Friday, April 5, 2013

Secret Codes

I was having a soy latte with my friends at Green Lake—Peg, Tom, Mary Mc, and Smokey. I was telling them of a wonderful NOVA program I’d seen about dogs. “There’s this woman in the Netherlands whose dog recognizes hundreds of names.” I looked at Smokey. “How many does he have?”

“Two,” Tom said. “His name and…” He leaned over and whispered, “Squirrel.”

Smokey jumped up, eyes alert, ears at attention, and barked.

When my husband was little his parents spelled out “ice cream.” Little Dick soon learned what that meant. So Vi started using b-e-a-n-s to represent a treat. Didn’t take long before little Dick let them know, “I like b-n-s.” Busted.

I’m thinking of all those codes we use when we speak. When my eldest son was a teenager, “It’s okay,” meant he really liked it. My daughter’s, “I’m fine,” meant leave me alone. Bill’s was “I’ll handle it.” Doug just raised his hand, “Butt out.” Didn’t take a lot of talking to get the message across. We were a rather quiet family and had few arguments. I wondered about those families that talked and talked. I hoped their arguing was a way to say I care, just as our silences spoke loudly of our respect and trust.

While reading Roddy Doyle’s book The Snapper, I constantly felt anger at how the father spoke to his daughter. Nothing but put-downs and insults. And then, in the very end of the book he made a tiny gesture and I burst into tears. He loved her! And she knew it. Their language was that of their working-class Irish, a hard way of speaking that had grown out of centuries of hardscrabble living. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country.

Then while reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, I came across this on page 296. “You are not the first man to miss a woman’s more subtle communications,” said the Major. “They think they are waving when we see only the calm sea, and pretty soon everybody drowns.” Ah yes, subtle communications.

I started out writing this blog hoping to find some way for us all to understand each other, have a kind of dictionary like those English/French ones. Eliminate all the misunderstandings. But then I thought of how boring and shallow our conversations would be. Better to let us all have our codes and spend our lives figuring them out. Does keep us busy and allows for all kinds of misunderstandings, which will lead to long conversations filled with all manner of explanations.  Let’s just keep talking.


  1. As usual beautiful Ruth
    I tried to write this in code but it wouldn't copy in - but I suppose in a way my comment is in code, and always are.

  2. Yes, the greatest danger in communication are misunderstandings. And often the more words are used more occur.

  3. Love this. I don't like boring and shallow conversations either.