Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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Pity Tits, a Guatemalan Handshake, and Why the Business is Awful

A few weeks ago, I asked a friend a simple question: “Would you like some music in your ears?” He cocked his head to one side and didn’t answer. I paused. Two seconds passed. Three. I took a breath and repeated the question, “Would you like milk for your tea?”

I’ve lost count since moving to Southern California how many have mistaken me for — in the local parlance — voice talent. Those who like the sound of my voice have no idea how much work goes into maintaining it.

See, my brain doesn’t work. Hasn’t for years. Not since I was a kid, not the way it’s supposed to, anyway. Every single day, all day, the wrong words threaten to tumble forth in a cascade of nonsense, non sequiturs, and outright gibberish. At times, I cannot understand the utterances that come out of my own mouth. We’re not talking about occasional faux pas that anyone could commit or the torrents of vulgarity one experiences with Tourette’s syndrome. Instead, I am plagued by phrases and words that don’t fit the conversation. Sometimes, they wouldn’t fit any conversation. Most of the words are real; some aren’t. Some real words are strung together in meaningless phrases. Often, I couldn’t articulate the right words if my life depended on it.

Take the Quarantine, an old Charles Baker cocktail made with Filipino rum. Last Autumn, I visited Smuggler’s Cove, Martin Cate’s fantastic rum bar in San Francisco. Filipino food is some of my favorite, but I hadn’t had Filipino rum, so I leaned in to bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos and confidently asked “How about a Guatemalan Handshake?” Dionysos almost imperceptibly squinted, smiled politely, and leaned a little closer. It was the expression of someone who thought he had misheard something, maybe because it was too noisy. I knew that look well. “I’d love to try one of those Quarantines,” I repeated. Christ.

When I told Cate about this later, he confirmed my own thoughts. “I can clearly state,” he wrote “that I can't think of anything that sounds more like the name of a dirty sex act than Guatemalan Handshake."

My family has long since stopped being concerned and now laughs openly at me. What the hell, I do, too: sometimes it’s laughable. I have, for instance, called parking meters parking engines. Well, ok, that’s not so bad. I once asked guests, however, in a loud and clear voice if they were ready for pity tits. God knows what they must have thought, but I knew we had both hummus and pita bread on hand. Whatever I had intended to offer (neither breasts or little flatbreads) quickly morphed to pita. Ta da! In college, Franklin Street was rechristened Frazzlebrap — just one example of the gibberish that regularly shoots from my mouth — and, rather than telling my partner that some chicken was ready for the grill, I strode into the living room, raised my right hand, and confidently declared “The business is awful.”

There’s clearly a disorder of some kind at play, though the neurologists haven’t quite been able to pin down. There have been MRIs and x-rays. Nothing conclusive. Wernicke’s aphasia was suggested more than once, though, thank god, if that’s it, it’s a mild case. At a recent dinner of Korean BBQ when I swapped one word for a similar one, a neurologist at the table proposed paraphasia — saying television when telephone is meant, that sort of thing. But the misspeaks are more complex than that. She ruled out a brain tumor after realizing that I’ve been doing this for decades.

When my words come out wrong, I can sometimes correct them on the fly by rearranging the sentence as I speak so that listeners don’t catch on. The result isn’t the sentence I intended, but no one’s the wiser. That’s not always possible, especially when my brain slips into neutral and I’m unable to speak at all. The aching caesura that follows leaves me, mouth open, utterly silent, like an armadillo in the headlights. I can describe a thing in German, I can paraphrase it in French, I can give you the general idea in Spanish, and I can even point mutely to one sunning itself on the windowsill, but I'll be damned if I can tell you in those instances that the word I want is cat.

Those very close to me know about this Achilles tongue — one friend keeps a running lexicon of intended versus actual utterances — but most people would never suspect anything unusual. Even the neurologist at dinner (whom I’ve known for ten years) didn’t pick up on it until last week. I’ve gotten very good at passing for someone with a normal brain.

The truth is, I am forever wrestling my tongue into submission. Speaking, especially in groups, used to be a terror for me because of it. Quite literally, I would rather have died on the spot than speak in public.

I’m no longer terrified of holding forth in public and, in fact, have gone out of my way to speak on radio, on television, for journalists, and in front of audiences numbering in the hundreds. In order to pull that off, I’ve developed a few tricks.

The first trick is not to speak unless I must. The less I speak, the fewer chances I have to say the wrong thing, as, for instance, I recently asked “Do you have pickles in your shit?” I’ve no idea what I intended to ask my friends en route to the coffee shop, but I assure you, it was not that. Even I was stunned. Fortunately, my rogue utterances are rarely vulgar, but why risk a conversation-stopper like that?

The second is listening. If I’m not speaking in a public setting — say, in a staff meeting or on stage — I damn well better be doing something. From a young age, I learned to observe even minute details. When others speak, I carefully parse not just what they’re talking about, but how they’re presenting — what pronouns and verb tenses they use, the vocabulary itself, pronunciations and accents, and what they’re not saying as much as what they are. I study clothing, haircuts, makeup, and perfumes. There’s a wealth of secrets just in breathing patterns, the cut of a shirt, and how one refers to carbonated beverages.

