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So tackyOur lives are more than just our minds and bodies. They’re also our stuff. This truth hit home recently with the death of my mother, and subsequent frantic family parceling out of my parents’ possessions.

For the last two years of her life, my mother Kim suffered from dementia and required round-the-clock care. Her husband Sam was gone, and she often forgot that he’d died, or even his name. His absence was a vast presence in her condo apartment, an apartment that the two of them had filled with all kinds of things. Art hung on the wall, figurines and Buddha statuettes sat on shelves and inside cabinets, along with my dad’s tennis trophies and framed awards from various service organizations and government committees. Antique furniture (and, as we found out, imitation antique furniture) nestled in every room along walls and in corners, and they all contained multiple drawers filled to the brim with things. Both my parents had walk-in closets full of clothing as well as various other items. They also had two full storerooms in other parts of the building. In other words, their space was stuffed with stuff.

Even though her mobility was limited, Kim’s hearing remained sharp, and if she thought anyone was going through drawers or closets or bookshelves she would object loudly. This kept me and my other family members from getting a jumpstart on organizing things to toss out or give away, and during her final days we naturally focused on her, not the apartment. No matter; we thought we’d have plenty of time after her death to sort everything out.

We didn’t realize how quickly the condo would sell—at a price double what we expected, and paid fully in cash at that. Escrow closed in a week. The new owners were champing at the bit to send in remodelers, and we’d barely scratched the surface.

My sister Sarah flew in from the East Coast and managed to keep the new owners at bay while we divvied up artwork, antiques, and other goodies. Thanks to some help from an appraiser, that was the fun part.

The rest of it, though, was hard work and taxed all of us. That’s because none of us realized the extent to which my parents—and my mother in particular—purchased and collected things, sometimes obsessively. In one drawer, for example, I found NINE separate shoehorns and about two dozen partly used dental floss dispensers. Their filled bookcases were only marginally organized, with romance novels tucked in between books on Asian art and histories of the Civil War (to name just a few categories). While packing books I just happened to open one up and—voila!—pressed between the pages were four 50 dollar bills. My mom also put cash in envelopes and stuck in them in various drawers scattered their apartment; you couldn’t just throw stuff out willy-nilly or you might miss some serious cash.

My mother collected every card and letter—did she ever throw anything away?—and often tossed them into drawers along with new photos, old photos, jewelry, half-eaten cookies, pens, post-it pads, notepads, writing pads, scissors, CDs, and of course shoe horns. Sorting the wheat from the chaff took hours and hours. With a deadline to get everything done approaching, I realized we hadn’t even touched a cabinet crammed with at least a dozen huge travel photo albums. I threw them into cardboard boxes and moved on.

Our movers came in and starting wrapping furniture up like tasty morsels for giant spiders that feed on chairs and desks and chests. It was about this time that a metaphor for my parents’ condo emerged in my mind: it was like the carcass of a giant spider, and we were the spiderlings feeding off it.

After the movers took away the stuff we were keeping, my sister departed and left the next step to me and my wife Denise (who, by the way, worked like a beaver and never complained a whit). A professional estate salesman came in and cherry-picked what he thought he could sell; surprisingly he didn’t much care for the antique furniture and asked us if we had more military paraphernalia. But he hauled away a bunch of stuff, and now almost everything was out to be picked over by us.

We invited the housekeepers and other employees at the condo complex to come in and take from what remained. But because we only had one day left, they had to do this at the same time the hauler we hired came in to clear the place out. Fortunately he was a friendly and agreeable person, though he worked with such astonishing strength and speed I could barely think straight.

As a result I made one very foolish mistake. A few days earlier I’d filled a rented van with stuff—mostly boxes—to take up to our Berkeley storage unit. But one of the items was a cabinet I’d forgotten to point out to the movers, so I and a pair of strong young friends I’d hired managed to get it into the van. Except that after we’d taken out the drawers to lighten the load we’d forgotten to load them onto the van. And the hauler would be coming the next morning.

No matter, I thought. The hauler will surely see them and put them aside for me.

Except, no. He assumed the drawers were junk, and by the time I asked him about them he’d already taken them to the dump, where now they were compacted pieces of wood and tiny metal handle pieces.

I felt bad about that, but not as bad as my sister when she realized she’d lost track of an emerald ring. My advice to her was to just let it go. We’d already made off with a ton of booty (though what to DO with it all???) and it was time to return to our regularly scheduled lives. Meanwhile, boxes and boxes of stuff remain, waiting and beckoning us to go through them, flotsam and jetsam from the wreck of our parents’ lives.


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me and dad for webMy father, Sanford H. (Sam) Webster, died last night at the age of 95. He’d been battling prostrate cancer for the last four months. This picture shows me with him, from a couple of years ago.

R.I.P., Dad.

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These are portentous times.

The terrifying offspring of a winter storm and a tropical hurricane has ravaged the East Coast, leaving deaths and enormous property damage in its wake. If this injects Global Warming into the election buzz, it comes way too late, especially if avowed climate disbeliever Mitt gets swept into office. Back home, the Giants’ World Series win and subsequent celebration took place in a national vacuum, being barely mentioned by press outside the Bay Area and Detroit. Halloween seemed to me damp and muted this year as well.

