Getting Catty With It

Cool Cat 2

Image taken from planwallpaper.com

Lately, I’ve been running into feline phrases, and this week, for some reason, I am driven to figure out their origins.

And there, I’ve done it again. I was going to try to build this essay slowly toward a focus. Instead, I’ve gone ahead and let the cat out of the bag.

***********

This whole cat-language obsession started a week or two ago. I published a blog post that said something about a thing being kitty-corner from another thing. My friend Marcie responded.

“I’ve always said CATTY-corner,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all my life?”

I had heard catty-corner, of course, once or twice; it sounded wrong to MY ears, but I was betting it was kind of a regional issue. So I looked it up.

The Grammarist (http://grammarist.com/usage/catty-corner-kitty-corner/) told me this:

There are really THREE versions: kitty, catty, and CATER-corned. (The Grammarist prefers cater.) And they all come, the Grammarist tells me, from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means four-cornered. The term’s morphed through the years to today’s meaning–diagonally across the way,–and any of its forms are acceptable. The region in which we learn to use the term seems to define the choice.

So…no feline influence at all, at all. The Grammarist can keep her cater-,and Marcie can still use catty. I know, at this late stage and age, I’ll never switch from that ingrained kitty.

It is nice to know, for a change, that everyone is right.

And it gets me thinking about English as a catty kind of language.

*******

What about, for instance, the grand old term, ‘cattywampus’? There’s a word I’d love to throw into an appropriate spot. It comes, I learn, from a cobbling of Middle English and early southern dialect.

Will, on Quora.com (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-origin-and-meaning-of-cattywampus) writes:

It’s a Southern American slang that is over 200 years old in origin. It roughly means askew or not in order and implies something totally deranged and screwed-up. Most recently I heard it applied to highway organization in and around Atlanta.

The word stole a little from Catty-corner and another Southern term Wampus (to flail about).

Oh, I’m looking forward to writing about something totally deranged and messed up, just so I can use this word…which also seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cat.

************

So….let’s put the cat back in the bag and see how it got there.

And, oh, the things I find out when I go digging. The first published use of “letting the cat out of the bag,” Matt Soniak tells me on Mental Floss, was in London Magazine in 1760. A reviewer was critiquing a book; its author must have been just about as discreetly inclined as I am. Matt quotes the reviewer as writing, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/31180/whats-origin-let-cat-out-bag)

So the term’s meant the same thing for a while as it does now: to let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret, probably at a too-early stage. I need to figure out where that all got started, and Matt Soniak gives me two possible scenarios.

The first has nothing directly to do with a cat…or a secret, for that matter…but it does go right to painful consequences. This explanation has it that the ‘cat’ was not a sweetly purring animal at all, but a whip: the cat o’ nine tails used to mete out punishments to errant sailors. The whip was kept in a bag to keep it from drying out; hence, when punishment loomed, when consequences were about to be bruted out,  the whipping one would have to let the ‘cat’ out of the bag.

Eeeeeeuw.

The second explanation does have to do with a cat, but it’s no less ornery. Vendors, back in the day, would sell live piglets to those who wanted to raise a meaty sow or boar. They’d pack those piglets in sturdy bags, where the little thing would wriggle and raise a ruckus—so much so that buyers wouldn’t want to open the sack and check on the little beastie’s well-being. If they did, the piggie might just jump out and run away.

So unwary buyers might get all the way home to find they’d been given a kitty instead of a piggie. This turn of events, Matt Soniak tells me, not only accounts (maybe) for letting the cat out of the bag. It is also the origin of the cautionary saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke.”

At least, there’s really a furry feline involved, to some extent, in this turn of phrase.

***************

And my mind wanders to Cat Stevens, and from there to the cat in the cradle, and I wonder about that—that game we used to love to play in middle grades and middle school: cat’s cradle. So I look it up. And find, again, the feline connection is pretty flimsy.

The game of cat’s cradle seems to have been around since ancient times. It may have been, The Times of India tells me, a good-luck game played by ancient Greeks on special days; the passing of the cradle from hands to hands also spread good luck.  (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/What-is-the-origin-of-the-term-cats-cradle/articleshow/1429029.cms)

Wikipedia suggests the game may have originated in China.

