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Day 27 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge


as·pen  n. \ˈas-pən\

: a kind of tree whose leaves move easily when the wind blows

:  any of several poplars (especially Populus tremula of Europe and P. tremuloides and P. grandidentata of North America) with leaves that flutter in the lightest wind because of their flattened petioles


I want to tell you about aspens but I don’t know anything about aspens. Not more than you do, I’m sure. That they have gray trunks. That they are tall trees, spindly. They look like a game of pick-up sticks falling, except with leaves. That their leaves have points and thick veins. That these leaves change colors—from green in summer, to yellow and orange and red in fall. That these leaves fall dramatically, one at a time and in clumps in winter, leaving the trunks completely bare. That in spring, naked aspens grow new leaves, after the snow has begun to melt. I can tell you these things about aspens but I don’t know these things in the way you know the palm of your mother’s hand or how to drive to the drugstore in your hometown or how your love likes his or her eggs. I didn’t grow up with aspens. Aspens like cool climates with cool summers. They like high altitudes. They live on mountains. They enjoy the way the winds tussles their leaves. I grew up in Louisiana, where the air is full with hotness and humidity. Still, the landscape is made of trees. Oak trees arch themselves over long thoroughfares. Cypress trees rise out of swampy water, their knees and torsos rising up from the muck. Sweet olive trees cascade their small white flowers, covering sidewalks and yards. Magnolia trees produce waxy dark green leaves and then brown buds that will eventually open into bright white petals. But I don’t want to tell you about oaks, or cypresses, or sweet olives, or magnolias. I came here to tell you about aspens. How when wind hits them, their leaves begin to spin without falling. How these leaves appear to shimmer, as they spin, in the sunlight. How, when you look out on a forest of them, it seems as if a painter has just applied one long stroke of cadmium yellow. How, incredibly, those tall trunks lean, pitch, bend so far to the side, without falling, without breaking. I don’t know about aspens but I do know about moving easily when the wind blows. I know what it means to sway. I know that when a strong wind moves me, I find it impossible to stand still, to quiet myself, to keep myself from fluttering. I know that when the gale hits, I quake from the impact. I wonder if I will withstand the feeling of pressure and of cold. I move. I am moved. I am moving. And even as I bend, even as I swing, even as I undulate and oscillate and stagger,  even as I wobble and lurch and reel and roll, I can feel my roots extending down and down, fixed tightly in the earth, I can feel the sturdiness of my trunk as it extends up and down and I know that through this storm, I will hold.




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bridge sign



bridge sign,  Naut.  a sign on a pier or quay to show where the bridge of a certain vessel should be when the vessel is moored.



We moored ourselves. The journey over water had been long and now we edged in from the sea. Places we knew before only by faint lines on a map were now vivid to us. But there was something even more thrilling than the adventure: the arriving, safely, at the quay. We pulled in to the space marked by the sign and anchored. Home.







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Ko·mo·do drag·on

Komodo dragon/ Adam Riley

Komodo dragon/ Adam Riley


Day 22 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:


Ko·mo·do drag·on  (kə-ˈmō-dō-)  a monitor lizard, Varanus komodoensis, of Komodo and adjacent Indonesian Islands that grows to a length of 10 feet: the largest lizard in the world. Also called  dragon lizard, giant lizard, Komoˈdo lizˈard.



When the dragons came, they came all at once and they were everywhere. Dragons on the sidewalks, dragons in swimming pools, dragons at the grocery. We couldn’t tell where they had come from—they simply weren’t there and then they were. It can be alarming to find oneself surrounded, suddenly, by dragons. We tried to make the best of it. We gingerly walked around them as we went down the street. We swerved to avoid hitting them while driving. We wondered what they ate and if we fed them whether they might find other things more attractive than, say, us. We found they were fans of kale but not carrots and Cheetos but not Doritos. We noticed there were less stray cats around. We began to take provisions, snacks for us and for them, when we left the house and they began to wait for us. Once we fed them, they became accustomed to it and their appetites grew insatiable. The waddled up close with their scaly short legs and licked at ankles, nibbled on calves until they were given food. Soon, there were more incidents: thick cuts and bites, infections, loss of blood. More and more people were going to the emergency room. Something had to be done. So the human that all the humans trusted went to talk to the dragon that all the dragons trusted. The trusted human said, “When you arrived, we didn’t know where you came from. We tried to be generous with you. We fed you and now you won’t leave us alone. What is your problem?” “Well, that’s the thing,” said the trusted dragon, “before you fed us, we didn’t know to be hungry.”






