Of Oral Fixations and Shoe Leather
If foot-swallowing were a competitive sport, I’d need a trophy case. I have a lot of experience putting my foot in my mouth, and I don’t just do it halfway. We’re talking slather-some-hot-sauce-on-it-and-deep-throat-my-own-heel championship events.
There was the time in grade school, when I made a comment that the “George Washington” of our school play looked more like “George Washington Carver,” and the kid next to me promptly called me a cracker. Some important points to note:
- This was the Deep South in the late 1970’s
- I was the only white girl who rode the school bus through the “black neighborhood,” where so many kids piled on that I usually ended up riding on the lap of the third student crammed into a 2-person seat
- I actually had no concept of race whatsoever; I could distinguish different skin colors (clearly) but was utterly clueless about racism or the extent to which my community was in its thrall
- It hadn’t occurred to me that the difference between the young thespian’s skin color and that of his character also applied to my neighbor and me
- I’d never heard the “N-word,” nor did I have the faintest idea what a “cracker” was; yes, I realize this made me probably the most oblivious kid in town
All in all, that foot was greased up nicely when I swallowed it whole. I wish I could go back and tell the kid next to me that I’m sorry I made such an obscenely racist remark in my ignorance. I wish my younger self had paid more attention to the performance than the actor’s appearance.
Then there was the time I repeated comments to my beloved dance teacher that I’d overheard some aspiring ballerinas make about her at dance camp. Mrs. O. was tall and willowy with a noble profile and long, straight, black hair that was graying in streaks. She had a cane that she used both to steady her arthritic gait and to tap out the tempo as we danced.
Thin, bony, aging woman . . .
strong features sharpening among the wrinkles,
walking a bit stooped over,
cane tapping sharply against the floor,
raven tresses streaked with gray
They called her a witch.
And I told her so, proudly describing how I’d stood up for her. How I said anything around that foot in my mouth is beyond me. She had the good sense to set me straight, and I’m still not sure which hurt more — the upbraiding I so richly deserved, or the realization that I had wounded her deeply.
I wish I could claim that maturity had cured me of my foot-in-mouth disease, but apparently not. As a graduate student, I mouthed off about the uselessness of History degrees in the company of an accomplished historian.
One of my in-laws.
Visiting from thousands of miles away.
I was a newlywed.
Both she and I unemployed at the time.
That foot needed a little salt. Maybe I could’ve borrowed some from the wound I was rubbing it into as I railed on. Decades later, she’s either forgiven me or just decided to let me choke on my foot. Bless her. She’s preparing to enter a comfortable retirement with full pension. I’m getting used to the taste of toe-jam.
My point is that I speak from bitter experience when I say that it’s all too easy to open mouth, insert foot — even for sensitive, compassionate, well-meaning nerds like me. If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then I’m getting a lot of asphalt between my teeth on my way to the Underworld. I hope Beelzebub has thick skin.
I know I’m an extreme case, but I’ve yet to meet the adult who hasn’t grazed a tonsil or two with the occasional foot. Somewhere in all those platitudes, even the Dalai Lama’s toes must’ve gone fishing for his epiglottis once or twice. Look closely, and you might just catch one of the great orators of our time cringing at the cottonmouth they’re getting from the sock-lint on their tongue.
Unless acquiring a taste for the zesty crunch of fresh toenails or the chewy mouthfeel of shoe leather is on your 5-year-plan, read on. Because a world with fewer people snacking on their phalanges is a better place. Because I’d like some good to come of my affliction. Because maybe you can learn from the mistakes of an inveterate connoisseur of all things plantar.
- Questions like “When are you due?” should be strictly reserved for occasions when someone has expressly invited you to discuss her expectant motherhood. It doesn’t matter if her belly’s distended to the size of a VW Beetle, she’s waddling like a penguin in heat, and she’s spewing pea-soup the likes of which the Exorcist has never seen right in front of you! Presuming to ask a woman with a 9-month hangover how much longer she has to endure before she finds out if she still has ten toes under that mass is just asking for a sample of your own rubber-soled deliciousness.
- To use the word “retard” or any of its relatives in anything but a strictly clinical context, or to mean something negative like stupid, crazy, inept, inferior, etc. suggests that the real people to whom the clinical term refers are all of those bad things you mean to say. Unless you aim to be the kind of asshole who deserves to have every intellectually-challenged person on the planet cheerfully assist him with the ingestion of his achilles heel, stick with invectives that don’t assault human dignity or reduce a person’s worth to an IQ test score. Here are a few less foot-relishing options:
- Your role when greeting someone with children in tow is to acknowledge said children as respectfully as any adult — not to question their provenance; critique their behavior; legitimize gender biases; reflect on their height, weight, growth, or appearance; evaluate their intelligence; proffer unsolicited advice; or otherwise risk upsetting your digestion with whatever you’ve been tracking around on your shoes.
Avoid at all costs expressions like
“Are they all yours?”
“Somebody needs a nap!”
“Did you know [the sex, the father, the mother, about a disability] before (s)he was born?”
“Aren’t you a handsome boy/pretty girl?!”
“(S)He doesn’t look autistic.”
“You must be the runt of the litter!”
“(S)He seems very high-functioning.”
Err on the side of caution and practice the following phrase: “Hello, [child’s name]. It’s good to see you. How are you?”
- Nothing brings out the toe-taster in all of us like being confronted with unexpected challenges to our prejudices. So if you’re a transphobic borrower, and you’re confounded by the loan officer’s androgyny, keep your trap shut unless you wanna find someone else to lend you money for enough mouthwash to eliminate that leathery wingtip aftertaste.
When your teeth are starting to wear holes in your footwear, learning to darn socks is only part of the solution. Instead of desensitizing your gag reflex and carrying a bottle of Tabasco to mask the taste, try putting the brakes on that foot whenever you open your mouth. Maybe these words of foot-eschewing wisdom will help:
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.
~ Bernard Meltzer
Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten. ~Unknown
Engage your brain before you open your mouth. ~ My mother
Say what you feel but think before you speak. Rather bite your tongue than say something you can’t take back. ~ Unknown
Content brought to you by Language on the Loose. If this post resonates with you, you’re warmly invited to shoot me an email, throw your two cents in the comments, pass it on, and maybe follow along to see what’s next. You can find me online at: Medium, LinkedIn, and blogging about all sorts of nonsense at Language on the Loose.