But the game’s name had nothing to do with a cat. Whatever the ancient Greeks or Chinese called it, the theory is that the title changed when Christianity became entrenched. “Cat’s cradle” was a morphing of “Cratch cradle.”  And a cratch, according to Merriam-Webster, is a manger.

So when we weave those strings around our fingers, we’re not making a bed for a kitty cat. No, we’re weaving a safe, soft place for the little baby Jesus to sleep.

Maybe that’s why I learned to play the game in Catholic school.

************

But surely some of our cat-language has feline roots. What about, I wonder, the pot of money called, in poker and in other places, a kitty?

I pull up a site called “Say Why Do I…” which has a promising picture of a cool cat in shades next to its definition of ‘kitty.’ And here is what I learn:

…although the term originated in poker games, it’s okay, now, to call any common pot of money a kitty. A PTA, for instance, might refer to the place they put fund-raising cash as its kitty. And there are, says “Say Why Do I…”, several theories for the way the term prowled into our language.

  • In the Middle Dutch Language, “kit” referred to the place—be it a bag or a barrel—where someone kept his tools. Card players borrowed that concept in an ironic kind of way. (“Say Why Do I…” tells me that language experts like this explanation the best.)
  • Or how about this? “Kitty,” back in the day, was a nickname for women who plied what some call the world’s oldest trade. When gents were playing cards in dens of ill repute, they would throw the money into the lap of a lady of the establishment. The money was held by a “Kitty.”
  • “Kitty” is also, the site asserts, slang for prison. So the money in the pot was imprisoned money until one card player freed it by luck or by skill.
  • And finally, there’s this possibility. Cockney slang is rhyming slang. (This reminds me of Basher, in Oceans 11, rhyming trouble with ‘Barney Rubble.’) So…money was often tossed, literally, into a hat. Cockney card players might rhyme that with kitty cat, and then shorten that to kitty…

…and again, no sign of a cat hair on ANY of these theories. Funny, isn’t it, how our language works?

http://www.saywhydoi.com/money-in-the-kitty-why-do-we-say-we-put-money-in-the-kitty/

***********

But, hey—what about that suave cat wearing the shades on the site I just left? What ABOUT the term, ‘cool cat’?

Ken Fishkin (https://www.quora.com/When-did-Americans-first-use-slang-to-equate-cats-with-coolness-as-in-the-phrase-cool-cat) asserts that it was jazz icon Louis Armstrong who popularized that phrase. Fishkin points to Armstrong’s song, “This Black Cat has Nine Lives” as evidence.

And that connection, at least, has a direct link to our aloof and oh-so-suave family pets. It’s their untouchably unruffled demeanor that makes humans want to imitate their coolth.

*******

Well, I’m feeling just a little bit disappointed in all the cat terms that are really not at all related to cats. I’m feeling snarky and cranky and like I want to be a little bit…catty. Mrrrreoow!

I look up catty, too. The Urban Dictionary tells me this is a gender neutral term (only women can, you’ll excuse me, be bitchy, the site suggests, but ANYONE can be catty.) It means to be “subtly or indirectly insulting.”

(https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=catty)

And here, too, the cat-connection is strong. Etymonline (https://www.etymonline.com/word/catty) tells me the term was first noted in 1886, and it meant “devious and spiteful.” It evolved, they think from cattish, which means, of course, “pertaining to cats.”

*****************

So…all those cat terms and all those kitty terms and only a passing glance to the animal I always believed they gave homage to. English—what a language: affected by region, by story, by sly and clever turns of phrases disguising slightly (or overtly) shady connections. It seems a little askew, doesn’t it? A little deranged and screwed-up?

I love the language, of course, but please just let me say this. When I go digging into it, I have to suggest: English is often cattywampus.

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Tales told to strangers

The receptionist called her son. She picked up her book–Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch–and settled in to read. This was a week with a house full of guests, and this was a book she’d been longing to read. The hour of wait time while her son saw the therapist seemed heaven-sent.

Sun poured through the windows on both sides of the waiting room, and she moved to another chair, against the wall facing the reception desk. There was only one other wait-er, and he was facing the windows.

