A gesture life

The Life and Ideas of Paula Gunn Allen\

I’m sure I’m not the only person who occasionally adapts the gestures, sayings, or mannerisms of people with whom I come into contact, but I wonder if I am possibly a bit more prone to this than people of more forceful character.  Sometimes it’s conscious and it’s fun–PymFan, do you remember the summer we lived with our third roommate and both adopted her “noises,” the wordless utterances she’d make: “Eee-yaaa” for an awkward or unintended outcome is the one I remember?  And sometimes there’s a word or phrase that’s just too perfect not to start using, like “chuffed,” which I picked up from hanging around the Violinist, a U.K. native.  True, I don’t go so far as to say “I’m dead chuffed,” as she does, but “I’m chuffed” is just so much more visceral than “I’m delighted.” 

Stubb is a vivid and expressive speaker, as well as a very funny person, so I’ve picked up lots of loopy things from him.  The one that comes to mind right now is “I don’t give a flying f* in a rolling doughnut,” which is a slight corruption of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Why don’t you take a flying f* at a rolling doughnut,” but there are other, better ones I can’t think of at the moment.  Some of them have become so much a part of my speech that I forget that they are Stubbisms and not part of most people’s vocabularies.

I also find, though, that I’ve picked up and retained physical mannerisms from people I’ve spent time around, and sometimes I feel that I am physically channeling one of them in a moment of need.  And I’m thinking about this today because the writer and scholar Paula Gunn Allen has just died, and I’m remembering the way that she used to stand, talking and listening, with her arms folded over her chest.  I know that folded arms are supposed to imply rigidity, defensiveness, etc., but in my memory Allen stood easily with her arms crossed over her breasts, not across her midsection, and she didn’t look rigid or defensive; she looked like a person who knew who she was.  To me, the posture implied “I’m a Native American woman, standing like a Native American, standing like a woman, not trying to pretend I don’t have breasts, and I’m listening.” 

I don’t know if this is how Allen, or her friends, would have interpreted her posture.  Maybe she was feeling defensive, which would not have been unsurprising in the circumstances.  Maybe this was not an habitual pose for her.  However, it did make a deep impression on me.  And sometimes I find myself crossing my arms to talk with someone, not to project “You can’t convince me no matter how hard you try,” but rather “I am seriously listening to you and what I have to say will be worth listening to, as well.” 

Goodness knows if this works, though.  I also have a sort of choppy hand gesture I picked up from a teacher I greatly admired.  To me it suggests the great engagement and authority of the speaker.  But it’s entirely possible that to other people it evokes the Swedish Chef. 

*Image is from Ellen Hinchcliffe’s page about her film Thought Woman: The Life and Ideas of Paula Gunn Allen.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Pym Fan on June 1, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Ha! I had forgotten all about “Eee-yaaa!” Yes, that roommate was the source of many useful and expressive noises… It’s possible that I still use some of them without even realizing where I got them. Over the years I have adopted many sayings and mannerisms from other people. The sayings I’d like to think I’ve adopted consciously; the physical mannerisms I’m probably more likely to pick up without being aware of it. My significant other sometimes calls my attention to a hand gesture of mine that, though it might be the Swedish Chef, I actually think I adopted from a fellow student in grad school. It seemed to me to imply precision, but to others it may just look loopy. (My SO seems to find it amusing.)


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