Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word". . .

Today's "I can't believe I've lived all these years without knowing this word" (courtesy, as ever, of Anu Garg’s magnificent A.Word.A.Day) is . . . wait for it . . . 'tenesmus'.

It is a noun, and it means, "A distressing but ineffectual urge to defecate or urinate."
There - see what I mean? Only think about where and when you might have used this truly remarkable word, and I fully expect you will find possibilities stretching in an unbroken line to the horizon and beyond. (Kindly do not ask me how I know what lies beyond the horizon: let's just say, I have my sources.)

And so I exhort you - make up for lost time, for all those squandered opportunities when you could have used 'tenesmus' and didn't (admittedly for good reason, since up till now you had never heard of the word), and beginning today, simply insert 'tenesmus' into your everyday conversations! Your friends and family will be gobsmacked, as will any potential job interviewer with an ear for unorthodox vocabulary. (You may want to consider carefully the  tension implicit in the phrase, “distressing but ineffectual”;  does this really imply, as indeed it seems to,  that something distressing will, in the normal run of things, be effective?) 

 Also, if indeed you find yourself in a job interview and the subject of tenesmus is raised, consider carefully whether you ought not look for a different job.

And now it’s time for our Exciting Contest: just use “tenesmus” in a sentence of any length, preferably in English, using words containing not more than 15 syllables,  and add it to the Comments section. 
You’ll be glad you did -

And so will I!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In Which I Consider The Possibility That I Have Gone Completely, Stark Raving Bonkers.

Yesterday I opened an email from my friend “Cicely” (names changed to avoid embarrassing innocent victims), and noticed with some surprise that, while it was dated May 1, the previous email was from February 2. Had I really not communicated with Cicely in those three months? Of course I had – but here was proof positive that I had not. How could this be? What did it signify?

Feeling just a wee bit queasy, I opened the email: it told me that she and her husband “Cuthbert” were going to San Juan on Thursday, returning on Friday, to check on the new renters. Now, bear in mind that this was first thing in the morning and my brain was still more than a little groggy from sleep and caffeine-insufficiency, also that for quite some time now my mind has (quite of its own volition) been taking mini-vacations in the Pacific Northwest where we lived for twenty-four years and all six of our children were born, and you will understand what happened next: I thought she meant the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington and British Columbia!

Beyond gobsmacked, that I was! How could it be that in all the years I had known her, Cicely had never once let slip that she and Cuthbert own a rental property on the San Juans? Moreover, they were flying up to Washington on Thursday and back on Friday. Highly uncharacteristic – there was definitely something fishy going on. Add to this the missing three months of emails, and you will get some idea of my complete bewilderment and confusion.

So this is what it's like, I thought. This is the beginning of the end, of the utter mental chaos and inability to manage one's environment that gives dementia such a bad name.

Maybe, I thought, I am misremembering the islands’ name: maybe the San Juans are actually the California islands – could that be it? Hastily, I Googled San Juan Islands. Sure enough, there they were just as I remembered them, firmly plunked in the Puget Sound. Not only that, but Oh Glory! As my eyes traveled down the list of San Juans, they came to a screeching halt at San Juan Capistrano. Aha! Capistrano I know about: our family spent three months there living in a house right on the beach, while my husband was running an anti-euthanasia campaign back in ’92. San Juan Capistrano was where I bathed our then youngest in the kitchen sink and practically wiped out my right knee on a rock, body-surfing.

San Juan Capistrano is also where Cicely’s mother’s house is: a house that has been rented out for some years, ever since Cicely’s mom moved on to a place where she has no need of an earthly dwelling.

Even the three months of missing emails had a benign explanation: Cicely had been clearing out February’s emails, found “If you loved ‘LaLaLand’ you’ll love . . . “, and forwarded it to me to see if any of their movie suggestions appealed.

Ta-da – vindicated! Guess who isn't crazy after all – but when I looked up LaLa Land in the dictionary and learned that it is “a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life”, I think I may just pay it a visit.

