When “Friend” Became a Verb: Young People and Social Media

I recently interviewed Harvard professor Dr. Michael Rich (M.D.), founder and leader of the Center of Media and Child Health. Here’s what he told me about young people and social media.

What are some of the problems children have with social media?

One of the big problems kids have is they lose track of time. Of course, the games and social media have that built-in – want to disconnect you from time, because time with your eyeballs is their currency. We also have to add that kids’ brains are still maturing and their pre-frontal cortex, where impulse control, future thinking, and all that executive function lie, is not going to be online until their mid to late 20s.

Also, I think we lost a lot when “friend” became a verb. We friend people willy-nilly and rack up the score, but they’re not the kind of friends that you can cry to in the middle of the night or who you could reach out for a shoulder to lay your head on.

Why do you say “problematic interactive media use” instead of “gaming addiction”?

Gaming is just one of four manifestations we’re seeing of what we’re calling “problematic interactive media use.” That includes games, which is predominately boys, or most prevalent in boys, although we have a fair number of girls; followed by social media, more prevalent in girls; pornography, evenly balanced between the boys and girls; and “information binging” – following the endless rabbit holes of Wikipedia, etc. There are many ways you can get lost in the web essentially eternally. 

Part of the reason we call it problematic interactive media use is it’s not an addiction. It’s overuse of a necessary resource. In the 21st-century the online space, the active media space, is necessary to function at school, function at work, etc. What continues with many of the advocacy groups out there is a call to cut down on screen time, get rid of these devices, block this, do that, rather than taking a step back and saying this is the world we must live in.

How should we approach interactive media use with children?

Instead of looking at these devices as vectors of harm or help, let’s look at these devices as creating an environment we’re living in. Instead of trying to avoid it, how can we use good, unbiased science to understand how to live with it and help our children be healthier, happier, more productive, and kinder to each other?

I think that what we really need to do is approach this much the way we approach nutrition or injury prevention, which is: What are the facts? What are the risk-benefit ratios, and how does it fit into my life? How can I optimize the benefit and minimize the risk?

Are the problems increasing?

I don’t think that the problem is greater than it was before. I think people are noticing it more, in part because the parents are at home with the kids all day. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and amplified that process immensely, particularly for children, but for all of us who stay at home for long periods of time, and in some cases fighting over bandwidth.

Kids on average are getting 11 hours and 45 minutes of screen content every day and those were data generated before the pandemic. People are desperate to ask what the ideal screen time limits should be for kids. I’ve been saying for years screen time limits are obsolete.

Why do you say that?

What the research shows and clinical experience shows is the best way to approach this is to sit down with your child, really of any age, even as young as five, and think of their 24-hour day as an empty glass that you fill up with this many hours of sleep, a family meal at least once a day (probably the most protective thing you can do for a child’s mental health, as well as their nutrition), put aside time for homework, put aside time for some physical activity, and then see what time is left.

What you’re doing in that case is engaging the young person in making the schedule, giving them some ownership of that schedule. Second, you are being mindful about the finite amount of things that they want to do and allowing them to prioritize and then to manage their time – and God knows we could all do better with time management. This is a way of building those habits early.

What about social media and relationships online?

I think social media can be a great practice area for relationships, a place where you can start to tentatively let people know that you’re interested in them either as a friend or as a romantic partner, try things out, stumble and fall a little bit. But it also is a place where people on either side of that communication can misinterpret something that may have been sent as a flirty tease, but they could take it in a hurtful way.

These principles apply to all of us, though I think kids are in some ways the “canary in the coal mine,” in that they are early adopters of technology. They are facile with technology and are much more adept with it than their parents. Often, are they are going to run into these issues more quickly.

Any final thoughts?

Young people go online in hopes that it will build community, they’ll make connections with people. Because they feel anxious in an in-person social situation, they go to social media to take baby steps, to try to connect with people. 

I think that in our quest for and achievement of near-infinite connectivity, we’ve lost our connectedness in a deep and meaningful way, the way we are connected with family and with close friends. That kind of connectedness is sustaining and meaningful. I think the most important thing is to use social media so that we can be real with each other.

 

Adults Saying No

I read a story a long time ago. A woman received a call from her child’s school’s PTA, telling her that they needed two dozen cupcakes (or something similar) from her for their upcoming fundraiser.

The mother thought for a moment. “How much do you expect to earn through this event?” she asked.

