A military father. Parents who worked at a big Chicago newspaper. A family of readers. A father who was a writer. Parents educated by Jesuits. An aunt and a brother who are lawyers.
My life as a child was built with words, with the right words, with people being persnickety about words. Language was the structure in which everything else happened. My world was filled with music, but that was the air, the atmosphere; words were the building. Books and newspapers and National Geographic magazines, whole collections of classic book series and my father’s stack of Michener books on his bed table. I was read to and I was asked about what I was reading. My mother reviewed my papers for school with her fine-point precise pen.
And so I defaulted to English as a major, when piano major study proved too performance-intensive for my introvert heart. The stability of English, the structure and possibility of words are a comfort after the exposure of being on the stage. Whole cities are built on words alone, words used to define and describe what the city will look like, who will buy what property, how tall their buildings can be, who can live where. For good or for bad, this structure is predictable. Reliable. The law uses words to conscribe our behavior. It changes over time, but we use words to decide how it changes. That’s why this current period of lexical changes is so exciting; we are making choices about how we want our world to be.
There is no excuse of “it’s just a word” in my vocabulary. I am clear and direct because if you’re not precise, you’ll be surprised. I’ve learned to use vernacular, to employ humor, to relax the structure in a heightened situation, to connect with people in kindness and warmth when the structure is too intimidating.
My work has taken me to strict places, to copy editing and proof reading and spreadsheets whose command language is coding-exact, more predictable to me than math. Spreadsheets are my math, because they require no belief system; how they operate is clear.
My husband is a programmer, a coder, a straight-line-drawer. His workplace loaned me the line “be precise or be surprised.” It’s brilliant in his work, and in mine.
When you’re working with other people, and when you’re answering to the instructions of an organization, if you don’t communicate clearly, you’re going to spend twice as much time sorting out the confusion than you would completing the task. Words matter. They matter particularly when you’re working on a project, a goal, moving toward a destination. No detours, no stopping to discuss feelings about the last billboard you just passed. This is when words matter the most. Do the job, do it efficiently, follow the words you’re given.
But people don’t like this. People don’t like how my soft and cuddly demeanor gives way to the rigidity of structured language. People don’t like finding the concrete backstop to my dimpled smile. It’s a shock. A betrayal of their expectations. How could someone so grandmotherly talk like a drill sergeant?
Because this is how I think. And this is how I talk.
Is there room in this world for me, too? There’s space for the noisy, the bright colorful unicorns, for sparkle wearers, for the dancers in the street. There’s plenty of room for whirling dervishes. But will this inclusive world make space for the pinstripe, the buttoned-up, the cotton-woven, grandmother types whose extreme joy lies in quiet moments in the forest?
I’m sorry, this is how I am.