Dear Miss Spelling and her moods


Some moods are easy to spell. Others, not so much.


Look closely at the word angry. Smack dab in the middle of “any” is the growling “gr-r-r” sound you make when you’re mad. Any little denial like being told no chocolate before dinner or no tying your little brother to the ceiling fan to see if he can fly is enough to make any child angry. Denial is the river children are constantly being thrown into, so remembering how to spell angry is the orthographic equivalent of dog-paddling.


Courtesy of the grandchild

Grandchild Art

By the age of six or seven, a child has learned the grammar of the language, how to hide Lego pieces so cleverly only the bare foot of a parent can find them, and the delicate art of whining until one or both parents must choose between insanity or giving in to the child’s demands. These skills give a child confidence, and when you’re confident, it’s easy to remember how to spell the word. See the little “I” standing in the middle of the word flexing those tiny little biceps?


Courtesy of the grandchild

Grandchild Art

Then consider that birthdays know just one adjective and shout it out every chance they get. Unlike other special days like Valentine’s Day or Labor Day, which have the good sense to limit their celebrations to one time a year, birthdays happen every single day of the year. Receive enough birthday cards and you’ll never forget those five happy letters.

Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

Even its antonym sad is memorable. It starts off with that soft “s-s-s” which is the start of a child’s every sniff and snivel. Next is the short sound of “a,” which is not only the first sound the mouth makes to bite into the word apple, but is the only vowel needed to cry out “Ack!” once the child discovers half of a worm in the part not yet eaten.

Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

Being frustrated is something altogether different. There are levels. Maybe the small person can’t find the talking dog with the annoying bark which mommy accidentally hid in the basement. Okay, a clever child will still be able to spell the word. But what happens when the innocent goes to school and comes face to face with a language that has over half a million words. The student eagerly learns a few spelling rules, and then discovers the lie about the so-called rules. A spelling rule is like the speed limit – most words ignore it. Words disguise themselves in letters like false moustaches and ill-fitting toupés, so the child has no way of knowing who they are and what they sound like. That level of deceit could make anyone frushteraded.

Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

No longer trusting the teacher, the child looks at a spelling word, saying it over and over until he or she falls down the rabbit hole, where the word turns strange, an object never seen before. And is so often the case, what the teacher calls a silent “e” or magic “e” (but what the child knows should be called sullen “e”) sits in the corner of a word saying nothing, mouth agape, staring back with a blank look. That’s makes a child feel not only werde, but also terrified of using an “e.” Once the sense of “e’s” is lost, one experiences the horror felt by the truly scard.


Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

At first, sound-shifting letters such as “g” and “c” may merely baffle a child. One day they speak softly to the child telling tales of giraffes and circuses. The next day it’s all goblins and cannibals. Over time, the inconsistency and inability to rely on the sounds lead to such a level of disgust that the child can only express the feeling as dicustid.


Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art

Spelling in English is a map drawn half with comprehensible and sensible words and half in runes, or possibly ruins, with unhelpful signposts that cheerfully tell you to follow the road called “I before E, except after C.” Along that very road you notice signs for towns named Feisty Pines, Seize de Dayville, or Yurso Vein. A few children will find the map useful, follow the map, and end up in a spelling bee. The rest will end up at a crosswords with a sign in one corner marked Too, Two, and To, and a sign in another marked There, Their, and They’re. It’s enough to exhaust a grownup. Imagine a small child so spent, he or she can barely speak let along spell, too weary to know where the sullen “e” goes, so it’s pushed to the end of the word because that’s where it so often sulks, leaving just the I of the small child’s self lost in the middle of tirde.


Grandchild Art

Grandchild Art



Trickery and taxation


The word sounds like a barroom brawl: Bam! Booze! All! But that’s part of the con because we’re talking about bamboozle, which means pure trickery or flimflammery.



The word shows up in England at the turn of the 18th century around the same time as the window tax – one of those not so transparent laws enacted by government officials to increase revenue, which turns out to be a pain for the taxpayer.



At the time, the British people considered one’s annual income as personal and private as the number of one’s underpants and certainly none of the king’s concern. The only way for the king to get a peek at how much money people had was to empower the taxmen to become peeping Toms and report on the number of windows each dwelling had. More windows meant larger dwellings, meant people had more money, meant more tax revenue. To reduce their tax burden, people stonewalled the king by boarding and bricking up some of their windows. Darkening their dwellings seemed preferable to the government lightening their wallets.



