I take great pride in having something in common with trains and teapots, birds and blustery winds - the ability to whistle.
I'm not talking about the happy-go-lucky kind of whistle where you purse your lips and funnel out a tune. I mean the fingers-in-the-mouth kind of whistle that is long and loud. Just the other week, I used it to catch a cab in New York.
I learned to whistle pretty late in life. Growing up with three brothers, I had plenty of opportunity to learn ``boyish'' things, but unfortunately, whistling was not one of them. Finally in my 20s, I realized a latent desire to learn, and it stemmed more from jealousy than from anything else.
All my life, I'd depended on various things to help me whistle: an acorn cap when I was a Girl Scout, a plastic ``referee'' whistle when I worked as a lifeguard and camp counselor.
But most of the guys I knew could whistle on cue naturally. They could signal one another at opposite ends of the beach, summon the dog from the depths of the woods, and express great enthusiasm at sporting events - all with a simple spontaneity.
To make matters more frustrating, my dad and brothers had a whole language or ``Morse code'' of whistles that I could understand but not speak. Certain intonations and combinations of long and short whistles translated into: ``Hey, over here,'' ``Come back, it's time to go,'' ``Hip hip, hooray,'' or ``Yoo-hoo, thinking of you.''
I felt like an outsider.
Finally, I decided it was time to learn. I asked for help from various people: brothers, guy friends, and a few girlfriends who had the knack (and my total respect). Of the many methods known to work, only one worked for me: four fingers in the mouth, pressed up against the tongue.
It is not a pretty sight.
Over time, practice made a perfect piercing pitch. I was quite pleased with myself and, at first, was somewhat of an obnoxious showoff. The quick draw, the sheer volume.... What power!
And really, power was what my natural noisemaker had become.
Power of communication meant I could whistle back to someone who whistled to me. Power of safety meant that when a boat broke down, a few whistles would bring help.
But I realized I valued my whistle not because it was a gender-bender attention-getter, but because it was a simple tool - a tool that could help me and others.
In New York one winter, I saw a woman trying to flag down a cab. She was waving and waving with no success. (It probably had something to do with the fact that she was very short and looked like a tiny bundle of mink.)
``Can I help you get a cab?'' I asked her.
``Yes, dear, thank you,'' she replied.
A quick whistle plus a wave soon produced a cab at the curb. The woman gave the incident no thought and quickly toddled into the back seat.
But as the cab rolled away, she thrust an enthusiastic ``thumbs-up'' out the window and said, ``I gotta learn how to do that!''