Thursday, January 31, 2008


Really good Scrabble players can apparently decode AAAGMNR immediately. I guess I am not a really good Scrabble player because I had to work at it. I was stuck on MANAGAR for quite awhile, thinking it could be some version of manager or have something to do with eating from the French word manger. It’s not MANAGAR. (Loyal readers may wish to pause here to decode AAAGMNR. The answer is provided in this blog entry and I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.)

There are more than two thousand active tournament level Scrabble players in the United States and some of them will meet in Scottsdale, AZ over the President’s Day weekend. While their competition definitely intrigues me, I’m just a recreational player and I’m not foolish enough to think I belong there.

Seven-letter words that use all of a player’s Scrabble tiles are known as bingos because they earn the player fifty bonus points, in addition to the score of the word that is played. Bingos from last year’s tournament include:
seringa - a Brazilian tree
imphees - African grasses
caseose - a water-soluble protein
I can recognize that each of these words contains an “s” and assume that the players were probably able to find a place for them on the board by making a plural of another word. Still, these bingos are not anywhere in my vocabulary and these players are clearly out of my league.

That’s not to say that I don’t share the tournament level players’ passion for the game. It would be nice to recognize in an instant that AAAGMNR can be played as ANAGRAM, but I think I got the same thrill out of figuring it out, even if it did take me a little bit longer. I probably even have a greater sense of accomplishment because I had to work a little harder to get it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Somer and I spent the MLK weekend at the Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson, Arizona with one of Somer’s friends and her mom. We went hiking and horseback riding on the 640-acre ranch and in the adjacent Saguaro National Park every day. What a fabulous place!

Our picture was taken Sunday morning as we were riding to an outdoor cowboy breakfast at the old homestead on the ranch. I thought Somer was riding right behind me, but I was so busy enjoying the beautiful desert landscape and trying to keep my trusty horse, Zephyr, from getting a mouthful of low-growing brittle brush that I wasn’t really paying much attention to where she and Hondo ended up in the line.

Guide: There is a photographer up ahead who will take your picture individually, or in a group, if you would like.
Me, calling over my shoulder: Come up next to me and we can have our picture taken together.
Lady behind me, who was not Somer: Well, ……all right……but I’ve never even met you.

Fortunately, Somer was only two horses behind the mystery lady, so she managed to catch up to me before the picture was taken. Not so fortunately, Zephyr decided to position himself in such a way that I have saguaro branches growing out of my shoulders. It is probably no surprise that the lady behind me disappeared completely as the picture was being taken, without ever asking to make my acquaintance.

It isn’t obvious in the photo, but we were surrounded by majestic saguaro (suh-WORE-oh) cacti wherever we went on the ranch and in the park. Native only to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, California and Mexico, they are prolific and incredibly beautiful in Saguaro National Park.

The saguaroes are not only cacti, but trees, because they have woody skeletons (somewhat visible in the photo of the decaying saguaro above), which resemble a bunch of broom handles approximately 1-2” in diameter standing together, with bunches of curved broom handles reaching skyward here and there along the sides to form the branches. We passed a few of the still-standing skeletons on some of our hiking trails, and we also saw them overhead, as the ribs have been fashioned into amazing pole-like ceiling “planks” in the Tanque Verde guest rooms. I wanted to take our entire ceiling home with me. The last time I felt that way, I was in the Sistine Chapel.

The first time I encountered the word “saguaro,” it had the alternate spelling “sahuaro,” and I pronounced it “saw who arrow.” Sahuaro Hall was my freshman dormitory at Arizona State University. I was very interested in the fact that I would be living in a co-ed dorm, meaning that one of the wings housed men and one of the wings housed women. The only thing we actually shared was a dining hall, but this was still considered a rather risqué living arrangement for a St. Margaret’s Academy girl at the time.

As an eighteen-year old, I was very excited to be headed to Sahuaro Hall and anxious to meet my roommate, but not so interested in the word “sahuaro.” I left for college without learning how to pronounce it or finding out what it meant. I was going to Arizona to get away from home and out of the cold, and I didn’t give the unfamiliar name of my new living quarters a second thought.

Family who picked me up at the Phoenix airport: “Where will you be living?”
Me: “Saw who arrow Hall.”
Silence. Exchange of puzzled looks.
Mother in family: “Is that one of the dorms?”
Me, trying to be shocking: “Yeah. It’s the co-ed dorm.”
Mother in family, trying not to be shocked: “Oh. That’s nice. How is the name spelled?”
Me: “S-A-H-U-A-R-O.”
Mother: “Oh, Sahuaro! That’s the name of our biggest cactus and our state flower.”
Me: “Oh.”
Five-year old boy in family: “You’ve never heard of a Sahuaro Cactus?”

