WORRISOME WORDS

Certain words have plagued me for years because I have difficulty spelling, pronouncing or defining them. Rythym is a word I can never spell correctly on the first try. (I’m sure I didn’t succeed just now.) The dictionary is no help for a word like rithym. It’s too difficult to look up if you’re only sure the first letter is R and the rest is a mystery.
Another challenging word is spelled “Worcestershire” on the sauce bottles which is helpful unless the supermarket’s sauce shelf is Worcestershireless and I have to ask a clerk to see if there are any in the back room. “Wursetusshyer, sir? I don’t think we carry that brand.”
“No, no,” I say. “I might be mispronouncing it. How about Worstershirt or Wootersire?” And so it goes until I give up and settle for soy sauce.
“Onomatopoeia” was once my third most worrisome word. A poet I interviewed spelled it for me. (I’m okay with the pronunciation. I remember it almost rhymes with “On a mat I could see ya.”) She explained it refers to words invented to represent familiar sounds like gurgle and squeak, so when you read those words, you hear those sounds and, BOOM! I finally got the meaning. What a great way to add another dimension to every kind of writing! Our language has been enriched by onomatopoeia words. It’s especially useful for short story writers where every word counts. Read (and listen to) the following paragraph.
“He held the pan over the crackling wood fire, sloshing the two eggs from side to side while the bacon sizzled in the bubbling grease. Sighing nervously, he checked the clock on the cabin wall, ticking away what might be his final hour.” Don’t you feel you’re there in that cabin, whether or not you want to be, eyes and ears wide open, waiting for something to happen? Listen! Someone is now wrenching the oak door off it’s hinges and the dog is howling!
Onomatopoeia is sometimes invented on the spot, but it’s usually already part of our vocabualary by popular demand. The people decided that “ping pong” was a much better name than “table tennis” and “slide fasteners” soon gave way to “zippers”. Noise words are being created every day to add more color to our language and to keep up with technology. We “zap” annoying TV commercials and once, when decency prevailed, foul language was “bleeped” from the audio.
Here are some entries I read in a short story: “The ‘cleek-cleek-pop’ of the gum-chewing waitress almost drowned out the subdued argument of the couple in the next booth as they ‘hisspered’ to each other.”
Not all onomatopoeias are equal, especially if invented in different countries. Taiwan ducks don’t quack, they go “gua, gua” and, if you buy a clock in Tokyo, it won’t tick tock. It will go “katchin,katchin”. If you stop over in Hong Kong on the way home, you’ll notice the new clock’s sound has changed to “dye-dah”. Go figure.
When a Parisian comes home from work, his faithful dog greets him with a loud and friendly “ouah,ouah!” My late, beloved dog Molly knew only “bow wow”. I thought it would be cool to teach her to bark in French, but it was hopeless, even with the cue cards. Molly managed to mimic the sound but she just couldn’t match the rhthym.

A DIRTY SHAME

We’ve given dirt a bad name and it isn’t fair. Think about it. Where would we be without dirt? On the rocks, that’s where. If it wasn’t for dirt we’d starve and entire industries would bite the dust. Laundries, car washers and janitors would be clean out of work and the multi-billion dollar soap and detergent corporations would go right down the drain. And don’t bad talk dirt to a farmer.

Sadly, people never use complimentary references for dirt. We don’t want to be “treated like dirt” and “the latest dirt” is sure to be an unreliable, scandalous rumor. You might laugh at a “dirty joke”, but feel a little guilty about it. “Dirty pool” implies unethical behavior and “dirty rotten scoundrel” is self-explanatory, but why can’t “rotten scoundrel” suffice? Does this villain also have to be unwashed?

Personally, I’ve always been rather fond of dirt. We’ve been very close, too close according to some, including fussy sergeants during my USAF years. It’s an established fact that we’re intimately related to dirt. According to the Bible, it’s our original main ingredient and we’re all going to be recycled eventually. That pile of dust you swept up in the kitchen today might have been your Great-Great Aunt Matilda or, with favorable east winds, Julius Caesar.

