Madame Director

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A student, let’s call him David, wrote the following on the board today during a word game – ‘expellion.’

Me:  That’s not a word.

David:  Who do I contact to make that a word?

After a good long laugh at the promptness of his reply, and the underlying assumption that there is one person, somewhere with that kind of authority, we proceeded to imagine the busy office of the one who decrees that a word is a word.  We envisioned giant stacks of paper on his old-timey desk, dwarves busy at filing cabinets, a secretary fielding incessant phone calls from people like us with great new words to submit for approval and inclusion in the official usage dictionary of American English.

And we all agreed that if ever a word deserved to be included, ‘expellion’ did.  Never mind that what David intended to write was ‘expelsion,’ which is also not a word, but is closer to getting at a noun form of ‘expel’ which is what he was going for.  We discussed the existence of ‘expulsion’ and agreed that there is still room for expellion as a less violent alternative.  I would rather experience expellion than expulsion any day.  And since the original word that prompted all this was ‘secretion,’ expellion sounds downright genteel and appropriate for polite conversation.

The conclusion I soon reached is that I would like to apply for the job of Director of the Bureau of Official Words (BOW).  I would like to be the paper-swamped person at the old-timey desk, because new words and new usages are so, so fun.

One example:  Dope.  When I was around six, circa 1971, my dad had a sober conversation with me about dope.  As I recall I had called my sister a dope, meaning a silly goof, but I remember that conversation as a light bulb moment that aha! words have different meanings.  Fast-forward several years – don’t do the exact math, OK? – and my 2015 college girl described her new ankle boots as ‘dope,’  ‘totally dope.’ Now I sat up and paid attention.  Her tone suggested high praise.  Note to self:  ‘dope’ is now an adjective meaning really, really good.  Duly noted.  Shortly afterward, the same daughter intensified her description of an Indian meal as ‘stupid good.’  Ahh, I said to myself, in full Director of BOW mode, ‘stupid’ is now an adverb intensifying an adjective.

So, when at school the next day one of my students complimented my socks, I utilized all my new knowledge and replied with sang-froid, “Yeah, they’re stupid dope, aren’t they?”

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Tea With Robert Burns

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Robert Burns and I met for tea at Flavors Bakery where the scones are without peer.  He hung his tweeds on the coat stand by the door, and I called to Janet that a spot of the Earl wouldn’t be unwelcome.  It was Robert, after all, so I was getting my inner Brit on.

“Good to see you, Annie,” Janet said.  “Earl on the way.”

I introduced myself to Mr. Burns with an American handshake, “Annie Proud.  Nice to meet you.”

“Robert Burns,” he returned.  “A true pleasure.”

Just back from a brief leave, I was interviewing Robert for the Arts and Culture weekend insert in our Garrett Gazette.  Neal, our editor, thought it would be a softball way to get my feet wet again, to get back on my game.  Neal had focused on the technical end of a journalism major and had avoided literature altogether.  He didn’t know much about the Scottish bard.

‘Charming’ was the word I jotted, as Robert pressed the plunger down to extract the essence of Earl Grey.  He accomplished the tea table in that rare masculine way that would set both farmers and lords at their instant ease.  No airs, but comfortable.  It helped to set me at my ease, not a farmer or a lord, but an anxious reporter with a deadline and a game face.

We exchanged niceties and utensils as we sugared and creamed and settled it all to our liking.  Then I began,  “So let’s start with Auld Lang Syne since the whole world sings it on New Year’s Eve.  Who did you have in mind when you wrote it?”

“Not one person in particular.  I was almost 30, mind you, and feeling old,”  Burns smiled here.  “I felt qualified to begin mourning for all that comes between us and precious things.  I had lots of starts and stops in my life.  Lots of failures.  In that song I think I turned back to remember and toast them all.”

Hearing him characterize his life as littered with failures was a new thought.  So I continued, “What about that song, then, do you think makes it so loved?”

Spreading soft butter on a cranberry shortbread cookie – “And why not?” I thought, saluting this stellar idea – he ventured a thought,  “We all have moments when we realize how little our times are, how those exquisite times, so very physical, are just memories now, how we’ve suffered much and our strength is diminished.  Even if I could go back, I haven’t the strength now.”  He paused.

I sipped and waited.

“And the best we have, all we have, Lass, is that cup of memories between us and the kindness of connection to each other.  That’s it.”

Refusing to allow any of his words to settle on the recent events of my life, I pressed him, “But what about Red, Red Rose?  You seemed certain in that poem that your love would last through an apocalypse, that you would never be separated from your love.  Or if you were, you would move the world to find it again.”

Robert was sitting back in his café chair, looking intently at me.  It occurred to me how rarely we actually do that with people.  It was way too intimate and uncomfortable.  He said finally, “So tell me about your knowledge of apocalypses.  You’ve had one recently, have you?”