I’ve had about all I can take of the “harsher realities of life” for the time being.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017



Like a thunderbolt out of the blue it struck me: Waltzing Matilda, which is practically Australia’s national anthem, is in duple time. That's right, two beats per bar! All my life, I have unquestioningly believed that it is in triple meter – after all, that's what a waltz is, isn't it? ONE – two – three, ONE – two – three . . . and now I put on my critical listening ears, I find it is actually a march: ONE – two, ONE - two, LEFT- right LEFT - right. What, Waltzing Matilda not a waltz? Next, you’ll be telling me that Brighton rock is not made in Brighton, or that toad-in-the-hole is not now, nor has ever been, an amphibian.

What's up? Have the Australians, with their highly developed sense of irony, been playing an elaborate practical joke on the rest of the world? I found the answer here, in Rolf Harris’s entertaining and highly informative preamble to his inimitable rendition of the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bl-YI44XYjI

Aha! All stands revealed: a “swagman” (wandering hobo) carries his meager belongings, and such tucker (food) as he possesses, in his “swag”, a ragged blanket tied around his shoulders, which he mockingly refers to as his “Matilda”, or life companion. So “waltzing” has nothing to do with dancing, but rather evokes a slow, weary trudge through the Australian bush, whose grimness is briefly relieved every morning by such magical sounds as these:

Alas, we learn that our hero has run afoul of the law – he has stolen a jumbuck! What is a jumbuck, I hear you ask. Hmm, should I tell you, or make you listen to the song? I’ll tell you this much: the penalty for stealing one in 19th century Australia was death . . . and uh-oh, here comes the “squatter”, or landowner, (strange isn’t it, how the meaning of the word has changed?) mounted on his thoroughbred. Choosing a quick death by drowning over a protracted one ending with hanging, our lamentably uncatechised swagman leaps into the billabong, crying, “You’ll never take me alive!”

So there we have it: a rattling good song, a brief foreign language lesson, and an introduction to Australia’s unique wildlife (be sure not to miss the Thorny Devil.) And if you’re still itching for a waltz, try this one: Tchaikovsky - Waltz of the Flowers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxHkLdQy5f0.

Friday, January 13, 2017

How Rude - or then again, Perhaps Not!

I’ve been thinking about words that appear to be rude, but aren’t. Words you can use with impunity in front of your Great Aunt Bertha, knowing full well that, when she fans herself and reaches for the smelling-salts, you’ll be ready with the perfectly innocent definitions culled from A.Word.A.Day.com. For your convenience, I replicate them here:

adjective: Sick from excessive drinking or eating.
From Latin crapula (drunkenness), from Greek kraipale (hangover, drunkenness). Earliest documented use: 1540. Also crapulent.
Modern Usage: (Mother): All right, Timmy, go ahead and have another slice of cake; but don’t blame me if it makes you crapulous!
Bonus: We learn the Greek for a hangover: Kraipale. You never know when it may come in handy.

1. A sharp point or spike for holding a candle.

2. A male deer in its second year, before the antlers have branched.
Diminutive of prick/prik, from Old English prica (point). Earliest documented use: 1331.
Mod Use: “This pricket’s way too small – the candle keeps falling off!”

verb tr.:
1. To apply makeup.

2. To embellish or gloss over.

From Old French fard (makeup), from farden (to apply makeup), of Germanic origin. Earliest documented use: 1450.
Modern usage: “Will you please stop farding in the bathroom and come for breakfast?”

Cunctation - noun: Delay; procrastination; tardiness.
From Latin cunctari (to hesitate, delay). Earliest documented use: 1585.
Modern Usage: “Even as a baby he was given to cunctation: he’d wake me up at 2AM, but not to nurse; he’d just yawn three times and go back to sleep.”

Cock up – noun: Something going horribly wrong, e.g. this definition, which the computer stoutly refused to provide. Instead, I was treated to those infuriating whirling circles – definitely a cock up. And I can provide no “earliest documented use”, either.

Now, about those two bonus words I promised you. Here they are:

Bonus Word #1: verb: formicate, To swarm like ants.
Modern usage: At graduation, visitors beheld the campus covered with formicating students.