Oddly (at least to me) in 1694 two years before the window tax, An Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Profane Swearing and Cursing passed, enacting fines on swearers and cursers everywhere. Without any historical evidence to back me up, I think the lawmakers were acting preemptively since they must have known the response the window tax would elicit.



But back to the word that started this post.



No one knows exactly where the word bamboozle comes from. Its first written appearance is in a comedy performed in 1703, so it must have been used on the streets of London sometime before that.



In 1710 Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a protest in the Tatler, a literary journal for gentlemen, lamenting what he perceived as the corruption of the English language, evidenced by “pretty Fellows” using only the first syllable of a word and leaving out the rest, omitting vowels, and inventing words like bamboozle. Swift claimed this “natural Tendency towards relapsing into Barbarity” would not end well for the words of the English language and says, “I am sure no other Nation will desire to borrow them.”



Swift is not the first language lamenter to be bamboozled by history. For several centuries now, English has been borrowed, taken home and let loose to swim in the Caribbean, play ice hockey, sport tattoos, ride elephants, wear a headdress, and dance the bomba — all before breakfast. It spends the rest of the day roaming the world, mingling with a thousand other languages, and borrowing a few words of its own.



English itself is a trickster, an ever-changing shape-shifter, untamable, as full of surprises as it is of annoyances (like like as a reporting verb), yet ever my own ears’ delight.



Bamboozle has never enjoyed the kind of popularity its close cousin cozen had in the early 1800s, but there’s something I love about those two pops of b’s exploding from my lips, ending with z’s flow of turbulent air suddenly blocked by the letter l and the tip of my tongue, as if to say, “Hold on there a minute. Where are you going, and what are you up to?”



And the answer? Spending the morning boarding up windows with the common folk, and the afternoon counting windows for the government.

Carried by hands


Hand Reaching

She comes out to greet me in the waiting room. I haven’t been waiting long. It is at day’s end and my work is finished. During the wait, I scratch in my final words to tell her what I need. I will not need to speak anymore.

She leads me into the room. In the dim light I notice only the table and chair. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she says. I leave all of my clothes on the chair and wall hook; then I crawl under the covers and wait for the knock.

I lie on my stomach, my face cradled in the open circle at the top of the table. She turns on music, soft flutes and ocean waves.

I yield to her hands, oiled and searching. She finds my pain. Some aches I knew I carried; others lie hidden, deep within me. She seeks them out – knots of worry, muscles clenched, holding their breath. She forces them to breathe.


The pain cannot leave me until I feel it. Worry, long-forgotten deadlines, and anger hide within, cling to my bones. Her hands draw them out.

She murmurs and I turn, eyes closed, heart and mind still. Inside this room, I am outside my life, an in-between place.

I arrived once just as I am now, unclothed, at the mercy of hands. My leaving will be like this. An angel will prepare me for the crossing over. Her hands will find my hurt and pain and carry it away. I have swallowed darkness and sorrow; it clings to my bones. But it will yield to those hands.

We shall not speak; my words, as they are now, will be left there in the waiting room.

Then she will push my barge into the waters and the music will carry me across. And there will be hands, familiar hands, waiting on that other side.

Grand Teton National Park

Back massage photo courtesy of Nick Webb   

A whirled champion


Sometime around the middle of the last century, my mother, along with millions like her, went boom. Mother boomed thrice. First came my sister, then less than two years later, me. After a ten-year recovery of giving birth to me, she boomed her last and my brother appeared.

George B. Boomer, Union colonel in the Civil War. Considered a pre-Boomer because he was born in 1832.

George B. Boomer, Union colonel in the Civil War. Considered a pre-Boomer because he was born in 1832.


If births were sounds, each of the individual 75 million plus births from 1946 to 1964 would have been recorded as a pop about as loud as a burst balloon. Collectively, however, all those little pops would have sounded like the boom of a three-ton bomb. You can take it from me, a notoriously unreliable source, that this is why we are called boomers.


Not long after mother boomed me out into the world, the modern hula-hoop was birthed, or more likely extruded, since it was made of plastic tubing.


Those plastic tubes appeared in July1958, just about the time I would’ve been getting bored with summer vacation. Another 25 million or more kids were equally bored because that’s how many hula-hoops were sold between July and October of that year. The fad spread worldwide, one could say it circled the globe (if one were an incorrigible punster). After an outbreak of public gyrating, the Japanese  banned it. The Russians denounced it as one more indication of western decadence and went back to drinking vodka.


Before the ban: Japanese hula-hooping in 1958.

Before the ban: Japanese hula-hooping in 1958.

