus” one of them finally replies.

Yes, this really was a conversation.

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Words indeed are powerful. The ability to name and describe and express and explain effectively are things I teach on a daily basis, and truly value. Similarly, in medicine it is vital that one be able to identify exactly what and where problems are, so that a solution can be determined. When something is named, it is valued. It is given worth. It takes on significance as an individually important item or experience worth noting.

And maybe that is why I like writing. In the end, I am truly appreciating things more by enumerating them with words, able to look back and remember and experience life once again…

…for each unique and individual experience.

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