Children appreciate dirt more than adults, but when little girls grow beyond the mud pie stage, they tend to join the anti-grime ranks of their mothers. Little boys enjoy dirt much longer. They like to play in it and on it and carve out handfuls to create miniature mountains and lakes and to mold into soft projectiles. Little boys manage to bring home large quantities of dirt attached to their clothing and body parts. They hate to depart with brother dirt on bath nights which they consider painful experiences bordering on child abuse.

I remember as a carefree youth trudging home in the rain after an exciting mudball battle, planning to brag to Mom about my gang’s victory, and hearing her call as I walked across the living room,”I just vacuumed. Are your shoes clean?” I looked down and was happy to reply, “Yes, Mom. They were pretty muddy when I came in, but they’re clean now.”

CEREAL KILLERS – NEW BREAKFAST MENUS.

Breakfast is our most important meal according to nutritionists. Skipping it, they warn, can cause impaired concentration and reduced efficiency, not to mention late morning donuts and candy bars, weight gain, cavities and stubborn chocolate stains.

One possible reason for Americans skipping breakfast is that it has become a boring meal. We have so few menu choices -cereal, eggs, bacon, home fries, waffles and pancakes. We’re almost sure to repeat ourselves once a week.

But why settle for a typicial American breakfast when our lunch and dinner menus now include a wide variety of international dishes like wiener schnitzel, Hungarian goulash, borscht, sushi, tacos, pizza and many pasta varieties? Why not try the favorite breakfasts of other countries?

Some foreign breakfast recipes sound intriguing, like the Peruvian ceviche’s diced fish, flavored with lime juice, onions, chile and avocados. Caribbean banana fritters would be a sweet choice, dipped in sugar, vanilla and cinammon, sauteed in vegetable oil. An acquired taste might be necessary for Japan’s fermented soy beans and rice and the Egyptians’ fava beans in olive oil. (Didn’t Hannibal the Cannibal speak fondly of fava beans?)

You’ll probably have to call ahead if you want your local diner to prepare a popular Cambodian breakfast of dried fish and pig’s blood porridge and they might want you to sign a waiver before they’ll serve it.

I was suprised to find coffee is not the usual breakfast beverage served everywhere overseas. I don’t understand that. I can endure coffee without breakast sometimes, but never breakfast without the coffee which was introduced to the west by Italian traders around 1600. It soon replaced beer as the preferred breakfast drink in our cities. (And how come the Italians took so long getting pizza here?)

Ours is a big country and, coast to coast, we don’t all speak the same breakfast lingo. Once, on the road in eastern Pennsylvania, I stopped in a diner for a quick breakfast. Without checking the menu, I told the waitress, “I’ll just have a coffee and an egg sandwich on a hard roll.” She gave me an odd look and went into the kitchen. A moment later the cook came out. “Let me get this straight,” he said. “You want an egg sandwich on a stale roll?” I thought maybe they called them “Kaisers” there, but I didn’t want to get into it and replied, “Make that on toast.”.

MENTAL MOVIES

At my advanced age the movie section of my memory bank must be nearing full capacity. Somehow I’ve managed to remember at least bits and pieces of all my favorite films. Nowadays I have to think hard to come up with my Google password, but I can still recall important parts of old blockbusters like It Happened One Night (1934) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).

Rerunning a peaceful scene from Forrest Gump or David Copperfield helps me drift off to sleep some nights or into a short nap on a lazy afternoon. My mental movie clips also help me get through trying situations. I screened The Maltese Falcon during my last dentist visit. It was quite effective. “You didn’t flinch once while I was drilling,” the dentist remarked. “The novocaine really worked.”

“It’s what dreams are made of, Doc,” I replied in my Bogart voice. My numbed lip helped with the impression.

It’s important to select a film that’s appropriate for the situation. To survive listening to a long-winded recitation of someone’s complicated legal problems, I would never run an Abbott and Costello comedy. My giggling and guffawing would be completely out of place. A selected clip from Sophie’s Choice would be appropriate and might bring on what appears to be a sympathetic tear.

There is also the danger of getting too far into a mental movie. You must give the speaker at least 50 percent of your attention to get the general idea of his boring monologue in order to come up with an appropriately timed “tsk, tsk” or an “Oh dear,” as evidence of your empathy.