Hoops have been around since the time of the Greeks who used metal hoops and probably wore bruises to prove it. Sometime in the 18th century the hoops became associated with the Hawaiian dance, the hula. I imagine the association stuck because of alliteration, since the hip action is not the same.


Evidence that hoops encircled the world.

Evidence that hoops encircled the world.

Two weeks ago I attended a “Hooping for Health” workshop at school. Apparently, hula-hoops are in circulation again among boomers. We spent an hour twirling, whirling, spinning, and learning tricks. I’m a very good hula hooper, if I do say so myself, and obviously I do. I easily walked forward and backward, maintaining the hoop around my middle like a personal equator. Then I learned to spin 360 degrees around inside the spinning hoop. Everyone clapped when I did that, even me.


Once the weather warms up, say around August if we’re lucky, I plan to buy a hula-hoop. Anything that makes me feel like a whirled champion is worth its weight in plastic.

On gimpy knees


So much hinges on the knee. 


During our move to the new house, I did something to offend my right knee. I don’t know if it was something I said or did, but it has been complaining day and night for about a week. After several particularly heated arguments, I tried cooling it down with ice. That worked for a while. Various creams and gentle massaging have helped, too.




My knees never used to be so touchy. We traveled everywhere together; my silent partners who helped my thighbones and shank bones stay connected. I admit I complained about their shape for years. I’ve never had shapely legs, and even though I’m not overweight, my knees are pudgy.



I searched online to find out more about cranky knees and discovered I have at least 8 or 9 serious joint/ligament/cartilage/bone diseases, syndromes, and conditions. I should know better than to use Google as a diagnostic tool, but I can’t help myself. Unlike my knees, I’m slightly unhinged.



Ever since the right knee started whining, I’ve been expressing how grateful I am for my legs and for my knees in particular. Without them I would never have been able to skate around the block as a little girl, pigtails flying and both knees skinned up by the cracks that caught the wheels and brought me down.  I would have missed getting up on the dance floor to do the Twist, the Watusi, the Pony, and the Mashed Potato. And how else would I have been able to roll out of bed at 3 a.m. for a crying child who found sleep again only as I paced and hummed across the living room floor? These legs with their pudgy knees hiked up the 300 steps of the Sacre-Couer Basilica after a day of sightseeing just to delight my two eyes with a panoramic view of Paris and never complained when I then asked them to take me up the 284 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Across streets, up and down stairs, on concrete walkways, over dirt paths, atop tiled and wooden floors, and through yards of green grass, my legs and knees have shown me 10,000 miles or more of our sun-warmed world. So perhaps a little complaining is to be expected.



This morning the right knee hasn’t said much. I’ve been much kinder to it this week, so perhaps that helped. I hope Google and my imagination are wrong about all those knee ailments, but I’ve passed into the land where the traveler is often waylaid by disease and deterioration. From here, it’s hard to tell if the road ahead leads upward, downward, or stays flat. I’m counting on my knees, gimpy or otherwise, to get me to my destination.



Photo courtesy of AKha


Trying to sink myself




My bed is a deep pool; my day is a boat.


From morning to night, I row across the hours until my shoulders ache. I want to throw myself overboard and sink into the depths of sleep.


I enter the pool, lying atop its surface, snuggling into the down comforter, and nuzzling the pillow. If I can sink into those waters, I can replenish myself.


I turn off all the lights in the room, but my brain refuses to turn out the little lamp in the corner where it keeps my files. It busies itself, quietly at first, but I cannot sleep if there are any lights on.


From that corner of my mind, I hear the rustling of the papers. Every time I feel myself sinking, my brain burps or starts talking. The words make me buoyant.


I lie on my back, roll to the left, need to scratch my foot, and then shift to my right side. What do I do with my right arm? I can’t rest lying on top of it. I put it out straight, then under the pillow, and finally across the top of my body. My hand is near my neck, and I feel like I’m choking myself.


Then I notice that my knee bones are pressing one another, so I pull one knee higher. If there were a camera on the ceiling, I would look like I’m running. I hope there isn’t a camera. My brain starts telling me a story of hidden cameras. I pull the covers over my head and try not to listen.


I rearrange my limbs in an effort to relax. I’ve thrown my body overboard, hoping to float down into the deep waters of sleep, but my mind clings tenaciously to the side of the boat. It makes my limbs thrash. Let me go, I beg.


But my brain wants to talk about what the boss said yesterday, the phone call I need to make, and the dumb thing I said to my coworker. My brain wants me to get back on that boat. When will it shut up? The body is willing, but the brain is not.