I spent the next nine years in Arizona and one by one learned to love, and to pronounce the names of, the desert trees and desert cacti there. I can smile about my comeuppance with the word sahuaro now, but I was mortified then. Though I was raised in Minnesota, the desert became an important part of me in the time that I was there. Today the saguaro cactus feels as much mine as the sugar maple that grows in my front yard.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


There is no one who sports a unibrow more prominently than Frida Kahlo. Her paintings are currently on exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and it’s a good show, although it was very crowded last Sunday afternoon. The $10 admission fee allows non-members to view 46 paintings, primarily self-portraits, and 90 photographs from her personal albums. There is an additional charge for the audio tour, but I didn’t need it. Thursday nights are free between 5-9 and draw huge crowds, last week 2,000 people.

The exhibit closes In Minneapolis on Sunday, January 20, and then moves on to Philadelphia. It is a better collection of Kahlo’s work than what I saw at museums in Mexico ten years ago, but it is missing one thing. The Dolores Olmeda Museum outside Mexico City actually has live Mexican hairless dogs on site. The rare xoloitzcuintlis dogs, pronounced something like “show low eats queen tlees,” are usually called xolos. They are featured in Kahlo’s work along with parrots and monkeys. The xolos I saw in Mexico were yappy and interesting-looking, but it would be a stretch to say they were cute.

Getting back to the unibrow, Frida may be the poster child, but she’s not the only person to have one. I remember when Brooke Shields had eyebrows that were well on their way to meeting above her nose. In a controversial topless photograph by Francesco Scavullo, the pre-pubescent Brooke’s eyebrows were badly in need of a tweezers, but her mother refused to let anyone touch them.

On a recent “Traffic and Trivia” bit on K102 radio, Kirsten Klein reported that the body part that gives women the most trouble is their eyebrows. That’s news to me. I pretty much ignore mine. Once, in high school, I tweezed them to pencil thin lines and got teased by my friends. After that, I let them grow back and left them alone. That’s apparently what Frida did, too, but her result is a bit more extreme than mine.

As for the word unibrow, according to People Magazine, the Oxford English Dictionary now includes it: unibrow (noun) A pair of eyebrows that meet above the nose, giving the appearance of a single eyebrow. The Oxford English added 2,500 new words and phrases last year including:

Omigod (interjection) Expression of astonishment or shock, pain or anger: Oh my God!

*Crapola (noun) Material of poor quality, rubbish; nonsense

*Bogus (noun and adjective) Very displeasing or inferior, bad

*Smoosh (verb transitive) Squash, crush or flatten

Fricking (adjective and adverb) Expressing amazement, anger, exasperation, etc.

Nyah (interjection) Expressing a feeling of superiority or contempt

Buzzkill (noun) A person or thing which dampens enthusiasm or enjoyment

*These words are already in the Scrabble dictionary.

Omigod, Frida must have had one crapola eyebrow wax to get that fricking unibrow look. Nyah, I don’t mean to be a buzzkill, but her stylist should have her tweezers smooshed and a great big “BOGUS” stamped across her license.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I am sorry that the Golden Globes have been cancelled because there are some really good movies out there right now that deserve to be recognized. I am all for the television writers getting their due, but I would like to see Ellen Page and Emile Hirsch pick up trophies for Juno and Into the Wild. I hear that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoo-in for best actor, but I haven’t seen his performance in There Will Be Blood yet, so I’m rooting for the young Hirsch, who I think deserves every award out there.

Both Into the Wild and Juno have Minnesota connections. Into the Wild was produced by Minnesotan Bill Pohlad, who previously produced Brokeback Mountain and is the son of Minnesota Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad. It is a faithful retelling of Jon Krakauer’s tragic account of a young man who dropped out of American society to live on his own in Alaska. It is based on a true story and I loved both the book and the movie.

Juno was written at the Target store in Crystal, Minnesota, where I shop when my husband doesn’t do it for me, by a former stripper; who reportedly still owns a house in Robbinsdale, the suburb next to mine. The writer, who goes by the pen name Diablo Cody, says she wrote the screenplay about a boy she hurt in high school. A few years ago she wrote a book, Candy Girl, about her experiences in Minneapolis strip clubs such as Sex World and Déjà Vu. The book is pornographic and less than great literature, but I could not put it down. Juno shows off Cody’s writing abilities better than Candy Girl, and the movie is beautifully acted, comedic and poignant.

