I have been hanging on to an Amazon.com gift card that my in-laws sent me for Christmas. Thinking I would use it to buy my daughter a present for her birthday, I finally sat myself down and brought up the Amazon website. She wanted a specific chair, I knew, but it took me some experimenting with search terms to locate the correct one out of the many hundreds on offer. It happened that the credit card associated with my account had expired. After updating the credit card information, I entered the order, expecting to be prompted to enter the gift card for credit at some point. I soon realized I was supposed to have proactively selected the option to enter a gift card before I submitted the order, that the entire purchase had been charged to my now-valid credit card number, and that this payment method, once entered on behalf of a particular order, was unalterable. Sigh. When I laughingly relayed this to my daughter, she encouraged me to use the gift card to get something *I* wanted, as after all it had been a present to me. I returned to the website and cast about for items which would, either singly or in combination, fit at least roughly within bounds of the gift card amount. After several minutes of careful thought and desultory browsing, I had to give up. It was not that there was nothing I could use, but there really was nothing I wanted. I am grateful to be able to buy things for my loved ones so conveniently, but the gifts I desire are more experiential than material, and far from conveniently available. The smell of fresh homemade bread, the sound of my daughter’s laughter, the crunch of an apple, the star-filled vista of a clear dark night, the feel of my husband’s hand holding mine, the satisfaction of meaningful work; these are the things that give me joy, and none of them will be found for sale on any website.
Still struggling to find the words to describe the emotional response one has upon being informed that the way one has eaten during one’s entire life has been recast as “overindulgent.” Dairy, sugar, chocolate, coffee, alcohol and possibly even gluten do not serve my body well, although they are all staples of my diet. I am trembling on the brink of a new great adventure, exploring ways to keep my good health intact for as long as possible. I am so grateful for the community in which I live and for the progress made by trailblazers who made it possible for me to try my first store-bought gluten-free muffin for breakfast this morning.
Recently, I was listening with my daughter to the song “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by the Temptations, which was playing on the radio in the car. My husband and I value music in all its forms and like to share with our children, so when this classic hadn’t ended by the time we reached home, I turned off the car but left the radio on so we could listen until the ending of the song. Enjoying the syncopated clapping which accompanies the chorus toward the end, I was only half-listening to the familiar lyrics:
Papa was a rolling stone,
wherever he laid his hat was his home,
and when he died
all he left us was alone.
I had always enjoyed from a wordsmith’s perspective the linguistic twist at the end of the chorus, the substitution of material bequest (“all he left us”), which might be expected upon a death, with mere lack of presence (“alone”) rendering the death of a parent and its attendant emotional bereavement that much more difficult to bear. Having lost my father to a car accident when I was three, I could relate. But this time, listening to the last line, I suddenly heard “all he left us was a loan.” I laughed to myself and told my daughter what was so funny. Then something that is not so funny occurred to me. Such misapprehensions are becoming more and more commonplace as people do less and less reading and more and more passive listening, and then, as in the “telephone” game, familiar phrases can become garbled as original meanings are forgotten, or are never learned in the first place. For example, today I was solicited via email to sign my daughter up for a summer camp, and the notice said ‘Registration is “first-come, first-serve.”‘ This last phrase makes no literal sense as written. The correct phrase is shorthand for the concept that the one who shows up first is the first to be served, hence “first-come, first-served.” This is not the same evolution that results in a new word, for example, the French word for egg, “l’oeuf,” becoming “love” as used to keep score in Anglican tennis. It is a failure of effective communication. In this day and age of plummeting economic situations and dwindling hope for many, as the U.S. government sits in stalemate over sequestration, the interpretation that Papa died leaving his family not just alone, but in debt, is not only less poetic, but unfortunately is also not so unlikely.