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Awkward: On Language and Mortification

When I was about 10 years old my parents signed me up for tennis camp — an aspirational gesture, since I was neither a gifted nor passionate athlete. I spent most days chatting with about 15 other girls on a sunny tennis court. At the end of the session, I teamed up with the basketball coach to create a rap song about our camp. What I remember most clearly about that summer, though, was a day early on when I asked my mother if I might buy one of those bright plastic accessories I'd seen the pros and other campers string through the bottoms of their racquets. I had few real hobbies other than reading, writing, and noncommittal stamp collecting, but I relished the trimmings and accoutrements that came with having tangible interests — ski gear, scrapbooking albums, glove oil.

My mother waited in our Jeep that afternoon while I ran into the tennis shop, a small carpeted room near the canteen that was staffed by a young man and woman. It was only when I got to the counter that I realized I had no idea what to call those bright plastic accessories. What I did remember was that someone had told me their purpose was to decrease vibrations as the tennis ball hit the racquet, and so I approached the counter, smiled pleasantly at the staff, and asked for a vibratorso I approached the counter, smiled pleasantly at the staff, and asked for a vibrator.

My parents were liberal in my upbringing. They answered all the questions I had. I was permitted to watch any film or TV show that interested me. Be that as it may, we had not gotten to vibrators, and I couldn't understand the stunned look the clerks were giving me. Like most children, though, I could understand that I had just said something humiliating, that I was, in some social way, in trouble.

My first assumption was that they didn't trust I'd gotten permission from my parents to purchase tennis equipment on my own. I knew what would clear things up.

"It's for my mother," I said. "She's waiting outside in the car."

This did not clear things up. The clerks were glaring at me. I was glaring at me, and I wasn't sure why. I didn't know exactly what I'd asked for, but I knew it was bad.

As I suspect is the case with many children of foreigners (my mother is German and my father grew up in that country), I understood from a young age that language is a terrifying and powerful device. It has the capacity to shame, degrade, and chasten, but also to stun and woo. And I was regularly wooed. My grandmother supplied me with books of poetry. Being German, my mother read me miserable exhilarating stories about kids whose thumbs were cut off in retribution for sucking them; about pine trees that died lonesome deaths; and sometimes about scenarios that were heartbreaking even though you couldn't exactly articulate what was so heartbreaking about them. Language could be guileless when it wanted to and coy when it wanted to. If you had the right word for something, you could make people laugh and cry; you could even make yourself laugh and cry.

I started writing principally out of boredom, during the long summers that I spent with my family, while my father tried to get a head start on his diamond dealing business and my mother met up with old school friends. I was not a withdrawn or misanthropic child; I wasn't even shy. If anything, as a firstborn who was toted around to dinners and parties, I was so accustomed to the company of others that, in the absence of them and their stories, I started telling myself my own. It was the first way I learned to entertain myself, and remains, to this day, the most effective.

Over time, as I got my hands on more books, I learned that stories had tempers and dispositionsOver time, as I got my hands on more books, I learned that stories had tempers and dispositions, and that these were not random occurrences but calculated choices crafted and implemented by their inventors. I developed favorite writers and, every once in a while, realized with tingling exhilaration that many of them were actually alive — or only recently deceased. Books became my accoutrements. Nobody laughed when I asked for them in a store, but even if they had, it would have been more than worthwhile. I was willing to take risks with reading and writing. Risks paid off. And sometimes, just as easily as you could walk into a tennis shop and accidentally ask for a sex toy, you could open a book you'd never heard of and accidentally stumble upon people whose company you enjoyed, a voice you didn't mind listening to, and a story that was worth sticking around for. And if you were incredibly lucky on some days, that book was your notebook, and you thought you might rewrite it in better handwriting and change some words around. Because, faster than you'd realized, the days without books and notebooks were the boring ones and all the others were the ones you lived for.

I look back at the point in my life when language was inextricably tied with the distinct threat of indignity. At some point, though, its enticements outweighed its perils. Part of this is about growing up. But I also think that, as a writer, you learn to toy with shame. It's a commanding sentiment, a signal that you're about to cross into liminal territory, or already have. And this time it's your choice. This time, your mother isn't waiting outside in the car, and if you've decided to buy a vibrator in a tennis shop, you just put your pen down and do it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alicia Oltuski's work has appeared on NPR’s Berlin Stories, in The Faster Times, The Bulletin in Philadelphia, and other publications.. She has taught at the University of the Arts and lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband. Precious Objects is her first book.


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