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Day 18 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:

rasp1    \rasp\  vb.  1 :  to rub with or as if with a rough file  2 :  to grate harshly on (as one’s nerves)  3 :  to speak in a grating tone

rasp2  :  a course file with cutting points instead of ridges.



Miss Mae, the eighty-year-old bar owner who’s smoked two packs a day since she was sixteen, the one who tells you in no uncertain terms to “Get off my stool,” the stool you didn’t know was hers. Your voice when you are on the cusp of losing it, but before you’ve lost it completely and before you sound like a boy going through puberty. Tom Waits, singing with his throat full of gravel. The car engine trying to turn over and then trying to turn over again. Frogs. Red foxes. That episode of Friends where Phoebe has a cold and her voice lowers and sexies itself for her gig at the coffeehouse, and then she tries to get sick again so that rasp will return. Bea Arthur as Dorothy saying to Estelle Getty over and over again in each episode: “Ma!” James Earl Jones saying, If you build it, they will come. Lauren Bacall asking, You know how to whistle, don’t you? Stevie Nicks. Rod Stewart. Bonnie Tyler. Macy Gray. Brian Adams. Louis Armstrong singing, Stars shining bright above you. Kim Carnes singing, She’s got Bette Davis eyes. Bette Davis. Linda Ronstadt has Parkinson’s and can no longer sing (she said, If there was something I could work on, I’d work on it till I could get it back. If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug. I’d take napalm. But I’m never going to sing again). When I heard the news on the radio, I was close to crying. I knew a girl in high school, a soprano, who always refused to drink after other people, terrified of getting a cold and losing her voice.  Someone on a ventilator. Someone with a voicebox. Someone with a virus. Riff Raff. Gollum. Carface. She also wouldn’t talk on the days we had performances scheduled. She wouldn’t even whisper. Unrasping: with rest, honey, rest, apple cider, cayenne, lemon, ginger, zinc, eucalyptus, humming, using a humidifier, inhaling steam, gargling salt water, drinking tea, stopping speaking, stopping singing, quitting smoking, quitting caffeine, water, sleep.  She went to a conservatory for college, I think. Now she has four kids and lives somewhere in the South. I’m not sure if she still sings.





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Navy Hat MO 8350jpg


Day 17 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:


cap  (kap),  n. v.  capped, capping.  –n.  1.  a covering for the head, esp. one fitting loosely, made of softer material than a hat and usually having little or no brim.  2.  a covering of lace or similar material for a woman’s head, usually worn indoors.  3.  a headdress denoting rank, occupation, or the like:  a nurse’s cap.  4.  mortarboard (def. 2).  5.  anything resembling or suggestive of a a covering for the head in shape, use, or position: a cap on a bottle.  6.  summit; top; acme.  7.  Bot. the milieus of a mushroom.  8.  Also called cap piece, lid  Mining. A short, horizontal piece at the top of a prop for supporting part of a roof.  9.  a percussion cap.  10.  a noisemaking device for toy pistols, made of a small quantity of explosive wrapped in paper or other thin material.  11.  Naut. a. a fitting of metal placed over the head of a spar, as a mast or bowsprit, and having a collar for securing a further spar, as an upper mast or jib boom, at some distance above its lower end.  b.  a metal hand at the end of a spar.  c.  a cover of leather or tarred canvas for the end of a rope.  12.  a new tread applied to a worm pneumatic tire.  13.  Archit. a capital.  14.  Carpentry. a metal plate placed over the iron of a plane to break the shavings as they rise.  15.  Naut.  a wooden or metal place at the head of a mast, for supporting and steadying an upper mast, as a topmast or topgallant mast.  16.  Fox Hunting. See capping fee.  17.  cap in hand, humbly; in supplication: He went to his father cap in hand and begged his forgiveness. 18.  set one’s cap for, to attempt to catch as a husband: Several girls in the class were setting their caps for the new young biology instructor.  v.t.  19.  to provide or cover with or as with a cap.  20.  to complete.  21.  to surpass; follow up with something as good or better: to cap one joke with another.  22.  to serve as a cap, covering, or top to: overlie.  –v.i.   23.  Fox Hunting, to hunt with a hunting club of which one is not a member, on payment of a capping fee.  24.  cap the climax, to surpass what has been considered the limit; exceed expectations: This latest prank really caps the climax.  [ME cappe, OE cappe  <  LL capp(a) hooded cloak, cap; akin to L caput head] –capless, adj.



