A is for Anu

Anu Garg, that is.

You haven’t heard of him? Well, there are a quarter million word lovers in 200 countries who subscribe to his  A-Word-A-Day column (AWAD) which The New York Times calls “the most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass mail in cyberspace.”

I signed right up after I heard him speak about The Dord, The Diglot, and An Avocado or Two: the Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-so-Common Words (2007) at my local independent bookstore, Village Books in Bellingham, Washington.

Here’s the entry on “avocado” which should give you a tasty sample of his style:

The word originated in the Aztec language Nahuatl, where it was called ahuacatl, meaning “testicle” because of its shape. When Spanish conquerors invaded South America, they pronounced the name of the fruit as aguacate. The name also morphed into avocado, influenced by the now obsolete Spanish avocado, meaning “lawyer” or “advocate.”

Garg addresses seventeen other words starting with “A.” Some are unusual like “accismus” and “Anagnorisis” and some are ordinary like “antibody” and “admiral.” There’s always something to learn. An “Annie Oakley,” for example, is a free pass to an event. To find out why, I guess you’ll have to read The Dord, The Diglot, etc, but I can’t resist relaying what a “diglot” is: somebody who speaks two languages. Like Garg, for example.

English is Garg’s second language. He comes from Uttar Pradesh (literally “Northern State”), the most populous state in India. While he was a computer science student at Case Western University in Cleveland, he became interested in words, wondering about their origins and development, so in 1994 he started A-Word-A-Day––AWAD as he refers to it.

Even though almost ten years have elapsed since I heard Garg speak, I remember this statement, “I don’t pick words. They raise their hands and say ‘Pick me.’ In the introduction to The Dord,D he writes, “Each word has a biography. It tells us about its parents, where it was born which corners of the world it traveled, and what twists and turns it took to reach where it is today. That biography of a word––the story behind it––is called etymology (from Greek etymos: true)

Here’s what’s true for me: I love Anu Garg’s daily dispatches and I love studying words. That interest explains why my wife gave me a subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary this year and why we have a collection of books on words. So, my 2017 A-Z Blog Challenge will derive material from those sources. I hope you’ll enjoy references to Foyle’s Philavery, The Superior Person’s Book of Words, The Word Museum, and others.

Meanwhile, Anu Garg’s half century birthday is coming up on April 5th. Why not sign up for his column, buy, or check out from the library, one of his books (The Dord…, A-Word-A-Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in the English Language or Another Word-A-Day) . P.S. He’s also written the foreword to Limericks in the Time of Trump.

What better thanks could there be for an individual who has brought such positive attention to the English language?


A Writing Residency in a Matchstick Factory


When I lamented the upcoming conclusion of my low-residency creative writing program my son said “Come to New Orleans for the first ever Matchstick Factory Residency. You can write. I’ll work on sculpture. We’ll have some good food.”

Weston was a faculty member in the art department at Tulane University. He lived outside NOLA in St. Rose in a derelict wooden match factory warehouse, at one time “the largest of its kind in the world.” Delta Match Corporation opened its doors in St. Rose, Louisiana in 1952, was taken over in 1970 by TransMatch, and closed down in the 1980s.

For $650 a month, utilities included, Weston got the space he’d always wanted. The video he posted revealed five thick-walled rooms cleaned and re-organized into a workshop, gallery, living space, photo studio, and bathroom. Not that the place was gentrified: it had an improvised kitchen containing a hot plate, bucket under the sink, and multiple not-quite-up-to-code electrical connections; the stained industrial toilet resided in a makeshift stall next to a gerry-rigged, open shower, operated by an elevated faucet connected to six feet of hoses and a heating element. The shower floor consisted of a slatted wood platform. The walls were decorated with driftwood.

Without hesitation, I said yes. Air conditioning in the living area, a good bed, compelling projects, and five days with my son was persuasion aplenty.

A few weeks later he collected me at the airport in his pick-up. We banged through the rutted streets of New Orleans, aggressively speeding and passing other cars. “This is how people drive in New Orleans, Mom,” he said.

Twenty minutes later we entered a wide, gated parking lot across from the banks of the Mississippi. A faded For Sale sign advertised eight acres of commercial property, the acreage that included Weston’s warehouse. He punched in numbers and the gate rolled closed as we maneuvered fifty feet forward toward the damp, weed-trampled entrance. The entrance, fortified by a heavy door, had proved an insufficient barricade for the heavy rain during hurricane season. Water penetrated the main living area to a one-inch level. Hurricane season was over but moisture still oozed into the warehouse. The landlord had said, “The tenant is responsible for drying out the floors.” Weston, motivated by soggy clothes and a ruined printer during the first rainstorm, wedged his possessions onto elevated shelves and purchased a pump.

The place was Weston’s and he loved it. He built enormous shutters for the tall windows, painted everything white up to the tall ceilings, crafted an outdoor hot tub and constructed a fire pit. The noble Volkswagen bug (1971) that transported him from the Northwest to the South six years earlier—an adventure shared with his brother Jon—was parked in the front.

More than twenty-five years ago, as a preschooler, Weston had regularly hauled out his sleeping bag, placed it next to the heating vent under my desk adjacent to the kitchen, and slept, lulled by the electronic rhythm of my red IBM Selectric typewriter.

Now that I was in his space, my command post was a seasoned pleather chair with a board stamped “Bullseye Glass” laid across the chair’s arms to simulate a desk. My Mac maintained an easy balance atop it. Weston either stretched out, sketch book in hand, on a Coleman cot, or spent time in his workshop, surrounded by the categorized shelves of saws, grinders, assorted hand tools, and stacks of stored raw materials for his sculptures—glass, stone, and wood––all at hand. On the two days that he taught and tended the studios at Tulane, I accompanied him and worked in his office or the capacious Tulane Library.

Mornings we indulged in cheap eats at the famous Waffle House. Evenings he prepared meals in a Dutch oven—tasty fish stew––over an outside fire. Once we scarffed up crayfish heaped upon large circular platters at the self-described “low-key neighborhood seafood joint” called Harbor Seafood and Oyster Bar.

I completed the last draft of my thesis, Her Name is Quintana Roo, two weeks before it was due, with time enough to revise, proofread, print, and send it in for digitization and binding. Weston finished pieces for an upcoming gallery show. We researched announcements of competitions for community art and studied applications for residencies for artists. We posted six months of goals on large monthly calendar sheets. We discussed the quote, unattributed, that he had taped to the wall–more applicable to me, 4o years older than he. We meditated, strolled the banks of the Mississippi, and talked late into the night about David Foster Wallace, Richard Branson, and Thich Nhat Hanh.

We declared the Residency a success for both of us. “Write your name on the door,” Weston said. I Sharpie-scrawled my name and the duration of the First Matchstick Residency on the backside of the door labeled Water Heater Room. Behind it was Weston’s living space area, where the dripping faucet and faulty wiring hadn’t jeopardized our creativity at all.