Monthly Archives: February 2014

kwashiorkor

She was a pretty blonde with dreadlocks and a strict vegan diet. He was a cherubic guy guy who had always liked a double cheeseburger… until she came to work for us. All of a sudden he was ordering the vegan entrées when we went out for lunch, and we all knew why.

And I thought, “Dude. Watch out for kwashiorkor.”

No, kwashiorkor isn’t a sexually transmitted disease. It’s also not some nasty protector demon that keeps vegans safe from poseurs. And it wasn’t the name of her boyfriend.

To be fair, it also wasn’t a real risk for him, even if he went whole hog – I mean whole soy. Because, after all, there are proteinaceous vegan foods, and kwashiorkor is a disease of severe protein deficiency. Vitamin deficiencies and anemia are a much greater risk for vegans, and they generally address them with supplements.

But kwashiorkor is such a nasty-sounding thing, how could I resist thinking of it? It’s nasty-looking and nasty-feeling too. It sort of sounds like “squash your core,” but while this disease of protein deprivation emaciates parts of the body, it causes swelling of the hands, feet, and belly. Yes, this is “famine baby” disease. You’ve seen children affected with it in various appeal commercials for African famine relief, although it can affect children deprived of protein anywhere.

Given the association with Africa, though, it’s unsurprising that this is a word borrowed from Africa. It comes from the Ga language of Ghana. The word refers to the condition of a baby when a newer baby comes – no more breast milk.

The way we in North America say this word makes it sound like something truly dark, like the distorted whisperings of swirling spirits. But actually the word in Ga is kwašiɔkɔ – those open o’s are the vowel we say before the /r/ in or… and the entire sound that someone with an r-less British accent makes for or. So if you say kwashiorkor with a British accent you’ve got it pretty much right. And in that pronunciation it sounds not so much dark as hollow.

Hollow like the prospects of my co-worker. I don’t know if he really could have swapped meat for her permanently. But he didn’t get the chance. What came in the way? Not a vegan protector demon. Just her boyfriend.

Don’t know your Axel from a hole in the ice?

My latest article for TheWeek.com is in their Sports section. It’s about figure skating jumps – why they’re named what they are, and what the difference is between them:

Peculiar figure skating terms: Explained

Keep it handy while you’re watching the Olympic women’s figure skating.

gruelling

As I ground around the curve into the industrial corner of downtown, just me and dozens of my closest strangers, the gas in my tank started to burble and burp down to fumes, and my legs began to grow little crystals in them that within the half hour would harden into pain diamonds and grow branches. Ten kilometres to go, thirty-two gone. The air going in and out of my lungs started to acquire a weight. Three hours running, three hours ten, three hours twenty. My legs contracted were forgetting how to expand, expanded were forgetting how to contract. Hit the wall? What wall? There was no wall, just a tall-grass glade growing knives and glass. The elevated freeway was above me, and I was carrying it on my shoulders. I turned the corner and I knew. I knew I was in so much pain a sensible person would stop and hail a passing ambulance. And therefore the only thing I could do was run. I had been running three and a half hours, and had run through fresh cool air down into an uncertain valley and now was in a dense cloud forest of stings and burns. I could not not finish. My legs wept, begged, pleaded to walk, to stop, to be folded up and stuffed into the nearest garbage bin. I could not walk. If I walked I would never run again. I needed this to be over. As soon as possible. And the only way to do that was to run. Run up that slow hill for twenty minutes more, run while the crowds cheered, run while other runners streamed past me, run while everything that moved trailed smearing lines of blood and mud and coloured smoke, run up and around the park, run down into that funneling gate and at last, delirious, soaked in the endorphins that come to make war with pain, stop, stumble stop, walk like a rusted robot. Lean the head and receive the finisher’s medal. Delirious, eat a banana. Five minutes after swearing I had never suffered so much, work out when I might do it again.

Gruelling? Yes, that’s a good word for the last ten kilometres of your first marathon.

Gruelling because cruel. Gruelling because gruesome. Gruelling because lingering. Gruelling because grinding. Gruelling because reducing reality to a thin strained gruel. Gruelling because hard like a rule. Gruelling because punishing.

Gruelling. The word grips, grabs, grasps, grunts. The lips purse into a moue: “oo.” The tongue licks and retreats to the velum.