Bonus Word #2: absquatulate: verb: to make off with something.
Modern usage: “I say, that bounder just absquatulated with my cricket pads!”

Enjoy introducing your friends to these words – but don’t be surprised if you get a few strange looks along the way!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How to Catch A Seagull

At no point in my adult life have I devoted significant mental energy to contemplating how to catch a seagull. Never, that is, until I found myself discussing this very question with some newfound friends at the beach one Sunday afternoon in early August. It turned out that not only had they captured a seagull in the past, but they were willing to try it again. There was even a teenage boy (let’s call him Hamish), eager to make the attempt. My sole job was to observe from a respectful distance and take scrupulous mental notes.

Here's how it's done: first, Hamish selected a part of the beach with few humans, especially of the junior variety who like to run around screaming. Ensuring that there were sufficient seagulls in sight, both airborne and waddling along the sand, he scooped out a shallow trench more or less the same length as himself, and lay down in it. Taking a large towel, he covered himself from feet to chin. Both arms lay cunningly concealed beneath the towel. One arm sneaked out, bearing a succulent morsel of leftover foodstuff designed to titillate a seagull's taste buds into paroxysms of delight (in this case, the remains of a chicken wing with just a hint of Alfredo sauce), and placed it on the towel, right over Hamish’s stomach.

Now came the hard part: we waited. And waited. And while we waited, (it being rather a hot afternoon,) my lunchtime beer kicked in and I began to fantasize. Suppose we get lucky, I thought; suppose a gull spies the morsel with its beady eye, and swoops down to claim it as its own. The moment for action has arrived! Like a coiled viper, Hamish unfurls his betoweled arms and seizes the hapless bird in his steely embrace. He has our seagull!

Okay, so now what? What exactly does one do with this very unhappy captive bird, whose mighty beak is thrashing around, inches away from Hamish’s eyeballs—eat it? Sorry, seagull pie is out of the question: when asked by a journalist why seagull meat never put in an appearance on the daily menu, a Devon fisherman replied in his broad West Country drawl, “If ‘ee puts a seagull int’ oven wi’ a brick, th’ brick ‘ud be done first, and it’d taaste better.”

Perhaps it could be tamed and kept as a pet! I looked up “domesticate” in the massive dictionary (which, thanks to the marvels of the common cell phone, I just happened to have with me) and found that the process of domestication generally involves such a close association with human beings that the animal loses its fondness for living in the wild. One look into that flashing eye, one ear-piercing, raucous shriek, one moment’s contemplation of their disgusting personal habits that make them about as desirable a pet as an airborne dung beetle, and I was convinced—there would be no seagull perched in my kitchen, screeching incessantly, taking enormous pecks out of any human foolish enough to venture within striking range, making vast, splashy messes of fishy-stinky seagull poop all over the floor . . .

 My reverie was cut short by Joe’s return. Dusting sand off himself, he admitted defeat: perhaps there had been one too many children running on the beach; perhaps it was the wrong brand of Alfredo sauce; perhaps the birds simply weren’t in the mood . . . Whatever the reason, the seagull-capturing quest had proved a failure.

And I couldn’t honestly say I was sorry.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