The skipper placed the cap on his head and pulled it down snug. It had been given to him years ago by a woman. In an old black and white photograph tucked at the bottom of a drawer, the two of them sat at a picnic: him—bearded and rough around the edges, even then—and her—pretty and pinafored, with her ruffled dress and white laced bonnet. She’d given him the cap that day and he’d taken off his military issued one, replacing it with the soft fabric, a relief to his forehead. He was on leave. They spread out a blanket by the river and then went for a walk on a trail in the nearby woods. He plucked berries off bushes, showing her which were poisonous and which were safe for eating; they harvested mushrooms, tucking the chanterelles and scarlet cups into cloth napkins. He told her he was done with the sounds of guns firing, the quick sparks. He would work commercial now, directing men on ships he commandeered. The sailors under him staying the sails, securing the caps. But the sailing meant leaving, still and always. She wanted a life on the land. The tires hit every loose rock on the road as he drove her home that day, and the jarring ride felt fitting as he listened to her. She stared out the front window telling him why her answer was no, why it couldn’t be him. He stopped the car at her house and turned, handing her his naval cap but she shook her head. She didn’t turn to look at him, not once, as she got of out the car and walked to the front door. The barriers he had taken down erected themselves quickly. He steadied himself with assurances. He couldn’t give up one love, even for another. Walking on deck, the salty air stung his eyes and he shook off the memory. He didn’t know then that storms are not meant to be borne alone. He didn’t know then that chances are as ephemeral as waves.



*In this piece, I tried to use every meaning of the word cap in the definition above. The ones I couldn’t manage to sneak in was the capping fee for fox hunting, or capital, or mortarboard. For the most part, the definitions appear in chronological order.


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Men·she·vik  (men(t)-shə-ˌvik, -ˌvēk),  n. pl.  viks, -vik·I,  (in Russia) a member of the Social Democratic party in opposition to the Bolsheviks and advocating gradual development of full socialism through parlimentary government and cooperation with bourgeois parties: absorbed into the Communist party formed in 1918.


So here we were, going along all smooth and easy with our 30 days, 30 words challenge until today, Day 16: Menshevik. I knew after so many amazing words to work with, I was going to bibliomance a tricky one sooner or later. But the rule is no do-overs. The word picked is the word picked and you have to do something with it. I’ve held myself to that since Day 1 of the dictionary project.



Don’t Know Much About (Certain Parts of) History



It’s funny because just today I was talking with students in class about history. We were discussing the advantages and disadvantages of showing (or utilizing sensory description) and telling (or exposition) in writing. We were naming different disadvantages of using exposition exclusively, one of which is the danger of being too cut and dry and thus boring. I used history books as an example. “What are most history books made of?” I asked. “Telling,” they responded. I said yes, most history books are comprised of exposition and that is exactly why I thought history was boring as hell in high school. It’s why, I’m sad to admit, I didn’t take a single history class in college. It wasn’t that I didn’t like history, it was that I had never been made to care about history, at least when it was labeled that. I always had a hard time with straight memorization. I had no interest in learning names and dates with no context. One of the stupidest things I had to do for history class was to memorize all the U.S. presidents’ names in the order they served. I would have much preferred to spend time learning a little bit about some of them then to spend all that time putting these random names in order. The people on the pages of my history books were flat characters at best and stereotypes at worst. Why should I invest in situations that happened long ago to people who I knew nothing about?