Listening to a tedious account of a fellow worker’s financial misadventures I decided to escape into The Treasure of Sierra Madre when I was suddenly yanked back into reality. “So do you think this hedge fund is a good investment?” he asked. Apparently I wasn’t yanked back far enough, because I replied, “We don’t need no stinkin’ hedges!”

He was shocked, but my dramatic response convinced him to change his plan. That hedge fund took a dive and he saved a bundle. He was grateful and bought me a bottle of expensive champagne. It was like getting an Oscar.

It’s not safe to mentally screen any movie while driving. Cruising home after watching a rerun of “Bullitt” and recalling the scary car chase footage, you’re liable to exceed the speed limit and get ticketed for driving while under the influence of Steve McQueen.

LUCK

We say, “Good luck!” to a friend about to embark on something perilous like mountain climbing or an IRS audit, but what does that mean? What is luck? Webster calls it a force that can bring good or bad fortune. This so-called “force” is supposed to be involved in all our risky endeavors like poker games and matrimony, but no one can prove luck actually exists. It might just be a word we made up to explain life’s ups and downs.

Mathematicians insist the final results of any undertaking will be determined by the laws of probability. Any other explanation, they say, is just wishful thinking. But can’t we influence the probability laws by increasing our efforts to reach our goals? Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn once claimed, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Some believe in mysterious and unearned types of good fortune like “dumb luck” and “beginner’s luck”. Shakespeare wrote, “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” And an arab proverb predicts, “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come up with a fish in his mouth.”

Studies have shown people who believe in good luck lead happier lives while pessimists might be taking too many risks and getting more than their share of disappointments.

A dismal outlook can have a negative effect on your future. A hypnotherapist I once interviewed said slumping athletes he’s treated had to be taught to envision themselves giving winning performances rather than expecting another bad day on the field, the court or the golf course.

Religion and luck have been intertwined for centuries as the devout prayed for good fortune. The Aztecs, Mayans and Incas used human sacrifices, voluntary and otherwise, to influence their deities. Most of us now just politely ask God to tilt the odds in our favor from time to time. There are probably more prayers recited at the church Bingo games than during the Sunday services. (“Oh, please Lord, make him call B14!)

But even with divine intervention, the supplicant’s participation is needed. A poor widow once begged God to help her win the lottery. After several weeks of fruitless praying, she complained to God about being ignored. Suddenly she heard a thunderous voice from above: “For heaven’s sake, buy a ticket.”

The best observation about luck I’ve ever read was by the author Jean Cocteau. “We must believe in luck,” he wrote. “For how else can we explain the successes of those we do not like?”

DEADLINES

There are two widely different definitions for “deadline”. As “dead line”, two words, it refers to a line drawn in a prison yard that cannot be crossed by an inmate without risking a fatal bullet from the guard tower. The combined “deadline” is the time beyond which newspaper copy will not be accepted for the next edition. Tardy reporters may be fired, but they are not fired upon. Well, hardly ever. Some editors are very hot tempered.

As an old newspaperman I’ve always enjoyed movies based on adventures in journalism. “The Paper”, “All the President’s Men” and “Front Page” are my favorites. But I wouldn’t last long under the terrible deadline pressure that the reporters in those pictures had to endure. I wrote mostly for weekly papers with much less stress and usually I had no nerve-wracking deadline to meet. It was almost as casual as writing for this blog where my nap time might be scheduled between pages one and two.

It’s true, in my day I was known as “Scoop Newman”, but it wasn’t meant to imply I had a talent for beating rival papers with exclusive reports. I wasn’t good at that and had difficulty meeting deadlines. They called me “Scoop” because of my fondness for ice cream.

Covering a town council meeting I usually shared a press table with reporters from two rival dailies. My copy wasn’t due for two or three days. Theirs had to be typed and on their editors’ desks in two or three hours. The poor guys fussed and cussed when the meeting dragged on and sometimes rushed out before the end of business. The next day I would check the reports in their papers to make sure I had the facts straight and the names spelled right. Then I’d start typing leisurely.

I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to work in the frenetic atmosphere of a daily newspaper. It gives me chills. “Stop the presses! Tear out the front page!” Breaking news of city hall corruption!” the city editor shouts. “Newman, make some phone calls and give me 2,000 words of background. You’ve got 45 minutes.!”