“Three hundred dollars,” came the reply.

“And how many people do you expect will contribute baked goods?”

“About 15.”

The mother promptly sent the PTA a check for $20 and did no baking.

The PTA members seemed quite upset by this. But here was a mother who had learned to say “no,” while still supporting the PTA’s goal in a tangible way – just without adding a baking chore to her job, or indeed whatever else she had to do.

Saying “no” is important. Lately, we’ve been hearing that permitting children to say “no” to an unwelcome hug or kiss, even from a close relative, is an early lesson in bodily autonomy and setting limits. Similarly, children should be able to say “stop” when being tickled and have their boundaries respected. 

Perhaps because many grown women didn’t have a chance to learn how to say “no” – and have it heard and accepted – they still don’t know how to set those boundaries.

It’s especially hard to do when children are involved.

I read another story about a woman eating a bowl of strawberries. Her child had already eaten his bowl of strawberries, but wanted his mother to give him her last berry. She ate it herself instead.

I remember this caused a furor among those who read the article. Most of the people who wrote in to the magazine where it was published were of the opinion that the mother should have surrendered the last strawberry to her child. Mothers were supposed to sacrifice for their children, they said. The mother who ate the last berry in her bowl was being selfish.

A few replied, however, that the mother was right – and within her rights to eat the strawberry herself. Her child had already eaten his share of the berries. By insisting on being given the last berry, he was, they said, learning greed and that all his wants should be gratified, to say nothing about disrespecting his mother, who, in eating the last berry, was saying “no” to him.

Nothing was resolved, of course, but everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.

Parents have to say “no” to their children sometimes, especially in cases involving danger. They also have to teach their children to say “no” – again especially in cases involving danger. And they would do well to teach their children to accept a “no” from someone else.

But when an adult says “no” to another adult, as in the first example, the response is often incredulity. How dare a mother refuse to participate in a school bake sale! The fact that she contributed in her own, deliberately fair, way seemed an affront.

But saying “no” to requests for time, money, energy, and effort is natural and understandable. It’s very difficult, though, especially for women, and especially without adding some excuse – doctor’s appointment, visiting relative, or whatever. Some feel guilty even when the excuse is valid and true.

Because that’s what’s really happening here. Parents feel guilty when they decide to deny their children – or their children’s schools – anything.

And feeling guilty is a hard habit to break.

Sorority Daze

This is a picture of the pledge paddle that my sorority “Big Sister” decorated for me. (For you kinksters, these were symbolic only and never used for hazing. And for you bros, we never had pillow fights in our shortie pajamas. But I digress.) The paddles were decorated to reflect the interests of the “Little Sisters” and mine was painted with a Lord of the Rings theme, which was somewhat trendy as a book trilogy before it ever became mega-trendy as a movie trilogy. (That’s Gandalf and two hobbits at the bottom and the Doors of Moria in the middle. Luby was my Big Sister’s nickname.)

For those of you who know me now, it may seem difficult to believe I ever belonged to a sorority in college. But I did, for a year at least, until I found out it didn’t suit me, which I should have known from the beginning.

It was really fear of housing that led me to join. First-year college students lived in the dorms. After that, dorm preference went to seniors, then juniors, then sophomores. (I don’t know who devised this system, which seems silly to me.) But first-time sorority sisters (sophomore pledges) got first crack at rooms in the sorority house. So, after “rushing,” where I understand my application was controversial, I joined Delta Phi Epsilon.

D Phi E, as it was known, was not one of the more glamorous sororities. We were more of a quiet, studious house, not running with a frat or wearing spiffy designer outfits. (We did have gold and purple t-shirts, our house colors, after “the lovely iris,” which was our symbol.) It was also known as “Dogs, Pigs, and Elephants” by most of the fraternities, which was fine with me, as it meant they didn’t pursue us or invite us to rowdy parties where, if you drank the punch, you peed blue. 

At any rate, I was a lousy sorority sister. I wore my floppy leather hat for my official photo. I once threw a boot (not a shoe, a boot) at someone who opened the door to my room without receiving a reply to her knock. (It was 6:00 a.m., an ungodly hour for getting up on a weekend, for some pledge activity, and I was merely trying to reinforce proper civility. I mean, you’ve got to have some standards, especially if you’re living with 30 other women.)