But when she moved, he turned to face her and said, Yes. The sun.

It was, she knew, choice time. She could smile, tightly and politely, open up her book and end the conversation. Or she could swing the door open a little wider and let him talk.

She said, I can’t complain about the sun after all the rain we’ve had.

His face relaxed and he began to tell her about his garden. She studied him, and Humpty Dumpty came to mind. Not because he was fat–he was tall and rangy, long white arms emerging from the gray sleeves of a t-shirt emblazoned with a local high school’s emblem, long white knobby-kneed legs emerging from gray knit shorts. But his head, face and scalp, was absolutely hairless, oval and shiny.

He shinnied as far as he could to the side of his chair, put his elbows on his legs and clasped his hands. He leaned toward her, and spilled a torrent of information about his corn and zucchini. He told her about making his own bruschetta with every damned thing from his own garden, which was something, he’d tell you, his kids loved but couldn’t be bothered to do themselves. His wife–

Here he stopped to explain that she was in seeing the therapist. They’d just come, he said, from the emergency room. Couple days ago, she was sewing and she poked herself a good one. Didn’t tell him though. And then this morning the thumb was as big as his chin, and tight and hot.

So the emergency room doc took one look and he lanced it wide open, and you would not believe the stuff—

She moved sharply here, and he veered. The wife, he said, was sensitive, and after all that, she couldn’t stop crying, and so he’d brought her here, and they was going to get her calmed down.

And where, he asked, do you buy your meat?

Well, she said, startled, we watch the sales and go to several different places.

Well, he replied, don’t be going to Kroger. That meat ain’t no good. Now Campbells, that’s the place to go, or even Mattingly’s–you can get a rib eye at Mattingly’s some weeks for 4.89.

The trick to it, he said, is to marinate. And the marinade has to have something sweet, something sour, something oily. His kids–they love it when he grills.

This other day, he tried something different, he said, and he sluiced his eyes at her, wondering maybe how she’d take this bit. He had a friend ’bout twenty miles north whose truck had a problem, and he himself was a good hand with fixing an engine, so his friend asked him to come take a look.

Well, this friend makes his own shine, Humpty confided, and the problem with the truck seemed to be that someone had maybe drove it into a ditch, and maybe that someone’d been drinking his own shine and didn’t want anyone to know he’d been driving under the influence.

He was able, he said, to get the truck running pretty good again, and his friend gave him a pretty good payment, and he sent him home with a good jar of shine. And by the way, ma’am, do you know how to tell if shine is safe to drink?

He cocked his shiny head toward her and she shook hers slightly. Looking pleased, he said, Well, here’s what you do. You take a little capful of the shine and pour it on the ground. Then you throw a lighted match on it.

If it burns blue, why you’re good to go. If it burns yellow, don’t you drink that shine–it’s poison.

His friend’s shine was good, though, and he made himself a moonshine marinade.

Trying new things, he allowed, was good, and his daughter had a website–write this down, he told her, or remember it so you can check–MissyDelishy. She got all these great recipes for marijuana. Yes! He learned about that from his daughter; she made brownies and chili and marijuana butter–

Mom? said her son. Ready to go?

She picked up her book and held her hand out to the man. He shook it, half-standing up.

As she turned to leave, he said, his voice almost pleading, I’m only 51, you know.

They walked to the car, opened the doors to stifling heat. As she ramped up the air conditioning, her son asked, Why’d he tell you how old he was?

I’m not sure, she said, thoughtfully, but I think he wanted to know there was enough time left.

Left for what? her son asked.

That I don’t know, Buddy, she answered. They headed home to their company, the unopened book resting on the back seat.

********

The Motor Vehicles Bureau was jam-packed. Normally, she’d just renew by mail, but the way the pays fell this month, it was better to show up in person and renew her registration. She took a number and found an empty place against the wall at the end of a bank of seats.

A boxy woman with sawed off hair and steely glasses was in the last seat, one leg pumping anxiously. She had a brown jacket in her lap; on the jacket was a badge with a garage’s logo, and the name ‘Enid’ was stamped beneath.