I think I’d use those 45 minutes to type my resignation. Forget about the phone calls, I’d need two hours to type 2,000 words even if someone dictated them. The paper would be out on the street with a big blank space where my background story should have been. I would also be out on the street.

Of course weekly papers have deadlines too, but I’ve usually managed to cover events at least 48 hours before we went to press. I made an exception once when I had the opportunity to attend a press conference with Astronaut John Glenn. “Where’s your John Glenn copy?” my editor demanded an hour after I’d returned to the paper. I replied I was still deciphering my notes and trying to decide on a good lead. We ended up with him gripping the top of the page while I was typing on the lower half as he kept checking his watch. “Done!” he shouted and yanked the page out of my typewriter.

My abbreviated story ended with an incomplete quote from John Glenn: “The most important thing to remember about survival in outer space is…….” I phoned a few friends and told them how that sentence ended, but 20,000 other readers had to make their own guesses.

RUDE AWAKENINGS

Every now and then I encounter annoying people in stores. There aren’t that many, but the pesky population seems to be growing. I thought maybe it was just me. But I talked this over with my buddies and they all agreed. We’re still the same sweet-tempered, easy going, nice old guys. It can’t be us. It must be them. We decided to strike back, but in cleverly subtle ways in order to avoid litigtation and serious injury.

Convenience store clerks can sometimes be impatient and even brusque when dealing with an older customer who can’t hear the mumbled reply about an item’s price. “I TOLJA, IT’S SEVENTY NINE CENTS! WADDAYA DEAF!” he shouts. Picking up the change that’s been tossed on the counter, the old guy examines the coins and exclaims, “Wow! A 1995 double die penny! Look at this!” He waves the coin in front of the clerk. “See, ‘In God We Rust’, a mint misprint. It’s worth a hundred dollars at least!” He then rushes out of the store, laughing wildly. This is performed with an ordinary one-cent penny and will get the nasty clerk to check every coin in his register with a magnifying glass for days or hopefully, for weeks.

If you’re being treated like an ignorant peasant by a rather plain-looking saleswoman in an upscale store who sniffs at your questions and keeps looking beyond you for customers with more cachet and more cash, there is a retaliatory move. A miffed male customer can suddenly blurt out, “You good- looking women think you can get away with rudeness!” This is an accusation wrapped in a compliment, a compliment the woman probably hasn’t received recently, or ever, and it will trump the accusation. The man will get courteous service and perhaps a phone call later.

Some supermarket shoppers refuse to recognize the rights of other hunters and gatherers. They propel their carts at high speed with a get-out-of-my-way attitude. At a counter with no number system, when the clerk calls “Next”, our noodge will step forward, elbowing aside anyone who objects.

Our SWAP team (Seniors With A Purpose) tailed one of these Me-First shoppers who then parallel parked blocking access to a full ten-foot length of meat counter from sausages to pork chops while browsing languidly through poultry parts. The team struck back. Me-First’s cart was shielded by one member while others buried new items beneath its cargo: A bagel with a bite-sized portion missing; an open half empty jar of expensive caviar and a barbecued chicken missing two drumsticks. Soiled napkins were tossed in as evidence of illegal pre-checkout feasting.

Our team reassembled in the checkout area and enjoyed Me-First’s loud angry confrontation with two assistant managers and security personnel. Later, a note was slipped into the departing cart: “From now on please try to be a more polite, considerate shopper. Be nice.”

