Words are all I have

The best things in life are free. Especially words. They’re free, they’re pleasurable. A win-win. One of my favorites is callipygian. It’s the perfectly concise description of a perfectly formed butt. It’s of Greek origin, first used to describe the famous statue of Venus. Another useful phrase for the lady de Milo would be ‘No arms’. Neither of these terms has taken hold.

Unctuous is also useful. It means to be oily or ingratiating. Sadly, most people prefer smarmy jerk.

Ammon Shea knows a lot of great words. Check out his Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. He’s a guy who sat down and read the Oxford English Dictionary from A to Z. All 21,730 pages of them. Holy God. He said, “I had been meaning to read the OED for years, but I always found some way to put it off… because if I read it I wouldn’t have it to look forward to.”  That’s the best reason I’ve ever heard for not doing something pleasurable.

Here are a few of his findings you might think are useful:

Airling (n.) A person who is both young and thoughtless.

Interesting but pointless. Pesky kid is more popular, I would think.

Assy (adj.) Asinine.

I can see this catching on again. Four-letter words are always welcome.

Backfriend (n.) A fake friend; a secret enemy.

Definitely not a person who’s got your back; more like one who’s about to plunge a knife in there.

Gymnologize (v.) To dispute naked, like an Indian philosopher.

I can’t recall any disputes I’ve had when naked, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t last very long.

Mediocrist (n.) A person of mediocre talents.

Well, shit. Ain’t that practically everybody you know?

Miskissing (n.) Kissing that is wrong.

This is so useful. “Sorry, I just miskissed. I’ll have to do it again.”

Petecure (n.) Modest cooking; cooking on a small scale.

At last, a withering comeback to someone who boasts about being epicurean.

Trumpery (n.) Something of less value than it seems.

Well, well. Who would have thunk it? So perfect.

Set (n. v. adj. adv. conj.) Probably the most used word in the English language. As a verb, it has 155 different senses; as a noun, 48.  It’s been in use for over a thousand years. Talk about useful.

So now you know. Find the word and it will set you free. Like money, spend it wisely.

 

The cat who became a rat

Here is a true story once told to me.

When we were married, this woman told me, I had this cat that my husband couldn’t stand. He especially hated the cat jumping on the kitchen table, and he would always sweep her off. Not gently either. It made me think just what kind of person I had married.

One weekend we planned to spend the time at our beach shack.

“I have to work late,” my husband said, “I’ll join you in the Friday evening.”

I arrived during the day and began tidying the shack for the weekend. My cell phone rang. It was my husband.

“I’ve had to work later than expected,” he said. “I won’t be able to make it tonight. I’ll be there in the morning.”

“Fine, I’ll see you then.”

A minute later the phone rang again and my husband’s ID came up on the screen.

“What’s up?” I asked, but he didn’t answer. As I waited for his reply I could hear his voice in the background and I realized he was talking on the house phone to somebody. I could also hear something else – my cat purring loudly into the cell phone mouthpiece.

Obviously, my husband had put his phone down on the kitchen table after the call to me, and my cat had jumped up on the table and pressed the redial button.

“Your phone is still on,” I shouted, but he couldn’t hear me.

Boys are about to give up when I realize that my husband was talking to another woman. Not just any woman but his ex-wife. And he was organizing that evening with her. I killed the connection, my mind whirled, my heart became stone. I hadn’t suspected a thing until my cat had ratted him out.

Somehow I managed to keep my mouth shut for the whole weekend; what was there to say?

After my husband left for work on Monday, I saw my lawyer and filed for divorce.

“Why are you doing this?” my husband cried, when I showed him the paperwork, but I never told him why. He wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

That a cat he’d ill-treated had ratted him out was a step too far, too deliciously apt to be believable.

 

 

 

 

 

I was Kanye West for 24 hours

Sometimes a man gets bored with his name. Especially in coffee shops and fast food outlets when he’s constantly asked for it. How hard is it to recall one order from hundreds a day? So I decided to make life easier for everybody.

“What’s the name?” the young girl asked me at a Mexican food joint in Brooklyn.

“Kanye West.”

She stared back at me in nervous confusion. “I can’t write that.”

“Why not?”

She said nothing.

“Look,” I said. “This is how it’s going to go down. You call out ‘Kanye West, your fish taco is ready’.  Everyone here will stop eating and look around. I stand up and walk over to you and collect my order. The people resume their meal and later they’ll go home and tell everybody they saw Kanye West today and he sure looked different.”

She pursed her lips. “I’ll just call out ‘fish taco’.”

My friends, I tried. In fact I tried again later that day. In a Manhattan coffee shop near 5th Avenue. Different borough, different reaction.

“What’s the name?” the counter girl asked.

“Kanye West.”

