Thursday, September 29, 2011

Confessions of a Word Junkie

When I was in my tender years and my mind full of mush was still extremely pliable, my brother (who is nine years my senior) told me that words have meaning.

I don’t know if he realizes the profound affect that his words had on my writing life. The voice I have I developed in part because of his simple statement. So credit applied where credit is due, I have a confession to make.

I am a word junkie.

To further foster my addiction, my parents introduced me to the world’s most valuable book extant, the dictionary. If there was a word I didn’t understand, they helped me look it up for the definition. It was a glorious discovery. I could insult adults and peers alike without calling them vulgar names, and most were none the wiser. I began to read the Complete Unabridged Webster’s Dictionary at the age of seven, avariciously. I’m not saying that I understood all of it at the time, nor was I in a position to voice newfound knowledge I may have happened across. Still I read it, cover to cover and back again.

My elementary school had a basic library. Once a week each class was allowed to go to the library and check out a book. It was required to check out a book. The trouble was, I had read almost every book in that library by the time I hit second grade. My mother was the parent/volunteer coordinator so I had spent a great deal of time in the library where I was quiet and out of the way. As all my classmates swarmed about the early reader chapter books, I struck out on my own path. The book I chose my first week was James Harriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. My second grade teacher attempted to talk me out of the choice and implied that I should act my age. The librarian, knowing how much material I could go devour in a week, defended me.

I also did not score any points with my fourth grade teacher when I tried to explain that the word august did not need to be capitalized in my sentence because I wasn’t using August the month, I was using august the adjective. Her reaction when she read the definition in the dictionary? I quote, “No one old enough to read a newspaper will understand this sentence, so change the word to wealthy and move on.”

“But I don’t mean wealthy, as in rich, affluent, or prosperous. I mean august, as in noble, majestic, or imposing.”

“People won’t understand. You want to be understood, don’t you?”

“I want to be understood by intelligent people who know how to use a dictionary if they don’t comprehend the meaning of words.”

Needless to say, I was not teacher’s pet that year.

I am continuously amazed at the scope in which our language has truly degraded. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, use the same 200 words in their daily speech. Why? English may not be the romance language, but every year we lose our ability to effectively communicate our ideas simply because we forget a word exists. Like the dandelion on the ill-used path of life; obscure words are tragically left behind unappreciated and misunderstood. There are nutrients in a dandelion that can feed the body. There are nutrients in words that will feed the soul.

I have another confession to make. I have to have my commercials on television screened before I can watch them. Every single time the animal shelter one comes on and that song about being in the arms of the angels, I cry for days. I want to adopt them all, It’s a silly notion. No one person can assume responsibility for every abused or abandoned creature and maintain sanity. Those who try are labeled hoarders and become the abusers they rescued their charges from, perpetuating the vicious cycle.

So how do my two confessions relate to one another? I have an unhealthy addiction for language and an overwhelming desire to adopt every word in the English dictionary. They are valuable. Each one has a meaning. So many languages die every day for want of someone to speak them. Unfortunately, the technology that helps us see into the dark stretches of the universes is also the catalyst that confines our ability to express our imaginations.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Inspired by a Press Gang

Press Gangs in and of themselves aren't inspirational. They are oppressive. Centuries ago one could be pressed into service if one accepted a king's coin. Any coin, be it copper or crown. The trouble was, a sober, well-thinking man would not take a mere coin in payment for his life. The phrase "Mind your ps and qs" is said to originate from this dark era. A wife would tell her husband on his way to the public house to trade, to "mind your pints and quarts" for a few, critical reasons. The tavern keep would begin to charge whatever he wished for a pint if one was too drunk to notice, making the tab hard to ever pay off. The most important of these reasons though comes from King's men slipping a coin into one's tankard of ale. Once the tankard was drained of it's contents, the "accepted" coin was revealed, and one would be dragged from the pub towards the recruitment officer.

It's the beginning of glass-bottom tankards. Before accepting taking a drink, one could simply lift his tankard and peer through the bottom in search of coin.

Of course, the Press Gang could just as easily catch a person unawares in a dark alley and beat him until he's surrendered, or even kidnap him, especially if that person was out after curfew.

