On Being a Spaz

I am a spaz. I am not insulting myself.
My hands shake. Almost all the time. Sometimes it is hard to hold objects without pain & tremors and it is getting harder recently to hold a pen or other small, thin objects.
I have essential tremor. My dad has essential tremor, his hands shake. His father had essential tremor and his hands shook. It runs in the family.
I have had a noticeable shake in both of my hands since I was 12 or 13. My biology teacher in high school said after watching me dissect a frog and a shark’s brain that I should be a brain surgeon as I made the cleanest cuts he had seen in 30 years of teaching but I would make all the nurses nervous due to my hands and the scalpel shaking all the time.
I had a formal diagnosis of Essential Tremor when I was in my mid-twenties by a Harvard neurosurgeon, who told me that it will get worse over time and when it gets too hard to write or hold a fork that there are medications that I can take. He also told me that I was lucky that I didn’t have the ‘head bop’ version of ET.
Nearly 14 years later, while I am not at the point where I need the ET meds, it is getting harder to do certain tasks. I can’t put on mascara without using both of my hands – one hand to hold the mascara wand and one to hold the wrist of the hand holding the wand.
Yesterday, I was out at lunch and went to take a photo of my lunch, when I heard the folks at the next table talking about me in Spanish. While I can’t talk back in Spanish, I do understand. The conversation started by talking about my hair, then they moved to the fact I was shaking. The woman doing most of the talking about me kept saying that if I was an alcoholic, I should just order a drink to stop the shaking. Then they all laughed.
First I was appalled, then a bit angry, but I let it go quickly, as I did not even want to get into a conversation with these folks about what Essential Tremor is, why I have it, why it makes my hands, fork, & camera shake, and no I am not an alcoholic, as well as explaining why I can understand Spanish but can’t speak back.
I quickly forgot about this, as I will be the first to call myself a spaz. In the common California version of English, a spaz is a person who shakes with excitement, it has nothing to do with mental illness and only vague relation to people with MS or Cerebal Palsy but it is much more informal in its usage. I have been called a spaz all my life by many people due to my hands shaking, my voice, and my general excitement about life.
I am more than OK with being called a spaz as I don’t see it as an insult, but merely a concise description of true statements about me – I shake, I have an unusual voice that gets more unusual & fast with excitement, and I am a bouncy and overly cheerful human.
Why am I even writing about this? A web designer, developer, and blogger that I like and respect from the UK, Ann McMeekin, has written a blog post that to use the word ‘spaz’ is an unacceptable term. I see the argument she makes in her post and in her reply to Christopher Fahey (commenter #13) who tried to explain the American usage of the term, but I do think that it is very hard to keep up on the usage of English words across the world as they are used in lcoal parlance even if the writer or speaker may be speaking to a non-local audience.
The more I meet and get to know folks who are native English speakers from various countries across the world the more I realize that each country or sub-section thereof ascribes different nuances or even full meanings to words that we would all call common to English.
I am always terrified to ask for a napkin when dining in the UK, as I was told that it meant a feminine hygiene product, not a paper or cloth square of which to wipe one’s hands with when eating. I have perused whole lists to figure out what the differences are between UK and US English and do my best to keep up on different usages, but that does not take into account states or counties with in each country or even other countries that have English as a native language.
Nor does it take into account all the subtle cultural meanings that may be attached to word or phrase usage right now that weren’t the case ten years ago or many not be the case ten years from now.
When I was fresh out of college, I spent three months in Amsterdam and then two months in Budapest living with and in community with a set of folks from all over the world. One of the things I learned fast is how words that may be innocuous to you will be highly insulting to another. My English friend said fuck like it was going out of style, but if I used the word ‘bloody’ she would be insulted. My friend from Australia damned everything, but if I say I was ‘pissed off’ she would bawl me out.
The best is when our very innocent friend from Germany had a long conversation with a missionary group from the American South at the youth hostel we were staying at and she kept telling them about her problems with shit. She needed shit massage as she was constipated and went into great detail about how the shit needed to moved out of her bowels. The best part was watching the faces of said missionaries, at first they were very interested in listening to her, then I could see that they were determined to save her from her sinful swearing ways, and finally they got up and left as they were so insulted to be treated to a conversation that went for a half hour about shit.
My German friend was baffled by the missionaries abrupt departure, another American friend and I tried to explain to her that in the US to talk about shit was really taboo that one only talked about one’s ‘bowel movements’ briefly with very close friends and family and even then only used a euphemism. The concept of a euphemism for shit was unknown to her as German does not have gradations of delicate terms for going #2.
If you are American, you many be quite uncomfortable right now that I just said fuck and shit in a blog post. If you are English, it may be seen as unprofessional but not uncomfortable. And if you are from a culture that does not have shades of delicacies for such words, then you may be plain baffled that I have to write this paragraph at all.
All of this to say, that I agree that Ann is right about the global nature of the internet. Yes, we do need to be aware that our readership is not just from our local area who may understand the finer subtleties of our word usage or even of the words we just use without thinking. But on the other hand, it would be a whole study in and of itself to keep up with the thousands of common English words and how they are used both in formal writing and common speech in hundreds, if not thousands, of cultures and sub-cultures around the world.
I understand that it is important to not insult, I would like to call for giving each other a bit of grace and then if one is still bothered then to discuss the terminology with the person in question what was meant by its usage, and then still extend grace for the fact that even though we are global online we are still local in our daily lives.