I never had to do THIS before, Enid told her. I always come in and took care of it, but this time, they tell me I gotta have my husband with me. Truck’s in his name. So I called him, told him to get his ass down here. Now I’m just waiting. Soon’s he comes, I get back in line and you can have my seat.

Enid paused, and then snorted. My business, she said, is towing unregistered vehicles to the police compound. Guess it wouldn’t do to be driving an unregistered truck.

Enid contemplated that for a minute, and then heaved herself out of the chair. There’s the old goat now, she said. You sit. You got you a wait.

She sat down and put her book on her lap, and the woman next to her turned and said, Can you BELIEVE this? I just come down to get my husband’s motorcycle registered. I didn’t expect to be here an hour. I just got out of work,– and she gestured, Vanna-like, to her flowered scrubs. She had a name tag that said, ‘Ana B’.

I work, Ana B. said, couple days at a rehab for old folks. It’s not bad, and I like the old folks. They remind me of my mother, before she passed. And hey, she said, a little fiercely, we all need someone when we get up there, right?

Ana B was probably pushing 60, she thought. Her husband, standing so the women could sit, came over to check on her. Gray cropped buzz cut, pale eyes behind rimless glasses, he leaned over her. Want anything, Mother? he asked. Need a drink?

No, no, Ana B told him, shooing him away; don’t fuss.

That man, she said to Ana B, clearly adores you.

Ana B paused, then, Yes. Yes he does, she allowed. It’s been a tough row, and so I’m glad he can get him a bike. Last time he had one was before the babies, so that was almost forty years now.

They had five girls, and they were all doing okay. But the baby–he was a boy, and he was right around 21, and he was–Ana B turned to her, and her eyes were bottomless–that boy is rotten. I’m not kidding. He is ROTTEN, she said, and she shimmered with sorrow.

They lived in the city, Ana added, and she was a city girl, but their place burned down and the insurance only paid them enough to rent an apartment down by the train terminal, and they would wake up in the night to gunfire. Pimps and hookers, drug deals on the corner, she said, and every day it seemed, one of the kids would be there: Can I borrow twenty bucks? And they were soft touches, both of them; they’d dole it out.

We got sick of it, said Ana B, and we looked around and bought us 85 acres out in the country. No neighbors, no gun shots, no drugs. And when the kids call to ask for money, she says sure. Come out here and get it.

And they say, MOM. It would cost me thirty dollars to drive there. And Ana B says, Oh, honey. Better not, then.

That’s a big change, she said, city to country. Do you like it?

Ana B was thoughtful again, patting her long hair–wavy lengths of gray, brown, blonde and white, behind her back. I cried every night for two months, she said. And then I thought I’d try a garden. You have a garden? That garden saved me. I love my garden.

92? shouted a clerk, and she held up her ticket, got up, and wished Ana B the best. The husband, seeing her rise, inched over to sit next to his wife. He grabbed Ana B’s hand.

Think of us, Ana B said, whizzing down those country roads on this man’s new toy.

—-

After dinner, dishes done, guests snug in the family room watching The Grand Budapest Hotel on DVD, she grabbed her IPod, pulled on her sneakers, and went out for a walk. But she pulled the ear buds out before the first song played, needing the quiet, needing to let the voices of strangers play out in her mind.

Her husband sometimes joked that she should have ‘Sap’ tattooed on her forehead.

People, he’d say, will tell you any damned thing.

She thought about that, about the tales told to strangers in a waiting room. Crazy stories, sad stories, stories that made her want to laugh, ask questions, give advice–although that was not what the tellers wanted or needed.

She thought about the rotten son, about MissyDelishy’s website.

And then she put her earbuds back in and headed out for a vigorous walk.

 

If you’ve met one person with autism…

I just learned a catch-phrase often used in the autism community. It goes like this: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

Today, on April 2nd–Light It Up Blue for Autism Day, at the beginning of National Autism Month, — I can’t tell you what the autism walk is like for everyone. I can’t say definitively that these are the causes, symptoms, problems, joys, and challenges all people on the spectrum experience.

I can tell you, though, in a mother’s voice, about one autism hero. My son, James, is 24, and on the autism spectrum.

