Monday, September 28, 2009

What's on your list?

Playing around with words is one of my personal indulgences. Right up there with bright red toenail polish and strong drinks with cherries in them.

So this morning, while I was playing around, I ran across an online article by a writing teacher with a list of words she has vowed to stop using. I’m not sure why she feels so strongly about them. Perhaps because she felt she was overusing them – always a good reason. Perhaps because she doesn’t like the way they look or sound – justifiable, but somewhat capricious.

Topping her list is “shard.” Now, in my opinion, that’s a perfectly good word. If you’ve ever stepped quickly aside while a crystal goblet heads for a tile floor, you know there are shards in your future. You immediately understand that the word has an important place in the lexicon – you’re going to need it to tell the doctor what needs to be picked out of your foot. Next on the writer’s list is “smirk.” One of my favorite words. She thinks it’s cartoonish. Maybe it is. But hanging over my desk is a brightly colored drawing of the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz. He was drawn by my favorite six‒year-old and on his face is a very delicious smirk. He makes my day. Without his smirk he’d simply be a lopsided conglomeration of parts. His smirk reveals his soul – and cheers up mine.

The writing teacher has also forsaken writing about any heroine who was “visibly shaken” or who has ever “gathered up her skirts.” I can only say that she never saw the look on my husband’s face when he realized I’d thrown out the last brownie to see “visibly shaken” take life. Or watched my mother bustle out to the car on her way to a formal meeting of the Eastern Star to recognize a true “gathering up of skirts.” When a group of words does the job, you need to be able to use them.

As I considered this teacher’s list, I wondered about my own. Are there words I want to eliminate from my keyboard, words I never again want to type, utter, or hear? Possibly.

First, I’d consider taking “should” out of commission. How much guilt, regret, and shame have those six letters produced? And I might put “can’t” on probation for awhile. I’m not one of those motivational speakers who believe anyone can do anything. I know, for example, that I “can’t” climb K2. It is not possible for me (or anyone I’ve ever known) to do so. As it is apparently not possible for me to stay upright on a pair of roller skates or wear size seven and a half shoes. These are things I legitimately “can’t” do. But it is a word I tend to use as a hiding place. "I can’t put up with this" is a different statement from "I won’t put up with this." So “can’t” gets a time out.

While I’m at it, I might give “that” a rest. David Ogilvie advised writers to try deleting every “that” and see how much their writing is strengthened. Not that I want to do that, but that might just be the thing that makes me a better writer. Ya think?

A few more might hit the bin, just because I don’t need them anymore. After a decade of writing copy for direct marketing campaigns, I’m probably through with “free” – more accurately “FREE!” And since I don’t sell cruises to Alaska anymore, I’m content to let eagles fly without “soaring effortlessly” and snow-clad mountains impress us without “stretching on endlessly.” And just for the record, I’ll never again promise anyone the “trip of your lifetime,” no matter how good it is.

But while we’re on the subject, there are some words I want to keep, wonderful words I’d like to hear-speak-write more often. “Happy” is one. Genuinely, honestly, I-can’t-stop-smiling happy. Along with “good,” as in good man, good job, good dog. And what about “true”? There’s a word we tend to be a little bit afraid of. We prefer to settle for things that are simply true enough; otherwise, we feel obliged to disclaim possible truth with pages of small print. But fact is, some things are true, some aren’t. I’d like to hear more true things – and more people willing to declare them so.

I’d also like to be able to say “I’m sorry” without having it sound trite or canned. I’d like to hear “How are you?” and think someone really wanted to know. And I’d like to be able to say “get well soon” and have my friend know how deeply I want her to be rich with health and energy.

So while I think it’s okay to have a words to avoid list, as this morning’s writing instructor so urgently recommends, I also think it’s important to have a words to embrace list. And at the top of mine is “content.” Content with what is in front of me instead of remorse for what is behind. Content with what I have rather than angry over what I’ve lost. Content with who I am, how I look, where I’ve wound up. And to understand the critical difference between being content and being complacent.

Friday, September 25, 2009

These Truths Should be Self-Evident (After a Day at the Fair)

If you’ve ever spent a September on my side of the Cascade Mountains (west of the snow and east of the water), you know the song . . .

You can do it at a trot,
You can do it at a gallop,
You can do it real slow
So your heart don’t pal-pi-TATE.

And a true western Washingtonian will automatically finish . . . Now don’t be LAAATE. DOOO the Puyallup!

Although the ad agencies don’t use it every year, the Puyallup Fair jingle is a northwest icon. You see the sign, you sing the song. And, if you’re a closet redneck like me, you also get out there and DOOO the Puyallup. You go to The Fair!

Let’s pause here in case someone doesn’t know (or care?) how to pronounce this garbled group of letters. P-U-Y-A-L-L-U-P Pronouncing it is the bane of rookie newscasters and AMTRAK conductors everywhere. Get it right and you earn your place as an erudite local: pew ▪ AHL ▪ uhp. Like most things in our neck of the woods, the name is from a native totem tribe. (See also: Snoqualmie, Snohomish, Skykomish, Suquamish, Swinomish, and Stillaguamish.) The town now famous for The Fair is named for the Puyallup tribe, meaning “generous people.” (They apparently weren’t thinking about the price of admission.)

