Thursday, July 26, 2007

My Word

I was reading the other day and came across a question posed to actor George Clooney, who directed “Good Night and Good Luck”. When asked how it felt to be the director he answered, “I’d rather be the painter than the paint.”

Sometimes I feel the same about words. I’d rather compile them than just read them. I’ve always had a vivid imagination, as noted by my second grade teacher, Miss Cotton, who believed my writing skills were beyond my chronological age. I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t her encouragement that nurtured my love of words. After all, kindergarten wasn’t mandatory when I was five, but Mom always read to us, so by the time I got to first grade, “Dick and Jane” was a cinch to read.

My first grade teacher Miss Gillespie had a trick for filling up those five spare minutes before lunch or recess. She called them “rain” stories. She would tell us a story and at one point, she would say, “And then it started to rain, one drop at a time”. This was our cue to begin to tap our desks, using one finger per hand, to make the sound of raindrops. The story would get faster and faster, our “raindrops” thundering…a cacophony of sound. Then she’d say, “And all of a sudden THE RAIN STOPPED!” On cue our fingers would cease to drum, replaced by the sound of our laughter. While the other kids enjoyed making noise, I honed in on the story…how she told it, the words she used, how the same theme could be used, yet changed. When I did my student teaching, I used that ploy one day. Worked like magic. As I looked around the room, I caught the eye of a little girl who was thinking. Hard. And I smiled. She was the best writer in the group and I knew she’d just filed away a mental note that had nothing to do with noise.

Second grade teacher Miss Cotton held contests that surrounded reading and words. I won both. The prizes? A copy of “Heidi” and “Black Beauty”, which I still own. And on it went. My 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Teer introduced me to Ogden Nash, who made up his own words to fit the rhyme. She was followed the next year by Mrs. Kitchen, who made us do the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” page. If you finished on time, you were allowed to read the rest of the Reader’s Digest. I increased my vocabulary and reading speed, not to mention my knowledge of the world. I still read that section of Reader’s Digest, learning a new word or two every month. Last week I finally got ALL the words to that section right. Mrs. Kitchen would be so proud.

With my interest in words and reading unquenchable, I was able to enroll in an “experimental” grouping of English studies as a sophomore. Since that had allowed me to participate in advanced study, by my junior year I had a choice: endure an entire year worshipping at the alter of Shakespeare under the adoring gaze of J. Grady Locklear or take “regular” English with Mr. Elam, who looked a little like Icabod Crane. I chose Mr. Elam, who was tough because he viewed his job as preparing us for college. Every paper we wrote was graded by college standards and I learned what a comma splice was long before English 101. My favorite assignment still makes me laugh. We had to write a paper describing a simple task, but we couldn’t use any “technical” words associated with it. I chose “How to Tie A Shoe”. He immediately took the words “laces, knot, and bow” away from me. We had to read our paper out loud in class while he followed our “directions.” This took some creativity and I remember reading my paper to myself while trying to tie my shoe. No problem. The day Mr. Elam demonstrated, he couldn’t do it. In exasperation, he finally read my paper to me and I tied my shoe with no problem, following the directions. He started laughing. While I looked perplexed he explained there was nothing wrong with my instructions…but that as a right handed person, I had just tied my shoes left handed.

Mr. Elam’s patience and encouragement made English 101 easier for me than most. Halfway through college, I took a graduate level English course in Creative Writing…as an elective. When the professor found out, especially after noting that Early Childhood Ed majors didn’t generally teach what he shared, he had us write a movie review. Going into the theater that night, I ran into him coming out. When I turned in my paper, he grinned, saying he’d loved the movie and couldn’t wait to see my review. I smiled wanly…I hated the movie. I then learned about the power of words. Under my grade, [much to my astonishment, an A], he’d written, “Your argument was so persuasive that by the time I finished this, I hated the movie too.”

Now THAT’S the kind of review a writer wants to hear.

I am hooked on words and proud of it. It makes me look at things differently. Leads my brain to yell “Why?” I don’t need to know, I WANT to know more. Which leads to research, which leads down three more paths I never would’ve otherwise plundered down. I’ve learned more in life from just a simple glance my brain stored away as interesting than in half the classes I took in college. Just last week I barely remember noting in passing a character actor with an interesting profile who appeared in a 30 second movie trailer...for about 5 seconds. My brain logged it as “that guy just gets better with age, doesn’t he?” I thought that was the end of it. Wrong. The writing bug bit and since then, I’ve found myself immersed in Scottish poetry and listening to Andrea Bocelli sing in Italian. I know, that combination doesn’t make sense to you, but the journey is fun.

And enlightening. It’s amazing how words worm themselves into your head, especially when put to music. I’m beginning to sing in Italian. This didn’t hit me as odd until I was on my way to work earlier in the week. Driving through the county, sighing as Bocelli crooned “Besame Mucho”, I was amazed to find myself joining in on the chorus. About the time I really got into this duet, I looked up to find a DOT worker on a road grader lifting his cup of coffee to me in greeting. Luckily for him, the windows were rolled up. Now why do I have the sneaking suspicion that brief encounter will somehow creep into my writing in the near future?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Inheriting an Irish Turn of Phrase

I’ve been working on my family tree again, which has brought me to the “Irish” branch of the tree. That branch has always amused me because no matter how many genes were donated by a multitude of generations proceeding them, both my Mom and my mother-in-law have declared themselves IRISH. Yes, in capital letters. Both have been to Ireland and claim it is the most beautiful, quaint spot in the world. I’m thinking it’s the “quaint” part which returns them home to the conveniences at their fingertips. Both of them view Ireland as the sunny land which gave us this blessing:

May the road rise to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Although I see how the conglomeration of my forefathers’ attributes formed the genetic soup of me, I'm wondering if perhaps the writer in me just might have arisen from Irish DNA. As a non-drinker, I don't share their legendary love of the pint. And my gift of gab is more comfortable shared on paper than in actual storytelling before a small crowd. But considering how these folks can turn a phrase, if you can get drunk on words, well then, I might be a little bit more Irish than I’ve previously claimed.