Being quiet has made me, since I was a child, adept at reading faces and body language. When my brain and tongue go off the rails, I usually hear the wreckage, but not always. So I constantly use others as a gauge my performance. A barely raised eyebrow, a head cocked ever so slightly to one side, or lips turned down just a hair tell me as much about what’s coming out of my mouth as looks of outright bewilderment. A mental rewind of the last few seconds lets me isolate the offending words and quickly reshuffle the subsequent ones. Mostly, this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. My partner recently explained: “When I realize that you’ve misspoken, I understand what you meant to say about 85% of the time just from the context. The other 15%, though, is a complete mystery.”

Being quiet and speaking infrequently oddly makes people pay more attention when I do talk. I keep my voice low, slow, measured. In a meeting, this usually causes others to stop talking, to stop texting, to quit handling papers. It draws their attention to me like a spotlight and they, quite literally, lean in and listen. Of course, it helps that I tend not to speak unless I have something worthwhile to say. Gives me a false aura of wisdom.

That measured pace, though, is just another trick. I am fighting, always fighting, my tongue. It wants to do bad things. Always. When I want to talk about whiskey, it’s itching to prattle on about opal pits, c-car-c-car-car-carpets, finger toots, or terrible opium choices. For real. Those are the kinds of things I say. So I pause between phrases, reining in that willful muscle at every turn. In a twenty-minute talk, I’ll do this hundreds of times. To my knowledge, I’ve never let slip anything horrible or perplexing in a talk. The overall effect, I’m told, is one of calm erudition sprinkled with humor.

It helps — another trick — to have a script. If I have to memorize 30 pages of copy to get through a talk, that’s exactly what I’ll do. If I’m going on radio or television, I know the topic and practice answers and anecdotes beforehand. Seeing me prep for a public talk is a lot like seeing Colin Firth as the painfully stammering King George VI in the 2010 film The King’s Speech. My speeches are marked in green ink: when to breathe, when to pause, when to force an elision, or draw out a phrase. By the time an audience hears a new speech, I’ve delivered it as many as ten times at home. Otherwise? Well, otherwise, I sound like a lunatic.

Lastly, I write. I’ll fly anywhere in the world to talk about food and drinks, but writing is a quiet sport. It’s not necessary that I speak much. Rather, it’s necessary that I listen, that I observe, that I understand what needs to be written and why. After more than thirty years of practice, I’m good at these things.

Will I come speak if you invite me? If the schedule allows, of course I will. I will do my very best — as I do every hour of every day — to keep my brain corralled and my tongue in check.

Please understand, though, that if I propose a Guatemalan Handshake, I’m probably just thirsty.

Probably.

10 comments:

Trader Tiki said...

Rowley,

thank you so much for sharing this. I can't say you've ever said anything of the 15% in my company, but I'll let you know if you do.

You do realize this needs a drink for the name now, eh?

-Blair

Matthew Rowley said...

Blair ~

In posting this, I expect two predictable results.

1) my friends will now begin giving me intentional odd looks to undermine my confidence and bolster my self-doubt.

2) A new drink will emerge. TDN: Guatemalan Handshake, anyone?

Tony Harion said...

Rowley,
This post is one of those things in live I’ll never be able to understand.

I´ve read it twice looking for a catch in the end. For me, you always sound the absolute opposite of what you´ve just described.

I promise to give you a weird look (just for the heck of it), have a laugh with you and order us another round when we meet again.

Now, what kind of rum do you suggest in that Guatemalan Handshake?

Sylvan said...

Ron Zacapa, of course!

Cheers, Matt - you had us all fooled.

Matt Robold said...

Dammit Matt. This, combined with my ADD-propensity to wander in and out of conversations a syllabil at a time could prove disastrous for both of us as I constantly respond with "Huh?" and you either thinking that you've misspoken when you haven't or I've missed an opportunity to discover the next Guatemalen Handshake - which can't be near as dirty as the Andalusian Nipplerack.

Congrats on the post. I assure you that no one I know had any clue. If only people like me could learn to control what we say in so measured a fashion, the world would make a lot more sense.

BBW Tube said...

nice info

SeanMike said...

Beautiful post, Matt. Wish I'd seen it earlier.

And in a week or two we'll do TDN: Guatamalan Handshake!

Matthew Rowley said...

SeanMike ~ We should invite Martin and Marco to that particular TDN...

Sylvan, Tony and Other Matt R ~ You've now prompted a thought: just how many of my friends and acquaintances have wiring that's a bit off? I assure you, I wasn't trying to fool anyone so much as make listening to me less confusing for all. Mostly, that works. I still get laughed at by my family, but they have the patience to wait until I come up with the right word — or they just offer corrections until they hit the right one and I nod. ("Let's carpet bomb the living room." "Put up the Christmas tree?" Nod.)

Capn Jimbo's Rum Project said...

Oddly enough - or perhaps not so oddly now - my tasting partner at The Rum Project speaks in the same manner. As she puts it "...the words just come out before I can even think about it".

At one time I'd have called this "suffering" from a "malady", but not now. Somehow, we both know exactly what she means, and the (un)intended version actually adds to the content and intent.

Thank you for your honesty to share such a personal story, one which is really quite supportive to others who share the same style...

Matthew Rowley said...

You're right, Capn Jimbo — suffering from a malady doesn't seem quite the right way to describe this. It's definitely odd and sometimes just flat-out embarrassing, but it's not on par with, say, leprosy or shingles. It's certainly more entertaining than mimes.

Cheers to you and your tongue-tied tasting partner! May I recommend a Guatemalan Handshake for you both?