I roll onto my back and visualize myself as a stone, sinking into the mattress and pillow. I relax each part of my body, starting with my head and scalp. My face goes slack; shoulders release their tension. I continue until my toes separate, each one loose and mellow. One by one the fingers of my mind let go of the boat. My body floats atop the sea, dips beneath the surface, ever so slowly sinking down.


Then my husband opens the bedroom door, and the hall nightlight throws my brain a life preserver.


River bed

The book will find you


If a book is an idea, caught and caged in paper and ink, a library is a zoo of every captured thought you can imagine, and some you can’t.


No one knows how long thoughts and ideas roamed around in human heads before someone decided to capture them in on clay tablets 5,000 years ago. Facts proved easy to catch, as did moral instructions, recipes, and divinations; and the earliest still survive on clay, stones, boards, bones, turtle shells, and papyrus rolls. (You can go to this book history timeline to see the ones discovered so far.) Inevitably, people corralled these ideas into collections called libraries.


If a book is a tree you climb to hide among the leaves and listen, a library is a forest full of sound.


From the earliest times, people in power (rulers, rich people, and religious and scholastic organizations) had private groves of books. When the earliest public libraries opened, money and power served as library cards.


The vast forests of books that we would recognize as free public libraries were not planted until the 19th century.



If a book is made of the hours of a writer’s life, a library is a clock shop where you can borrow time.


You walk into a library to kill time. You stroll through the stacks and the title of a book strikes you; then, you look at its face and the small hands grab you. If you are quiet you will hear the soft tick-tock of the words. When it’s time, the book finds you, and if it’s a good book, you have the time of your life reading it.



If a book is a ship that carries you to a place as strange and familiar as home, a library is harbor on an endless sea.


To sail away on a book, you need to find a port. Or the port needs to find you: drawn by a donkey cart, carried on the back of a camel, or hauled in that familiar bus known as the bookmobile.


Books will find you!
(picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons)


My city library provides me with endless choices for travel on that endless sea of ideas and stories. I always thought it was the only port in town.


Three weeks ago, I found a small boat landing just four blocks from my house, called The Little Free Library. More of a book exchange than a lending library, it offers one more place to get carried away by books. The Little Free Library website provides an interactive map, so you can see if there is one near you. Or maybe you want to put one in your yard. Finding this free box of books prompted me to write about books and libraries. It reminded me how books have changed me, taught me, delighted me, and brought me joy.


The Little Free Library near my house

Today if you go to the library, don’t hold back; let the book find you.

A shared childhood


A shared childhood is a hidden language made up of gestures, glances, raised eyebrows, isolated words and uncalled-for laughter and tears; spoken only by those initiated into the years when memory draws every event in primary colors outlined with thick, black lines. It is a language that can never be translated into another tongue or life; it is time enfleshed in the child.


“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” may seem like an easy question to most people, but for me it is complicated and difficult. Mother had eight living children over a span of 25 years. I grew up knowing the oldest; she was 15 years older than me. I lived for a while with the youngest, my brother who is 10 years younger than me. And I shared my childhood with my sister, K, who is 18 months older.




She was the golden child, tall, pretty, and smart, who charmed the aunts and uncles. I was not.


We played together, sometimes peaceably. She carries small scars from times I scratched her; I suffer with writer’s limp because she broke my arm. She’ll deny it and say the earth broke my arm; she merely sent me aloft in a childish game of push-up. She has always had a problem with reasonableness.


When our father died, K was ten and I was eight. She left childhood then, although I didn’t know it at the time. K took responsibility for me while mother dealt with her grief. And once the grief passed, mother began barhopping in search of another man. All those years, I thought my sister was just being bossy, still pushing me, not up, but around.


We spent our growing years together parsing the world, trying to understand its meaning. And because our mother played the central role, our childhood is our mother tongue.


Just as we inflect words, or modify them, to express a change in tense or number, the stories we now tell are inflected with memories that signal to the hearer a change in mood or meaning, but only to those who learned the language with us.


The story of my broken arm is one I love to tell, but only if my sister is there to hear it or read it. In some other language of childhood, it could be parsed as blame, but in my own mother tongue, it is part of the grammar of love.


Happy Birthday, sister.



Frequently Not Asked Questions: One


Frequently Not Asked Questions (FNAQ) is a new feature on this blog. This feature will appear infrequently, so I suggest that you frequently not expect it.


How did you get so old?


This is a great question. Thank you for asking.


