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Archive for March, 2009

JUST CALL ME MS. FIT

by Ruth Minshull

 

            In my lifetime, I’ve seen countless new developments in our culture (frozen foods, CDs, aluminum foil, computers, several incarnations of cameras, cell phones, Post-its, iPods, Twitters, Day-Glo hair and road rage, to mention a few).  I’ve seen air travel become common and television become the national babysitter. 

            Of all the changes I’ve seen, however, none has enthralled me more than the women’s movement.

            I never accepted the notion that, because I was female, I should be able to sew a new pocket into a pair of trousers (that is, without stitching the front and back of the pants together).  Many similar holdouts kept me from making an unconditional commitment to housewifery.

            So when I first heard about women’s liberation, I was ready for it.  Freedom at last!  I got rid of my sewing machine, started my own business, took karate lessons and began telling gas station attendants to “Fill him up.”  (That was back when someone did fill your gas tank for you.)

            However, soon after my first giddy delirium of liberation, I realized that I would never really make it as a hard-core, man-hating, hairy-armpit feminist.  While I savored our new opportunities, I wasn’t ready to give up all of my own long-held rights as a woman—particularly the right to be ineffectual in times of certain crises.

            My awakening came the day the plumbing got balky in the upstairs bathroom.  The toilet was stopped up.

            As a strictly conditioned reflex, I immediately called the first man I could think of—my married son.  He said he would be tied up all day, but he’d come over right after work.

            As soon as I hung up, my new feminist pride asserted itself.  Why should I let this problem defeat me?  I needn’t be so helpless.  After all, I’m a Liberated Woman.  Shouldn’t we all be able to solve such petty problems?  I knew men dealt with these matters quite effortlessly by using a gadget called a “snake.”  What could be so hard about that? 

            Empowered by the mantra of my newly-hatched liberation (I can do anything!) I headed for the plumbing supply store. 

            I was the only woman in the place.  But, refusing to be intimidated by the testosterone-laden ambience, I stepped up to the counter and told the man that I needed a snake.

            “How long?”

            “Uh.  How long?” 

            “We have several lengths–up to 50 feet.  How far down is your obstruction?”

            “Oh, quite far, I’d say.  You’d better give me the fifty-foot one.”

            Back home, I lugged my cumbersome purchase up to the bathroom.  The cat and dog showed up to observe.  Mother-Doing-Something-Different was always an event they endowed with solemn significance.

            The huge metal coil lay on the floor, held together by a thick wire with tightly twisted ends.  I tried to untwist the wire but it refused to budge.  Undaunted, I trudged down to the basement where I managed to locate a pair of rusty wire cutters.

            Back upstairs, dog and cat now in close attendance, I used both hands and all my strength to squeeze the blades of the cutters together.

            Finally, the wire snapped.  The monstrous coil sprang to life and began to unroll itself with a resounding Thunk!  Thunk!  Thunk!

            The dog and cat ran for their lives.  I jumped behind the vanity and cowered as the apparatus bounded around the room, clanking against the floor, the bathtub, the sink, the walls.

            It finally came to rest–a convoluted metal serpent that nearly filled the bathroom. 

            Although shaken, I was unwilling to admit defeat.  I shoved one end of the device down the toilet.  Four inches in, it stopped.  I picked up the handle of the thing and began turning it.  Unfortunately, each turn had to travel the entire fifty feet before reaching the business end of the mechanism.  This, of course, started it undulating and thumping all over again.  Before I was able to leap clear of the writhing mass, I received a solid whack on the legs and tumbled backwards into the tub.

            Lying in this humiliating position, I recalled the old saw that it was better to be a live coward than a dead hero.  Furthermore, I concluded, there wasn’t enough space in the bathroom for both me and this scary steel anaconda.  I got up, gingerly stepped over the snarled metal and left.

            My son arrived a few hours later carrying his own snake (which, by the way, looked to be a mere four feet long).  “I bought one of those myself today,” I told him, “but it doesn’t seem to work for me.”

            “Oh?  Where is it?”

            “Upstairs.”

            I didn’t hear anything for so long that I finally went up to investigate.  He was leaning against the sink–convulsed with laughter.  When he finally had himself under control, he asked, “What moron sold you this thing?”