TRUTH (and consequences) IN ADVERTISING

There was a sign on my supermarket cart: “Does the pain in your back ease up as you push this cart?” I suddenly realized my usually aching back did feel better. I thought maybe they’ve invented therapeutic carts, but the second line read, “If it does, you may have spinal stenosis” and then gave the name of a clinic I should contact immediately. Talk about unsettling advertising.
U.S. companies spend about $250 billion a year to pitch their products, often with unsettling ads. A pharmaceutical firm promises relief from a minor ailment, but then mentions a long list of the possible side effects of their medicine beginning with diarrhea and ending with suicidal tendencies. Don’t they realize they’re scaring the bejeebers out of us, especially if we’re already taking their overpriced concoction?
A comical radio skit I once heard poked fun at the this lack of empathy in our commercial world. First, a staid BBC announcer delivers news of the imminent end of the world: “It is with deep regret we report the earth and all its inhabitants will be destroyed by a meteor in 24 hours. All BBC programming will be cancelled following that event.” And then we hear how the same news is presented in the U.S.A. “Here’s a bulletin, just in,” the American newscaster shouts. “It’s been confirmed by White House sources and Judge Judy, the world is ending tomorrow at noon. And now a word from our sponsor.”
Many years ago roving salesmen were known as “drummers” because they beat bass drums to announce their arrival in village squares. Similar primitive advertising was still going on when I was a boy. The local fishmonger, leading a horse-drawn wagon loaded with ice and the latest catch, would get neighborhood housewives’ attention by blowing a large tin horn and shouting “Fresh fish!” The knife and scissors sharpener’s truck had melodious chimes and the Good Humor man rang his bells.
Virtual signage is fairly new and rather sneaky. The billboards you see behind the batter when you’re watching a ballgame on TV aren’t what they seem to be. Stadium fans don’t see the ads. They only exist on TV and aren’t the same for all viewers. A Yankee Stadium sign might ballyhoo one product for New York viewers and something else for those watching the game on their sets in Boston.
I must admit I find the commercials on the high numbered TV channels quite fascinating. There are so many interesting products: Indestructible glareproof sunglasses and night vision binoculars; solar-powered lanterns, security lights and bug killers; sealants for leaky basements and rowboats and unkinkable garden hoses. There are new miracle gadgets every week and, amazingly, most cost the same $19.95. But wait! Suddenly, they’re BOGO or toofer as we used to say, and often with free shipping. It’s all so tempting. I really don’t need them but the two razor sharp knives at $19.95 total plus free shipping and a six month supply of bandages should be arriving any day now.

CHARLIE the CHARLATAN

When I tell my friends what I spend on car maintenance, they suggest I find a more reasonably priced shop. I know I should, but I’ve always been fond of old Charlie Ripoffski, my friendly mechanic. He never lectures me about my lack ofautomotive knowhow and he actually sounds sympathetic breaking the bad news about the problems he finds under my car’s hood. Also, he serves free coffee and donuts in his waiting room. How friendly can you get?
When my car needed a simple oil change I knew I could do better at one of those quicky lube places, but they just want to get the job done, take my money and see me off, and no free donuts. Charlie Ripoffski greeted me like a long lost cousin. “Sure, I’ll change your oil and filter and I’ll even throw in a free overall inspection to make sure you’re completely safe out on the highway. You’re one of my best customers and I don’t want to lose you, Ha, Ha.” Good old Charlie.
Charlie returned from the shop with shocking news. He’d discovered I’d been tempting fate driving a car that could burst into flames at any moment. MY aneroidal carburetor is the culprit, he said. “The gasoline goes directly from the tank to this faulty carburetor. I wouldn’t drive this potential torch another 50 miles,” he said. The new carburetor is going to be expensive and not easy to install, Charlie said. “Let me give you an estimate.” He wet his pencil tip and began to jot down figures. “It’s going to be just over $500,” he said. “I’ll do my best to lower that, my friend, but I don’t want to cut corners where your safety’s involved. Come back Tuesday. I’ll have the part by then. It’ll take a couple of hours to install so bring a good book. Ha, Ha. Lucky for you I caught this.”
The very next Monday my car wouldn’t start in the Home Depot lot and eventually the AAA tow truck driver arrived. “What’s the trouble, Mac?”
“I hope it’s not my aneroidal carburetor,” I said. “Your aneroidal what?” I told him about Charlie’s warning.
“There’s no such part,” he said. “This car model hasn’t had any kind of carburetor since 1990 and I never heard of an aneroidal one.” Who told you that fairy tale? Today, it just looks like you left your headlights on and drained the battery.” He jump started me in five minutes.
I went back to Charlie’s on Tuesday. “You were right, Charlie,” I said. I told him my aneroidal carberator began to smoke badly in Newark and I had to get a new one on the spot. “The guy charged me $75 and installed it in a half hour. Thanks anyway for the warning Charlie. I should have been more careful.” He just looked at me blankly and nodded. He knew his jig was up.
After three cups of free coffee I left with my pockets full of donuts. but I’m sure Charlie was still way ahead of me dollarwise.