Caught completely flat footed, and short of breath besides, the best I could do was stammer and deflect.  “My editor didn’t send me here to talk about me.  Let’s go lighter, then, and talk about the wonderful To A Mouse.”

He chuckled and said, “Well, only ‘lighter’ if you aren’t the mouse.  He’s homeless now from the farmer’s carelessness in destroying his ‘wee housie.’  It really happened, you know.  And I watched the desperate mouse, so cozy and prepared, you know, a moment ago, now exposed and on the run.  No hope of a warm home now before the real winter begins.”  He looked out at January through the tall windows behind me, at the reclaimed warehouses that housed this bakery and other specialty shops, and he said, “And I thought to myself, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men. . .’”

“Gang aft agley,” I finished for him.  Oh, how they gang agley and agley.

“Ahhh,” he smiled with pleasure.  “Even in this tiny corner of your fine country, you know my poems, and in dialect?  Humbling, indeed.”  He refilled both our tea mugs from the tall French press, and resumed casually, “So you understand the mouse, then?  Winter is coming on you and your cozy house has been flattened by a farmer’s plow?”

I didn’t try to deflect this time.  “Yes.  I understand the mouse.”

He held a finger up, “I’ll just go get us a few more of these cinnamon buns while you decide where to start your tale, right?”

My notepad still had only the one word on it – ‘charming.’  Janet evidently agreed as they talked animatedly about the perfect scone, Robert promising to send her his beloved wife Jean’s recipe.

“She informs me these are called cinnamon ‘rolls,’ not ‘buns,’” he noted as he placed the fresh rolls between us.  “Delightful girl, that.  I asked her to go back to Scotland with me, but she said her husband might object.  And what about my wife?  Well, what about her?”  Robert finished with a shout and a laugh.  His open joy was a kindness meant to help me find an opening.  Which it did.

“Your Jean was a patient woman,” I stated flatly.  I had read Burns’ biography.  Jean was beloved but not alone in his affections.  His face sobered quickly when he saw I had done my homework and knew a timeline of his life.

“It’s an unfair advantage you have over me, knowing my whole life,” he chided. “But I can’t call it unfair really, for the decisions were all mine.  Whatever it looks like all spread out in a row on paper, well, Lass, it was probably worse in truth.  But, why do you say Jean was patient?  She wasn’t particularly, you know.”

“She shared you, and stayed faithful.  No woman signs up for that.”

“I suppose I can see that now,” he mused.  “At the time, it just seemed my right to take what I wanted when I wanted it.  Would your man and I have gotten along well?”

“Peas in a pod.”

“And?” he prodded the air with half a cinnamon roll.

“Unlike you, my ‘man’ as you call him, never came back.  He took what he wanted and kept on going.”

“I am sorry for that,” Burns observed sadly.  “And are you truly left with nothing, like the wee mouse?”

“I have this job.  I have a wedding dress to sell – worn once, size 10.  And I have a due date.”

“Is that an American something?”

“No, Robert, it is a universal something.  Your Jean had several of them.  And so did Mary and Jenny and who was the other?”

He looked unapologetically at me, “Bess.”

“And Bess.  Only there’s nothing actually due on my date anymore.  I was standing in the driveway.  I felt it and I knew.  Instantly.  There’s no knowing like knowing that.  You cry and pray, ‘Hang on, babies, hang on.’”

He looked pierced, I knew, because he and Jean had twins.

“Yes, twins,” I confirmed.  “Two miracles.  But they were too little to hang on.  And there was nothing I could do.  I would have stood on my head for nine months if it would have helped.  I would have stopped breathing if necessary.  But Bobby drove away and I watched from the driveway.  And . . .I think three people died that day.”

Robert was silent for a long while, and then ventured, “Bobby?  That’s short for –“

“Yes, did I mention?  My husband’s name is Robert.  Robert Proud, of the Garrett Prouds.  His father is Cainer, the lawyer.  His sister is Cainer, the princess.  I had a fairytale, and now it’s over.”

He remained silent and thoughtful, then spoke, “I am bereft for your babies.  That is a roaring sea, indeed.  Might I hope that someday you will be glad to be rid of the Prouds?  You will find an honest man, a man of gold, and he’ll be your true prince.”

I couldn’t help but smile at him and quote, “For a’ that, and a’ that, Their tinsel show, and a’ that; The honest man, though e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.”

“I had a way with words, didn’t I?” he laughed softly.

“You did, indeed,” I agreed.  “But I’ll need more than love and memories to get me through this, Mr. Burns.”

“And I hope you find it, dear Lass.  I wish I could tell you what that might be, but you know, I only lived to be 37.  So I’m not much of an expert.  Do you think Janet has something we can put these buns – rolls – in and take along on our way?”