The chapter house had an interesting history. Legend says that it was built in prohibition days and had a secret stash for a bottle of booze, which none of us ever found, in the stair newel post. Instead of a house mother, we had a president (we were very independent), and a cook, who packed lunches and made dinner for us. I never convinced her that a single cup of yogurt qualified as a lunch, but it was a very popular choice. On Sunday, we had “Week in Review,” a New York Times joke that meant we were having leftovers. My husband and I still use this saying.

I “deactivated” after my first full year there, having found group housing and sisterly activities less enchanting than I thought they would be. (I had the bottom bunk; two other pledges, Sue and Cindy, had the top bunk and the single bed.) The next year I found a basement apartment in Cayuga Heights, which was very solitary, except I had to share the bathroom with a guy who lived in the smaller room. I never had to throw a boot at him. 

Later, after I graduated, I severed my ties further, so I wouldn’t get the sorority newsletter all the time, soliciting funds and talking about women I had never met. I recently found one of my old roommates online, though.  And I kept that pledge paddle all these years. I guess sorority life did mean something to me after all.

 

Gee, You Talk Funny

This is something my college friends and I used to say when we noticed that we spoke with different prepositions or other idioms. Who said “stand in line” and who said “stand on line”? Who said “change for a quarter” versus “change of a quarter”? Is the thing you push in a supermarket a “cart,” “a buggy,” or a “wagon”? Was “wash” pronounced the way it looks, or had a pesky “r” sneaked in to make it sound like “warsh”? For that matter, why do some people say “My hair needs washed,” while others say, “My hair needs to be washed” or “my hair needs washing”? Why does one person say “ink pen” when that’s the only kind of pen there is?

(I’ll answer that last one. The person who said “ink pen” was reacting to something linguists call minimal pairs. Such pairs have a slight difference in pronunciation that some people can hear and others can’t. So, for example, if “pen” and “pin” aren’t a minimal pair for you, you may say things like “safety pin,” “straight pin,” and “ink pen.” But I digress.)

The linguistic principle I wanted to talk about today, though, is “code-switching” or “levels of diction.” Someone online was questioning why Kamala Harris sometimes spoke “standard” English and at other times seemed to speak in a different dialect altogether.

All of us are pretty fluent at code-switching, whether we know it or not. Basically, code-switching means that you don’t speak the same way you do to your grandmother or pastor as you do to, say, a teacher or boss, or people your own age. (This especially applies to teenagers.) For example, you are not likely at all to swear in front of your grandmother or pastor, rather unlikely to swear in front of a teacher or boss (unless you’re a longshoreman), but more likely to swear in front of people of your own age and background. Similarly, you are more likely to use nonstandard English (such as “ain’t”) with your friends than with your grandmother.

Your tone of voice, your use of slang, and even your accent may change, based on your audience. These are called “levels of diction.” 

This is what people were wondering about Kamala Harris. Was she being “fake” when she used a more ethnic-sounding voice? Was she being “fake” when she used formal, academic speech and language?

The answer is that her speech was not “fake” at either time. Harris was code-switching and probably wasn’t doing it consciously.

Most of us code-switch quite naturally, without even thinking about it. (Once our mothers have biffed us on the back of the head for “disrespecting” Grandma.) Oh, we may feel like we’re not being our “true selves” when we tone it down for Grandma or ditch a Kentucky accent for a speech contest or podcast, but after a while it’s automatic.

It’s also a very valuable skill to have. Imagine having only one way to speak! You’d be insulting people right and left. Your Grandma might think you were talking like a sailor or your homies might think you were talking stilted and better-than-thou.

If you pay attention, you may even catch yourself code-switching or notice when someone else is doing it.

The disagreements my college friends and I had were not actually about code-switching, but about regional variations in vocabulary. For anyone interested, where I live now, the standards are wait “in” line, change “for” a quarter, and shopping “cart.” From just that, a talented linguist could tell where I live (Ohio). (I still say “ink pen,” but that’s a holdover from where I was born, in Kentucky.)

That’s all for today. Go listen for some code-switching or compare prepositions and vocabulary with your friends. I have to leave. My hair needs washed.

 

A Room of My Own

So, we bought a house, a couple of decades ago. It had three bedrooms, which seems a lot, since there’s only my husband and myself. We seldom had overnight guests, and when we did there was a pull-out sofa bed.

What did we do with the two extra rooms? Media center? Exercise room? Yoga studio?