The Fair is about an hour southeast of Seattle. It’s big. It’s blustery. It’s bawdy. And I never miss it. In fact, that’s where I headed on September 16, 2001, the first day of a vacation I’d hoped to spend in New York City. I wasn’t looking for normalcy in that eerie September. I was looking for consistency, reassurance that life goes on. And there it was – slicing and dicing, bumping and grinding, winking and whirring. Just like always.

And this year it’s back, although this year I didn’t DOOO the Puyallup so much as watch it being done. Don’t get me wrong, I still swept down the giant slide on my burlap mat. I’m drawn to that thing like a bug to a windshield, dreading it, but unable to resist it. And once again, I sat through the whole waterless cookware demonstration, waiting for my toothpickful of surprisingly juicy chicken and a nibble of almost cooked carrot. I ate Barbeque and real Washington Dairy Farmers’ Association’s (say that three times fast) ice cream, but passed up the scones and shortcake this year in homage to my husband’s newly minted gluten-free lifestyle. (Surprisingly easy to stay gluten free on fair food. Who knew?)
And this year, because I spent more time observing, I decided to catalog some of the truths that the Puyallup Fair and its cousins across our great nation prove to be self-evident:

Truth #1: Just because you can get into it doesn’t mean you should wear it, at least not in public.
If the amount of belly fat hanging over your waistband is greater than the amount of cotton candy hanging out of the sides of your mouth, change clothes. Please.

Truth #2: Just because you can fry it doesn’t mean you should eat it.
The line was long at the “Everything Fried” booth this year, as they hit a new high, or low, in food innovation. Featured on this dubious menu were the ubiquitous Fried Twinkies and Fried Pickles, along with Chocolate Covered Bacon and something called Redneck Sushi, which I never did figure out. I was mildly tempted by the Alligator on a Stick, but having once snacked on a Gator Bite at a fish camp in Ocala, Florida, I took a pass.

Truth #3: Just because it gets magical results for the guy with the microphone in the booth doesn’t mean it will work for you after you pay twenty bucks and take it home.
My cleaning closet is littered with gadgets a variety of dudes swore would take the film off the white vinyl floor in my kitchen (who thought putting a cheap white floor in a kitchen at the beach was a good idea in the first place?). I’m significantly poorer, and the floor still has a gray film. (Perhaps because it’s twenty years old and needs to be replaced?) And let’s not even mention the ShamWow. That being said, I admit that I did pause overly long at some stuff the dude swore would dissolve soap scum off a shower door.

Truth #4: Just because you have a lot of it doesn’t mean other people want to see it.
Although I’m not a collector myself, I hail from a long line of them. For my mother it was birds. All things birds. Books, porcelain figurines, fine china plates. And pitchers (the kind you pour out of, not the MLB variety). Tall ones, short ones, silver ones, crystal ones. All lovely. But even she never lined up all those things in a showcase and trotted them out for display among the livestock. Collector’s Hall at the Puyallup Fair is proof that the world has enough bottle caps, Star Wars figures, Barbie dresses, and crocheted doll house furniture. You don’t need to gather up any more.

Truth #5: Just because it seems like a good idea after your second beer doesn’t mean you should go for it. (Maybe especially because it seems so smart after your second beer . . . )
The Big Bungie, for example. What may look like a hoot from the ground may not be all that enticing as you hang suspended in midair, upside down, and barfing. Same for any ride that spins in horizontal circles. Alcohol does not enhance equilibrium, or so I’ve been told. The world has enough drunks draped over fences yakking. Like the crocheted doll house furniture, we don’t need more.

Truth #6: Just because you won it doesn’t mean you have to take it home and find a place for it.
The tall feathered bird that keeps bobbing its head into a jar of water? Let it go. The stuffed tiger that’s four times bigger than the nearest toddler? Leave it there. The ash tray that used to be a CocaCola bottle before the train ran over it . . . the neon velvet painting . . . the baseball cap with LED lights in the brim . . . move on without them and avoid being the middle man on their path to Goodwill.

To these Basic Truths I would add just a few more simple Rules of Engagement:
1) Don’t eat blue food. Nothing in nature is that color.
2) Try not to inhale in the cow barn.
3) Remember that the 5 Second Rule does NOT apply at The Fair. If you drop it, do NOT pick it up and put it in your mouth.
4) Do not purchase articles of clothing at The Fair. Nothing you purchase in a booth was meant to be worn in a civil society.
5) If you miss the Seattle Seahawk’s cheerleaders shaking their beautiful booty to “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Sexy Like Me,” try to catch Billy Hill and the Hillbillies’ rendition of “Rocky Top.” It’s not an exact match, but it’ll get you through a rough patch.
6) No matter where you park, don’t expect to find the route to the freeway on your first try.
7) Leave your credit card at home and carry only as much cash as you’re willing to admit you ate.
8) Wear shoes that are a) comfortable and b) can be washed out in the shower.
9) Don’t miss the Clydesdales. Also, don’t step in front of them. And, finally . . .
10) . . . at every opportunity, every hand sanitizer, every soap station, every rest room you pass . . . WASH YOUR HANDS!

The Fair ends Sunday, so get out there and do it at a trot. Now don’t be late . . .