Several years ago, I was tooling down the coast with my closest family member. We stopped at Cambria for the night in a charming inn. I’ll never forget the place. It was right on the beach and cost and arm and a leg. My daughter was 8. While she busied herself turning somersaults on her bed, interjecting, “Watch, Dad!!” I glanced through a journal, left on a table. Guests from over the years penned awkward tomes on romance, sunsets and sea breezes. One entry brought an appreciative wince.
The male writer wrote about trying to fix his marriage and this trip was part of the prescription. Like some poetic serial killer, he drifted on about all the little things his wife did that irritated him. The way she scraped her toast. Her voice. Her laugh. Her face. Her breathing. He took five pages to describe how he couldn’t get her to stop talking, then blow after blow after blow with the heavy glass ashtray until this previous tenant moved no more. He wrote how he enjoyed the sunset and the sea breeze and how, after dark, he’d dispose of her corpse in the cleansing water of the Pacific. Afterward, he looked forward to finally getting a decent night’s sleep.
How wickedly fun, that entry. In his defense, I’m guessing it was fiction. Strange coincidence? He also wrote about civilization.
At breakfast the next morning, I met an older woman. Darnedest thing? She talked about that same concept — civilization.
I was trying to make waffles.
It was a grand buffet. On a messy countertop sat an oversized Steam Punk waffle maker that looked a century old. The frayed electric cord seemed 2 inches thick and taped to the counter were two pages of stained instructions on how to make waffles.
I’m staring at the gadget like a Neanderthal regarding a transmission. This woman from the Midwest, bold as brass, stepped in and gave me a demonstration, which required flipping the machine and hitting it on the side, twice. There must have been a dozen steps and no way on Earth could I have fed my daughter waffles without her help. At the end of the tutorial, she smiled. She nodded and said, matter-of-factly:
“And — THAT — is the story of civilization…”
I’ll never forget that moment and how we pass along civilization, good and bad.
Don’t tell him, but one of the dear people in my life is Signal Editor Tim Whyte. I can’t begin to calculate how many laugh fests we’ve shared while editing copy or talking journalism. Last week, I added a word to one of my Signal features.
The word? “Beeves.”
Tim, is of that urban generation that texts and skateboards. He had never heard of “beeves.”
“What’s a ‘beeve?’” queried the intellectual gatekeeper of the Santa Clarita Valley.
I answered that it was either a collection of Jerry Mathers impersonators or the plural of “beef.” Among my older, wiser, better-looking generation, “beeves” is fairly common. Tim, who does the work of 30, felt that our lowbrow readers wouldn’t know “beeves” from a bunny rabbit antenna on a black-and-white TV set. A metaphorical starter’s pistol went off. Tim and I raced uphill for the ethical/stylistic high ground, laughing and arguing all the way to the summit.
Long ago, when I was young, I worked for Scott and Ruth Newhall. The former Signal legends had bigger vocabularies than an aircraft carrier filled with pharmacists. Before the internet (and, frankly, after) Ruth would call me a name and I’d have to look it up in this thing called a book, or, more specifically, a “dictionary.”
A dictionary is a magical kingdom. Hardly anyone, even the highly educated, could read a Scott Newhall editorial without a dictionary. A big dictionary. Scotty vocabulary was — well. All of them. I think the guy knew every word from 1,000 languages. On The Signal’s front-page editorials appeared words like “slumgullion,” “cumberground” or “defenestration.” The first two, you’ll have to look up. The last is a noun meaning the art of throwing someone out a window.
Dear, dear me. The nominees on my list stretch out Highway 14 to another time zone.
Plus, dealing with Ruth and Scott, you often ended up on these joyous dictionary detours. By accident, I found the adjective, “dasypygal.” It means, “having a hairy bottom.”
Well. Who doesn’t?
Great icebreaker at a cocktail party.
English is such a delightful, confounding language. In my lifetime, I’ve seen it thrown into a dryer and shrunk. I can’t say people are getting dumber. But, when we limit our communications to “LOL” or “BYOB,” we flirt with becoming a dandiprat.
You know. A person with a small and childish mind?
I’ve learned much from my friend, Tim Whyte. For that, I am grateful. The word, “beeves,” made it into the newspaper. In a small way, I think with that decision, a few readers enjoyed the Waffle Process.
“And — THAT — is the story of civilization…”?
Oh. By the way.
I’ll spare you a trip to the dictionary.
“Slumgullion” means a cheap stew. “Cumberground” is a completely worthless object or individual.
Like that wife who was murdered at least on paper in that bed-and-breakfast in Cambria?
John Boston is a local and non-dasypgal paragraphist with approximately six cubits worth of big-time writing awards.