In February, 20 girls from a small town in rural New York made news by twitching uncontrollably.
Some experts blamed their spasms on physical causes, perhaps seepage from a 1970 cyanide spill miles away. Others stressed psychological factors and talked about mass hysteria.
I watched their televised jolts with sympathy. It must be dismaying to have your right arm jerk abruptly into the air and twist into unusual configurations every few seconds.
I’m unhinged by five minutes of hiccupping.
I’m thinking I should try to muster the same compassion for people who have verbal tics.
I don’t mean the unstoppable outbursts associated with Tourette’s syndrome, but the overused words, phrases or syllables that mindlessly litter spoken communication — actually, you know, like, anyways, um — thoughtless repetitions that seem particularly galling when used by loved ones.
A few months ago, I read a letter to Dear Annie in the newspaper: “Over the years, my husband has developed an odd habit. If asked a simple question, such as, ‘Would you like another cup of coffee?’ he replies, ‘If you are so inclined.’ I find this peculiar, not to mention condescending, and it’s driving me crazy.”
If I were Annie, I’d tell her to run away from home.
My normally patient mother rolled her eyes and looked grim when my father, preparing his bowl of oatmeal, habitually said, “Please pass the shug, Shug,” Seems like a small thing, but hearing it several mornings a week, year in and year out, might wear on a person.
Sometimes Joel mentions a minor flaw in my operating system: “I wish you wouldn’t turn off the basement lights when you know I’m down there,” or “I hate it when you put my coffee cup in the dishwasher before I’m finished with it.”
When I give my routine response, “I know you do, Joel,” I’m struck by his resemblance to Mom on oatmeal mornings.
My sister Barbara once developed a conversational habit that turned her siblings violent. When asked a question, she’d give an answer followed by “hint, hint.”
“Barbara, would you quit banging on the piano?”
“No, I won’t. Hint, hint.”
Our days were filled with hint hints and thumps.
My first principal relied heavily on behoove. He behooved the staff to use less construction paper, the students to walk in the halls, and the school board to think twice. Every staff meeting ended with “And one last thing: it would behoove you include more detail in your lesson plans.”
An elderly teacher began entertaining everybody during staff meetings by dropping his pencil to the floor for each behoove. He quit after a record-setting 12 drops, claiming bending over to retrieve his pencil so many times made him lightheaded.
While on a cruise, Joel and I, along with 50 other good-timers, crowded onto a powerboat that ferried us from our ship to the port of Belize.
A young Belizean welcomed us aboard and explained the rules, relying heavily on “right” to check our understanding: “Life jackets for adults are under the seats, right? You should put them on children first, right? And please stay in your seats until we arrive, right?”
He had more than his share of charm and a bright smile, so the passengers began responding with a good-natured “Right!” each time he asked.
He smiled more broadly and got the last laugh by saying, “You don’t need to say ‘right!’ every time I say ‘right.’ Right?”
I sometimes watch a cable talk show during which a panel discusses political issues and current happenings. One of the moderators begins most of her opinions with “I’m sorry, but …”
I long to say to her, “Frankly, my dear, it would behoove you to buck up, if you will; in other words, quit apologizing. Actually, you know, I don’t think you’re sorry. Get it? Like, in all honesty, if you were sorry, technically, you, um, wouldn’t continue, right? Hint hint.”
So, anyways, where was I? If you will.
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