Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cat's Got Your Tongue?

For the longest time in your early years, you regarded the worlds about you in the most literal way.  Perhaps this early lack of awareness of such a thing as nuance was the instigator of your present day love for word play and puns, the more groan-producing, the better.  

Perhaps your fall from taking things as they were was the equivalent of the trail of cookies the witch set out for Hansel and Gretel, although that trail led them to the oven, and the trail you followed led you to the life of words.

An early loss of literal innocence came when your father, in some attempt to make the move from California to the small New Jersey town of his birth, advised you that if you were to stroll through the farmer's market held each week at the train station, you'd hear many tongues.

Enter another perhaps here.  Perhaps your experiences with your father's dead-pan delivery led you to question the most innocent-sounding statements for hidden meanings.  You were drawn to hidden meanings from those early days on, toward and into the present.  The notion of hearing tongues intrigued you then and has, in the full feather of nostalgia, remains to this day.

You did indeed hear tongues, some of which you recognized; theirs had to be identified for you.  You already knew some Spanish, some Latin, some French.  Your father led you to a sense of what Hungarian sounded like and, based on sounds you'd written down phonetically, he was able to help you identify Polish.

Tongue, as both a play on words and a trampoline, led you in memorable directions, including such outliers as speaking in tongues or glossolalia, tongues as languages, tongues of fire, tongue-and-groove construction, tongue lashing, tongue-twister or -twisting, and forked tongue as in the lies spoken to Indians by whites.  

Only last week, as you watched a television drama in the dual process of procrastinating necessary work at hand and gaining insights for a writing project, you met with surprise and delight a character in the process of examining his lunch sandwich.  The sandwich was tongue, presumably cow, pickle, and a single smear of mustard.  From your own experiences with such fare, you transmogrified the bread from nondescript to rich,earthy pumpernickel.

Tone appeared in occasional rotation in your parental home, to your great delight, because its appearance often meant at least one reprise in your school lunch bag.  You were already aware of your father's joke related to tongue, itching for the opportunity to use it on your own.  

"How," your father asked your mother, over a large tongue, still exuding steam on a serving platter, "can you bring yourself to eat anything from a cow's mouth?"  You recall his splendid timing, the long, thoughtful pause before he added, "If you don't mind, I'll have some eggs."

The first time you heard the joke, you could neither control your laughter nor your awareness that this was a weapon of sorts, something to be cherished, studied.  Another perhaps in a list of perhapses you consider when seeking moments and things that defined what you are and what you have become.  You recall that moment whenever some of the uses of tongue, such as those mentioned earlier, arise in conversation or your eagerness to, as your father once put it, hear tongues.

No coincidence that the Spanish word for tongue, lengua,  jumps out at you in taquerias and restaurants with a Mexican restaurant.  Tacos de lengua.  Huevos revueltos con lengua.  And of course tortas de lengua.

Sometimes, when you come to compose, and the screen stares back at you with a daunting blank glare, or your note pad remains a reproof, you take to playing with language, thinking you have somehow become tongue-tied, and the natural consequence, now that you have a cat, of a cat having got your tongue, of your father's joke, which you have indeed put to use.

And with a sudden certainty, you are no longer tongue-tied.

1 comment:

John Shannon said...


For some strange reason (Downsizing, pruning papers, moving, etc) I just ran across your lovely and thoughtful review of my novel Palos Verdes Blue ages ago in the Montecito paper. I can't find a way to contact you directly on yr site, but I put you on my RSS feed. You can reach me via my site, or hell, directly at Thanks so much again. Are you still at USC? I'll buy you a lunch. By the way, in your favorites column, don't overlook Robert Stone.

John Shannon