James is a big guy, 6’2″ or so, and broadly built. He has the thick head of hair my mother’s genes so generously bestowed on many of us; the red glints come honestly from both his Dad and me. Jim has Mark’s brown eyes,–eyes just like his brother Matt’s– as brown and glossy, we used to say when they were each little, as M & M’s. Jim’s eyes seem to snap when he is intrigued, compelled, or outraged.

Big guy that he is, Jim has never been much interested in competitive sport; competition is not a language he speaks. Instead, he’ll walk endlessly, pumping his arms, listening to music on his smart phone, writing–I’m guessing–sagas in his head. Writing is Jim’s passion, and he feeds that passion with film, television, role-playing video games, and books. He started reading at an incredibly young age, and the world of story shapes and defines his life.

At 24, Jim is just beginning to find his stance. The transition from a structured school experience–the end of high school–to a life of choices and options and uncertainty has been difficult for Jim. As I read more, talk to more families, and get to know more adults on the spectrum, I learn that this is one of the few things that can be said universally of [almost] all adults with autism.

Education and job-training programs are built with a kind of ‘one size fits many’ philosophy, and they don’t often work for people with autism. In the adult autism community, unemployment is outrageously high; one study I read recently places it at 85 per cent. The college completion rate, too, is much lower than the average, despite the fact that many autistic adults have higher than average intelligence.

When Jim walks in and sits down, people who’ve just met him don’t say, “Hey. Gosh. A disabled guy.” But things that neuro-typical folks would brush off, cope with, or accommodate, are impassable boundaries to him. (This often appears to be laziness or defiance to people who have no training in, or familiarity with, spectrum individuals.)

Autism seems to mean that a layer of protective insulation against sensory bombardment has been peeled away. Jim is particularly vulnerable to sounds and smells; he couldn’t stand one job, for instance, because Top 40 music played, loudly and constantly. The coordinator, very sensibly and fairly, tried to work out a schedule…the folks who liked Top 40 got their days, Jim could pick the music on others. But it wasn’t a matter of fairness or sharing time; the Top 40 songs were a constant battering to Jim, and he soon left that experience.

“C’mon,” people say. “He left a job because he didn’t like the music?” That, I think, is the place where the path of the neuro-typical and the path of the autistic person start to diverge. Most of us would be annoyed, maybe, but we’d accommodate–we’d wear our ear buds, negotiate a different spot in which to work, or find a compromise all could live with.

That compromise, I have come to understand, is not a possibility for folks on the spectrum. The sensory input is not an annoyance. It’s insurmountable.

An example: A friend of a friend has an adult son on the spectrum who is a hard worker, reasonably social, and very bright. He has held a number of fast food jobs and lost them all. It’s not because he is late, unreliable, or inappropriate. It’s because he cannot–and really cannot, although it seems like ‘will not’–wear the uniforms. This young man doesn’t like the polyester texture or the tags. He says he can’t breathe in those clothes. He says he can’t wear clothes with writing on them. His bosses say, over and over, “Sorry, son. You’re fired.”

Sensory rawness marks these adults as different. Their social reactions can also be very unique and difficult to understand. I’ve found that many people on the spectrum are almost completely literal. If they’ve been told something is true, for example, they believe it should be true in all circumstances.

So a lovely young autistic woman, a former student of mine at a different college, seemed to morph into a virago when told she was not going to be allowed to take a make-up test in the testing center. It was 4:45 and the center closed at 5:00; there wasn’t time to take the test.

But Angie (not her real name, of course) had been told, by her instructor, that she could take the test at the testing center. And so, to Angie, the person who said that wasn’t true was a liar, and she told the poor assistant who had to share the bad news that, loudly and unceasingly. The center staff called for help.

Jim has really worked hard at learning to read social cues, and he does a great job, but he will still ask for help in unnerving situations. Looking in at his world, I sometimes think it must be like living in a foreign country, one where he can learn the customs if he works really, really hard. He never completely understands the random-seeming reasons behind the customs, though, and every once in a while, one practice might just loom as being totally intolerable.