She nearly split her face smiling. “Hey everybody,” she yelled out to the four staff and 10 customers. “Kanye West is here, and he wants a flat white!”

“Woohoo!” the baristas and sandwich makers cried. Two of them danced, two of them cast snaky moves around the floor.

I glanced over to the customers. Suits and business attire. None of them looking up from their cellphones. I had won over only a third of my audience. The staff tried their best. When my coffee was ready, the barista yelled, “Kanye West, your flat white is ready!”

I took it and checked the suits – nobody looking up. Jeez, some people.

Later that day I tried one more time.

“I can’t write down Kanye West,” the counter girl confessed.

“Why not?”

“Because the barista hates him and he won’t make your coffee.”

She had me there. A man will ditch his principles when faced with no coffee.

“Put down George Harrison,” I said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She works hard for the money.

The Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is windswept and beautiful. I had arrived at the homeland of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Black Elk to research background for The Backward Time Traveler. A car park overlooked the fields at Wounded Knee where, in 1890, the US Army slaughtered up to 300 Lakota men, women and children with cannon and rifle fire.

The government awarded twenty soldiers the Medal of Honor. The dead and wounded Indians were left lying in the snow. In 1990, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a resolution formally expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.

Well, that balances things up. No matter that the Rez now sits in the second poorest county in the USA. A place where three in ten adults have a job. Homes where over a dozen people will share three bedrooms. The future looks dark, and the good old days aren’t coming back; they weren’t that cushy anyway.

An Oglala girl, about 20 years old, approached me hesitantly and held up a dream catcher to sell. It was simple: beads in Lakota colors of red, white black and yellow encased in a hoop of wood.

‘It’s real,’ she said. ‘Not made in China. The wood comes from the cherry trees along the creek over there. $20?’ Her partner, holding a three-month-old baby, sat in a car watching.

I automatically haggled, beat her down to $15. I was a hundred miles away when I realized she needed every buck she could get. That extra $5 would have helped her little family a lot. I’ve cursed that unthinking piece of insensitivity ever since. My head was stuck in the past when it should have been rooted in the present.

Never tear us apart

I was talking to an Iranian refugee friend, and he told me his story:

“When I was young university student I fell in love with a girl who went to high school near me. We were not allowed to speak because my country is a Muslim country and we can’t speak with girls before marriage. But every time I saw her on the street, she smiled at me.

“One day I approached her and asked her about her family. She told me and asked about mine. We were both very nervous and kept looking around to see if anybody had seen us talking together.

“Later I asked my mother if she knew the family, and she wanted to know if I loved this girl. I was very shy, but I confessed that I did. I was 18 years old. My mother then spoke to the girl’s family of my interest in marriage, and they told her they wanted to think about it. Her name was Mahnaz.

“I kept seeing her shopping in the street and desperately wanted to speak to her more, but it was too dangerous for us.

“A few weeks later, my mother told me that the family had promised Mahnaz to another. A rich man. Her father had insisted on it. I locked myself in my room for a week and cried.

“My mother said I would find another girl, but I knew I wouldn’t.

“A few months after Mahnaz’s marriage we heard that she had been beaten by her husband and was in a coma in hospital. I was crushed.

“That was 18 years ago, and Mahnaz now lies in bed all day, tended by her mother. Her husband divorced her. She is in my mind always, and I will love her forever.”

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

The Swedish Academy doesn’t go for a big buildup. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, comes through a cream paneled door with a big black envelope and addresses an assembled media throng. She crisply reads out a bunch of Swedish words, but only the last two are important: Bob Dylan.

The room erupts in cheering–and laughs of astonishment. Dylan still polarizes people.

The New Yorker magazine salutes its home-grown talent
The New Yorker magazine salutes its home-grown talent

She reads the news out again in several more languages. Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Note the choice of words. It’s not for his songs; it’s for creating a new form of poetry. It’s not for selling truckloads of audible landfill; it’s for doing something new with poetry.

Judging by the immediate reaction in the room, and later in the media, Dylan hasn’t won a popularity contest. That’s okay. The Swedes are uncomfortable with popularity. See ABBA, Greta Garbo, and Bjorn Borg.

This ain’t the Grammys. This is a decision made behind closed doors where distinguished souls discuss the merits of artists in their field. The motto of the Academy is “Talent and Taste” (“Snille och Smak” in Swedish). This is no marketing exercise, no phony popularity quest.

This isn’t a bunch of industry heavies figuring whose turn it is to cash in the publicity. They are discussing the works of artists who have changed the way we see the world.

Dylan is one of the most quotable poets ever; up there with The Bible and Shakespeare. (Anybody who quotes aphorisms from Hallmark cards deserves to die in the most horrible way.)

Sara Danius told a news conference there was “great unity” in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize.

It sounds like there wasn’t any such thing. That’s how it oughta be. Greatness is always divisive.