“They Also Serve Who Only Stand And Wait”

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Tuesday, January 6

My eyes were itchy because it was 4:20 a.m. and I already had on mascara.  Dark.  Cold.  Two cups of coffee and Interstate 65 southbound.

My dear relative’s surgery prep was scheduled to begin at 5:30, but the original builders of a certain hospital and the architects of the progressive add-ons through the years had the astonishingly similar goal of creating a labyrinth into which the limping tribute entered and was never seen again.

So while we got to the correct address at 5:30, finding the tiny cubby hole of a surgery center amid the vast rabbit warren of auxiliary services took another 18 minutes.  The receptionist was kind and didn’t turn our tardiness into a character issue.  But how could she have?  Her office is located in the Bermuda Triangle; patients stumble upon it accidentally and an hour late.   Which made us 42 minutes early.  Just saying.

Then it was time to wait.

And the lesson of this day was that waiting is not a bad thing. Like most lessons, that only became clear upon retrospect.

Waiting does interesting things to the human brain.  Waiting seems to remove the productive, creative individual from all forward-moving streams of life and into a sterile, stimulation-free sidewater in which the only accomplishment is that the clock is ticking.  Me, a chair, and a clock.  This particular waiting room had the huge blessing of many floor to ceiling windows.  That, and that alone, saved my brain from turning irreversibly to oatmeal.

Out of the waiting room and behind the swinging doors, other elements unique to hospital waiting kick in.  For instance, the waiter, the healthy one, the designated driver, soon begins to feel sick, too.  Sitting beside the patient, I watched the IV go in, and at 6:00 am on queasy coffee stomach, I began vicariously to feel the effect of every anesthetic dripping through that tube. The doctor was talking, giving me vital information about my dear relative, information I needed to be able to repeat with vigor and comprehension, and maybe even make critical decisions with.  His mouth was moving and I was nodding.  But all I could hear was “Wahheaawaworblewablornumglob.”

“Alright then,” he said and scuffed away in his cap and booties.

Blessedly, I turned at that moment and miracle of miracles, there stood two smiling Littlevillians who work in the big city, scrubbed-up and busy, but pausing to pray with us.  And they say there is no God!

I have to hand it to doctors and nurses.  Here they are at quarter to zero dark thirty about to take on the responsibility of someone’s spinal cord and with a waiting room full of spinal cords.  They need snappy and accurate answers to their questions.  They won’t get them from IV’d people lying on gurneys.  There is something about lying on a gurney when everyone else in the room is standing up, having had their coffee, planning a Panini for lunch, intellectually on their A game, that renders patients unable to form the evaluations being asked of them.

A possible scenario:

Doc:  “When was the last time you had anesthesia?”  (pretty straight forward)

Spinal Cord:  “You mean totally under or including the twilight kind?”

Doc:  “Only totally under, the twilight kind doesn’t matter?”

Cord:  “Well I had the twilight kind in 2006 . . .”

Doc:  “OK, and the other?”

Cord:  “Yes, it was 2006 because that was the year the garage flooded.”  Turning to wife, “Right? 2006?”

Another symptom of advanced waiting is self-doubt.  The receptionist called to our family that the surgeon was finished and would talk with us. “Go around the corner and wait on the bench.  He’ll be right out,” she instructed. I am a college graduate and I found myself walking down the hall carrying coats, bags, Starbucks ventis, and tossing my head like a spooked horse, “This corner?  This bench?  What if there’s another corner and another bench and I miss the doctor?  Why don’t they have a sign, ‘Corner’ and ‘Bench’ or even ‘This way to THE corner and THE bench.’?”

The surgeon was friendly and informative and positive and pleased.  And I, the college grad, still had to work hard to itemize what he was saying.  This is because the waiter doesn’t speak the doctor’s language.  The waiter speaks Basic Oatmeal.  The doctor on the other hand has to condense 8 years of medical school and residency and 20 years of nitty-gritty field work into 4 or 5 sentences that sum up this procedure, my dear relative’s particulars, and the general way forward in most circumstances barring anything surprising.  He, who obviously excelled in the maths and sciences, is required to be a poet.  It would be like trying to tweet the plot of The Lord of the Rings to a Basset Hound.

After the corner and the bench came more hallway hikes with fresh ventis, whole new wings and their portraited benefactors discovered, turns, elevators, retraces, lefts, rights, inquiries, and finally my relative’s assigned nook for the night.  Loopy on meds and tucked in tight, she rested in the care of the kind nurses, and we, the waiters, emerged through the sliding glass doors gulping lungfuls of cold air and reveling in the spanse of sky above our heads.  Only then did I realize that I had felt the weight of the ceiling on my head and all the floors above it the whole time I was waiting.  I also realized that I smelled like a band-aid.