But, like anything, there are flip sides. The literalness that makes some situations difficult for Jim and for others on the spectrum also makes some situations very, very simple. Jim believes, for instance, that all people have a right to respect, and he is always a champion for the underdog. He doesn’t care if you have a label of ‘PhD’ or of ‘DD’; if you’re his friend, you’re his friend. He is impressed by your spirit and not by your title. He is moved by photos he sees in the back pages of magazines of babies born with cleft palates ; he is incensed by injustice to marginalized folks–the mentally ill, the developmentally disadvantaged, gay people who can’t get married, the elderly abused in institutions we should be able to trust. Like competition, injustice is not a language Jim speaks.

Jim has arrived at his point in life by a lot of hard work, a lot of frustration, a lot of luck. He earned his high school degree on a normal schedule. Since high school, he’s completed over a year of college–he’ll return to that pursuit this summer–, and he’s taken part in several different job training programs.

He wants, very strongly, to live independently, and he’s working toward that. At the same time, that thought is pretty scary, and we need to help him take the steps to becoming secure in his ability to navigate independent, adult life.

This might sound like the writing of a wise and competent mother, but the truth is, the mistakes I’ve made are enough to fuel Jim’s conversations with his therapist for a lifetime, at least. Here we are, imperfect and impatient, in this unmapped territory, trying to help our intelligent, funny, vulnerable, loving son find a very good route to where he wants to be.

There’s not a route that’s well-traveled enough, though, for Jim to see the landmarks. In many ways, he’s in a rain forest with a machete, hacking away, not knowing what’s behind today’s particular clump of overgrown vegetation. I have no doubt, though, that he’ll create a path; Jim perseveres long after I would have given up. That, I think, is another gift autism has given him.

Jim is just one gifted, challenged, creative, sometimes difficult, sometimes amazing, always cherished, person with autism. Mark and I sit in support group meetings and are amazed by the commonalities we have with other parents and by the rich and distinct differences our offspring display. We hope that through our meetings, our discussions, our support of Jim as he increasingly takes ownership of his path, we can help, in a small but meaningful way, to ease the path that other young autistic young people will have to take as they reach that adult threshold. We hope there will be precedents or models they can learn from.

But we know that each of those young adults will also need, in so many ways, to walk their own walks. There’s not a one-size- fits-all answer–although there are things we can and must do to make life more livable for adults on the autism spectrum. As the understanding of this diagnosis grows, and its scope is defined (the CDC recently released a study estimating one in 68 persons is on the autism spectrum), we need to create opportunities for these individuals to use their gifts to help make society richer.

If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And you’ve also encountered someone who can change your world view. This month, we celebrate that.

A note to tomorrow

Letters 2

I can’t bring my coat. I can’t bring my purse. Before she buzzes me in, the polite but very serious student worker gives me a key and makes me put everything but a pad of paper and a pen into a locker.

Then, and only then, does she allow me to enter OSU’s rare book and manuscript archive.

I’ve taken a personal day to research Eva Prout Geiger, a native of Zanesville who was a child star in silent films. Prout Geiger went on, as an adult, to have her own traveling revue. She married a Zanesville boy who was also a musician; she was, coincidentally, one of the great loves of James Thurber’s life.

It bothers me that a woman with such talent, verve, and history is mostly remembered as the girl who got away from a famous man. I want to know more about her life.

I discovered Eva Prout Geiger as I read Harrison Kinney’s biography of James Thurber. After returning from Paris circa 1918, Kinney writes, Thurber was at loose ends, and needed to look for a job. He ordered a ream of nice paper emblazoned with his full name, James Grover Thurber. He rented a typewriter.

He was supposed to use these tools to send out compelling job search letters.

Instead, he spent most of his time writing funny letters to his buddy Elliott Nugent and love letters to Eva in Zanesville.

Another student worker brings a box to my table. He opens it up and fans out a series of files. I look through them carefully, and select the one with Mrs. Geiger’s name on the tab.

The student puts the rest of the material neatly away, and I sit down and open the file.

There, neatly stacked, are letters written on nice paper with the letterhead, James Grover Thurber. The first date is in May 1918.

These are the very letters Kinney referred to. Some are written in flowing ink; others are typed–I have to think on that typewriter Thurber rented for three months. I gingerly pick up a parchment page and begin to read, and Thurber’s expressions of fervent love, and his biting wit, draw me in. The letters span a period of twenty years. They include a couple of Thurber’s hand-drawn Christmas cards.