And yet gruelling is glorifying. Glorifying suffering, punishment, overwork: a gruelling schedule or a gruelling workout is something to be admired, to be aspired to. To endure something gruelling is a true test of character. To last a marathon. To endure through the muggy hot night of my first 30-kilometre race a month and a half earlier, stumbling dehydrated along a path, mouthing “help” in desperation, then knowing that help could be had only two kilometres further on at the finish, and making it there so soaked in sweat that I could have been dunked in the Dead Sea, and absorbing two litres of water and sports beverage just to return to normal. And the next year going back, Jack, and doing it again. Gruelling is doing sprint intervals until your body rings the same alarms you feel when you’ve held your breath for two minutes. Gruelling is doing hill repeats until your lungs burn like a furnace for firing ceramics. Gruelling is pain endured at length. Does pain make you a better person? I don’t know, but coming through it makes you feel like a better one.

Watch the Olympics. There are many amazing feats of strength, skill, and danger. Every second of it earns respect. All of those people have endured gruelling training, torture designed with scientific precision, far more than I have ever endured. But do you know what I like watching the best? The finish lines of the long-distance cross-country ski races. Three metres past the red line, the skiers simply fall into the snow and lie there panting, spent like a twenty at a Saturday sale, letting the cool of the snow soothe the salamander flames of their muscles. Gruelling.

What has such punishing exertion to do with gruel? Gruel (from Old French, from medieval Latin grutellum, from a Germanic root for fine flour) was a light liquid food fed to invalids. From that, the phrase get your gruel came to mean ‘receive punishment’ or ‘be killed’. And so the verb gruel came to mean ‘punish’ or ‘exhaust’ or ‘disable’, and from that came gruelling, also spelled grueling. It is not related to gruesome, which comes from grue ‘shudder in horror, shrink away in terror, tremble’. Well, it is not etymologically related. The sound similarity may or may not have a phonaesthetic basis. I feel quite sure that our modern usage of gruelling is conditioned by what it sounds and feels like.

Not everyone likes a gruelling workout. I can come up with only one explanation for this: those who do not like it have not discovered the thrill and mastery of inflicting pain. On themselves.

library

Every word is a library. It speaks volumes of ideas, experiences, and desires. We each furnish our own library for a word – standard references for all, but the novels, the histories, the philosophies, the biographies, will be different from person to person. The architecture too.

Library. That’s a word to illustrate this. For many people, library conjures images of institutional edifices, cold and stone or tiled and metal, quiet places – perhaps too quiet – with rules and shushes and librarians who may be stern or hot, and any enjoyment to be had is from hanky-panky between the shelves.

Not for me. For me, library evokes a place of comfort, a warm building lined with thousands of doors to other worlds, a place in whose liberating embrace I may lie buried in literature, ideas, images, explorations. The very feel of the word warms me, the [r] and [r] rolling on the tongue like pages leafing past – a favoured form of R and R for me. The liquid [l] is soothing like a babbling brook or enveloping book. The [b] is hard but not hard hard, just hard like a hard cover on a book. The first vowel sound, [aɪ], is like a sigh or the eye that reads. The word ends in the sound of airy, and for me a library is a more infinite space than the open air. It is not a cocoon; cocoons are made to be burst out of and left behind. A library is a mind, a mind of paper that records all its explorations for re-experiencing. It is an interior that as as large as all outside and beyond.

Let me tell you a little of some libraries I have known.

One of my favourite childhood places was the Banff public library. At the time, it was housed in the same building as the Whyte Gallery; it occupied the upper floor, the gallery the lower. The building is still there – now entirely gallery and museum, with the new library next door. It is a heavy stone and timber building in the best Canadian mountain national park style. I recall a large room, wide and long with a high beamed ceiling, shelves to adult waist height at the walls and in standing ranks above eye level, and wooden tables in the middle. In one corner near the circulation desk was the children’s section, supplied with a complete collection of Berenstain Bears books plus an orange shag rug in kidney shape that had some thickness and seemed to be filled with gel or water, perfect for literary pronation. We would be greeted at the building door by a pleasant older lady at the desk; my favourite was Mrs. Shandruck, whose husband would pick her up in a Studebaker. In my Sunday afternoon visits I would peruse books of house plans (I fancied becoming an architect), theses on music (one book asserted that if you entered a room in the middle of a note you couldn’t identify the note), gnostic gospels, alternative orthographies, and picture-full books on history and flying and skiing. In the reference room I conceived a desire, fulfilled many years later, to ski at Stowe. In the lower level, tea could be had on Sunday afternoons, and art seen in many styles and forms; my favourite show was an amusing ensemble piece about an imagined nook of the Rockies: Beyond Exceptional Pass. It came with a thin floppy book, bought by my father and, two decades later, permanently borrowed away by me.