No. One became my study. I needed a place to write my stories, articles, blogs, books, and draft my novel. Someplace where I wouldn’t be disturbed (or could be as disturbed as I like).

Then, of course, so my husband shouldn’t be left out, the other spare room became a study, too. It wasn’t a “man cave,” since neither one of us believes in those things. But it was a place where he could store his curios and fossils, watch TV or do research on the computer, hang his favorite artworks, house his books and DVDs, and just generally kick back.

Then along came the tornado that destroyed our house. It gave me the opportunity to start all over with my study, make it into my refuge as well as my writing space, and decorate it from the ground up – literally.

I’ve included a few pictures of my study for illustration purposes. It’s not really as orange as it looks in the photos, more the clay-like color of used bricks. The carpet is a deep tan. The ceiling, blinds, and windowsills are white. The furniture is a collection of different colored woods, including both new and used pieces. Several of them have electrical outlets and USB ports to accommodate my collection of electronic spaghetti.

Here’s a few highlights of my study:

  • a desk and desk chair, of course, facing a window
  • a bookcase, of course
  • a Mac desktop computer
  • a two-drawer wooden file cabinet that serves as a printer stand
  • my Cornell diploma and an EdPress award
  • a comfy chair in a color called spice, just a shade or two deeper than the walls
  • several pieces of art, including a piece of calligraphy by Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and a drawing by Debbie Ohi with a quote from Neil Gaiman
  • a Venice carnival-style cat mask
  • a TV and a stand for it, which will also hold my Mr. Coffee machine
  • a cat tree by the window (the window sills are also wide enough for them)
  • assorted plush animals, knick-knacks, and such travel souvenirs as survived the tornado
  • a lamp and a tissue box made to look like old books
  • a concrete armadillo, which serves as my doorstop

I don’t have as many books as I used to, which I know to some is a sacrilege, but now I have them on my e-readers. I still have print copies of The Annotated Alice, The Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, and several signed mystery and science fiction novels. My CD collection is likewise gone, replaced by iTunes on my computer and my iPod. I have a few DVDs that are special to me, which will reside in my TV stand, along with more plush animals and knick-knacks.

My study is far from finished. I still don’t know how to disguise or hide the powerstrips. Some of the artwork needed restoring, and much of it still needs hanging. My bookshelf is new (to me) and needs to be filled. Somewhere in the basement, I have a decorative wall-hanging brass shelf that I haven’t quite figured out where to put.

At any rate, it’s still a work in progress, but rapidly taking shape. It’s warm and cozy, relatively quiet (after the neighbors get their houses built, I mean). And it feels good to have, as Virginia Woolf said, “a room of one’s own.”

 

Living Through Memes

I’ve been looking back through my Facebook “memories” lately, and if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that I now live much more in the meme than I did before.

Time was, I made posts about what my husband and I were doing, what was happening with our cats, meals we’d cooked, and how I felt. I even had a series of posts – “Who the Hell Cares” Headline of the Day, Stupidest Headline of the Day (So Far), and a few other labels.

Now I don’t bother.

It may be because I didn’t get much response to the things I posted, though that may be attributable to how few Facebook friends I had back in the day as compared to now. It may be because I studiously avoided posting anything political or religious, topics sure to invite controversy and responses. Cute kitten pictures was about as socially conscious as I got.

Once I tried to make my own memes to promote my blogs. I didn’t really know how to make memes and tried to do them in Powerpoint, which didn’t really work all that well. I’m sure now there’s some kind of meme creator program that everyone but me knows about.

Another problem with my self-made memes was that they weren’t short and punchy. I tried to mine my blogs for content, but all I came up with were long sentences with lots of punctuation, things like “Children’s literature crafted with imagination can free the spirit in adults as well as children. It’s something we all need.” I even accompanied that one with a photo of a book and some imaginative children’s toys – dragon, spaceship. But it wasn’t snappy. It wasn’t memorable. 

Here’s another one, which I didn’t even have a picture for: “The mind and body and soul are inextricably intertwined. We know this to be true. Depression affects them all.” Then just my name and the address of my blog. Wordy. Unmemorable.

I’m not sure I could do much better now. My blogs resist mining for gems of wisdom. And I still don’t know how to construct not-very-good memes in Powerpoint or any other program.

Besides, there are lots of memes that resonate with me and are already there for me to like and pass along.

“If art is how we decorate space, music is how we decorate time.”