One of the Christmas releases that I really enjoyed, The Great Debaters, is not getting the attention that it should be getting. I saw it with my family Christmas week and it was already relegated to a small theatre with a smaller audience. All the movie trailers that preceded it seemed to feature black actors in violent roles, as if these were the only movies a Great Debaters’ audience would enjoy. The film does have a primarily African American cast, led by Denzel Washington, but it is not violent and it is not just for blacks. It is an uplifting, motivational coming-of-age story with universal appeal, based on a true story.

There may be a bit of a pattern to my movie preferences here. My favorite books and movies usually fall into the category of memoirs, based on true stories or historical fiction. That doesn’t really explain my interest in Juno, but it is a quirky version of a real high school relationship by a person who used to live in my neighborhood, so it feels like it fits my genre.

The Great Debaters is also excellent because it educates its audience on the word “denigrate.” The word comes from the Latin words “de+nigrare,” meaning “to make black.” Washington’s character makes the case that the word we use to mean “disparage” or “defame” also means “to blacken” and that it has racist undertones.

I have used the word denigrate without knowing its origin or its ability to offend. I have also used other words unintentionally that were equally insensitive. Mulatto, a word that is sometimes used to describe a person with both black and white ancestry, comes from the Spanish word mulato, meaning “a young mule.” Papago, the name given by the Spanish to an Indian nation in Arizona, means “bean eaters.” Unfortunately, there are probably other words that I still use that are unintentionally insulting to someone.

The words we use have the power to inflame and incite or to heal and uplift. This holds true for debaters, screenwriters, television writers and all the rest of us. The lesson in denigrate is that it is important to choose our words well, and that it is unfortunate that even when we do so we may still accidentally offend. Resolved (as they say in The Great Debaters): Sticks and stones can break your bones and words can be MORE hurtful.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

qaid and qadi

In my search for u-less “q” words (see: qi), I have found two more good ones: “qaid” and “qadi.” Qaid has been listed in Scrabble and other dictionaries for more than thirty years so it should be widely accepted in most friendly Scrabble games. Qadi appears in newer Scrabble editions and might require a bit more negotiation if a current dictionary is not available.

A “qaid” is a Muslim leader. The word can also be spelled caid and has plural forms of qaids and caids. It is usually pronounced “ka-EETH,” rhyming with Sayid , Naveen Andrews’ character on the television show Lost. A second pronunciation, “kithe,” rhyming with the word “tithe,” is also listed. It comes from the Arabic words "al+qadi" meaning “the qadi” or “the judge.”

The Muslim word for judge from which qaid is derived, “qadi,” appears in newer Scrabble dictionaries, immediately before qaid. It is pronounced “kah-dee.” An alternate spelling is cadi and the plural forms are qadis and cadis.

The words qaid and qadi bring to my mind “al Qaida,” the Islamic fundamentalist organization that we all associate with Osama Bin Laden and several terrorist attacks, especially the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. It seems to me that the words qaid, qadi and al Qaida are probably somehow related. However, al Qaida comes from the Arabic words “al+q’ida” meaning “the base” or “the foundation,” which is not exactly the same root as “al+qadi” meaning “the judge.” Still, al+qadi doesn’t seem all that different from al+q’ida, and “the judge” and “the base or foundation” could be considered synonyms of a sort in a legal sense. I guess it is possible that the words are related, but I don’t know for sure.

Few Americans are familiar with the word qaid, even though it has been in our dictionaries, and not just our Scrabble dictionaries, for years. On the other hand, nearly all Americans are familiar with al Qaida, which is not in the dictionary yet. It will get there eventually, and, in time, it may even lose its capital “Q,” become a common noun, and thus become an eligible Scrabble word.

There is precedent for this in the word “nazi,” which has been in Scrabble dictionaries for over thirty years. A member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party is a Nazi, with a capital “N.” A fascist who holds similar views to the Nazis, but is not necessarily a member of the party, can be called a nazi, without a capital “N.” In fact, anyone who is considered overly regimented or dictatorial in today’s world can be called a nazi. Remember the soup nazi on Seinfeld?

In years to come the word qaida or alqaida might be listed in the dictionary alongside qaid and qadi and be in common usage as a synonym for terrorist. If we have been able to desensitize ourselves to the horrors conjured up by the word Nazi to such an extent that we are now able to use it in Scrabble games and comedy sketches, perhaps we will someday be able to do the same thing with the word al Qaida.