I learned more about history in my other classes, where history was made relevant for me. Like in my high school religion class where we watched Gandhi with Ben Kingsley and Romero with Raul Julia. We learned about the movements these men started, movements rooted in compassion for their fellow human beings. In Mrs. A’s religion class, we talked about real people and the injustices done to them. We talked about the ability of individuals and communities to reach out with compassion and nonviolent resistance and to make a difference. One day, we had a special guest. Mrs. A brought in her son Matthew, who was fourteen, in a wheelchair, and had severe developmental disabilities. She told us that at the orphanage, he was in a crib alone and had begun to curl up in the fetal position. None of the staff there had held him for long periods of time and when the doctor examined him, he said that the little baby boy had begun the process of dying, his organs were beginning to shut down. Infants not only need milk to survive; they cannot survive without human contact. Without touch, they fail to thrive.


I learned about history in my English classes where we read The Power and the Glory and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Les Miserables and Beowulf. We read Shakespeare and The Color Purple and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Their Eyes Were Watching God. We read about different kinds of people from different places, all of whom were facing struggles in life, all of whom were battling with moral quandaries. We talked about them as if they were real people and we wrote about what their stories meant, why their stories were important. One day, in my English class with Mrs. T., she brought in a small boombox. The night before, a legendary sports figure in New Orleans had killed himself by inserting a tube from the tailpipe of his car into the nearly closed window and letting the car engine run as he sat inside. She played us two Simon and Garfunkel songs: “A Most Peculiar Man” and “I Am A Rock.” Simon and Garfunkel sing, “I have my books/And my poetry to protect me/ I am shielded in my armor/Hiding in my room, safe within my womb/I touch no one and no one touches me/I am a rock, I am an island/And a rock feels no pain/And an island never cries.” After the last song finished, she turned to us, her eyes wet, and asked us, please, to not be rocks or islands onto ourselves. It was clear that other people’s lives mattered to her, that we mattered to her. I’m sure that her class and her teaching is one of the reasons that I bring in current events–the ones that stir us, that remind us of both the beauty and fragility of being human–into the writing classroom for discussion. Because history is happening all around us. Because I want my students’ ideas and feelings to be part of that conversation.


I don’t know much about this particular portion of history: the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. I won’t pretend that I do, or that a quick look at Wikipedia will give me the information I need to write with any authority about it. I am grateful that I came to history on my own over time. I’m grateful that I now have a deep desire to learn about history, because I realize that history is simply the stories of people. People who are trying to live their lives in an imperfect world. People who disagree with one another. People who suffer deeply and sometimes act out from this suffering. People who just want to be able to feed themselves and their families. People who want to create art and language and music. People who want to discover why the planets move the way do or create inventions to make life better for all humans. People who are passionate about so many different things. People who have their own stories to make and their own stories to tell.


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Origami by Wingy

Origami by Wingy


Day 14 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:
over·lap  (v. ˌōvərˈlap n. ˈōvərˌlap)  v.  –lapped, -lapping,  n.  –v.t.   1.  to lap over (something else or each other)  2.  to cover and extend beyond (something else)  3.  to coincide in part with; have in common with: two lives that overlapped each other  –v.i.  4.  to lap over: two territories that overlap; fields of knowledge that overlap. –n.  5.  the act or instance of overlapping.  6.  the extent or amount of overlapping:  The second story of the building has an overlap of ten feet.  7.  an overlapping part.  8.  the place of overlapping.  9.  (in yacht racing) the position of two yachts side by side so that the overtaking boat, to pass the other on the opposite side, must fall back or so that neither can turn toward the other without danger of collision. [OVER + LAP]

It has six petals, like lily true
I learn how to fold
the crimping side,
mark the middle
I find the square
I avoid the refolding, tricky
Achieved overlap
Do not create a new wrinkle.
I cut the equilateral triangle
There is no need to draw it you

I fold the top layer
Cut along this edge
This work is up to you

Strive hard with the aim of completion

Do not create a new wrinkle.

I can model the collapse simply
to existing wrinkles.

* I first excepted language from these origami instructions and used the found text to create a poem. Then I put the poem into Google translator from English to Japanese and then back from Japanese to English. This post is the result.