HEAT - and What To Do About It

"Who goes out in the midday sun?
"Mad dogs and Englishmen"
This little couplet runs through my brain every year when the temperature in SoCal inches towards 100F and I recall the land of my birth. There, in the halcyon days before the climate went berserk and triple digits invading Buckingham Palace became almost commonplace, something quite extraordinary happened: pretty much any time the sun put in an appearance, no matter how brief, every piece of turf, no matter how minuscule, was instantly covered with sweating bodies roasting painful shades of reddish pink, slowly turning as if on an invisible communal spit. "Carpe solem" might be their motto: seize the sun.
Let us now leave my ex-countrymen, and turn instead to the suburban back yards of the US where the cry rings out, "I'm too hot, Mom, it's too ho-o-t, Mom, MOM, I said, IT'S TOO HOT!" (As if the current heatwave had been entirely mom's idea . . .) Here are a few of my favorite things to do with hot, crotchety children:
* set the little ones loose to "paint" the driveway, the flowers, and each other with paint brushes and water.
* Put two buckets of water on the grass (or any thirsty ground) with measuring cups, empty yogurt pots, plastic toys, and ping pong balls (hold them underwater and let go - whose will shoot highest into the air?)
* Buy some cheap synthetic bath sponges, hold them underwater, then SPLOSH! Wettest game of catch EVER!
* Give each child a 2-liter soda bottle full of water, and see who can empty theirs fastest. Is it quicker to twirl and shake the bottle or simply hold it still?
* Teach them a little anatomy. Where does blood flow closest to the skin's surface? Fill a bucket with cold water and give each child a wash cloth to dip in it. Have them slosh the wet cloths on various body parts - knees, shoulders, feet, the back of the neck, tummy . . . Eventually, help them notice that a wet cloth on the back of the neck is a dynamite cooler-offer. Why? Because blood flow to and from  the all-important head all passes through the neck, where veins lie close to the surface. Can they make an ice-filled sock cooler that will stay tied around their necks as the ice cubes melt in a delectable, icy trickle?
* Think ahead: put containers of your own devising filled with water in the freezer overnight (just for fun, add a little oil to one and see what happens.) Melt them in the sun, in shade, in water. Which is fastest? Where will they last longest?
For a grand finale, have everyone dip their heads into the bucket, then SHAKE like a mad dog.
But please, stay out of the midday sun!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": A Unit Study,
Part the Second, June 2016. (Part 1, see March 1)
I have a friend who maintains that all of human history can be reduced to two questions: "What could possibly go wrong?" and "How was I to know"? In 1859, an Englishman by the name of Thomas Austin released twenty-four English rabbits into the wilds of Australia, saying as he watched the twenty-four cute, fluffy little tails hop merrily off into the sunset, "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” If pressed, I’m sure he would have added, “What could possibly go wrong?”
Quite a lot, Mr. Austin, quite a lot

Invite the children to attempt to outthink Mr. Austin. What dangers can they foresee that Mr. Austin could not? (Hint: hybrid vigor; rapid proliferation; few predators; ideal climate; farming vital to the economy.)
For starters, he failed to realize that bringing 24 of England’s finest rabbits to interbreed with the Australian locals would, thanks to hybrid vigor, produce a veritable SuperBunny   Not only were rabbits perfectly suited to the climate, whose mild winters meant they could breed year round, but farmers who ploughed up vast areas of scrub and woodland unwittingly left behind them ideal conditions for warrens. What followed was the fastest spread ever recorded of any mammal anywhere in the world. Within ten years, rabbits were so numerous that over two million could be shot or trapped annually without making a dent in the population. In less than 30 years, so great was the damage inflicted on farmers’ crops, that the government of New South Wales offered a £25,000 reward for  "any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits." (Just for fun, estimate how much  £25,000  would be worth today.) On an outline map, http://www.kidzone.ws/geography/australia/map-australia.htm have the children draw in the three “rabbit proof” fences. What kinds of animals were used to help in the building? In the maintenance of the wall?

Is anyone talking of building a wall today?

MATH The reproductive potential of a female rabbit is truly phenomenal.  A single female can, in seven years, become the matriarch of 184,597,433,860 offspring.  That’s almost two billion cute little fluffy tails, from one female and her female descendants. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/scary.html
For a different take on a similar mathematical phenomenon, read
One Grain Of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale by Demi

For the younger children, read The Muddle-headed Wombat by Ruth Park, Australia’s delightful answer to Winnie the Pooh
Investigate marsupials; also
 Egg-laying mammals that are only found in Australia: duck-billed platypus, echidna.

DRAMA and HISTORY: They say, “it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good”; during the Depression meat was extremely hard to come by – except, that is, for rabbits. Who might have spoken our opening line? Make up, and act out, a short scene featuring a family during the Depression who have not a morsel of meat in the house, and precious little else to eat. An unexpected guest knocks at the door, bearing a gift from her mother: you guessed it – rabbits for dinner! And as they wait for the bunnies to cook, they join in singing, “Waltzing Matilda”. I’m quite sure they knew what all the words meant, and after singing along with this, so will you!