First, let me say that it takes time. You cannot rush into it. I’ve discovered what I call the Seven Secrets to Growing Older. (It’s the title of my new book, soon to be launched on the Amazon.) I don’t want to give too much of it away, but I’ll let you in on the first secret: it’s called Monday. In the book, I explain how Monday and the six steps that follow are the key to getting older. I am confident that by practicing these steps over and over, anyone can grow older. In fact, I am so confident that my book comes with a lifetime guarantee!


Second, it helps if you start when you’re very young. I began at such a young age that I don’t have any recollection of when I started. Just as many writers can’t remember a time when they didn’t write, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t getting older. Please don’t think I’m bragging; I’m merely answering the question.


Third, you have to stay consistent. You can’t just stop and pick it up at a later date. Once you stop, you lose your chance to continue. This is probably the number one reason so many people fail to get old.


Fourth, you have to practice breathing. It’s related to the third point because it requires consistency. Some people find it tedious – in and out, in and out, all the livelong day – but I’ve found that once you do it enough, it becomes automatic. In fact, now I feel that I can’t live without it.


I credit time, an early start, consistency, and breathing with my ability to grow old. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my mother who not only encouraged me in my early efforts but also modeled the seven steps, soon to be revealed in my book. Of course, I don’t discount food and water any more than I discount my book.


(For more information about my book, stay here and read that first point again. For more information about the Amazon, go here.)

Some words




Yesterday I interviewed the word “some.” Today you’ll see why I was impressed.


The Anglo-Saxons, those lovers of sturdy, compact words, spelled “some” with just three letters, sum. When you are a warrior, you can’t go into battle with extra gear, so you like your words spare and without extraneous letters. They bog you down. Anglo-Saxon warriors invaded and settled much of Britain, with simple spears, throwing them at their enemies until they got the point that this was more than a road trip. The ships the Anglo-Saxons came in weren’t going back. Those warriors also sent their words out to conquer hearts: read Beowulf and be prepared to submit. Today, when we want to make a point, we often grab some of those well-honed Anglo-Saxon words and throw them at our listener or reader.


First page of Beowulf manuscript from Wikipedia


Although “some” has been working for writers since the 9th century, including King Alfred the Great who translated of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, it still looks great. I think it’s because it gets so much exercise.


Some use it as a pronoun. As I just did. However, some people prefer it as an adjective. Like me, in that last sentence. Back when “some” was starting its career, it worked as both. Then in the late 1500s, it applied for a job as an adverb, pairing up with comparative adjectives, to say, “I’m feeling some better now.” Once it got used to being an adverb, some Americans asked it to work with verbs so they could say, “I think some about retiring from my job, so I can read blogs all day.” You might use it as an adverb, too, when you write your mother and say, “I’m sorry I haven’t written in the last six months, I now read some 200 blogs a day. I promise I’ll call at Christmas.”


Even though “some” likes being its own word and going out alone, it’s not a loner. In fact, it likes nothing better than going places with other words. After years of appearing in public with words like “one,” “body,” “where,” and “time,” it agreed to give up its autonomy and become one word, with the stipulation that its name appear first. It’s the only evidence of self-promotion that I discovered about “some.”


Since “some” rarely calls attention to itself, I’m inclined to look kindly on its desire to appear first because I admire its willingness to serve a suffix. As you well know if you read this blog, a suffix is like a dog’s tail. Had you bought my Dog and a Half kit (now marked down 85%!), which you didn’t, you would have been able to create a lot of words with the suffix –some. That should give you pause.


Back in the early 900s, “some” joined hands with “love” and produced that most lovable word, one of my favorites, called “lovesome.” Around the same time, it joined up with the word wyn, which meant “pleasant” or “agreeable” and gave us the word we now spell as “winsome.” It worked as a suffix for several hundred years, but for some reason, words like “whosome,” “whatsome,” and “wheresome” never caught on. I like them and think we should try to revive them.


In the middle of the 1400s, “some” became interested in numbers. Writers could now speak of a “twosome” or a “threesome.” Today, we have dozens of words – nouns,  adjectives, and verbs –  that end in the suffix –some. Some are regional, but they belong to all of us who love words. Here are some of my favorites:


  • Blithesome – cheery
  • Bunglesome – troublesome
  • Chucklesome – amusing
  • Delightsome – pleasing
  • Fulsome – abundant; plenteous
  • Fretsome – given to fretting
  • Irksome – wearisome
  • Meddlesome – given to meddling
  • Toothsome – pleasant to the taste
  • Ugsome – loathsome
  • Woesome – woeful

I could go on, but that would be tiresome and boresome. Have a heartsome day – one full of gladness and cheer.


An extract from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Laud Misc. 636, fol. 62v.