Shaping Sentences, Choosing Words

Decades ago, I learned to delight in that staple of elementary school education, the vocabulary quiz.  As kindergarten students, we were exempted from its discipline, but once we entered first grade it was expected that we would learn twenty new words each week — not only their meanings, but also their spelling, correct pronunciation, and proper use in a sentence.

As far as I was concerned, forty weekly words would have been acceptable.  Every word turned on my tongue like a key, unlocking a new and unexpected world.  Sometimes, pushing against inexplicable spellings or mysterious definitions, I found words to be like windows, opening to reveal a variety of intriguing vistas.

Words with multiple syllables were my favorites. Tumbling through sentences like grade-schoolers at play, it seemed they could go on forever.  Walking to school in the morning, I’d rehearse them in my mind.  Perspicacity.  Archetype.  Lacuna.  Paraphernalia.  Abnegate. Chrysanthemums. (more…)

Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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Serendipity, Beasts and the Southern Wild

In the slow, sinking, reptilian darkness of the Louisiana swamp, mysteries abound. Along the Great River, down the Atchafalaya, through interlacing bayous and across fringed wetlands mystery flows, quiet and languid until forced from its banks by circumstance or time.

That my great-great-grandfather, David Crowley, should be caught up within those shadows and flows with Hushpuppy, the leading character of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, is both remarkable and strange. To appreciate their mysterious connection, perhaps the best (if equally mysterious) place to begin is with Horace Walpole. (more…)

Kaleidoscope Minds

Snow-envy is easy when you’re not the one shoveling a path through five-foot drifts or having to thaw door locks on a car.

Even so, when the photos arrive, sent along by friends determined to gloat or complain about their shimmering worlds, I’m surprised by how quickly I become transfixed. Glinting in the sunlight, piled high along fenceposts and streets, whorled into intricate, complex patterns against window and shed, the still-pristine drifts of freshly-fallen snow dazzle my eyes and my imagination. Always, they make me envious.

My envy is partly nostalgia, the remembered pleasure of snow angels and sledding. But snow also stirs to life a favorite fantasy – the possibility that life might be willing to grant us, if only occasionally, a perfectly clean slate. By reducing the physical world to the twin realities of sunlight and shadow, snow creates an illusion of  purity and simplicity, tempting us to imagine a human world equally free of complication and regrets. Watching snow cover the remains of desiccated autumn with a blanket of perfection, it’s easy to imagine life’s disappointment, pain, conflict and loss blanketed with similar layers of beauty and peace. (more…)

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 9:11 am  Comments (109)  
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Liberating Language

I’ve nothing against baseball, though I confess I’ve never watched a complete World Series. I enjoyed following our football and basketball teams in high school and college, but I’ve never attended a professional game in either sport. Years ago I could score a tennis match or round of golf, but those days are gone and I don’t regret them. In short, I’m a terrible sports fan.

On the other hand, I adore Super Bowl parties.  The food’s great, the crowd’s congenial and the atmosphere’s relaxed. In 2009, a friend with Pittsburgh connections sent me a Terrible Towel and I went to the party as a temporary Steelers fan. As it turned out, team allegiance mattered not a whit when it came to enjoying the highlights of the day – including the broadcasters in the booth. Everyone watching agreed Al Michaels and John Madden were a winning combination. Always humorous, their commentary was sharp and insightful, though no one paid them much attention unless there was a disputed call or an especially noteworthy play.

All that changed in the game’s second half, when a player took off on a medium-sized run of perhaps fifteen or twenty yards. At the end, Michaels said, “Well, he ran that one with alacrity”.  Silence enveloped the room as everyone turned to look at the screen and three people demanded in unison, “Alacrity?”

It was an appropriate word, properly used and perfectly in context. Still, alacrity seemed to be doing its own version of broken-field running as it forged its way through clusters of declarative sentences and monosyllabic comments, four unexpected syllables that stopped an entire party in its tracks. (more…)

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 11:46 pm  Comments (80)  
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