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fabric stack

By Sarah Moon/ boltneighborhood.com

Sarah Moon, boltneighborhood.com

Michelle Sinclair/Flickr

Michelle Sinclair/Flickr


Day 13 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge, and we are talking about clothes. Which is great, because I happen to love clothes.


fab·ric  \ˈfabrik\  n.  [MF fabrique, fr. L fabrica workshop, structure]  1 :  STRUCTURE, FRAMEWORK  <the ~ of society>  2 :  CLOTH; also: a material that resembles cloth.



Teresa Duffy





Every seam sewn tells a story. It is the story of hands pulling fabric tight and moving folds slowly forward. These fingers threading needles. These fingers pricked by accident. These hands undulating like waves, pushing fabric through. Every pattern echoes with the mind who imagined it–where to tuck and pin, where to leave holes for buttons, where to allow extra room. The pattern was made by Simplicity on thin white paper or it was made out of newsprint, a mother holding the black and gray paper against her children’s backs. A tailor drew white highway lines with chalk where the seams should be. A milliner measured the circumference of someone’s head for a new fedora.


Every garment has a history. The satin baby blanket in our crib, the ruffles on cotton Easter dresses, the little seersucker shorts, the Fun Run t-shirts, the pressed linen pants, the silk necktie, the itchy wool uniform skirt, the polyester gym shorts, the pantyhose, the green velvet sweet sixteen dress, the first pair of jeans we bought with our own money. These garments tell us the stories of who we were, who we thought we were, who we are, who we think we are, who we are–constantly in the state of–becoming. Thrift stores racks teem with records of intimate moments: first kisses, first little league games, dance recitals, costume parties, first dates, too many proms to count, weddings, divorces, first steps and last ones. Moments remembered or forgotten. Moments we wish we could remember or wish we could forget.


Every wardrobe is in a state of flux. Clothing passes in and our of our closet. We exchange with friends, we shop and trade the old for the new, we donate to Goodwill. Our closets track the patterns of our lives. We stack the things we think we might fit into again at the bottom. We tuck that item that looked so great on us at the store, but not so great on us here, at the back. We shift and rearrange as we move in the things that are us and move out the things that no longer meet that criteria. During spring cleaning, we find the sweater of an old lover and sit on the bed for a moment before we, inevitably, hold it up to our nose. Then, we see the shirt our mother gave us for Christmas one year, so thoughtful, so not our color. Or we find the shirt from that time she got it right. Either way, we miss her.  Sometimes, we wait until our favorite t-shirt is completely threadbare to throw it away, and even then, the act feels like a sort of betrayal. We need more hangers and then we need less. We have the clothes we may wear, the clothes we want to wear, and then the clothes we do wear. We allow ourselves categories: comfort, casual, exercise, work, dressy. These pieces create a framework for our days.


Every morning begins with a question. Before what will I do today and before what will I accomplish, the first question we ask ourselves in the morning is “what am I going to wear?” We agonize about it or we just throw something on, but no matter how much time it takes, this act is a sort of ceremony. We guess the weather or we step outside to check or we look it up on our phone. We open the door and evaluate. We shift hangers or we remove pants from a stack. We pull out the ironing board or we don’t. We toss the discarded options on our bed or we hang them up right away. We think about what we are doing that day and what will be most practical. We assess and we choose. Then we clothe ourselves in our choices and go about our day.




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Day 11 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:


o·ver·kind  (ˈōvər’kīnd),  adj.  too kind; She means well but is overkind to the point of annoyance.  [ME overkinde. See OVER-, KIND1)  —o·ver·kind·ly, adv.  o·ver·kind·ness, n.



Sandra subscribed to Overkind.com because she needed a little more kindness in her life. She had recently gone through a breakup, she was living away from her family, and she liked to keep to herself. She didn’t want to burden the few friends she had with late night schmaltzy talks about her woes. Even thinking about her problems as woes made her recoil. She just needed some momentary support. She stumbled onto the Overkind site after reading some article on The Huffington Post’s “GPS for the Soul” section—which she couldn’t believe she was actually reading; I mean, “GPS for the Soul,” really?

