Friday, January 21, 2011

Look Who's a Year Older

Somebody’s birthday is right around the corner. This somebody is right around the corner, every corner. At least around every corner in Hutchinson. This somebody is in quite a state. This somebody is quite a state. This somebody is adding another candle to the cake. If this someone put that many candles on anything the fire marshal would have an aneurysm. I am sure all of you have figured out (that is all of you who haven’t turned to see what Beetle Bailey is up to today) I am talking about our own home sweet home, the great state of Kansas.

I have lived in Kansas the grand majority of my life, some of it even on purpose. Kansas does not have the best image throughout the rest of the country. When I lived in Los Angeles and told someone I was from Kansas first they would make some inane joke about either Marshal Dillon or Dorothy but when they turned away from movies and television the only thing they believed about Kansas was that it was flat.

(DIGRESSION) I went to Los Angeles to take Hollywood by storm and couldn’t work up a drizzle (one of my favorite jokes from an old episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle). I found when I worked on any kind of production (I was a production assistant on a few commercials and a television show nobody has ever heard of, even when it was on the air) everyone I talked to was not from Los Angeles. However, when I worked at the bookstore in Santa Monica all of my co-workers were from Los Angeles. I guess one thing we can learn from that is nobody moves to sunny southern California to work at Waldenbooks. Fancy that.

(RETURN TO THE COLUMN) Let’s examine the prevailing image that Kansas is entirely pool table flat. Not the case my fine deluded coastal friend. Just ask anyone who has tried to drive in Dodge City after an ice storm. I will go well out of my way to avoid certain hills and inclines making my path to the store look like a drunk mosquito trying to find his way home. And then there is Lawrence, Kansas.

The University of Kansas rests at the top of Mt. Oread. Granted, calling it a “Mt.” is a little like calling Zac Efron the greatest actor of his generation, but it is on a fairly steep grade. My four-cylinder Chevette required a running start and was frequently passed by tortoises as I drove to campus. You’d be surprised how many wild tortoises there are running around KU. But my favorite Lawrence is steep story revolves around my best friend, Rob. He and I were walking (I forget where, I bet it was to the library to study, yeah, it had to be the library) on a particularly icy evening. We were crossing a street which had a rather sharp downward grade. Rob slipped and fell and then proceeded to slide about a block and half down the hill. He was not hurt but as he slide his hat fell off, he lost a glove, his scarf was left behind and even his glasses hit the ground. Since I am a tender and kind-hearted person I stood at the top of the hill pointing and laughing. That is until my feet went out from under me. The cool part was as I was involuntarily sledding downwards I was able to grab the various articles of clothing and accoutrements Rob had deposited on his travels seconds before. We picked ourselves up, had a laugh and then to thank me for retrieving his stuff he bought the first round at the library.

OK, so Kansas is having a birthday. Not just any birthday this is the big one five-O. Even though she doesn’t look a day over 135 on January 29th she will turn 150 years old. Yes, boys and girls, Kansas is celebrating its sesquicentennial. Is that a great word or what? “Sesqui” is Latin for one and half so a sesquicentennial is one and a half of a centennial. I think we should add “sesqui” to other words just to make life more fun. Let’s say someone sees Bigfoot walking through the woods but this Bigfoot is half again as big as your run of the mill Bigfoot he would be a sesquisasquatch. Or if there is a man with three legs walking down the street he would be a sesquipedestrian. Or if there was a gigantic test to be taken in your math class it would be a sesquiassessment. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Friday, January 07, 2011

You Know What I Mean

The key to communication is commonality. Doesn’t that sound like an intelligent distillation of the most important requirement for successfully conveying information from one person to another? I did not make that up I read it somewhere and wrote it down in the notebook I always carry in order to record tidbits which interest me about a myriad of subjects (and yes, I am as surprised as you are that I ever got a girl to kiss me). But it makes sense. In order to send a message from your head to someone else’s head the heads involved have to have something in common. Sometimes that just means a passing knowledge of a particular language (or articularpay anguagelay, for aficionados of ancient tongues) and sometimes it can be a shared deep, abiding love for sitcoms starring Alan Young meaning a single elongated utterance of the name “Wilbur” communicates a multitude of soft, warm feelings. (Give yourself 80 bonus points if that made sense.)

If we are talking about people who have things in common we need look no further than those who share a house and a large amount of DNA, a family. Every household has words and phrases which have meanings known only to them. The Pyle family is no exception. Some of the words aren’t really words. For reasons passing understanding our first child (or as my wife and I often refer to her, the experimental child because we really had no idea what we were doing) created some words of her own. They were words in the sense that they were recognizable phonemes strung together and they obviously represented a very specific concept in her developing brain.

One of the oddest things about these unique “words” is there were perfectly good words already in place for the concepts she was trying to get across – words that we are sure she heard spoken by her loving, if rather clueless, parents. The first one was “dachese”. Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Stephen Pinker would have been able to figure out what she meant by this word without spending time with her, specifically spending time with her at the dinner table while she ate French fries. She would pick up a French fry and with her free hand point dramatically to the tray of her high chair and announce dachese. We would look at each other as if she had just proclaimed she was from the planet Yaboo. After holding up various household objects and asking more questions than John Dean answered in 1973 we finally figured out she wanted ketchup. Occasionally someone at the dinner table (more than fifteen years later) will ask for the dachese.

Sometimes people share the meaning of their words even if the receiver hears something different than what is said. I try very hard to be a polite person and I am very deferential in dealings with most folks. This reputation seemed to overpower the nonsensical words a person thought she heard. A teacher in a school where I was an assistant principal was leading a discussion. The class was trying to think of polite ways to express their confusion other than just uttering “huh?” Suggestions included “excuse me” and “can you repeat that?” When one girl offered this response: “You can say what Mr. Pyle always says --- a big apartment.” After the less than polite, but appropriate, “HUH?” went through the teacher’s mind she realized what the girl meant. I would often lean down to students when they had said something to me that my much older ears had not picked up and say “I beg your pardon.” The girl obviously understood the message of a courteous request for forgiveness and the need for a repetition of the missed dialogue even if what she heard me say simply described a particularly sizable dwelling for humans.

One of the inside terms developed in my family as I was growing up was used to describe the somewhat nebulous concept of time to a very young concrete thinker. When we would take long car trips and I would politely ask (remember in the previous paragraph I said I am always polite…I am sure I did not ask in an annoyingly whiny voice) how much longer my parents struck upon something I could wrap my brain around. They did not say it would take two hours. Hours meant nothing to me. They said it would be four Batmans. I was devoted to the Adam West “Batman” television show which was a half an hour long. Four Batmans made perfect sense as units of measurement.