When I come up for air, two hours have passed.

Thank God Thurber didn’t have access to email. Imagine if he’d sent all those funny, yearning messages to Eva electronically. We’d never have read them, and a rich and vibrant voice, a compelling and sometimes sad story, would have been quenched.

Even today, in our electronic age, a handwritten letter is a gift.

When I come home for lunch, home to a yapping dog, to a son who–silent all morning–is anxious to talk, the mail is there. The sight of an envelope, addressed in some beloved script, waiting for me on the table changes the whole tenor of the day. I take the dog out, I catch up with young James, and then I bring my coffee to the table and open that envelope.

A letter from Kim, a note from Kay, wise words from witty Wendy, news from a niece, from a beloved sister-in-law, a scrawl from a busy nephew…I slow down and ‘listen’ to the words someone took time to entrust, in their own hand, to the page.

It’s a more intimate and revealing sharing, I think, in that it is more carefully chosen. The writer is taking pains to decide what should be included, and how to present that news. They reveal themselves on the page, and the effort this cost…for, as Kim says, it is not always easy to switch gears, slow down, and write a letter…is a measure of regard.

So the handwritten mail connects us immediately. And saved, it can be revisited long after the reason for the writing is history.

I have, for example, two letters my mother wrote in my ‘safe box.’ One was a thank you note she wrote to my brother Dennis’s best friend’s mother. The mom had given a birthday party for Den, and my mom wrote to thank her. That was in 1962; as a gesture of thanks, my mother included her very special fudge recipe. The receiver mom filed it in her cookbook.

Thirty years later, both moms had passed, and the older sister of Dennis’s friend found the letter as she sorted her mom’s cookbooks, and she put it in an envelope and sent it to me. I opened it one busy day when I was running from class to job, checking on kid and babysitter mid-day, and I heard the voice of my mother. I was seven when she wrote that note; when I read it, I was the age she was when she authored it.

And last Fall, I visited my cousin Barb, who gave me a copy of a letter Mom wrote her in 1978…a letter in which Mom bemoans the clutter caused by my upcoming nuptials, refers to my father as “The Boss” (many would differ on who played that role in their relationship), and spins a funny story about seeing Bob Hope with my youngest brother, Sean. Again–that voice…and a whole different appreciation at a whole different time in my life.

What a gift.

So while I still tap away on my keyboard, sending e-notes to dear ones, every once in a while, I sit down and write. The activity slows me down; the activity makes me mindful of how dear the recipient is to me.

There is always much to say; some of it needs to be said quickly, sent quickly, and quickly digested. Some thoughts and bits of news, though, should be worked through, filtered, and then committed to paper, perhaps written with a favorite gel pen on crisp parchment paper; sealed into an envelope; and committed to the US Postal Service.

Those words won’t be so quickly digested; they will be read carefully and maybe wrestled with; they will be revisited. They may be saved and savored. Years from the birth of that letter, the same hands may pick it up and hear a whole different message. The children of the receiver may learn, a long time hence, more about that sender.

Our letters may never be the carefully crafted works of art that Thurber’s love notes to Eva were; they may be full of mundane details about our lovely, ordinary lives. But our letters, too, are gifts to the future, to the ones who come after us who might otherwise never hear our voices. So I keep sending those emails; I keep posting on FaceBook; but every once in a while, I pick up a pen and write a letter.

Oh, the sayings we say…

James and I were navigating a Walmart parking lot shrunken and obstructed by huge piles of snow. I nudged the car around a last drift to see a peace officer outside of his car talking with a woman who was waving her arms and yelling.

“Oh, dear,” said Jim.

“Oh, DEAR,” I echoed. Then without thinking, I added, “Bread and beer. If you were dead, you wouldn’t be here.”

There was a silence as we crept around the cop and the angry woman. Then, “What the heck was THAT?” Jim asked.

He was referring to the bread and beer, not to the police situation.

I started to explain that we used to say that, back in Dunkirk, New York, when I was a child in the 1960’s. And then I thought, wait. Is that true? Maybe that was something my mother used to say, something that came over from Scotland with her.