On a personal note, my father had to go the hospital last Friday when he suffered atrial fibrillations and intense pain caused by the inexorable prostrate cancer that has moved into his bones. Sunday night, while the Giants were winning the World Series, I was out driving around looking for an open pharmacy that would sell the pain meds he needed. That was a harrowing night I will never forget, as I tried to get some sleep on his living room floor while being interrupted by his groans and confused babbling. My dad is 94, a former athlete with a strong body and even stronger will to live. He has lived life large, but the end for him is coming soon.

If there’s anything I’ve learned through this so far, it’s that we all need each other to keep love in our hearts, because it’s the only thing that keeps us going. This may sound trite, but in tough times it’s also true. So if you read this, please allow me to say that I love you, I love you all.

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“Said bookisms” is a term I ran across recently when a critique partner wagged her finger at me for using them in my fiction. Also know as a “dialog tag,” a said bookism is when a writer substitutes another verb or verb phrase for the word “said” in dialog. The intent of a said bookism is to inject emotional content, emphasis, or visual and/or sound information into a piece of dialog, thereby helping to bring the interaction to life. Thus we have, “Come back!” she pleaded, “I’ll get you yet!” he huffed, or “Out of my way!” she boomed.

A variant of the said bookism is modifying “said” with an adverb or adverbial phrase: said nervously, said hopefully, said with a lump in her throat. This practice has been used a great deal in pulp fiction in an effort to pump emotion into a scene, so much so that it spawned an entire pun category, known as the Tom Swifty. (Tom Swift was the hero in a series of books for young people in the early 20th century, similar in style to the Hardy Boys. Tom hardly ever “said” anything; his words were always modified by how he said them. A “Tom Swifty” replaces “said” with a verb or verb clause that puns on the words actually spoken. For example: “Happy Birthday,” said Tom presently.)

In general, said bookisms belong to that class of prose that can be described by three words: tries too hard. Instead of letting the action and words speak for themselves, the author tries too hard to make the story meaningful, exciting, or vivid. A similar device, one which many writers employ, is the adjective splatter, a practice I consider boring, meaningless, tiresome, unnecessarily overwritten, and rankly amateurish. I’d never resort to adjective splatter myself.

None other than Stephen King Himself (everybody Tebow) has decried the use of the said bookisms, so they therefore must be avoided whenever possible. And yet…I find them creeping into my writing, despite my vigilance. As a writer I enjoy using words, verbs especially, and “said” is a pretty pedestrian word. And as a contrarian and a curmudgeon, I declare that said bookisms have their place, if used sparingly, especially in comic scenes where how what’s being said is as important as the words said themselves.

It’s not as if said bookisms are going away, either. I notice that they are particularly plentiful in children’s fiction, especially picture books and chapter books in which an easy way to show a colorful character is to describe how they say things, and a said bookism has the value of doing this is a compact manner. Misadventures and comic fairy tales for early middle graders are frequently packed with said bookisms.

Insisted the blogger.

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On St. Paddy’s Day,
while our thirsts we slake,
here’s a toast full of cheer
to the misunderstood snake!

Just ‘cause they slink
on their magical bellies
there’s no reason to think
we should send them to hell—

He’s worshipped, St. Paddy,
for making them flee,
but Ireland’s worse off for it,
If you ask me.

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Strange in a Strange LandEver wonder how different words or phrases have changed in usage over time? Google has come up with a fascinating website, Ngrams (http://books.google.com/ngrams/) that uses its vast archive of digitized books to allow anyone to compare the usage frequency of any number of word phrases. Want to know when certain slang words fell from use, or when people first started using an expression? Ngrams could help you. Its data is expressed in easy-to-read graph form, so the information can be grasped immediately.

In at least one case so far, I’ve come on some real headscratchers. I entered “grok,” a word coined by Robert Heinlein in his sci-fi novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Sure enough, it went from flat to a sudden rise in 1961, the year Stranger was published. Weirdly, though, the word had several bumps—in 1860, 1920, 1940, and the largest of all around 1810. I did another search, this time going from the year 1500 to the year 2000, and it had a huge peak in the year 1700. In one book that had this word, Google interpreted the word gross as grok, because the first s is written to look more like an upper-case f. Lesson: take anything published before 1800 with a grain of salt.

Here are some examples of comparative phrases/words I tried:

1. stewardess vs. flight attendant

In American English: The word stewardess was in use long before airplanes, but it really took off just as commercial air travel did, right around 1930. “Flight attendant” didn’t exist at all until right around 1940, but it didn’t take off until the late 1970s. Presumably, at this point the popularity of gender-neutral terms, fed by the feminist movement, fueled the use of this phrase. Right around 1980, stewardess took a plunge, and by the late 90s “flight attendant” had passed it.

Interestingly, in British English, while “flight attendant” has gained popularity, its use still trails “stewardess.”

2. hashish vs. marijuana

These two stayed pretty much under the radar until the 1920s, by which time hashish had a slight edge that it maintained until 1960—at which time marijuana exploded sharply upward. It still maintains about a 10-to-1 edge over hashish.

3. atomic bomb vs. atomic energy

In 1940, both of these terms shot into prominence. In the early fifties, atomic bomb fell off sharply, while atomic energy maintained its high position. But in 1959 atomic energy fell off too, as atomic bomb leveled off. Around 1968 atomic energy dipped below atomic bomb, and now it’s nearly sunk to pre-1940 levels.

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