            He took it back the next day and demanded a refund.  I don’t know whether it was gallantry or male chauvinism that made him blame the store clerk rather than me; I was too busy nursing my bruised legs, my aching back and my wounded pride to care. Anyway, I’ve always been grateful that I wasn’t forced to hear the exchange between the two of them.

            In the many years since then, I’ve enjoyed observing the shifting attitudes regarding women.  I’ve seen them anchor newscasts, give sports coverage, climb telephone poles, don hard hats, design cars and become pundits in practically every field.  Many women now enter boardrooms (as CEOs) carrying briefcases, rather than shorthand notebooks.

            Yes, we’ve made progress.  Now we get to pump our own gas.  Men can announce, “We’re pregnant” (although women have retained uncontested rights to the leg cramps, labor pains and 2:00 a.m. breast feedings). 

            Liberation, as I have come to see it, should mean a greater freedom of choice for all of us.   Although we may now be allowed to do more things, this doesn’t mean that we must do them all.

            I’m happy to know that, being liberated, I’ll never be shamed into trying to stuff a mushroom or make petits fours. 

            On the other hand, I’ve decided, I’ll never pretend that I know how to fix the plumbing. 

* * *

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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SPRING BREAK ON THE GULF COAST

By Ruth Minshull

 

            The shuffling pace, the soft voices, the gentle laughter of the snowbirds are suddenly overshadowed by a new rhythm. 

            The beat picks up; the streets, walkways, condos and fast-food eateries all throb to a quickened pulse.

            Teens tool around in open cars singing, laughing, calling to each other.

            Supermarket aisles are jammed with carts, each surrounded by a pod of boys or a giggle of girls (never couples).  The carts are half-filled with beer and soft drinks.  Lengthy conferences take place about other items:  chips, snacks, frozen meals, soups—the fare of non-cooks.

            Low-flying planes pass overhead towing banners that tout the merits of various hangouts.  The ice cream truck slowly works its way along, blaring tinny music that punishes the ear with its discordant screech.  

            Meanwhile the beaches begin to undulate with clusters of bare-chested boys (wearing the mandatory knee-length trunks) tossing around balls as they call out husky jeers.  At the same time, bikini-clad girls (three or four together) stroll by.  The two genders appear to studiously ignore each other—but the observant eye will note that there’s a lot of checking out going on.

            Later, the trolling will be fruitful; they’ll find ways to hook up.  Because, of course, that’s what it’s all about.  Connecting.

            Universities in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee have spewed out their charges.  There’s a week of freedom ahead. 

And it’s party time! 

As darkness replaces the brilliant sun, groups start to amass—in nightspots, in condos, on the beaches.  The noise level reaches a new pitch; bursts of laughter increase; festivities heat up and rock on through the night.

Now and then the shrill scream of a siren pierces the thrumming beat.

            The beefed-up police force is very visible, very busy.  Cruisers patrol the streets, trying to anticipate the inevitable problems.  There will be countless tickets written for speeding, assorted traffic violations and DUIs. There will be accidents.  Chances are high that one young man will lose his life while trying to climb from one condo balcony to another.  This happens nearly every year.  Don’t ask me why it is cooler to arrive by balcony than by stairway.  To comprehend it, you’d have to be under 25 and under the influence.

Spring break time has arrived on the Florida coast.  New batches of celebrants will be coming in weekly until early April.

Winter is over, and it’s time for the oldsters to pack up their slippers and go home. 

 

* * *

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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Lottery

LOTTERY

 

I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or not.

                                                                                                                                                                                                      –Fran Lebowitz

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MONONGAHELA, ANYONE?

by Ruth Minshull

 

            There are so many people protesting so many things these days that it’s hard to  keep track of them all.  If it isn’t the war, it’s save this, down with that, support this, banish that.

            Now, I’m all for saving the whales and the chinchillas and the ozone layer and peace on earth, but what bothers me is that nowhere in this whole nation is anyone fighting for my cause.  I guess I’ll have to hoist the banner and march myself. 

            I think it’s grossly unfair for the state of Pennsylvania to hog my favorite word:  Monongahela.

