The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Envelope Please

I'm in a motel in Evanston, Wyoming, on my way to Wisconsin, for a particular visit with my daughter, Liz. I just finished watching the Oscars by myself. Usually I'm with family members, but this is a trip I'm making by myself, and that's OK, too. I think the most fun I ever had at the Oscars was the night my daughter, Mary Ruth and I were in San Antonio at a motel, visiting my son/her brother Jeremy, who was going to UT-San Antonio. As I recall, we had Chinese takeout from HEB (oh, yes) and mostly enjoyed each other's company. I don't remember who won anything that year, but I'll remember this one, because Colin Firth won for playing King George VI, and he stuttered.

So do I. I always have. My stammer was more pronounced when I was younger, but I've never grown out of it. I've learned to breathe better and can accommodate it better, but the stammer is still there. I could totally and completely identify with Colin Firth's role in The King's Speech. I know the feeling of dread and desperation of having to speak, that Firth interpreted so well.

My dad was in the Navy (so was George VI), and we moved around every three years or so. This meant new schools and new opportunities to show off my stammer. Or so it seemed to me.  Given my own habits, I'd happily have stayed in the same place and never have to re-introduced myself every few years to new critics.  I remember the pain of having to read out loud in turn, because my stammer was always there. And sure enough, that first time would usually be followed by a visit to the school district's speech therapist. Nothing really made a difference. Visits to psychologists didn't make a difference, because stammers don't necessarily have psychological overtones. Now the consensus seems to be that stammers are caused by some synapse that doesn't click in the brain. Oh, well, whatever. It never affected my intellect and native cheery temperament.

But because we moved around, I always had to meet people. There would be laughs sometimes, but I'm a charming person and a good student, and I always had friends. I was never shunned or avoided because of my stammer, and I'm thankful for that, but it was always a black crow sitting on my shoulder, that only I could see, I suppose.

When I first heard about The King's Speech, I knew I would have to see it, no matter how far I had to go from my little rural home. I have always liked Colin Firth's performances, even when he played that thoroughly nasty royal in Shakespeare in Love. But it was my huge respect for King George VI that was always the main reason for seeing the movie, because I do what he did. I have to think that most of the world's stutterers feel the same way. It's nice to see one of our own get his due.

And what a king he was, even though he was a Navy officer, as he would have preferred to remain. King by default, he rose to soaring heights to lead his nation through the dark, dark years of World War II from 1939-1941, when England stood alone. He and his queen - they were best friends and lovers - reached out to their people. Those newsreels of the pair of them, strolling through blitzed out sections of London, were not done as cynical photo ops, but as a couple of Brits reaching out to other Brits. George and his queen remain stalwart role models of grace under extreme pressure - living examples of unflinching character in the face of the evils of Nazism.

What a man. What a king. A few years ago, my father, also a naval officer but in a diferent navy, gave me a coin from the Fiji Islands that he wore as a good luck charm in the South Pacific during his own war. It's a shilling, with 1942 and a turtle and Fiji Islands on the side, and King George VI on the other. I think I'll wear it more often now. My dad has always been my hero, and George VI is, too.

About my stammer. I've been slowly realizing in the last few years that as onerous as it was when I was younger, and even now occasionally, I don't think I would have changed a thing. Not one thing. What my stammer seems to have done for me is force me to listen more in silence, to learn how people act and speak, to listen to their stories, and build up an amazing vocabulary. All stammerers do that, I think, because we need lots of words. Some words are easier to say than others, so we learn a lot of words and their many meanings. And words are important to me and my characters.

I think The King's Speech is going to be my favorite motion picture for a long time. It almost feels like a personal victory. It gave a lot of us our own voice.


  1. What a lovely and inspirational post. I saw the movie for the first time last week and I know that I will need to buy it so I can see it again and again.

  2. Like you, we too had to see it. I heard about it on NPR a couple of months ago. Was really torn because of the rating. I then found out what it was given for, and we forged ahead. Love Colin "Mr Darcy" Firth. He was excellent in his portrayal. After living in England 74-76, had to soak up some more knowledge. I remember you stuttering on occasion, but it never diminished the wonderful and gifted person you are!

  3. I can identify with this, having been a stutterer until well into my late 30's. I had a great therapist who convinced me to muster up the courage to speak. As result, I now have my speech under control, not just in English, but also in German, French, and Spanish. I am also active with several opera companies as a diction coach. Life does take us down strange paths, if only we can muster the courage to try to overcome what seems at first to be a debilitating handipap. Lea Frey

  4. Sorry for misspelling handicap! Lea Frey