I don’t remember, but the singsong rhyme was so deeply entrenched that it came loping out of its own volition, triggered by the right words, the right tone, the right situation.

The words we use don’t always come from our thinking minds.

The week of the bread and butter intonation, my colleague Susan Markel was teaching a sociology class. It was the first session after an unexpected day off–a snow day, of course–and Susan was explaining that the class would NOT have the exam scheduled for that session.

“Good!” piped up a happy student. “Can we go home?”

Susan gave him the look. “Wouldn’t that be a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater?” she asked.

The class looked at her in horror. Who throws a baby out with bathwater?

The session surged on, and the last hour approached, and the hopeful student raised his hand. “Do you think we’ll get out early today?” he asked.

“We are staying,” replied Susan, “till the last dog is hung.”

The students froze. Not only did this professor throw out babies, she hung dogs. Susan took a little segue to talk about language. The dog expression was one her mother always used, and it just came hopping into consciousness when the situation called for it.

Isn’t that interesting, I thought when Susan shared that with me. If only those phrases survive our reign on earth, imagine what the future’s archaeologists will think of us. Beer-drinking lunatics who threw out their infants and terrorized their dogs!

I decided to ask other colleagues if they had ever run into sayings that were, in their minds, appropriate, but fell short of impressing their students.

Executive Dean Mike Whitson remembered introducing a fascinating bit of information to a college class made up of mostly of high school students. “Look THAT up in your Funk and Wagnalls!” he told the group, and the young students, Mike said, got that deer-in-the-headlights look. Not only did the expression come from Laugh-In, a show that was popular well before the students’ time, but most of them had never heard of Funk and Wagnalls. For that matter, any dictionary in book form is not really a tool in students’ repertoires, these days.

Math instructor Sam Griffin shared a story about trying to get his thirteen year old daughter to move a little more quickly. He advised her to get the lead out, and she looked at him askance.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard that before,” he said to her, but she hadn’t. Sam, a scholar as well as a gentleman, decided to find out where the expression came from. His research showed that it is from an old horse racing custom. All jockeys were required to weigh the same amount; the lighter riders were weighted with lead. Around the corner, where the judges might not see them, they’d pitch the lead weights so their horses could soar even more quickly. And ‘get the lead out’ quickly came to mean ‘move faster’.

Another colleague, Karen Jones, warned her students against beating a dead horse, grossing them out completely. That saying goes back to horse racing, too, where jockeys would drive their poor nags to the utmost exhaustion, then use their crops to exhort them to get up and go further. Sometimes, though, the horse couldn’t get up; sometimes, it was dead.

Oh, the things that we say without thought and from habit!

I used to make my English comp students write their own metaphors after examining the ones we use all the time. Fill in the blank, I’d say. Happy as a ________.

LARK! They would all reply, and I’d ask them what they knew about larks. Hmmm. They didn’t know what larks looked like, or whether they were particularly happy birds. Someone thought they sang a happy birdsong, and that kind of made the saying make a sort of sense.

I told them we used to say “Happy as a clam,” and they hadn’t heard of that. I told them about one of my glamorous jobs (the kind of job that keeps you in college, hoping for, someday, the kind of job that doesn’t support you through college) in a supermarket meat room. My early morning opening task was to see if the clams were still alive. They’d be sitting in the meat case, shrink-wrapped in plastic, wide open. I’d go down the line, tapping lightly on their little shells.

The ones that closed were still alive. The ones that stayed open–well, those went into the bin. But honestly, the dead clams looked just as cheerful as the live ones. Happy as a clam, indeed.

So let’s write our own metaphors, I’d exhort my students, instead of relying on sayings we don’t even think about. And they’d come up with good things:

Happy as a kid on his birthday.

Happy as a girl who gets what she wants for Christmas.

Happy as the class when the bell rings for summer vacation.

Happy as a dog with a nice meaty bone.

Happy as a hunter walking home with his catch.

Excellent, I’d encourage them. Keep using that kind of creative language and you’ll make me so happy!

Yeah, said a student from the back–happy as an English teacher with a pound of good chocolate!

Oh the power of good language. That would be happy, indeed.