            I love that word.  There’s something richly gratifying about its five syllables as they dance out of the mouth.  There’s that catchy hesitation step–right in the middle, after the musical hum of the ONG sound (ma-nong’ga-he’la). 

            It’s a verbal tango.

            Although there is a Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the word is almost exclusively used in one state–Pennsylvania. 

            It’s the name of a city in Pennsylvania and the name of a river in the same state.  (In fact, if you are ever on Jeopardy and the question comes up, it is one of the few rivers in the United States that flows north instead of south.)  It’s also a rye whiskey made in–you guessed it–Pennsylvania.  The name is also used for a valley, a grotto, a festival, a house, a basin, a newspaper, an association, a ship, a bridge and various other projects, all in Pennsylvania.  So, if you don’t happen to live there, you would have few chances to relish this delectable word.

            Do you see what I mean about the selfish monopoly taking place within the state of Pennsylvania?  In fact, they’re so indifferent to its magnificence that sometimes they irreverently refer to the Monongahela River as simply “The Mon.”  (Imagine wasting an opportunity to roll that word off your tongue!)

            If this monopoly isn’t unconstitutional, it should be.  Such wealth needs to be shared.  Everyone should be able to use it—and often.  The word is an instant tranquilizer.  People would be calmer, more satisfied with life, if they regularly exercised their civil rights to employ it.  A minimum of three times a week would certainly improve the quality of life on this planet.  It could reduce stress, prevent ulcers, assuage melancholy and cut the sale of valium in half.  Doctors should prescribe it.

            Of course, I realize that I could gratify my own needs in several ways.  I could move to the town or to a spot on the river–a pretty drastic remedy of my scarcity.  Or I could change my name:  “Hello, this is Ruth Monongahela.”  Of course, spelling it for everyone could get tiresome.  (And imagine the permutations of misspellings that would arrive in my junk mail.)  Furthermore, that would be too selfish.  I feel obligated to find a solution that will benefit everyone.

            For a long time I thought the word had no meaning, no roots—that it was just an arbitrary name like Smith or Jones or Belvedere–although I was ready to bet my Webster’s that it was an Indian word.  I speculated that it might have meant, “Would you scratch my back?”  (Monongahela?  Right there in the middle.  Ah!  Thank you.) 

            Recently, however, a Web search revealed that the name is derived from a Native American word meaning “high banks.”  I suppose this referred to the river.  I have to admit that I was disappointed.  It seemed such a pedestrian meaning for this splendid name.

            Anyway, words, as we all know, can have many meanings.  In fact, most words do.  Why not simply appropriate it to name any object or function we choose?  My main purpose is to wrest Monongahela from the Pennsylvania monopoly.  They’ve been in control of it far too long.

            Perhaps I’ll create a new food dish.  We do need another form of potato to replace French fries which, of course, are not only politically déclassé, but fattening. 

            I suggest this:  Cut up some potatoes in a baking pan, add a few pinches of basil, dot with butter, cover with a generous amount of parmesan, sprinkle lightly with paprika.  Bake until tender, crisp and brown.

            Voila!  Potatoes Monongahela!

            I feel better already.

 

* * *

 

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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NINETY PERCENT

By Ruth Minshull

 

            After giving a speech some years ago, Theodore Sturgeon was asked if he agreed that 90% of all science fiction was crud.  He replied, “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud.  That’s because 90% of everything is crud.”  This became know as Sturgeon’s Law, and (for some unknown reason) is usually cited as “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”

            I’ve never forgotten this law and, although I don’t actually do a count, I have applied it to many different subjects.  Although my conclusions are obviously subjective, the ratio seems to hold up.

            How many books do we pass up as unworthy of our time?  Of the remaining ones we actually read, how many leave us with a lasting impression?  I find that at least 90% are forgettable.

            The percentages also hold true for paintings, music, movies, poetry, sculptures, jewelry, homes, decorations, furnishings, gismos, widgets, dohickeys, dinguses, whatchamacallits cell phone conversations and yard ornaments.

            And, of course, food.

Restaurants?  Oh, yes.  Of all the potential eating places in our region, how many do we try out?  How many become favorites? 