The website was not as cheesy as she had expected, no rainbows or butterflies, no pink and purple polka dots. There was a cleanness to the font that she liked, a sweet formality to the pages. On the “About” page, Overkind.com promised: “We will be your best friend but without the demands and attachments of real, flawed people. Each day, you will receive a surprise in your inbox. Each week, you will get a package in the mail. Each month, you will receive a special gift tailored for you from your survey submission of likes, dislikes, allergies, etc.”

Sandra had always liked the word “over.” Over always made her think of climbing a mountain and taking in an expansive view, or crossing a bridge to the other side. It was an empowering sort of word: over. When added as a prefix, it could make words better: overjoyed, overlap, overleap, overlay, overcome. She would overcome this moment. Overkind would help.

She went to the subscribe page, picked “Overkind Package #1” and entered her personal information. Then she closed her laptop and went to sleep.

Sandra was pleasantly surprised that first week with the thoughtfulness of Overkind. When she clicked on the email in her inbox each day, she felt recognized and appreciated. That first day, her email message contained links to articles about contemporary art (one of her listed interests), a word of the day (she had said “yes” to the question about loving language). There were also several high-resolution photos: a close-up of a coral hibiscus, a black-and-white photo of a blues singer, mouth open in song. There was a recipe for black bean soup and instructions on how to grow your own herb garden.

When Sandra checked her mailbox on Wednesday, she found a thick envelope with seed packages of basil and thyme and rosemary. They were wrapped up in that pretty paper that has pressed flowers in it. There was a mix CD featuring some of her favorite artists and a card with an inspirational quote by Hafiz.

At the end of the month, she received a notice via email that she would get a UPS package soon: her tailored gift! She rushed home from work on Friday to see if it had arrived and it had. The package was tucked under her front door mat. She could hardly contain her excitement as she rushed to open the door. Dropping her bag on the kitchen table, she tore through the envelope to reveal what was inside and she found: a purple pencil skirt.

Something was deeply wrong.

Maybe she had gotten someone else’s package by mistake. But she checked the address and the invoice inside. No, this was for her. But it wasn’t for her. She tried to think of anything she could have answered to make this gift make sense as “tailored for her” but it wasn’t. She hated purple. She hated tight-fitting clothing. She wasn’t a huge fan of skirts. She wondered what to do. Overkind had been spot on so far but something was amiss.

Sandra flipped open her Macbook and pulled up the site. She looked everywhere but could find no phone number to call, only a generic “Contact Us” form. In the subject line, she wrote “Urgent Matter,” and then she wrote: “Dear Overkind Employee, I am deeply disturbed at the ‘tailored gift in the mail’ I just received. There seems to be no attention to my likes or dislikes in the creation of this gift. Please get back to me as soon as possible.” She signed with her name, email, and cell number.

The weekend passed and she expected to hear back on Monday, but she didn’t. Emails kept coming: with quotes and recipes and photos and links. There was a pdf of a short story from The New Yorker. She couldn’t keep up. It was all too much. She went to the website to cancel her subscription, but the website said to use the “Contact Us” form to cancel. She wrote a second message, this one saying that she just wanted to end her subscription. She didn’t need a new gift, but she was done with the service. No response. She sent several more messages and they all went unanswered. Her virtual best friend, the one she had paid for, was ignoring her. Her messages became more irate, more defensive. She stopped using a salutation.

One evening, Sandra returned home from work to find her empty house: the slick floors, the clean kitchen, the keys hanging in place on their hook. She hung her coat and put her bag on the chair. She could hear her heels clicking against the hard wood floors and suddenly she couldn’t bear the impenetrable sound: solid hitting solid.

She collapsed in a heap on the living room floor—on top of the rug she and her ex picked out together, next to the couch they used to lie on, under the lighting fixture they installed themselves—overcome. Her attempt to buffer herself from it all was backfiring. No amount of kindness would undo what was over. And she wouldn’t be over until she moved through. The messages and packages and gifts would still arrive, or they wouldn’t, but they wouldn’t be for her, not really. This kindness was paid for and manufactured. And they hadn’t gotten it right. No matter how many questions she answered, she wasn’t really known. Not by some random people running some website.