Another library I remember spread along a wall facing a fireplace and, past a glass door, climbed up a nook next to the fireplace as well. It had some two thousand books; I counted them once. It opened doors to me on linguistics and Tolkien and Zen Buddhism. It had as well, on a separate shelf, an Encyclopedia Britannica and an older World Book set, my favourite thing to read – an art gallery of the mind and the world. There was also a stereo with a library of vinyl, including a multi-disk collection of Gregorian chants and a two-disk concert of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, great music for reading and thinking. To reach this library I simply descended a spiral staircase from our family room. It was not a public place – there were none of those overheard whispered conversations by strangers, sounds that to this day stroke my skin and soothe me like petting a cat. I had no people to ignore, other than my brother and parents, who could be importunate and were too familiar to be decoration. But it was a likable retreat no less.

There were school libraries, shelves full of books new and old, books that opened to me the 1920s and PG Wodehouse and jackdaws, medical diagnosis and handwriting analysis and Frank Herbert. There were university libraries: The twelve-storey tower at the University of Calgary, which I first visited with my parents in my younger years and learned about how to mislead with statistics and what John Cage’s scores looked like and what photocopiers smelled like and how to read microfiches on transit projects. The Wessell Library at Tufts, expanded and renamed Tisch during my time there, with its study rooms and its rows of stacks that I got to know so well I remembered books by location, including one twine-tied seventeenth-century book with a slip in it on which each person who peeked into it wrote the last time it had been opened; I retreated to that library after dinner every night during my first year of grad school and the sight of bookshelves gained a Pavlovian stimulus association with the functions of digestion. The music library at Tufts, a basement room with a collection of CDs that I listened to while studying, music from every corner of the world. The Robarts library at the University of Toronto, a massive triangular brutalist block which Marcel Danesi has told me was the inspiration for the library in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (Eco was a visiting scholar while writing it). The tiny imperfect modernist Frost Library at Glendon College. The bookshops I have worked in.

And my living room. Two walls floor-to-ceiling with books ranked two deep on black-and-blonde wood shelving, sections for dictionaries and reference and plays and novels and books on religion and travel and my grandmother’s old Britannicas and large volumes of collected Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes, with a small shelf including a linear foot of my own bound publications; snug into the angle a welcoming chair reminiscent of a baseball glove; a stereo on the top shelf and a tall rack on the side holding fifty score compact discs. How can a home be complete without a library? We also have piles of books here and there – our collection has outgrown our shelving. But to me it is not clutter, it is just a lush garden of the mind that has grown and grown and spread seeds and creepers. It is a comforting bed and blanket of books. Not a cocoon. A thousand and more doors to other worlds. A library.

frippery

Time to put on the glad rags: fillips and frills dripping with pretty things, fitted out like a flapper or preppy, fit for tripping the light fantastic or frittering time away. The tedious togs of daily wear are basic like milk; this is a frappé. This is frippery.

But frippery is not just finery. We are not talking about the simple solid core of handsome apparel. Frippery flips and flaps and flops on the periphery. You can hear it in the word: the front of it is the fricative-liquid [frɪ] of frills, fringe, fricassee, frisky, frisson, fritter, frizzy, and frivolous, with a French flavour; it bounces off the pp in the middle, skipping, tripping, hopping happily like a peppy puppy; it ends with [əri] as in luxury, hosiery, millinery, periphery, and many others less related. The sound rebounds off the lips from liquid to liquid, flapping like a bit of lace or a nice tie.

Frippery is not always finery of the first rate; indeed, it can have a tawdry air, something meretricious. Consider how Robert Burns used it:

Dame Life, tho’ fiction out may trick her,
And in paste gems and frippery deck her

And Walter Scott:

I was born in the land of talisman and spell, and my childhood lulled by tales which you can only enjoy through the gauzy frippery of a French translation.

And Oliver Goldsmith, in She Stoops to Conquer:

By living a year or two in town, she is as fond of gauze and French frippery as the best of them.

Do we detect a pattern? There is something flippant here, perhaps a fillip to the top of the head. When we talk about frippery, we can never completely divest it of a derisive or deprecatory air. Frippery is like finery said with heavy lids, a raised eyebrow, a little uptick of the chin, a curl of a corner of the mouth. Which is only fair – its origin is Old French frepe ‘rag’, and that has carried through.

