Dr. Doublespeak


It’s been a quiet winter in Austin, the Governor having disguised himself in a Serious Politician’s long wool coat and departed for the frosty caucuses, while the Capitol chambers, in this legislative off-year, sit empty. (Note to Mayor: convert to movie studio?)

In January practically the only elected official left in town was Carole Keeton Rylander, who apparently was trying to turn the comptroller’s office into some sort of on-line advertising agency, but even that dubious enterprise failed to undo the cleansing effect of so many political departures. Austin, blessed by several weeks of balmy weather and uncrowded restaurants, seemed somehow … nicer. Brighter. Better-smelling.

Yet of course, one city’s loss is another’s gain, and vice versa. All those lawmakers don’t just disappear; they return to their plows — cash plows, in some cases — and so it is that in our outlying cities, the errant reporter may encounter a familiar scent, and recognize it as that same piscine odor that wafts through Austin in odd-numbered years. On January 19 and 20 the smell hit Laredo, and lingered in particularly heavy concentrations around the La Posada hotel.

A whiff of it clung to the January 19 Laredo Morning Times, which reported that in a “special meeting” the day before, the Webb County Commissioners Court had agreed to spend $10,000 on a two-day “communications and customer service skills” seminar for county elected officials and employees. “Judith Zaffirini, owner of Zaffirini Communications, will conduct the training,” said the article.

Since 1987 Zaffirini has also been the state senator from Laredo, known for her work ethic, her humorlessness, and a tendency to accuse the legislative videotape staff of trying to make her look bad. In the off months, she peddles a hodge-podge of speaking tips and better-management practices to various client-constituents, including the Laredo National Bank, La Posada hotel, and city government (which requires employees and members of citizen commissions to attend “protocol training” with Zaffirini). This was, apparently, the first time she’d contracted with Webb County to give the $10,000 seminar, which consists of three half-day sessions: one for elected officials, one for middle management, and one for lower-level employees and staff. Of course, private companies routinely pay private consultants scads of money for similar varieties of avant-garde enlightenment, but there’s something different about a county’s hiring a state senator to do it. For one thing, the county officials staffing the seminar, and the Senator herself, can’t very easily turn away a reporter who strolls up to the nametag table and asks to be admitted. (Even if, judging by the cold half-smiles from said officials and later from Zaffirini herself, the reporter is not entirely welcome.) So it was that, while visiting Laredo on other business, I happened into the hotel’s lofty-ceilinged Philip V ballroom, during the third and final seminar session, and found myself surrounded by secretaries, nutrition specialists, deputy sheriffs, and other support staff, who were, during the mid-morning break, partaking of a very nice continental breakfast spread.

Toward the front of the room was an overhead projector, and on either side of the projector there were tables loaded with stacks of business and management books, some ninety titles in all, including such works as Management Challenges for the Twenty-First Century, The Art of Persuasion, and Why Does My Boss Hate My Writing?

Behind this arsenal of advice stood Zaffirini, who in her long black skirt and long black blazer looked almost judicial — or more accurately, like a cross between a judge, a schoolteacher, and the proud student with the best oral report in the history of oral reports. Her silver hair was perfect, her red nails were perfect, and her skin positively glowed.

Narrow tables were arrayed in rows for the seminar participants, who had all been given a spiral-bound volume, “20 Dozen Tips for Better Communication and Leadership Skills,” by Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D., and a stapled handout, “Better Communication is Better Customer Service,” by Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D. Also distributed were sample office forms, including a “ZAFFAX” fax cover page (with the “To” line blank but the “From” line completed: “Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D.”).

When the break was over and the secretaries had returned — with their pastries and cut fruit and china coffee cups — to their seats, Zaffirini, Ph.D., began to speak. Her speech was zaffluid, her expression beatific. She posed the thought-provoking question: “Did you know that all of you who are alive in ten years may live to be 100?” (The audience seemed somewhat familiar with this notion.) “Are you ready for that? Well, start thinking about it.”

Zaffirini went on to recommend Management Challenges for the Twenty-First Century as one means of getting ready, and admonished, “Don’t even think about retiring when you’re sixty-five. It’s not going to happen. The fact is, today in Laredo, today in Texas, today in the United States, our population is aging. Did you know that the single year of age whose number, the number of people that age, is increasing the fastest, is the year 100?” The Senator added that her own Tía Bebe (who, she noted, donated some land to a Laredo school and used to lunch regularly at La Posada) lived to be 105.

As I lost track of the argument, some of her words started to elude me. I recorded the following zaffragments in my notebook: 65 year old of the past, 65 year old of the future, the first generation that is not exhausted. Today, you’re taking care of yourself. Message sent / message received. When you improve risk management for Webb County, you help the community, you help the state, you help yourself. Cada cabeza es un mundo.

But if I began, briefly, to doubt Zaffirini’s legendary communicative prowess, my faith was soon restored. “It’s not what you say, but how you say it!” she announced, and promptly demonstrated her point. “If somebody from Austin heard me say I’d eaten two mariachis last week, they’d think I was crazy,” Zaffirini said. She pointed at me. “She’s from Austin. Do you know what mariachi means?” I shook my head, and the Senator then explained that in Laredo, anything eaten in a flour tortilla is called a mariachi.

“How many people have eaten a raspa [snow cone]?” she asked. The seminar participants raised their hands.

“Who’s never eaten a raspa?” As I raised my hand, it was as if Zaffirini had willed it into the air. “One person,” she said. She proceeded to relate a courtroom story about a Spanish-speaking witness and an out-of-town translator; when the witness had been asked why he’d had to take his wife to the hospital, the witness had answered, and the translator had interpreted: “for a snow cone.”

Everyone laughed except for this reporter. “See, she didn’t laugh!” said Zaffirini. “A raspa also means D&C,” she said to me, then addressed the rest of the room. “She didn’t laugh because she didn’t know what that meant.”

Zaffirini told another joke involving a Spanish-language double entendre, again noted that I was the only person not laughing because I didn’t get it, and promised to explain the joke to me later. The Senator was in full command, luminous, never missing a beat. She exacted her revenge on me, the unwelcome intruder, in the only way she could, and did so brilliantly: her three quick digs blended seamlessly into her presentation, and weren’t so vindictive as to make her look bad in front of the voters. Now this was effective communication! A message had been sent and received! If only this could be taught, it might even be worth $10,000!

Alas, soon enough it was back to customers, Tía Bebe, and the importance of maintaining a complete, up-to-date phone directory. And of course, the age 100. Finally the Senator advised her listeners that by adhering to the principles of better communication, “you are not only improving your own lives. You are helping our community, and helping our great state.”

“And get ready,” she was saying as I capped my pen, “because you may live to be 100!”

Observer contributing writer Karen Olsson is working diligently on her Spanish regionalisms.