Point of View: The Right Words

The fruition of a lifetime’s laboring in journalism’s roiling, buffeted, poignant vineyard.

“My head is swimming,” I said during some recent long-distance swims in Sag Harbor, referring not just to that early morning’s hyperactivity, but to the summer here in general, which found me either up and out at dawn or during the cocktail hour at a baseball, soccer, or slow-pitch game.

In between, I’d usually take a long nap, which I’ve found restorative insofar as the arrangement of salient quotes and electrolytes (Mary says they’re key) are concerned. 

Were I to have a young person to mentor — my 12-year-old grandson in Ohio would certainly do, but he’s still in school — I would say, should he ask me for advice, which he might not need to, “Show up, ask a lot of questions, and, when your notebook is pretty much filled, go home and take a nap so your head, which is swimming, can sort things out. Oh, and while you should scribble liberally, don’t quote too literally — there always being room for improvement.”

Yes, I think that would do it nicely insofar as wisdom accumulated down through the ages is concerned, the fruition of a lifetime’s laboring in journalism’s roiling, buffeted, poignant vineyard. 

I’m not sure when roiling caught on, but it’s used all the time now, as well as buffeted and poignant — as in profound, I guess — and referenced, as in so-and-so referenced this and referenced that, not to mention memes. And now everyone’s flipping. Houses are being flipped, those cooperating in investigations are flipping, the president has flipped his lid, people are flipping the bird, not that I mean to be flip. Indeed, I probably need a flip replacement. I think most of us do, especially in this fidgety digital age. 

Language is our supreme gift, Lewis Thomas said, given to us, he thought, by children chattering while at play and traveling from their lips to their elders’ ears, so that in time their parents also began to converse, and rather than pointing, they began to say, hesitantly at first, “Please pass the salt,” and, rather than groping, they would blurt out, “Will you be my valentine?” And, rather than reaching for a club, they might stay their hand and say, “I hope I’m expressing myself clearly.”

Somebody had to, right? Else we wouldn’t be here today, on the verge of scientific breakthroughs that could benefit all humankind and thermonuclear Armageddon, two other subjects that drew Thomas’s attention, and about which he wrote clearly and elegantly. 

I do not think we express ourselves all that clearly anymore — and certainly not elegantly — because we don’t reflect enough to choose the right words, tweeting and twittering and emailing instead, shooting from the flip, as it were, which can be dangerous. 

We heard a letter — remember them? — being read the other night on television, a letter from a brother in California to one in New Mexico, and while simple and clear, it had in its leisured rhythm and in its sincerity the ring of poetry, of sweet reason even. As I listened my head wasn’t swimming, it was at peace.