So glad rags indeed. Which is why I like frippery better than finery. What’s better than looking sharp? Looking sharp with a knowing smirk.

artisan

I take my special serrated knife and cut delicately across the grain of my loaf of artisan bread. I use a specially calibrated high-tensile-strength extra-thin wire cutter to delicately separate the slightest slices of artisanal cheese from a block of artisanal farm-raised cave-aged goodness. I take exactly three slices of artisan prosciutto, in transparent petals of sapid porcinity, and fold them in a specially considered origami of ham – orighami. I hand-assemble these perfect pieces in exacting order to make an artisan sandwich. An artisandwich. Oh, don’t forget the artisan butter, lovingly hand-churned from cream hand-separated through an artisan cream-rising process mediated by delicately handled artisan wooden ladles. On the side, a cup of coffee hand-brewed from freshly ground artisan beans.

And now to write. I could use my artisan pencil, freshly pointed from an artisanal pencil sharpener, but I prefer to use my artisan notebook computer, lovingly hand-assembled by specially trained craftspersons in dedicated villages in China. It is set on an artisan wooden table, hand-assembled from specially selected parts: a carefully crafted wooden top and four carefully spindled metal legs, joined with utmost care by hand-turned helices by artisanal me after acquisition at I Keep Everything Artisan (usually known by its initials). I am wearing an artisanal shirt, specially made by indigenous craftspeople contracted to the house of Thomas of Hilfiger, and pants made of serge de Nimes carefully stitched by artisans hand-selected by agents of C. Klein. Earlier today I was adding to this an artisanal tie specially spun by artisan silkworms and woven by artisan machines and hand printed with a screen pattern of hand-bound books in the library of Bodley, and tied in an exquisite Trinity knot by an artisan tie-knotter (me again).

Actually I’m still a bit peckish. Perhaps some artisanal taco chips? Hmm, how about a glass of artisanal wine?

Whaddya mean there’s no such thing as artisanal wine?! If there’s one thing in all of this that’s artisanal, it’s wine! So much personal handiwork involved in winemaking, so many fingers in the process. And yet no one calls it artisanal, unlike bread, bagels, cheese, chips, chocolate, crafts, tchotchkes, knick-knacks, geegaws, knives, scarves, spectacles, receptacles, wallets, watches, cufflinks, washcloths, fridge magnets, perhaps dentures, and for all I know SUVs as well. Well, wine is one thing that doesn’t need to say it’s artisanal. Frankly, by the time you’ve had half a glass, tell me if you still care how it was made.

But with most things we buy, we are buying not just a thing but an idea of a thing, and that idea of a thing helps us to build an idea of ourselves. We are good, noble people, extracted by the turns of time from our ancient forest home, emissaries to this hard urban land. We do not like the dark satanic mills of mass production. We wish to indulge in the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, the handiwork of master craftsmen – and women, craftswomen too, perhaps we would do better to say craftspeople, no, um, how about artisans – carefully crafting something authentic and inspired, rich and redolent and the absolute opposite of the white Wonder Bread of the world. Unless it’s artisanal white bread and artisanal process cheese food slices, of course.

Because artisan is art. It is art that is made by a saint who trains under great strain. It is handiwork for those who are partisan to careful crafting and the lovely and charming things made to be accompanied by waify-voiced girls who sing with dreamy glides and fresh glottal stops, all accompanied by authentic (undoubtedly artisanal) ukulele strumming. Above all, it is exacting: artisanal art is anal retentive. But only in the grainiest, most wholesomely textured, hand-dyed way imaginable.

We see ourselves as going to market. Actually we are going to marketing.

Oh, I do care how the things I consume are made. It affects the world I live in, after all. And I am bothered if something is cheapened by sloppy mass handling; it weakens the flavour. It just happens that I extend this attitude to words. Such as artisan.

My wine glass is empty already. Again. Excuse me a moment while I refill it. Artisanally.

Toilet-paper-roll words

There are some words that have two pronunciations, but most people prefer one or the other, sometimes quite vehemently. It’s sort of like whether you have your toilet paper roll over the top or down the back. These words – and where the pronunciation difference comes from – are the subject of my latest article for TheWeek.com:

Aunt, adult, pajamas: Why can’t we agree how to pronounce common words?