So why do I say "Inspired by a Press Gang"?

It's what I thought of when I wrote these silly lyrics. I just stumbled across this in my creative writing stash and I thought I'd share.

Lucky to be Unlucky

Some might be lucky in love and even luckier in bed
Some might be lucky enough to be lucky with money instead
Me I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve no luck with luck at all
I’m lucky to be unlucky, whack fol liall diall

When I was just a young man, I fell for a lassie’s charms
Little did I know that she was destined for another’s arms
On the night that we were to wed she left me high and dry
She bore twins and is with child again, so better that man than I

I left the heather of Scotland because I was tired of the bog
London weren’t much better but I couldn’t see it through the fog
The press gang found me in a ditch and shipped me out next morn
I heard the fire swept through London by the time we reached the Horn

We were attacked by pirates and they set my crew adrift
The storm that found the pirates drowned all aboard the ship
My crew washed upon the shore of an uncivilized isle
But I found a stash of forgotten rum that would last me for a while

The natives there were cannibals and ate up half my crew
I was next upon their list but then their plan fell through
The mighty chieftain’s daughter had her eye on me to wed
The morning after the pox swept in and the entire tribe was dead

I thought that I had the last of luck since I then was all alone
Until a whaler bound for Liverpool stopped to ask directions home
Now I’m back aboard a bark and bounding o’er the briny sea
I wonder if I should warn the captain about little ole unlucky me.....

Nah, He thinks he’s seen a mermaid, I’d better let him be.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Another Short...

A writing prompt from Writers' Digest spawned this little thought. It's a bit rough, but I felt compelled to see it through.

Original prompt:
After living for years paycheck to paycheck, a windfall of money comes your way from a distant uncle. But in order to receive the money, you must complete a mission from your uncle’s will. What’s the mission and did you do it?

The Last Postcard

“Tara, I’ve some bad news about Uncle Jim,” Momma announced gently.

I knew what was coming next. My heart was going to break
There was no need for her to say anything additional, but she continued, her voice cracking like fine porcelain, “He died, two weeks ago. He was trying to save a family from a burning building…”

Momma had said that Grandfather believed Jim was the only son-in-law worthy of the title until Aunt Jolene and Cousin Grace perished in an apartment fire. Momma had watched it happen on the news channel. Jim had to hear about it from his commanding officer while they were in Grenada. Momma said that he was never right after that. He slipped into a bottle before I was born and then after my third birthday, he simply disappeared. I was the only family he spoke to after that.

He’d send me a random postcard, or he called when I was the only one home. I remembered the last conversation we had, about my dreams to attend an old world university, but there was no way we could ever afford the opportunity. We lived in Wilcox Springs, population 530, jobs 14. My uncle Jim may have been running from the pain of his past and this forsaken town, but it might’ve been the best thing he ever did after he crawled out of the bottle. 

My grandfather died angry with him. Jim had unfairly become his greatest disappointment. His wife, his three-year old daughter, both gone in one horrible night? How does one deal with such an immeasurable loss? A war-torn soldier like Jim might never find closure. “Fire claimed him?” I asked Momma hoarsely after the silence grew too much for me to bear. “I think somehow he would’ve wanted that.”

“He’s left this for you,” she said, pulling a postcard out of the legal-looking envelope. 

Too stunned to cry, I inspected the postcard, recognizing his terse script. Remember, Tara.  I turned the postcard around to view the peaceful grounds of Trinity College. “This is enough,” I said honestly.

“Honey, that’s not all,” Momma whispered, catching my gaze as she offered me the documents in her hand.

I took the communication delicately. The black words on white background played games with my vision momentarily. “To Tara,” I read aloud, shaking, “who reminds me of all that Grace would have been, I give all I would have given her had she survived me, to be held in trust with a small monthly stipend, and the remaining in full upon successful completion of a degree from Trinity College, or other higher learning facility of your choosing.”

“That sneaky, drunken fool made a fortune and he’s left it all to you,” Momma said without venom, tears dancing happily in her eyes.

I clutched his last postcard to my heart and refused to let go.