There are also an abundance of godawful recipes.  Over many years, I’ve examined recipes in books, magazines and newspapers.  I’ve eliminated most of them with a glance, although I try a new one now and then.  Quite often I say, “Not bad,” but I know I’ll never make it again.  Of course, occasionally I find a keeper and that goes into the permanent file.

Sometimes I study the ghastly recipes that appear in the newspaper’s weekly food column and wonder how this food editor got the job.  Is she related to the owner?  Does she pay him to print her stuff?  Does she have incriminating pictures?

            And clothes!  Often I see an article of clothing so ugly that I ask:  why would anyone design this?  Having designed it, why would someone else choose to make it?  Finally, after it has wormed its way into a retail store, why would anyone buy it and wear it?  Eventually it ends up as a tacky offering in a garage sale where the current owner optimistically hopes that still another misguided soul will agree to pay the asking price of $2.00 for it.

            I remember reading a magazine several years ago which featured their picks for the best and worst-dressed celebrities.  On the last page of the best-dressed section there was a photo of Jackie Onassis, looking stunningly elegant in a white suit, wearing a single strand of pearls.  On the next page (the beginning of the worst dressed) appeared a very wealthy, well-known woman who looked like a glittering, gaudy, over-decorated Christmas tree.  I’m certain the juxtaposition of the photographs was no accident.  Clearly, the magazine was making the point that riches alone do not beget good taste.

            When I miss—that is, I go to a restaurant I don’t like, see a totally bum movie or try a recipe that turns out to be unfit for hog slop—I shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, that’s in the 90%.”

Amazingly, the 90% stuff continues to be designed, created, manufactured, marketed, bought and sold.  Does this mean that 90% of the population prefer crap?

            Of course, I haven’t even touched on the disconcerting fact that each of us would select different thingamanannies to drop into one side or the other of our own 90% line.  This suggests that one man’s crap is another man’s treasure.

            There may be something important to learn here, but I’m not sure what it is.

 

* * *

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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“The Illiterati”

 

 THE ILLITERATI

by Ruth Minshull

            I’ve owned and operated computers for over 30 years now.  My friend, Rick,  and I bought a Radio Shack unit together in 1978.  This was well before Windows existed.  There was no mouse.  We simply used the old DOS system.

            At first I had difficulty accepting the literalness of the computer.  I would try a maneuver that seemed quite logical, and get hopelessly snarled up because the computer just didn’t “get it.”  When I complained to Rick, he’d laugh and remind me that I wouldn’t get anywhere by saying, “You know what I mean,” to a computer.

            He explained, “It can store an incredible amount of data; it can retrieve information with unbelievable speed; it can make lightening-quick calculations.  But it won’t catch a subtle nuance, recognize an innuendo, pick up on a double entendre or laugh at your jokes.” 

I almost gave up right there when I found that it would never laugh at my jokes.

Rick then summed up the whole concept by saying, “Basically, the computer is an idiot savant.” 

That clarified the matter for me.  I won’t say I never had trouble with the thing again, but I did stop expecting it to understand me.

I believe the phrase “idiot savant” is no longer politically correct; it’s been sanitized, and is now simply “savant”.  But I hope we can still use it to describe an inanimate object.  I call my machine an “idiot” or bad-mouth it in some other way several times a day.  So far I haven’t been dragged off in handcuffs by the PC police. 

So far.

            Alvin Toffler once said:  “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

            What foresight the man had!  Nowhere is it truer than in wrestling with a computer.  As soon as you start feeling confident in using the thing, you have to unlearn and relearn a new system or program.  Since I work part time now as a Web site analyst, I need to keep a current operating system.  At first I resisted the new changes because it meant I would have to keep unlearning and relearning various procedures.  Eventually, I accepted the inconvenience.  Now I find the process challenging (often frustrating too, of course) and I think it may help keep my mind from ossifying.

            I am frequently amused, however, by my contemporaries who are still not online or, more amazing, still without computers.  Furthermore, they are very creative in their explanations for this eschewal.

            One retired man told me, “Oh, I always left the computer stuff to other people.”  He waved a hand dismissively, suggesting that such matters were way beneath his lofty executive self.

            Another oldster said, “Oh I wouldn’t get on that Internet.  Isn’t there a lot of porn there?”

