February 24, 2013


Every so often words from the past are triggered by strange words from the present. One that reappeared in my mind a few years ago was culch. The culch pile, when I was a child, was that pile of junk by the barn that we were never never to touch. It was full of nuts and wires and pieces of machinery no longer useful, but that might be needed in the future. Looking it up in a dictionary of regional words, I discovered it came from Maine, referred to ship ballast thrown overboard that later provided homes for oysters. Houses had culch tables and culch drawers, but culchy women were frowned upon. I love the word—so much more promising than the junk drawer or closet.

This month’s word find was in an article in the Oregonian, where it mentioned a home decorator often used knolling as a technique. Since I thought of knoll as a small hill, I had a mental vision of piling up the culch in an artistic heap. But no, it came from a tidy Mr. Knoll who laid out his tools just so. Knolling seems to refer to lining up your books and magazines and other home décor so all edges are square with the table they are lying on. People who knoll probably dislike anything crooked so they straighten pictures on the wall and shut open doors and drawers. We all have met--or lived with—these, but never knew them as knollers. Who knew?

Another old phrase I heard people use when I lived in the East is “redding up a room.” I suspect the root is getting a room ready for company, probably by knolling the pillows and books and dumping the culch where it won’t be seen.

If we have all these neat words for housekeeping, why don’t we have enough neat words for the company that we keep? When I was little everyone was either referred to as Mr. or Mrs., unless they were close friends of the parents in which case they were uncles or aunts or cousins. I still am not sure of my relationships with many of these people.

Families today have a very mixed assortment of relationships, few of which are named. We have the in-laws of course, but no word for the other grandmother of my grandchildren without saying she’s my son’s mother-in-law or my daughter-in-law's mother. Awkward. Recently I’ve noticed references to DILs and MILS and SILs and FILS, but SILs can mean both sons and sisters, and we still don’t know who is related to whom.

How about the people who live in the same abode without having a marriage license. Renters? Partners? POSSLQs? Ogden Nash once wrote a funny verse about “Will you be my POSSLQ?” The word was an acronym from a census form about Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters. But today we need another S, and college roommates may be both S and O.

The step relationships are also quite difficult to explain, if and when explanations are needed. Sometimes there are intricacies of how people are interrelated that defy easy explanations. I’ve asked people from other countries if they have some words we can adapt, but haven’t found any beyond their own words for the immediate families: Oma and Opa, Vava and Vavo, etc.

Of course one little boy nearly broke my heart when he simplified the whole thing. He introduced a new child in school to me as “This is my brother-for-now.” There’s a lot of relationship behind that simple statement!

I’d better quit worrying about the words and be grateful for the people in my life. Most of them are not just FN (for now)  but are  FF—Friends Forever. That covers everyone, regardless of relationships.

February 13, 2013


A couple of weeks ago my friend Karen noticed an advance notice of my new book, Walking Portland, Oregon, was posted on Amazon; I had no idea it was there. I was thrilled with the attractive green and gold photograph the editors picked for the cover. I had nothing to do with the choice of photo: my contribution was the two years I spent walking and writing to create the contents. So why was I so excited over someone else’s vision?

I could hear my grandmother reminding me over and over that “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” She usually was referring to my making snap judgments, often unkind, about other people I really didn’t know. Now I seemed to be judging my own book by the same shallow standard.

We certainly couldn’t judge books by the covers in my junior high school library. Most of the books on the library shelves had been rebound at the state prison in red, black, green, or buff buckram. There was no way any book could be judged by the cover. We couldn’t judge by the insides, either. Miss Johnson had a rule: if you took the book off the shelf you had to check it out. Most of us didn’t bother unless it was an assignment--we  used the public library instead. The covers were mostly the same prison bindings, but we could delve into the book to see if we wanted to read it. What Grandma said made perfect sense.

Later on, when I became a librarian myself, we had plastic covers we could put over the publisher’s book jackets. Now the children could choose books by the cover instead of the insides. And they did. We also had older books sitting on the shelves because their jackets had long disappeared. It seemed a shame that a really good story was passed over because of its unattractiveness. Occasional contests for students to draw new covers helped, but the hand-drawn covers were no matches for the modern ones. “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” I quoted, whenever I did quick book chats to get the golden oldie into a child’s hands.