Or political or social justice memes that I am no longer so shy about having on my own timeline:

While you’re worried about the “bad apples”

We’re wary of the roots

Because no healthy tree

Naturally bears strange fruit

That is brilliant. It’s a whole poem, conveys an important message, and contains an allusion to “Strange Fruit,” which was a Billie Holiday song about lynchings. No photo or fancy artwork even needed. Just the words, sufficient to think about, expressed succinctly and cleverly.

I do comment on other people’s blog posts and even get into conversations with them. I post links to my blog to Facebook and any appropriate groups I belong to. People like or comment on the memes I post and sometimes even pass them along themselves, especially now that I’ve somewhat gotten over my avoidance of political and social justice memes. (I mean, if Ted Nugent can share his opinions on politics, why shouldn’t I?)

Perhaps I shouldn’t worry about only passing along others’ content instead of creating my own memes. I have plenty of other stuff to do online, like writing my two blogs, and offline, like the novel I’m writing that I haven’t gotten back to in quite a while. (I sometimes wonder if I should abandon this blog, which doesn’t have what you’d call a large following, to work on that instead. But I digress.)

There’s something satisfying to my soul about the blogging and the novel in a way that creating memes just doesn’t have. Still, perhaps I should share more about my life than pictures of my adorable cats. On the other hand, that’s giving the people what they really want.

Teaching the Magic Words

Almost universally, parents experience the ritual of teaching children to say the “magic words”: please and thank you.  Many children get the idea that there is only one magic word: “please-and-thank-you.” It’s considered a triumph when children begin to use the words spontaneously.

However, the practice of calling them “magic words” seems to convey to children that if they use them, their wish will be granted. They will receive the candy, the toy, the outing, whatever is the object of their desire. This may be because the desired object is something a parent already intends to give the child. In essence, this is a bribe intended to get the child to say “please-and-thank-you.”

When the magic words don’t work – when the child is asking for something the parent is unable or unwilling to give – little Evan or Marguerite is disappointed, even upset to the point of melt-down. It’s a sad lesson in life that there really are no magic words that result in wish-fulfillment.

Instead of bribing kids into saying please and thank you, I recommend using another old standby of child raising: The notion that children imitate adults.

But how often do children really see please and thank you – and that other essential phrase “you’re welcome” – used in the home or by parents? Manners can become a little lax when you see someone every day.

How difficult is it to say, quite naturally, “Please pass the salt” or “Please help me put away these groceries” or “Please keep the noise down. I’m going to have a nap”? And then thank the other adult when she or he complies. How often do we say, “You’re welcome” when you give someone something they have requested? And how often do we say “please” and “thank you” sarcastically, as if they shouldn’t have to be said at all? 

While family life gives plenty of opportunities for demonstrating the proper way to use the magic words, so too do interactions in the outside world. How many of us remember to say “thank you” to the server who brings our food? How many forget the “please” in the simple sentence, “Please bring me a glass of water”? When thanked by a person you’ve helped in some way, do you answer, “You’re welcome” or at least “No problem,” the modern-day equivalent?

Personally, I think that the most important time to use the words, “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” is within the family. They are words of acknowledgment, appreciation, and good will that surely our family members deserve. If it feels weird to say these words to your partner, ask yourself why. Do you feel that less politeness is due to family members than to a stranger? I think they deserve more. 

Of course, in daily interactions, it’s easy to forget saying please and thank you to someone you know so well. Their compliance is assumed, so much so that the sentence, “No, I can’t help you with the groceries” is shocking.

But that’s another thing that children need to learn – that sometimes their requests, even prefaced with the magic words, will receive a negative response. Then they have a chance to learn the words “I’m sorry,” as in “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were on the phone” or “I’m sorry. I can’t help right now, but give me ten minutes and I will.”

My point is that please-and-thank-you aren’t magic words at all, that you’re welcome and I’m sorry should go along with them, and that using them as everyday words within your household is the best way to teach them.

After all, don’t we also say, “Children learn what they live”?

Homecoming and Dodgy Behavior

In the last 15 months, I have lived in five different places: a Red Cross shelter, a budget motel, a hotel suite, a rented house, and a one-bedroom apartment. A couple of weeks ago, we moved back into our home again.

It’s not exactly the same as our old house, though it is on the same lot and same foundation. In the aftermath of the tornado, we were able to make a few modifications to the plans. We enlarged the master bedroom to accommodate a reading nook with two comfy chairs and a standing lamp. We enlarged the downstairs bathroom and put in a shower. This made my study a little smaller, but the convenience has proved to be worth it.

