Wednesday, April 2, 2014


There have been times in your life when you carried on an uncomfortable relationship with the word rhetoric, particularly as that word and its attendant concepts approaches such words as exaggeration and bombast.

You have a general tendency toward these words and the apparent ease with which you greet them as long lost friends, all of you eager for a reunion.

Your difficulty begins, you think, with the notion of rhetoric being the use of language to motivate or persuade an audience.  How easy is it, after all, for language to heat up to the point where motivation and persuasion become advance guards for manipulation?

As a young person, back in the days when radio was your major source of entry into the world of drama, you often found it interesting to listen to the regular appearances of the then famous evangelist, Aimee Semple Mcpherson.  Listening to her had a mesmerizing effect on your little boy sensitivities.  This was different from your responses to the fifteen- and thirty-minute radio serials, which you understood were story and, thus, vehicles you could ride into the landscapes of your imagination.

Aimee Mcpherson seemed to want--and often get--no pun here, because you were too young to appreciate the nuances, total immersion in her message.  You were fascinated and, in later years, grateful to your mother for understanding that your interest was by no means a wish to become caught up in Mcpherson's evangelism, or anyone's evangelism, rather that you found in her voice an aspect of communication you were fascinated by, but unable to put to use.

The ultimate result of your fascination with Mcpherson was the introduction into your life of a music teacher, Mrs. Lovejoy, who left no tangible impression on you beyond the contents of your music workbook and the hours in which you were given exercises to practice.  It was Mr. Lovejoy whom you recall, but not because of music.  Mr. Lovejoy appeared to pick up his wife.  He invariably asked you, "Have you had your onion today?"

In its way, his question for you, and his way of speaking to you about onions had a similar effect on you as Aimee Semple Mcpherson.  A slender man with radiant, silvery white hair, gleaming blue eyes that shone through gold, rimless glasses, Mr. Lovejoy got to you first with a technique you later learned from your sister was referred to as rhetoric.

Mr. Lovejoy's hands were of modest size, his nails clean, much more so than yours, because of your fondness for dirt.  He began by spreading his hands before you, then asking you what you saw on the backs.

You hesitated.  Then, "Nothing."


"Nothing, sir."

"No, not at all.  We are not in England.  We are in America.  'Nothing, Mr. Lovejoy,' will do."

"Nothing, Mr. Lovejoy."

"Quite right.  Do you have any idea how old I am, boy?"

"No, Mr. Lovejoy."

"Hah!  And am I, do you think, older than your father?"

"I think so, Mr. Lovejoy."

"Hah!  You would never guess how old I am, but I will tell you.  I am seventy-eight.  And do you know why you cannot tell how old I am?"

"I don't think so, Mr. Lovejoy."

"It is because I eat an onion every day."

"Doesn't it make your eyes water, Mr. Lovejoy?"

"Hah!  What a polite boy.  It did make my eyes water at one time, but do you know what I did?  I will tell you, because you are a polite boy."  He winked at me.  "I made myself eat an onion every day until they did not make my eyes water.  And look what they have done for me."  He showed you the backs of his hands.  "Do you see any brown spots on my hands, boy?  Of course you do not, but do you see brown spots, liver spots, they are called, on the backs of other men who are seventy-eight years old?  Well, of course you do."

At another time, when Mr. Lovejoy asked you if you'd been scrupulous--a word you still associate with him--about onions, you worried to him about onions on your breath.

"Polite boys, such as yourself, should know to use Listerine or some mouthwash."  He smiled knowingly.  "Girls do not like it when boys have onions on their breath, but I will tell you that girls do like healthy boys.  Do you think I would dare kiss Mrs. Lovejoy with onions on my breath?"

"He is using rhetoric on you,"  your sister said, when you told her of Mr. Lovejoy's fervor for onions.  "He tried to interest me in onions, and he talked to the mothers of Florene Berkowitz and Bernice Tischkoff about onions."

These were friends of your sister, who also took piano lessons from Mrs. Lovejoy.  One of these friends had a brother of your age, Gordon, whom you saw one day, eating an onion as though it were an apple.

You do not think of Mr. Lovejoy every time you see an onion.  In your recent venture, making French onion soup in your crock pot, you scarcely thought of him at all, but you are not surprised to think of him now nor to recall him instead of his wife, whose goal was to teach you to read music.  You are not sure if you remember the music mnemonic, Every good boy does fine, to represent the notes on the staff, E,G,B,D,F.  You may have even got that from your sister.

You do know that you have the word "rhetoric" more or less stored in the closet of your vocabulary because of your association of it with a publisher you once worked for.  "Pure rhetoric," he would say after some statement he'd made in jest.  Although there was an implied question mark to it after some comment of yours, meaning, of course, a covert accusation of exaggeration.

You find yourself trying, when you are enthused, not to exaggerate, or to engage in bombast, although you probably lean in those directions. You try not to persuade but rather to evoke.  When you edit your own work or those of another, you are aware of that lovely word and its potential nuances, swirling about you.

In simplicity, description tends toward rhetoric.  Evocation leaves a touch of onion on your breath.

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