John Milton, the poet going blind, said “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  Milton was right.  Waiting is good for us.  It forcibly teaches humility and patience.  It shows me a true picture of myself – all my productive days are no more productive or valuable than this one in the sidewater.

This day was a labor of love, as all waiting must be.

 

A Littleville Dictionary -Addendum

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Thanks to contributions from both native and temporary Littlevillians, we have a brief addendum to the Littleville Dictionary.

Several of these words are not limited to Littleville, but are broader regional expressions.  We don’t claim them as ours exclusively.

One other disclaimer:  I’ve been informed that there is an actual Littleville on the map.  Our apologies to the real Littlevillians.  We are a very real place with the mythical name Littleville. All clear?

reckon – verb; figure, speculate, calculate.  “Reckon what time Dennis’ll get here?  I need those handrails put in.”

tump – verb; tip over, spill, upend.  “Get in the car, Max.  And don’t tump my Diet Mountain Dew!  That’s breakfast.”

Momma and them – noun, pronounced “Momma ‘nem”; Mother and any family residing at or regular visitors to the homeplace.  “Momma and them had some corn for us so we ran by to get it. Uncle Earl and Aunt Helen were there and we ended up staying for dinner.”

dinner – noun; any hot meal eaten from noon to 9:00 p.m.  “After dinner they all had a nap and Carla and I went by The Pig.”

The Pig – noun; franchised but family-feeling grocery store named Piggly Wiggly whose logo is a helpful, enthusiastic pig in a grocer’s hat.  “Swing by The Pig and pick me up some Jiffy mix.  I’ve got to do something with all this corn.”
*The Pig is aware of its own appeal and sells T-shirts with slogans like ‘I dig The Pig’ and ‘What happens at The Pig stays at The Pig.’  And that’s why a grocery store called Piggly Wiggly still works in the 21st century.
*The receipt used to have a pig for all seasons at the top:  a patriotic pig holding a sparkler, a pilgrim pig holding a blunderbuss, and so on.  Alas.

coke – noun; ALL carbonated beverages*.  Period.  “I’ll get you a coke for your headache.  What kind do you want?”
*For some reason, other words for coke – pop, soda, cola – fill us with anxiety and outright hostility.  I apologize for this.
*Important:  This does not include Pepsi.  Some restaurants here have contracted with Pepsi.  We’re not sure why.  Bless their hearts.

Bless Your Heart – Now let me just pause a moment.  Many people have hazarded definitions of this versatile but precise phrase.  It takes a native to use it correctly, though it can be employed in a wide variety of life’s circumstances.  I am treading on holy ground here.  Among other things, it can mean:

You poor thing

I hope it resolves itself

It won’t and you are doomed

Thank goodness it’s you not me

I could have told you this would happen

Well, you tried

Sweet little baby

Um

Hello

Glad to meet you

Goodbye

You are of a younger generation and I don’t know what to say to you

Congratulations!

Well, what do you know?

I feel you

Come here

Intonation changes with each circumstance.  Usages might include:

“Bless your heart, come in!”

“Oh, an iPod, you say?  Well, bless your heart.”

“Bless her heart, and acid reflux on top of it all.”

“Bless your heart!  When’s the happy day?”

“Bless it.  Look at all that hair!”

“Bless your heart.  You just come live with Nana.”

“Well, bless your heart, we all said he was a mess on wheels.”

“Bless his heart.  His mother will never survive this.”

fixin’ – verb; preparing to, getting ready to, just about to.  “I’m fixin’ to get up and get going here in a minute.”
*This one is a common target for mockery, but shouldn’t be.  Try it.

here in a minute – adverb; soon.  See above.

covered up – adjective; busy, overwhelmed.  “Sorry I didn’t get back to you. We’ve been covered up.”

wet/dry – adjective; the county status in terms of alcohol sales. “Don’t tell Momma and them Carla’s daddy voted wet.”
*This one is so charged with emotional freight, that we forget how much it sounds like a diaper report.
*We’re wet now.  Though some would say ‘damp’ and others ‘sodden.’  But during the dry years, many a Littlevillian (me, anyway) witnessed to our amusement the poor interstate traveller stopping off for a hotel room and much anticipated beer.  He would look confused and ask where the beer aisle was, and the BP clerk would say, “We’re dry.”  Maybe it was the clerk’s accent, “Were drah.”   But the thirsty traveller, uncomprehending, would try again, “Where’s the beer?” Whereupon the clerk would repeat, “We’re dry.”  The traveller would begin to work through the implications of this. Incredulity would dawn on his slack face,  “Are you telling me . . .” And he would get back in his car and hit the interstate ramp, apoplectic and shouting at his indefatigable wife, “Can. You. Believe. A. Dry. Town?????”

 A warm Happy New Year to you and yours!