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July 25, 2014
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The Potency of Words


When I was involved in a cult they interrupted me constantly. “Enough with the story already. Just tell us in ten words what happened.”

I should’ve known better. In my life, nothing’s ever straightforward. One story is a skein from another, equally vital and germane. From there, I weave an intricate design, a pattern of words to provide a scenario, background and rationale to what occurred, what may occur and the importance of whatever I have to convey. To reduce a situation to ten words makes as much sense as Albert Camus’ character in “L’Etranger” who stated, “Au cause du soleil.”

Still, it took ten years to acknowledge I made a huge mistake. At the end, I was proud not to have been brainwashed.

Okay, the cult threw me out. The Grand Poobah pulled me aside. “God knows we tried. You’re way too disruptive for us. Those one-liners of yours are a major distraction.”

To understand how I got immersed in the land of Nanu Nanu, I need to address the phone call that changed my life.

“You must take this seminar!” exclaimed my closest friend. “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me afterwards!” He then recounted a garbled story about going to a social function, meeting Russian delegates and concluding a million dollar deal over a handshake. He quit his job as an executive in a Fortune 10 company and overnight opened a consulting firm in Russia even though he lived in Canada. It was quite a bit to absorb in three minutes.

In the midst of his narrative, a deviation from who he was as a level-headed ex-military businessman, he paused to ask me this pivotal question: “Do you trust me with your life?”

How could I say no? He was, after all, my closest friend. In candor, he grabbed my attention at the onset when I heard, “concluding a million dollar deal over a handshake.”

“Hey, if this is all it takes to make a million dollars, I’m there,” I said.

Days later I entered a large room with a hundred other puzzled people. They, as well, were bamboozled through loved ones to take a seminar without having any idea what it was about. All I knew was my friend exhibited an excitement and zest he hadn’t had for a long time. Also, my curiosity was piqued as to what could’ve caused him to do something as farfetched as leave his long-term stellar career for some nebulous business venture. Let’s not forget about that million dollar handshake.

A man walked up to the podium. After getting our undivided attention, he cited the following quote:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I was hooked.

From an early age, my mother insisted I speak French with her. My grandparents insisted on speaking Yiddish to instill a cultural identity. This linguistic tug of war defined my formative years and ignited a love of language. By the time I achieved fluency in reeling off parts of a chicken’s body in Yiddish (even though I didn’t know the corresponding parts of the human body in English), my tutelage came to an abrupt end due to my grandparents’ untimely deaths.

Around this time my father took center stage. Dad was a man of taste and distinction who taught me to treasure and love the English language. Each year he escorted me to the local public library.

“Feel free to ask the kind librarian whatever you want,” he instructed, planting me at her desk before he sped off. I was diversion while he stole the latest edition of the Merriam Webster dictionary. He needed to replace the beaten up, dog-eared and scotch-taped one he stole the previous year. For Dad was Master of The New York Times crossword puzzles and the Merriam Webster dictionary his bible.

“Done!” he crowed in joy each morning. “Less than five minutes! And in ink!”

My brother and I egged him on with a stopwatch. “Dad, we want to time you!” That was when he was in his glory, sweating bullets, pressing deeply with his pen under the curious and demonic eyes of his offspring.

Daily, Dad thumbed through the dictionary pages to select words to augment our minds through vocabulary. Which didn’t help a seven year old in the school bus. I learned that calling a classmate ‘poo-poo head’ didn’t inspire a fight. However, tossing a ‘genetic anomaly, a throwback’ or, even worse, ‘schmeggegah’ brought out fists, fueled from my tonal quality more so than the words’ underlying meanings.

I can only blame my father, who primed me to fall headfirst into this cult, which defined itself through languaging. At the initial seminar as well as the subsequent ones I took over ten years I became versatile in the mechanics of molding words to do my bidding. I crafted a future in the future, not a way to relive the past. All it required was words.

Bit by bit, though, I understood their true potency. I witnessed experts at disembowelment and manipulation who harmed and maligned people without their awareness, simply to enroll them into additional courses at the cult. The last few years I made a stand against evil, beleaguering cultists, pointing out their hypocrisy, their self-serving and what I liked to call, “the pea pod mentality.”

My mother asked me, “Why bother? It’s no longer any fun for you. The only thing you’re getting is annoyed. Is it really worth it?”

Twelve years after barring me from the cult, the Grand Poobah himself invited me to take one last course. In shock, I sat in disbelief listening to gobbledygook, a doublespeak of doubletalk. It made me wonder what captivated me in the first place to spend ten years of my life and oodles of money taking courses that were essentially meaningless.

It may have something to do with that million dollar handshake.