THE NORBERT EPISODES

Sometimes a friend from way back just pops into our mind and we wonder why, after all these years. I think, in my case, it’s because in this sad time I needed a few gentle laughs and my memory bank obliged by serving up three Norbert Petryga episodes.

Norbert and I were rookie buddies at Warner Robins AFB in Georgia in 1949. I could describe him in detail, but if you think of Michael J. Pollard, the movie actor (Bonnie & Clyde’s getaway driver), you’d be close, mostly for personality. Norbert was always friendly, cheerful and a little vague.

One Sunday Norbert and I and a few other privates lounged in our barracks planning how to spend our one day of rest when suddenly another lowly airman burst through the front door and, while racing to the rear door, shouted, ” The First Sergeant’s coming. He needs three more K.P.’s.”

We were instantly on our feet, ready to flee – except for Norbert who remained sitting on his bunk smiling. Hearing heavy footsteps on the gravel path outside, I lifted Norbert up (He didn’t weigh much) and tossed him into a nearby closet. Norbert was probably still smiling in there when the Top Sarge left to search for K.P.’s elsewhere.

That same First Sergeant had Norbert and me in the squadron orderly room a week later to tell us about our temporary assignment at the base stockade. “It’s an easy job,” he said. “There’s two prisoners and the Manual says there should be two guards. That’ll be you guys today.”

The stockade sergeant was a laid back old soldier. Norbert and I sat listening to his war stories all morning. He never took us to the cell block, and around noon he looked out the window and said, “Time for you two to take the prisoners to chow. The truck just pulled up.”

“Take the prisoners to chow?” I said. “Sarge wouldn’t it be easier and safer to take the chow to the prisoners?”

“Probably,” he said, “but this is what the Manual calls for. It’s not that bad. You’ll each have your own prisoner and your own shotgun.”

Our own shotgun! I had almost no shotgun experience, yet I knew two untrained rookies carrying shotguns in a crowded messhall was a very bad idea. But then of course, there was the Manual.

I didn’t know what crimes our prisoners had been charged with and I didn’t want to know. I was scared enough already. The sergeant returned from the cell block with Norbert and his young prisoner whom Norbert introduced to me as Larry. They chatted as they left to board the truck. My prisoner was a quiet young guy named Fred. We didn’t chat. We just went outside to join Norbert and Larry.

The truck was empty! No passengers in the back! Guard, prisoner and shotgun missing! Should I fire my shotgun in the air as an alarm? How do you fire a shotgun? Where in hell is the safety?

Just then Norbert and Larry strolled around the corner of the building. “Larry said he saw a garden out back under his cell window, so we went to look at it,” Norbert explained. Larry jumped aboard carrying two daffodils. Norbert tried to join him but was having difficulty so he handed Larry his shotgun. He handed his prisoner the shotgun! I tried to look calm while I searched again for the safety, but before I found it, Norbert was in the truck and Larry had returned the weapon and got his daffodils back.

Norbert was well-liked on the base, but thank goodness, he was also well-known. So when he was spotted entering the messhall carrying his hand-held cannon, a dozen tables emptied quickly and I calmed down a little with the added safety zone. That evening we had half the messhall to ourselves during supper. I guess it was something like when Billy the Kid walked into a saloon.

A few months later, Norbert’s one-year hitch was up and three of us drove him to the bus station in town. We treated him to lunch with smuggled in beer and farewell speeches and left him waiting for the bus to take him back home to Michigan.

A month later I received a letter from Norbert and learned after we’d left him in the terminal, he’d lost his bus ticket and decided to hitchhike home, getting odd jobs along the way. Amazingly, that’s what he did, hitching and dishwashing for a thousand miles! I can imagine the soothing effect smiling Norbert had on grizzly truck drivers and tough roadside diner cooks along the way. And, if I know Norbert, he probably found his bus ticket in the bottom of his dufflebag when he got home.