My study (or “the smallest bedroom,” as our contractor called it) is a definite improvement over where I did my writing at the last place we lived, the one-bedroom apartment. There I had to do my work and write my blogs in the apartment’s supposed laundry area, with my computer propped up on four totes and two boards. The cat box was located there too, which inspired me to write quickly.

Much of our furniture was ruined in the aftermath of the tornado, so we had a veritable shopping spree replacing it. What we acquired was an eclectic mix of new high-quality items (the insurance paid for these), secondhand or antique furniture such as a huge hutch and a grandfather clock (one of Dan’s lifelong dreams), plus assorted cheap-o stuff that we ordered off the internet. (My study’s comfy chair turned out to be a pleasant surprise, being as comfy as advertised and fitting in beautifully with my warm spice-colored walls.)

It was during one of these furniture deliveries that my husband learned something he had never known about me. When our furniture and appliances were delivered, I tipped the delivery guys for their sometimes-considerable efforts. Dan’s curio cabinet was a different matter.

The delivery instructions only covered placing the huge (already assembled) item inside the front door. It needed to be upstairs, in my husband’s study (“the small upstairs bedroom”). As we gathered inside the front door and looked at the giant package, I piped up, “I’ll give you $20 if you take it upstairs.”

“Where upstairs?” Delivery Dude asked.

“The room right at the top of the stairs.”

The two guys looked at each other.  “Okay, ” they said. (Little did they know that I would probably have given them $20 or thereabouts simply for having toted it down our long, sloping, unpaved driveway.)

Dan looked at me in astonishment. Apparently he had never imagined that I knew how to bribe someone.

My career in bribery is not extensive, but I have had my moments. Once – before 9/11, of course – I bribed a curbside redcap to put my bag on a plane other than the one I was ticketed for. (My boss had made me change my departure time to arrive at the business convention earlier than planned.)

A coworker had described the official procedure, which was to dangle a $10 bill from the hand that clutched the handle of the luggage. I added my own twist to this by clutching the money with one hand while I dug in my purse for the elusive ticket that “I was sure my boss gave me.” A little helpless female pantomime (which I loathed myself for), and the bag and I both traveled on the earlier plane. (I exchanged my ticket once I got inside the terminal.)

It turns out, of course, that my husband was grateful for my underhanded skills, since it got him his curio up the stairs without his having to strain his back. But I don’t think he’ll ever look at me the same way again. After over 35 years of marriage, it’s good to know that I can still surprise him.

Seventeen

Seventeen. That’s what the nurse said.

My husband had just narrowly avoided a serious heart attack, forestalled by an addition to the collection of metal in his chest. This was his fifth or sixth stent. (I’ve lost count. Fortunately, his cardiologist hadn’t.)

The food service at the hospital was excellent. Dan was allowed to choose from a menu that included restaurant-quality meals, including salmon stir-fry. Each was carefully marked with nutrition information – sodium, fats, carbs, etc. When Dan went over the limit on his restrictions, the kitchen would let him know and suggest he try a different salad dressing, for example. Once he even saved enough points on his meal that he was able to select a teensy sliver of low-fat cheesecake. It was nearly invisible, but enough to satisfy a longing.

Because my husband also has diabetes, on his discharge day an R.N. appeared to talk to him about his diet. The nurse was incredibly knowledgeable. My husband is fairly knowledgeable, too. He knows that fruits contain a fair amount of sugar, but he loves fruit and thought they would be a better choice for snacks and desserts than, say, ice cream or pecan turtles.

The nurse’s spiel was enlightening. He told Dan how much of each fruit he could safely consume. One quarter cup of watermelon. A small apple or orange (he illustrated the size with his hands), and so on.

I knew that one of Dan’s favorite snacks was grapes, the big red seedless kind. So I asked.

“Grapes?” I inquired.

“Seventeen,” said the nurse. No hesitation. Not a moment’s thought. No consulting a chart or a diet list. This man had memorized all the information about all the fruits, apparently, and had it on the tip of his tongue (so to speak).

I goggled. “Seventeen?” I echoed.

“Seventeen grapes,” he said. “That’s the proper serving size.”

Who was I to argue?

On his next trip to the store, Dan indeed brought home a bag of those wonderful red grapes. Shortly, he was sitting on the sofa eating them while watching TV, popping them in his mouth like popcorn.