Now the problem became the mismatch between covers and the insides. They promised one thing but delivered another. A paperback cover for Doyle’s Lost World about dinosaurs in the Amazon featured a young woman—non-existent in the book. Recently a Facebook friend posted the new cover for Anne of Green Gables. Anne is a young girl in the original story, but the new cover portrays Anne as a busty young woman with that ideal teen-age body no one has in real life. Publishers are following the marketers with their view of what the public will buy. I suppose the cover may entice children to pick up the set, but the story won’t be what they expect.

However, I guess we always judge by first sight. It was our ancestors’ way of deciding quickly about possible threats. We know that inwardly, whether artistic or in business: most of us choose our outside “covers” to create a certain impression. A recently published Portland author, Roger Hobbs, says he started wearing three-piece suits in college so he’d be taken seriously.

So I was and am excited about the cover. The leaf-strewn path leads you out of the park and into the city, promising adventure ahead. It matches what I tried to do in the book. The walk descriptions inside are my contribution, and I hope they are useful and fun, but the cover is the most important selling point. It will decide whether or not people will take the book off the shelf. And I know more people will pick up the book because of the outside, before they pay any attention to what’s inside.

Grandmother was right. We need to look behind the facades before judging anything.

I also remember Grandma saying, “the proof is in the pudding.” We’ll see.

February 4, 2013


My husband always said I was naïve about people, believing the best and then being devastated when they let me down on occasion. Actually, I’ve been lucky in most of the real people who have come my way. But many of the stars and politicians held up as good examples leave me feeling disappointed and a bit diminished.

I admired Tiger Woods for practicing long hours and working hard to be the best golfer ever, while giving his father and others credit for his achievements. Lance Armstrong was another hero, whose motto, Live Strong, seemed a good fit for a man who worked and trained hard to overcome a tragic disease. Both of them seemed to show that success came through hard work, dedication, and single focus. Perhaps that focus on themselves led to later assumptions about being entitled to all the goodies in life. They never saw the others around them as people. They broke promises, cheated others out of their own achievements, and cast doubt on the American ideal that you can get ahead through hard work. Apparently claiming an award, even if unearned, was enough. Now the sponsors and TV reporters have dropped them from the spotlight. I wonder if they feel the loneliness which someone called the “poverty of self.”

My nephew, Nate, died in an accident last summer, while having a picnic with friends and family at his favorite lake. He was an excellent neurosurgeon who touched many lives in his profession, and who could have gone off to one of the big famous hospitals for national recognition. Instead, he chose to return to his hometown to be a good son to his ailing father, a generally delightful husband and parent, and a contributing citizen to his whole community. His achievements were not solely due to his own hard work, but were also due to the support of his friends, community, and family. He gave back to all of those, and has laid a foundation for others to achieve and maybe even surpass him.

I think (my naïveté again?) he was typical of his generation. Like many of his peers, he exemplified the American values that pundits insist have been lost. They aren’t lost—they are just unsung. His siblings and cousins and children and friends are also living up to their potential as good citizens, not as icons with a single talent. These children of the baby boomers play hard, work hard, enjoy their gadgets, and are exceptionally involved parents—I see them all around me here checking on their own parents’ well being. They should be the heroes of the world.

Nate’s family just sent me a bumper sticker in his memory. The motto reads, Live Your Best Life Ever. It’s posted on my refrigerator for now, tho I will eventually stick it in my car window--a nice change from many self-centered bumper stickers I’ve seen in the last few years. “We’re living on our children’s inheritance.” “He who dies with the most toys wins.” “Honk if you love------”

It’s a wonderful slogan to remember him by. It’s a motto he believed in, but not in a selfish way. If the way he lived his own life is any guide, it was never focused on getting the most toys for himself. His “Best Life Ever” included enjoying all facets of living, including helping others live their own best lives.