Curiosity [which I believe is universal and not the property of any single country] made me look up a thing or two. Word wise, the Irish seem to be known for two things: sayings which can be recorded in needlepoint for the living room wall and enthusiastic toasts. The wise ones include:

You will never plough a field if you only turn it over in your mind.

Melodious is the closed mouth.

The grace of God is found between the saddle and the ground.

And then there's the slightly off kilter:

May those who love us love us.
And those that don't love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if He doesn't turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we'll know them by their limping.

We have the sentimental sayings:

No man ever wore a scarf as warm as his daughter’s arm around his neck.

May the hinges of our friendship never grow rusty.

Beautiful young people are acts of nature, But beautiful old people are works of art.

May the Lord keep you in His hand and never close His fist too tight.

Ah, then there are the toasts. Hundreds of them! The most creative one I found was:

We drink to your coffin.
May it be built from the wood of a hundred year old oak tree that I shall plant tomorrow

The most telling toast was of a man scorned, who was caught up in his cups:

Here's to women's kisses,
and to whiskey, amber clear;
Not as sweet as a woman's kiss,
but a darn sight more sincere!

Okay, I admit it. I love the choice of words, how they blend together to make such vivid pictures. And then I got to the curses. I had not idea how creative a riled up person could become! We begin with a mild warm up:

Irish Diplomacy is the ability to tell a man to go to hell
so that he looks forward to making the trip.

May the cat eat you, and may the cat be eaten by the devil.
Of all the curses I found, and there were TONS of them, this one created the wildest visual of all:

May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself
can't find you with a telescope.

So today, my Irish gene decree I creatively say to you:
May you find the love you deserve, the happiness you’ve worked for and
may you never, EVER run into Mary Malone and her brood!


Tuesday, July 3, 2007

A Friend of a Friend

In the past, that phrase always brought to mind another way to pass on gossip. You know. "A friend of a friend told me he saw the Mayor doing something illegal but HIS friend of a friend said no one could prove it." Well, I've discovered a new definition: someone who is kind...just because it's the right thing to do.

I started a project for the kids in the afternoon. Our goal: to get a postcard from every state. I thought this would be a good way to teach them where the states are located, map reading skills, compass points and the fact there is a big country out there they can explore. Plus kids always like receiving mail. I e-mailed family and friends, explaining the project and asking if they could help. Ironically, the kids' "best friend" has come from a friend of a friend. When a friend found out what I was up to, she said her niece had done the same thing and her class had been all but adopted by a trucker named Jim. Although she'd never met Jim, they played scrabble online. I took this to mean he seemed sane and had a well rounded vocabulary.

The kids have dubbed him "Our friend Jim the Trucker"...their hero.

It seemed like a simple request: send a postcard to kids. It's something I'd do in a heartbeat. But then you have to factor in purchasing a card, getting postage for it and addressing it. Adding a message is extra. Some of my family and closest friends, the ones I just KNEW I could count on, turned out to be either too busy or too forgetful. Not Jim. He doesn't just send cards, he writes notes to let us know where he's going next. Due to his generosity, the kids are truly learning about the best of America...and I don't just mean where each state is located. So far I think Jim has sent cards from 12 states...but I haven't checked today's mail yet.

Jim is teaching them the importance of "A Simple Act of Kindness".

That concept, which seems so natural to me, is often foreign to some of the kids I work with. After all, my Mom has a bumper sticker on her car that reads, "Today I will commit one Random Act of Kindness." We were raised to be considerate and helpful just because it was the right thing to do. Many of these kids come from homes where it's every person for him/herself...and their parents aren't cheerleaders. Many of the parents are AWOL or might as well be considering they believe "birthing" the kid was all that was required of them. So my small contribution to their lives has been to try and show them, by example, that being considerate is cool. Jim has become the exclamation point on that theory.

This weekend we sent to see the movie "Evan Almighty". The movie's theme is the same as our project: random acts of kindness make the world go round while making it a better place. If you haven't seen the movie yet, still featuring Morgan Freeman as God, it's a good way to recharge your human battery. The premise is simply: God asks a newly elected Senator to build an ark. The senator, of course, balks...he's too new to send the idea over to let it die in committee. So he does and his life changes. There was a line in the movie that hit me between the eyes as well, especially since I've been questioning God, not Morgan Freeman, about my career. The wife in the movie is upset about her husband turning into a modern day Noah and complains to the waiter...who of course, is God. And God says to her,"If you ask God for patience, does he give it to you? No, He puts you in a situation for you to learn patience." The gist of the conversation is that we ask God for something with a preconceived idea of what the reply should be and when it doesn't arrive, we think God isn't listening. Nope, it's us. Ask a question, be open minded about the reply. At the end, the Senator asks God why did the Ark idea work. And God scribbles in the dirt, "ARK...act of random kindness."

So thanks to Jim I'm proving that anyone can make a difference...and that thank you notes are important, because we sent him one.

And God, your proxy Morgan Freeman made a good point on your behalf. Now I understand your answer to my question. Kindness has a ripple effect. Guess I get to be a stone skipping across the water.