What had been comforting the first few weeks now overwhelmed her. She hadn’t thought about the excess of “over,” the overage. But that’s what all this was: too much. Now, the words flooded her—she could hear them all in a refrain: overflow, overgrow, overlook, overrun, overwork, overwrought, overload, overblown, oversleep, overspend, overstay, overpower, overboard, overburden, overdrive, overdress, overdone. Over. Over. Over.



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helloiloveyou by ivan rodic


Day 10 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge


by·name (ˈbī-ˌnām),  n.  1.  a second name; surname.  2.  a nickname.




We humans are obsessed with what to call things. We need names for everything. And then we need new names. We gives names as a way of formalizing behaviors. We name new technology and add it to the lexicon. We name babies and then we immediately come up with nicknames for them. Once we have uniqued their existence, we need to unique them again.

Bynames often refer to shortened versions of someone’s name. In many cases, the name is shortened because there is someone else in the family with the same name. Many of my family members were nicknamed: my grandmother Celeste was Sally to family members, my grandfather Eugene was Gene, my maw maw Josephine was Tante Fine to her nieces and nephews. And my father and his brothers all had nicknames growing up, some of them lasting to adulthood: Tommy, Jimmy, Johnny, and Tommy. A point guard on her high school basketball team, the announcer always called my mom “tall drink of water.” My dad studied theology in Italy, where Romans referred to all the seminarians in their long dark robes as bagarozzi, or cockroaches.

The word nickname comes from the compound word ekename, meaning additional name, which dates back to 1303. Ekename comes from the Old English phrase “eaca,” an increase. The word changed from ekename to nekename and then to its current spelling: nickname.

There is a surprisingly large amount of information written about nicknames on the web. There are articles on the impetus to nickname, the origin of the word nickname, how certain nicknames for popular Western names came to be, why certain cities have their nicknames, why we should stop naming hugely destructive storms with generic names and instead  name them after climate change deniers, and why you should let people in professional contexts call you by your nickname.



Nicknames can arise from teasing or poking fun, but often even these names are bestowed with a sense of endearment. Japanese honorifics are nicknames that reveal the specific relationship between family members. Nicknames are made out of last names if multiple people share the same first name.

I was always jealous growing up as my name isn’t very nicknameable. My first name itself was originally intended as a nickname. My parents planned to name me Elizabeth and call me Lisa, but then when they realized they had no intention of calling me Elizabeth ever, it made more sense to just make Lisa my name. I tried several times over the years to nickname myself (a clear no-no) but nothing ever stuck. So I consoled myself with having a name I actually liked and moved on. I have several friends who want or wanted to go by their full name but constantly had to battle for this to be the case. There is something in us that wants to shorten and simplify—we want to create intimacy with one another and we do this by using as few letters as possible.

The President and Chief Operating Officer of Buzzfeed Jon Steinberg wrote an article called “Why You Should Let People Call You By a Nickname.” In it, he talked about how until a decade ago, he went by Jonathan. However, people always tried to call him Jon. After grad school, he began to question his insistence on being called his full name. He writes, “It was akin, in my mind, to telling people who wanted to befriend me or be close to me that they in fact could not be. I decided that I valued closeness more than I valued my formal name, and switched to Jon. Never looked back.”

Steinberg also talks about a study by The Ladders that revealed that executives with short names tend to earn more. In his own informal study, he found that of the Fortune 50, “14 CEOs or 28% go by Nicknames and 32% have Nickname-like First Names. Combined, 60% of Fortune 50 CEOs go by a Nickname or have a Nickname-like First Name.” He cites successful people who go by nicknames: Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Jamie Dimon, Meg Whitman, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. He says this is less about convenience than it is about trust. When we call each other by nicknames or shorter versions of our names, there is more of a capacity for emotional connection.  He writes, “a short name or nickname is a sign of intimacy, trust, and friendship. These can often be critical attributes in the building of a successful organization. Whereas a long and formal name creates a barrier, a short one can break down walls.”

What about you all? Do you have bynames? What are they? Where did they come from? What do they mean to you? I’d love to hear from you.



I don't know why I find this so hilarious.

I don’t know why I find this so hilarious.



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