            A friend asserted:  “I don’t want to get started on the Internet.  I’ve heard that some people get addicted to it.” 

            Another friend summed up his philosophy:  “I’ve never missed having a computer.”

I accept their rationalizations with a nod, but I think I’ve figured out the problem—the reason no one really wants to give:  they don’t want to unlearn and relearn. 

So far I haven’t found a single person who is willing to admit that.

I guess they’d rather look uncool than unsmart.

            Younger people have an easier time with computers.  They can walk into any room, anywhere, and immediately operate all computers, TVs, VCRs, CD and DVD players, remotes, cell phones, hand-held thingamajigs and most everything digital.  They don’t have to unlearn and relearn.

            Eventually they will, though, as today’s gismos are replaced by the next generation of doodads.  Eventually they, too, will have to unlearn and relearn—or join the 21st century illiterati.

 

* * *

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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SAVE SMELFUNGUS!

By Ruth Minshull

      A live language is, of course, an ever-changing one.  New words are coined; old words are hauled out of dusty corners and restored, others redefined.  Jargon is lifted from technical fields and integrated into our vocabularies.

      While new words and new usages enjoy their stint in the limelight, other words quietly die.  There’s no particular reason for this—they are perfectly suitable words, but people simply stop using them.       Finally the dictionaries omit them, and the words are virtually forgotten.

      I like the idea of a vibrant, alive language.  It’s a reflection of contemporary development, knowledge, thinking, products, our lifestyles.  Now, there’s a contemporary word:  lifestyles.  Our ancestors probably didn’t need it.  Unless they were wealthy, they simply worked and died.  They had no time to “style” their lives.

      We certainly need an evolving vocabulary to define our culture.  But some of the old words die prematurely, while there is still plenty of use left in them.

      Such a word is “smelfungus.”  I discovered it in a thesaurus several years ago while searching for something else.  What a rich, provocative word!  It rambled off the tongue with a satisfying beat.  I fell in love with it instantly.

      But what did it mean?  I couldn’t imagine, although I did get an image of my son’s moist socks as he kicked off his size 12 Reeboks.

       It turned out that smelfungus was a noun meaning critic, fault-finder, carper.

      My next question was:  where on earth did it originate?  I looked it up in Webster’s Third.  Smelfungus, it seems, was the name of a fictional character in a book called A Sentimental Journey by British novelist Laurence Sterne, published in 1766.

      Mr. Smelfungus was a hypercritical traveler journeying through France and Italy.  The character was intended to satirize a Scottish novelist, Tobias Smollett, for his descriptions in a book called Travels through France and Italy, which had been published two years earlier.  Critics of the time considered Smollett’s book entertaining, but spiteful and peevish.  Laurence Sterne apparently agreed, and decided to do a little funning, so he wrote his book–and, for reasons that may never be known, coined the name Smelfungus.

      Now, over 240 years later, the word is still in some dictionaries, but certainly among the endangered.  Never in my life have I heard or seen the word in use.  Furthermore, an informal poll of my friends has not yielded a single person familiar with it.  I must conclude, therefore, that one of these days the lexicographers, in one of their  periodic housecleanings, will say, “We don’t need this word anymore; no one is using it.”  And they’ll throw it out—probably to make space for a new definition of “hopefully” (the one that 98% of the population is already using).

      And that will be the end of a wonderful word.

      I say, let’s not permit this to happen.  Many people work industriously to save the whales, elephants, bald eagles, spotted shrew, all sorts of creatures, and plants from extinction.  How about saving a word:  smelfungus?  I realize we would not be saving a life, but we could be saving some of life’s enjoyment.

      This is a perfect cause for the basically lazy person, the reluctant joiner, the non-contributor.  It needs no commitments, no dues, no meetings, no elections, no marches or slogan-bearing placards.  It requires nothing more than a few seconds now and then–just time enough to drop the word into conversation, when fitting.  That shouldn’t be too hard.  We all know a few critical, carping people.  (Smelfungi?)

      So, with a minimum of exertion, we can delight in the satisfaction of knowing that we helped save an outstanding word from extinction.  At the same time, we can spike our conversations with a little pizzazz.

* * *

© 2009 by Ruth Minshull

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