I counted. “One,” I said.

“One,” he repeated.

“Two,” I said.

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Three.”

“Four.”

“Three.”

“That’s not three! You’ve already eaten three,” I exclaimed.

He popped another grape in his mouth. “Five,” I said.

“Three,” he replied.

It went on like this for a while. “Six.” “Three.” “Seven.” “Three.”

Once I even tried skipping nine and going straight to ten to see if he would protest.

He didn’t.  “Three,” he replied calmly.

When Dan’s in this mood (entranced by grapes), there’s no arguing with him. He’s stubborn, and fully capable of repeating “three” while I count up to 286. (I think that was all the grapes in the bag.) He actually did stop eating the grapes right around 17, though, with a smug look on his face.

Just before he came home I had bought a watermelon – a small one – knowing how much he loved them – perhaps even more than grapes. I have no doubt that he’s hidden the measuring cups so I can’t monitor his watermelon intake, too.

Protestors, Rioters, Terrorists, Thugs

Words matter. What we call people matters. Making distinctions among words matters. Take protestors, rioters, terrorists, and thugs. What do these terms mean and what do we mean when we say them?

Lately, the words protestor, rioter, terrorist, and thug have been flung around indiscriminately and seem to mean little more than “people I object to” or “people who behave in a way I don’t like.” But there are differences, subtle as they may be.

Protesters, well, protest something. Anything, really – wearing masks, not wearing masks, any government policy you’d care to name, any social cause or its opposite. They are people saying, “no.”

Generally, you can recognize protesters by their behavior. They carry signs. They march. They chant. And yes, sometimes they act in inconvenient ways, like blocking streets or bridges. This is not new. When the price of gas grew too high and highway speed limits too low, truckers slowed down and drove side-by-side, which mightily annoyed the people behind them, but was a nonviolent protest.

Most, though not all, protesters, are committed to nonviolent actions – sit-ins, street theater, boycotts, and other sorts of behavior espoused by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Rioters, well, riot. They smash things. Sometimes they set fires. Very occasionally they commit violence against persons. If you push protesters too far or ignore them long enough, they can turn into rioters, though the nonviolent protesters outnumber the violent ones. Rioters are usually motivated by the same kinds of issues as protesters. They just take it farther and abandon Gandhi and MLK.

Let’s talk about looters, while we’re at it. Looters are opportunists, who take advantage of the social unrest caused by rioters. They have no social or political position to support or denounce. They just want to get what they can out of the social unrest that rioting and the response to rioting cause.

(It is interesting to note that, after a hurricane in Florida, newspapers printed pictures of black people “looting” damaged stores, while white people in nearly identical pictures were said to be “salvaging” items from damaged stores. But I digress.)

Terrorists, well, create terror. They are not common criminals and have no obvious positions to support or oppose. Those come later, in a manifesto issued by individuals or groups that may or may not have committed the terrorism. At first, there were only terrorists, who were assumed to come from other countries. Now we have another variety, domestic terrorists, who are from the US and operate in the US. Think Timothy McVeigh.

Generally, terrorism has no apparent motive, except to make people afraid to do the things they normally do, such as run in marathons, open mail or packages, or drop their kids off at daycare. The terror is, at first, random, and is meant to be. What do terrorists want? is the common puzzle. After we’ve dismissed the easy answers, like “They hate us,” the answer is usually, simply, they want us to fear them and fear living our daily lives. Often, people with no connection to a terrorist act take “credit” for them to push their own agendas. If they leave no manifesto, we readily fill in the blanks of what they were trying to “say.”

As for thugs, this is a code word for “black people behaving badly,” based on whatever the person perceives as behaving badly. Robbing strangers, sure. But also assembling in groups or committing petty crimes, or looking menacing without necessarily doing anything menacing, or playing music too loud. Or, for that matter, going into spaces that white people consider “theirs,” where the thugs obviously don’t “belong” – gated communities, suburban swimming pools, public parks.

The term “thugs” is almost never applied to anyone white. White youth (usually) who cause disruptions are commonly called delinquents or disturbers of the peace. They are charged with misdemeanors or given tickets rather than brought to trial.

Of course, this is just an exercise in linguistics. I don’t really expect people to start differentiating and calling groups or individuals what they really are. But, as I said in the beginning, words matter. Especially the words we apply to other people.