Awaiting an arrival of language

Sunday, January 3, 2015

Savannah Morning News columnn

For my money, the best line of last year came from a woman who is in her late 70’s and still has all her marbles.

“At least now I know I won’t be getting early-onset Alzheimer’s,” she said, after telling me her age. “Cross that one off the list.”

The second best goes to a nurse working in a dermatologist’s office, where I go, when I remember, for a bi-annual look-over.

“Have you had a history of exposure to the sun?”

That was after she listed all the meds I was taking just to be sure she had them right.

“Nope,” I said. “I don’t take any of those.”

Oops. Wrong Fishman. Sorry.

Good to know.

The computerized, mechanized, front-desk-heavy medical profession is ripe with good lines, none of which have anything to do with good customer service.

“Your birth date?” the front desk person barks as soon as I enter the room and approach the desk.

“Yes, and good morning to you, too,” I reply.

(Is that so hard to say?)

None of these bon mots are confined to the United States. In 2013, when NPR decided to cancel Neal Conant’s witty and informative afternoon call-in show “Talk of the Nation,” even though it was among the most popular shows of the station, I groused and groused. Eventually they replaced it with the BBC News Hour and I thought, “Well, maybe that’s not so bad.” Wrong. The British may sound smart, but that’s not always the case. More than once I’ve interviewed a Brit, returned to my desk thinking I got a brilliant interview only to read over my notes and realize he or she didn’t say anything particularly interesting. Even with that in mind – plus the number of times the BBC announcers have been parodied – it’s still strange to hear the following: “This is the BBC News Hour brought to you by me, Tim Franks.”

Can you say awkward?

Our language skills are deteriorating. First there was the slow death of the mailed letter, followed by the dependence on email. Now it’s the abbreviated way we send messages in which many people hardly bother with words at all. C U later. R U free 2 talk? LU. And the worst of all: Gr8. This year we are seeing a new habit: photos replacing words.

Forget about proper grammar, such as the use of lie and lay (ps, while we humans lie down, hens lay eggs, which makes lay the past tense of lie and laid the past tense of lay. Get it?).

Forget about storytelling. There are exceptions. Take Sandy West, whose language continues to amaze and delight. “It’s enough to scare a Jay bird,” said Sandy, who lives on Ossabaw Island and will be 102 in January. When I was talking about Sandy and my new book, “The Woman Who Saved An Island, Sandy West and Ossabaw Island,” Cherie, a woman in the audience raised her hand and told yet another Sandy story. It happened a few years ago when this woman came into Sandy’s living room and saw Mary Helen, the donkey, munching away at one of those enormous dictionaries that people who valued words and proper language used to rest on raised platforms.

“I was so nervous what she would say,” Cherie remembered. “But all Sandy said was, ‘Well, I guess Mary Helen was hungry for knowledge.’”

The last time I saw Sandy she was so delighted to be eating a batch of clams our friend Bucky had dug just for her, she said, “It makes me want to drop a tear.” That was after she was explaining why she was so off balance that day. “It’s my pins,” she said, referring to her legs.

When I mentioned this to a particularly literate friend he sent me a quote he came across from Walt Whitman. He spotted it in, “With Walt Whiteman in Camden, A Diary of Horace Traubel.” Traubel was a close friend of Whitman’s. The reference said, “With each month that passes I feel more and more uncertain on my pins.”

All I can claim from the Ossabaw visit was a mangled version of nutmeg, which I tried to say after grating that wonderful egg-shape seed for eggnog, which we were making in Sandy’s kitchen. “Did we use enough net mug?” I asked after a liberal sampling of the liquor-heavy drink.

Not all is lost. Last year I stumbled across the American Academy of Poets’ website, where for $35 a year you can expect a poem each day in your inbox. Then you can read lines like this by Billy Collins: “You will always be the bread and the knife, not to mention the crystal goblet and-somehow-the wine.”

Best $35 I’ve spent this year.

As we move into 2015, I look forward to a vigorous revival of our language. Based on the names of some new babies I know – two named Wren and one called Marigold – I think our future is bright.





Time to take down the clutter

Sun, Dec. 28, 2014

Savannah Morning News column


It’s time to clear the decks, to make a clean slate, to get ready for a new year.

I’m not talking about culling my bookshelves although that’s where I usually start when I’m looking for order or when something inside me is crying out for control because what could be better than running your eyes and fingers across all those titles and then deciding what needs to be returned or given away, either to the public library or to one of those Free Library stands that are popping up all over Savannah, the latest being the one on Gwinnett street just west of that great community garden on East Broad Street.

I’m not talking rifling through about my desk, either, another that can be another satisfying endeavor, if only to see how many pairs of scissors I can find or boxes of paperclips or pens that don’t work or yet another catalog from a seed company or some see-through glassine packages of stamps that are now outdated or torn addresses from last year’s holiday cards.

No, I am starting with my refrigerator. Not the inside, necessarily. Forget the sour cream from last year’s Chanukah party or the remaining tomato paste, now brown and crusty, or the soup swimming in an unfamiliar Tupperware container, a gift from a neighbor when you were sick, stuck way in the back, forgotten, overripe, finished.

Never mind the half-used jars of condiments. But seriously, would we need refrigeration if we didn’t have all those condiments? We don’t even use ketchup anymore, except for the occasional hotdog, and there it is, all bubbled up, ready to explode. It’s time to sell ketchup in smaller bottles. (PS. not going to happen).

I’m not even talking about the deep and mysterious vegetable bins. Those I keep a pretty close eye on. (Too much good compost). Still, there are questions. Is that parsnip or burdock? Are those turnips or rutabaga? Parsley or cilantro? Greens aren’t supposed to be slimy, right? Forget the cabbage. I never have to worry about them.  Those dense and crinkly heads, which go back to 1,000 B.C., or so I read, have a shelf life of decades, minus a few outer leaves, of course, which reminds me, how does a farmer make any money growing cabbage? That’s what I want to know.

Start some water boiling. Time to use all those miscellaneous bits and pieces of carrots, celery, shallots, cabbage, sweet potatoes and beets. What about all the ghost peppers? I had a bumper crop this year but they are way too hot for me to handle, let alone eat. I grow them because they are pretty. Everyone says they want some until you try to give them away and then it’s, “No thanks.”

No, I’m not talking about what’s in the fridge, that enormous appliance that takes up so much room in our kitchens and makes so much noise when it clicks on or off or when the ice shifts.

I’m talking about what’s on the front and the sides of the fridge, all those welcoming surfaces that take magnets so well. It’s time, my friends, to reevaluate, to look under the magnets, to thin the stack, to cull the herd.

That expensive, three-color “save the date” card with multiple photos of the happy couple walking into the sunset? Oh, you mean the one where the couple broke up and/or decided it wasn’t the right time to get married? I think I can toss that and be grateful I never made an airline reservation to Michigan. Or maybe I just got uninvited.

How about the 2012 schedule of the Sand Gnats, stuck way at the bottom? Does anyone even look at these calendars? The magnets make the calendars attractive but only as a vehicle to hold up more junk or to act as advertising for real estate.

Or the birthday parties for the one-year-old or the two-year-old? Cute, yes, but enough is enough. Same with the workout schedules to the latest yoga studio, the latest gym. Are they even in business? Trash.

After a plethora of eggnog, oysters, potato latkes and legions of lines at the post office, my life is crying out for a little negative space, starting with the face of the refrigerator. How else can I ever let anything new in?