The Anatomy of a Brain Cramp; The Retainer and the Lavalava - Communication

In life, you have to successfully work with people to get anywhere. You can't avoid it.

Some people are fun, good, and wholesome, and others can feel like a thorn in your shoe. Some will be there to boost you up and be a savior, and others will be there to take advantage of you, sometimes without the slightest care.

There is absolutely no way to lead a successful life without effective communication with those who can help you reach your goals. And the secret to effective communication is to fully understand-or at least try to understand-the other person's perspective. Understanding the other person's perspective helps you build camaraderie, negotiate faster and more effectively, add value to a partnership, and build respect for each other. To communicate effectively, you've got to be on the same page as the other person.

I came home to my apartment one day after class. As usual, I changed into a T-shirt and slipped out of my pants, tying a lavalava around my waist. A lavalava is a brightly colored, flowery cloth wrap or skirt that Polynesian men and women wear, usually with nothing on underneath but underwear. I previously lived in the Samoan islands for two years and grew accustomed to wearing a lavalava to beat the humid, tropical heat. During any scorching summer, a lavalava is one of the best types of personal air conditioning systems available, despite the fact that it is rarely found fashionable on a white American male like me.

Relaxing in the coolness of my apartment and having finished dinner and a night snack, I began to prepare to go to bed just as my roommate Don came home. Don was a long-time friend, but had recently moved in with me and another good friend.

"Hey Donaldo!" I chirped my nickname for Don as I slipped my ultra-thick retainer in my mouth.

"Hey Pablo!" Donaldo responded, likewise referring to his nickname for me. I saw him glance at the colorful flash of cloth around my waist. Donaldo was somewhat new to the concept of a lavalava.

But what was stranger to Donaldo was my thick plastic retainer that I usually wore only while sleeping. And with it in my mouth acting like a loose plug, it was extremely difficult to talk coherently. It piqued Donaldo's interest as we exchanged a bit of small talk. Small talk was challenging for me as I sought to find different ways to place my tongue while forming words.

"So do you like wearing that?"

"Sure I do!" I enthusiastically garbled, thinking he was referring to my lavalava he noticed earlier.

Donaldo walked to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat while I settled down on the couch for a little reading. Don popped his head around the corner.

"Is it comfortable?" Don suspiciously asked, clearly confused at my apparent excitement to wear a cumbersome retainer.

"Of course it's comfortable!" I mangled a response, not sure how Donaldo could mistake the advantages of a free-blowing, ventilated lavalava in the privacy of one's home.

"And you wear it at night?"

"Yes, but sometimes it falls off in bed."

That sounded a little odd to Donaldo. Does Paul sometimes wake up with the retainer patiently waiting on the pillow, to be plopped back in his mouth? Don waited for his burrito to finish cooking in the microwave. Then he probed further.

"Do you have to clean it much?"

"Yeah, it gets dirty every now and then."

Dirty every now and then? Uck! If Donaldo had to wear a retainer every night, he would have been sure to religiously and thoroughly clean it on a regular basis.

"How long have you had it?"

"Oh, about five years. Do you like it?" I asked, starting to feel a little flattered. I can't say that a lot of people found a lavalava to be the most chic apparel for a straight guy, although I did know some people from my past who wanted to wear one anyway. I often gave away extra lavalavas as gifts.

I stood up and walked into the kitchen to sense if he was willing to be converted to wearing a lavalava. I sat down across Don at the dinner table. "Maybe I have a spare one you can have if you'd like," I volunteered, hoping to further the cause of Americans wearing lavalavas in my corner of the world.

"Oh, no," Donaldo quickly replied, "I mean, thanks, but that's okay, I don't need one." With his dinner in front of him, Don was beginning to lose his appetite at the thought of putting someone else's spare, rarely cleaned retainer in his mouth.

"So why do you like wearing it?" Don asked, reluctantly taking a bite of his burrito.

"Oh, it feels really comfortable, especially when the wind blows." I responded frankly.

"So you open your mouth when the wind blows?" Donaldo asked starting to feel genuinely confused.

I chuckled at the ridiculousness of his question. I mean, why would you open your mouth when the wind blows through your lavalava?

"Well I suppose I might want to open my mouth to laugh if it were ticklish," I joked.

Ticklish? Don started to feel like maybe he had underestimated the uplifting experience of wearing a retainer.

But then I began to wonder if he was trying to offend me, like asking if I was full of hot air that blew out whenever I spoke. Rather than let Donaldo see that I was bristled by his insulting comment, I brushed it off and changed the subject.

"How is it going with your new girlfriend?" I asked.

"Good. Fine," Don chewed his food pensively, still trying to piece things together. He still could not see how cold air blowing on a retainer might cause someone to feel so pleasantly comfortable. Several moments passed.

"Back to what we were talking about," Don continued, "Are there other ways to feel good while wearing that thing?"

I began to feel uneasy at the increasingly private questions. I tried even harder to change the subject back to Don's girlfriend, "Hey, I'll tell you what, I will give one of these to your girlfriend. It should look pretty on her. She'll love it-most women do."

This floored Donaldo. He spit out his last burrito bite, thoroughly disgusted and offended at my proposition that a thick retainer would make his sweetheart look more attractive. He also wondered if I was threatening to embarrass him and scare off his new love interest with whatever level of gruesome detail I could throw Donaldo's way, me being the "weird and gross roommate" that people would do best to avoid.

As his eyes narrowed in anger against me, a startling thought hit Donaldo, causing him to pause for a moment as he contemplated our dialogue. We stared at each other in deafening silence.

"What are you talking about?" he asked.

"Well, my lavalava of course!" I exclaimed, beginning to sense a brain cramp that had been active for the past 15 minutes.

"I was talking about your retainer!" Donaldo cried, feeling sudden relief sweep over him as our entire conversation finally began to make sense.

We burst out a hearty laugh at our miscommunication as Donaldo finally agreed to accept a lavalava of his own, as a gift from me.

To this day, we still enjoy recounting how confused we were with each other that evening. Just in those 15 minutes, we learned so much about how listening can affect a friendship, either for good or ill, and can clear up or exaggerate misunderstandings.

Different cultures and backgrounds always seem funny or odd to those who did not grow up in them. Effective listening pulls down those barriers to understanding. Listening is an art you can master, and once you do, the rewards are ten-fold.

And? you get a better friend in the process.

Paul Pulley is the author of The Anatomy of a Brain Cramp. His other short stories that humorously teach about the laws of success in life can be found at his website http://www.thebraincramp.com

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