Friday, May 16, 2014

An Ode to the Dictionary

As a child I was very fortunate because my father treated me as his pet project.  To be fair, my mother was very dedicated and loving, and quite frankly the best mom a child could ask for.  But my relationship with my father was different.  Dad approached me the way a coach works with an athlete he intends to transform into a star.

I was never an exceptional athlete and that wasn’t my father’s intention.  He wanted me to be an intelligent human being.  I am not vain enough to say he succeeded, but I do have enough of an ego to admit that he obtained some victories related to that end goal.

Each of the graduate students I have ever worked with have all referred to the “Mighty Red Pen of Phelan” in their dissertation acknowledgements.  I come by that honestly.  Growing up my father would take joy in making my school assignments bleed.  If I asked him to look at a paper he would respond, “Where’s the red pen?”  By the time I reached high school I had become conditioned to hand him my paper and red pen simultaneously.

When I was growing up there was no Internet.  You couldn’t depend on spell check.  And there was no way to Google the meaning of a word.  Instead you had to use a dictionary.  My dad, being a big proponent of the dictionary, would edit my work and circle incorrect words.  It was then my responsibility to open the ever-present red dictionary to find the correct spelling or a replacement word.  This torture allowed me to develop a considerable vocabulary and taught me how to use my words.  This skill has proven invaluable here in Africa.

Last week I went to the mall to purchase new sneakers.  It was quite a chore to find women’s sneakers, but when I finally did, I selected a pair of Nikes and asked for a size 8 ½.

Store Clerk: We don’t sell half sizes.
KVP: It’s an American brand, yes, you do.
Clerk: We have size 7 only.
KVP: Ok, let me see a size 7.
Store clerk brings me a bright orange box which states in large font: size 9 ½.
KVP: See, this is a 9 ½. I need an 8 ½.  Can you find a box that says 8 ½ right here?
Clerk: No, we don’t have half sizes.
KVP:  Ok, can you bring me a size 6?
The clerk returns with a box that says 8 ½.  Here it is:

Can you see the 6?  It took me a good 5 minutes of staring at the box to see in teeny tiny letters UK_6.

This lack of understanding is a constant part of daily life here.  The other day I was having a conversation with someone in which she kept repeating the same question.  I kept answering her, each time using different words and phrases.  She continued using the same exact way of asking the question.  Eventually I had to say to her, “You keep repeating yourself and I keep trying to give you different variations of what I think is the correct answer.  Obviously you aren’t liking anything I’m saying, so we have a failure to communicate.  At this point I need you to please tell me what you want me to say because we aren’t getting anywhere.”  This was one example of my failure in the communication arena, but typically I am much more successful with this type of exchange. Nevertheless, I think my creativity in communicating has definitely been enhanced here.

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