Sunday, October 25, 2020

Flashback, 2010: Am I smarter than my 14-year-old? Don't bet on it

     Today is my older son's 25th birthday. Happy birthday, boy! Thank you for the past quarter century. It has been a blast, in the main, and I only wish I could do it all again. I considered writing something fresh, but a wise parent draws the veil as children reach adulthood.  So as proud as I am,  I thought today I would dig into the vault and find a column from years past. This is the first one I saw and, frankly, it encapsulates the experience of being his dad far better than anything I could possibly write now. 
Ross at 14, in the New York Public Library's
42nd Street Reading Room

     'Is Ross around?" I called weakly. "I'm cleaning the litter now, if he wants to gloat."
     Though my wife and I are typical indulgent parents, the boys do have chores; the younger one empties the dishwasher, the older one cleans the cat litter.
     But there was this bet.
     I'm not sure how the subject came up—we all talk constantly, so it's hard to keep track. We were having lunch, and my older boy used the phrase "tonic clonic."
     "Tonic clonic?" I asked. "That's a new one." I told him I know that "clonic" describes rhythmic muscle contraction, like a person rocking. But I had never heard this phrase before.
     "It's a grand mal seizure," he explained.
     "No, it's not," I answered, with sudden conviction. A writer encounters lots of words. I not only know what onchocerciasis is—river blindness—but can pronounce it correctly.
     "Yes, it is,'' Ross said. "Common vernacular."
     "Then, it must be a slang term," I said. "Something used in chat rooms. It's not an official term."
     "Yes, it is."
     "No, it's not."
     "Wanna bet?"
     Now, I'm the opposite of Richard Roeper when it comes to betting—well, I'm the opposite of Richard in many regards, alas, but particularly when it comes to betting. Betting is almost always a bad idea, because—unlike Richard—I almost always lose. But there is a certain activity that my son, being 14 and growing in contrariness every day, has lately refused to do, a chore I can't in good conscience force upon him.
     "If you lose, we play Scrabble," I said.
     "And if I win . . . ?"
     "I'll clean the cat litter."
     His grinning air of triumph as we shook hands concerned me. But "tonic clonic"? Rhyming couplets are invariably slang: "chick flick," "cheat sheet," "space case." The patients might call it the "pus bus," but the doctors will refer to it as the "Mobile Infection Control Vehicle."
     We got home, and he flew to the iMac. In five seconds, he had the Epilepsy Foundation Web site and an article titled "Generalized Tonic Clonic Seizures (also called Grand Mal or a Convulsion)."
     Geez. Not only is "tonic clonic" a real term, but it's the preferred term. As disappointed as I was to lose my shot at a Scrabble game (one by one, life's joys are plucked off the table, but I thought I could cling to Scrabble a bit longer), I couldn't help but wonder if this was political correctness—what was wrong with "grand mal?" Could it be because "mal" is "evil" in French? Have seizures now become a lifestyle, something to be celebrated? Have people with epilepsy taken a page from the deaf—or is it The Deaf Nation by now?—who have convinced themselves, if no one else, that deafness is a culture and a superior culture at that, and hearing aids are a genocide?
     In a word: yes.

The Big Evil

     "Grand mal means 'The Big Evil,' " said Kimberli Meadows, of the Epilepsy Foundation. "Just as we don't call people 'epileptics,' as we try to get rid of the stigma associated with epilepsy, we use more positive terms."
     I'm all for being positive, though "tonic clonic" still strikes me as an odd term, not just for its sing-song quality, but also from a etymological point of view, since "tonic" generally means something that restores health and vigor (though I see now that, in physiology, it means the opposite). "During the tonic phase, breathing may decrease or cease altogether, producing cyanosis (blueing) of the lips, nail beds and face," the Epilepsy Foundation explains. This leads to the clonic phase, where muscles rapidly contract and relax.
     I found a reference to "tonic clonic" in the Miami Herald in 1984, and a total of 278 citations in all national newspapers in the quarter century since—about 10 a year; I didn't feel so clueless for not having encountered it before. It isn't as if we're bombarded with the phrase.
     Irked epileptics—whoops, "people with epilepsy"—or the proudly deaf should take comfort that my punishment was already visited upon me. Kneeling over the cat box, shoveling scoopful after scoopful of congealed litter into a garbage bag while my eldest son taunted me.
     "If you're going to write books," he sneered, "you should really know what words mean. I mean, Dad, c'mon, 'animadversion?' "
     I stopped scooping, stunned. A month ago, at least, I had walked into the office—my own flippin' office, for Pete's sake! He was vegged out at the computer.
     "Do you need this?" he asked; sometimes I toss them off the computer.
     "No, I'm just looking up a word."
     "What word?" he asked.
     "Animadversion," I answered. "Boswell uses it in Life of Johnson.
     "It's a criticism."
     "What's a criticism?"
     " 'Animadversion,' " he said. "It means 'a criticism, or complaint.' "
     I gave him a cold stare and flipped open the Oxford.
     "Animadversion," I read.
     "Censure, reproof, blame, a criticism."
     I wheeled on him.
     "How did you know that?"
     "I don't know," he shrugged. "Kids talk."
     I will leave you with a word that is not in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: "contrapasso." An Italian word that literally means "counter-suffering" and refers to the way punishments in Dante's hell mirror the sins that damned souls committed in life. Adulterers are bound together for all eternity, fortunetellers are blinded by tears. A father who stresses the importance of words has them turned into darts and shot back at him. I am hoisted with my own petard.
                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 5, 2010


  1. That's, for lack of a better word, exquisite.

  2. I have always loved words. Made a point of not skipping over them when unfamiliar imagining I had deciphered their meaning from the context. Collected them like jewels in my brain. I'm sure their still in there somewhere sometimes now I can't find them.

    Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands.

  3. You raised a brainiac! Take solace; the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.


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