Early in our dating days, one evening after dark, Mark and I were riding in his car on an interstate. He was driving. Cars whizzed by; we were quiet, comfortable with each other, enjoying the ride.
Then suddenly, Mark reached over and swatted my arm. I whipped my head around and glared at him.
“Paddidle,” he said, as if in explanation.
I glared harder. (I don’t know if he could see that in the dark, but he could sure feel it.)
Pa-DID-dle!” he repeated. Then, a little more urgently: “Paddidle!”
I crossed my arms; my glare intensified.
“Paddidle?” he asked, weakly.
I didn’t know until he explained that it is a custom, in some quarters, to swat the person next to you and say “Padiddle,” when a car with one headlight approaches. I found it especially endearing that this was something his ex had taught him.
We don’t padiddle in my car.
Since then, though, I’ve heard that word several times, and at least now I know what people are talking about.
Padiddle, indeed. Do you ever think about all the secret terms, the symbols and gestures, we use every day?
I pondered this the other day as I rounded the tight curve on Adams/Taylor Lane and startled three fawns. They were chewing contentedly on leaves hanging from branches at just the perfect fast-food height for them. Skittish and dewy, they perched right on the shoulder of the road. It wouldn’t take much for them to jump out into traffic; there could be disastrous consequences.
I rolled down my window and shouted an urgent warning at them. They stared at me, chewing, slightly interested (“Look, Ma! A yelling human!”), and didn’t budge. On I went, around the curve and up the hill, and a big, champagne-colored SUV approached, zipping toward where those babies were munching.
I flashed my headlights. The SUV flashed its headlights back at me and slowed right down. I breathed more easily.
My Daddy taught me to always pay attention to approaching cars that are flashing their headlights.
“You know there are police up ahead when you see that,” he said. I have always been very careful to ‘listen’ to that cue.
Since those days, though, the light flash message has been broadened in my lexicon. As in the case of the deer, it means, “Watch out for something up ahead. Slow down.”
Here in Ohio, which is, for the most part, a very polite place, a flash of the headlights can also mean, “You go ahead.” I often see this happen when I approach a four-way stop at the same time as another vehicle.
“Thank you!” I mouth, with a little wave, and I pull on through the intersection ahead of that nice driver.
I learned the headlight flash as a teen from a father who often needed to slow down. Other gestures we just seem to always have known, like the universal finger to lips, SSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHH, for “Hush now,” and the easily understood MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM, belly rub, for “Isn’t that tasty?” A flat palm rampant, arm extended, does not need to be explained as “Stop,” nor does an index finger pointed at a would-be interrupter. We all know the person we need is telling us, “One minute.”
And there are spoken shortcuts we absorb from an early age. The first time someone whispers, “XYZ!” to a young boy, nodding downwards, the lad realizes that he’s meant to examine his zipper. And anyone who’s ever worked on something urgent–whether it’s a work project or a lawn that needs mowing–learns the meaning of PDQ pretty darned quickly. We mind our P’s and Q’s even when we’re unsure whether those letters stand for pints and quarts or the hard-to-distinguish p and q slugs in a printer’s alphabet tray.
There are also other, ruder messages–usually delivered in gesture form–that we somehow absorb as very young children. Do you remember when you first realized the full meaning of the middle finger salute?
We took our youngest son Jim to an aquarium when he was four. It was a cold day; he’d had a treat in the car, and as he ran toward the building, he stopped and put his goodie wrapper in the wastebasket. The metal wastebasket cover clunked down, cold and hard, on his chilly little hand, and he began to wail.
“My finger! I hurt my finger!”
I ran up to him. His fist was clenched, and tears sprouted in his eyes.
“Which finger is it, Jim? Show me the finger that hurts.”
“Noooooooooo…” he sobbed, fist locked up tight.
We calmed him down, and Mark put him, little hands still tightly balled up, in front of the aquarium’s welcome sign to get a picture. Just as he clicked the camera, Jim relented. “THIS finger!” he said, extending it for posterity.
We have a lovely picture of our sweet little guy, tears standing in his eyes, giving his daddy the bird at the aquarium. That was probably the day Jim learned that the one finger salute,–what we laughingly call the universal peace symbol,–is a rude gesture.
My dear friend Marsha is one of the world’s most amazing teachers, and I love her story about a field trip she took with her fourth graders. I can’t remember where they were headed, but their trip, in the old yellow school bus, took them through rural back roads.
As they rounded a curve, Marsha spied, on the side of the road, a young Amish boy sitting on a rock. He had one bare foot on the rock; his hands were clasped around that knee. The other foot dangled, swinging lazily. He looked to be meditating on nature, on the sun, on the glory of the beautiful spring day. It could be a scene, Marsha thought, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a vignette from another era.
As they approached the bucolic boy, Marsha took advantage of the teachable moment. She stood up in the bus and talked about the Amish culture, emphasizing their self-reliance and their non-aggression.
“Let’s all,” she suggested, “wave to this boy as we go by.”
And so her fourth graders eagerly waved to their Amish peer sitting on the rock.
He waved back, but he only used one finger. It was a middle finger, and it was pointed defiantly skyward.
Where did that Amish lad learn to use that rude gesture, in his peaceable kingdom? Why did all the nine- and ten-year-olds in Marsha’s bus know exactly what that gesture meant? (They weren’t buying the thought that maybe in Amish the salute meant, “Peace to you, my friends!” A bird is a bird is a bird, they told Marsha firmly.)
Of course,we think of that gesture as being universal, but perhaps that’s only within a country or a region. One needs to pay attention not just to spoken messages, but to gestured messages, when one visits another culture. I think of gentle, kind Larry, who went to visit his dear friend, George, in Germany. George’s friends invited the two men over for dinner one night. Larry had no German; the hosts had no English.
The food, says Larry, was delicious. He tucked in, smiling and nodding, and the hostess said something to George.
George leaned over to Larry, and said, “She asks, How do you like it?”
Larry looked up and beamed at the German woman. He raised his right hand and formed that symbol–index finger and thumb making a circle, other fingers extended kind of like a rooster’s comb–that in US culture says, “A-OK!”
The woman’s face froze. She muttered something to George, who grinned. Larry looked at him questioningly.
“Oh, it’s fine,” George assured him. “She’s just uncomfortable with such praise.”
The little exchange took place three or four more times. Each time it happened, Larry’s hosts grew a little chillier. The men left earlier than anticipated, and the front door slammed behind them.
It was only in the car, going home, that George, on the verge of hysterical laughter, explained it to Larry. What denotes “A-OK!” in United States-ian gesture language says something else completely in Germany. In fact, Larry was calling his hostess a part of the anatomy that is, to be polite, always covered by your bathing suit, regardless of gender.
And yet, despite little gaffes like the ones that turned Marsha and Larry beet red, we usually navigate those unspoken or untaught languages pretty well. We respond to a cocked eyebrow appropriately; how’d we learn to do that? And the crooking of a finger–we know that’s a come-hither message. The beep of a horn, the ring of a bell…we swerve adroitly, we run to the door: messages heard and received.
Isn’t it fascinating? There’s subliminal learning taking place continuously; there must be a huge undercover mechanism buried in us taking in those cues and making sense of them–usually correctly. It works all the time, all our lives. I know this because I am learning the shorthand of the electronic universe–despite the fact that it takes me five minutes to write a one-sentence text, spell-checking, putting in proper punctuation, and looking for–heaven forfend!–grammar lapses.
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand that newfangled shorthand language, though. It just means I don’t choose to use it.