Saturday, January 5, 2008


I have just finished a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a true story about a Hmong child with epilepsy who was born in California twenty-five years ago. The child does not receive appropriate medical care because her parents do not understand the doctors and the doctors do not understand the parents. The parents do not speak English, but even if they did, the doctors would not have really understood them because the Hmong culture was so completely foreign to them.

For example, the Hmong believe that the human soul is like a shadow that does not always stay with a person, but takes flight as easily as a butterfly. They also believe that when a soul wanders away from someone, that person will feel sad or sick. When the soul returns, the person will feel well again. The family in the story believes that their daughter has seizures when she is separated from her soul. They want to explain this to her doctors, but they don’t know how to do so.

Most of the Hmong in America spent some time in refugee camps when they were forced from Laos after the Vietnam War. The doctors there often treated the sick with antibiotics, which were sometimes successful. By the time the Hmong arrived in the United States some had learned to trust western doctors enough to seek their medical help, usually hoping to get the short course of antibiotics that had helped them when they were refugees, regardless of their current medical complaint. At the same time, most Hmong held tight to their belief that the sickness was caused by the loss of the shadow-like soul. Hmong families were willing to hedge their bets by seeing a western doctor, but they did not abandon their traditional attempts to reunite the patient with his or her lost soul.

The Hmong use the word “neeb” to mean healing power. It is pronounced “neng.” The final “b” is included in the written form only to indicate in which tone the word should be spoken. The word comes from “ua neeb kho,” which is a ritual performed by a shaman. In the healing ritual, or neeb, an animal is sacrificed and the soul of the sacrificial animal is traded for the wandering soul of the sick person. Different sicknesses require the sacrifice of different animals, including chickens, pigs and cows. Some sicknesses require the sacrifice of a dog, which has created much anxiety among American pet owners in Hmong neighborhoods and has been the source of racist jokes.

“What is the name of the Hmong cookbook?”
“I don’t know.”
“101 Ways to Wok Your Dog.”

The family in the book had several neebs performed on their daughter’s behalf. They wanted to explain the neeb’s importance to their daughter’s doctors, but they were unable to do so. Meanwhile, the American doctors were unable to communicate the importance of correctly administered anti-seizure medications to the Hmong parents.

We learned about pagan practices and ritual sacrifices such as the neeb when I was in grade school. I brought part of my allowance to school each week to rescue the poor, pagan babies in Africa from such a life. Every $5 that we collected purchased a Catholic Baptism for one of these children and allowed us to give him or her a Christian name. My friend, Vicki, contributed so much money to the mission box that she believed there were little girls all over Africa answering to the name of Victoria Rose.

Never did I imagine that these poor, pagan babies would some day become a part of my American world or that my desire to convert them would be replaced with a desire to understand them. One of the largest settlements of Hmong refugees in America is now in the Twin Cities. A Hmong family moved into the house next door to ours two summers ago and lived there for a short time. A Hmong boy attends school with my daughter, Somer. Sister Michaelene, the third-grade teacher who I considered to be omniscient, collected our quarters for the missions without preparing us for these eventualities because she did not see them coming any more than we did.

As more and more Hmongs become Hmong Americans, words like neeb will find their way into our language, our consciousness and our dictionaries. They will challenge our way of looking at the world. They will help us to understand each other. We can hope that they will teach us to avoid repeating the sad chain of events that affected the life and family of a poor, pagan epileptic Hmong child born in California twenty-five years ago.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down sometimes reads a bit like a history book, but it's interesting history and I highly recommend it. Published in 1997, it is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. I do not recognize the other non-fiction books that have won this award, but the fiction winners include All the Pretty Horses, A Thousand Acres (a personal favorite of mine) and Atonement.

P.S. Neeb is not YET a Scrabble word, but it does remind me of some words that are.
1. nee: born with the name of (feminine). Example: My gramma is Loretta Pelletier, nee Reinert.
2. ne: born with the name of (masculine). My cousin, Joan, played this one against me in Tucson last week. Example: My brother-in-law, Peter Somers, ne Stenzel, thinks he invented Platers (See: Platers).
3. neb: the beak of a bird. I remember this one because it is like the French word for nose: nez, and a stereotypical French nose can look somewhat like a beak.
4. n00b: someone who is new to a website or game, especially an on-line game. It can also be spelled noob and is short for newcomer or newbie. Newcomer and newbie are in the dictionary; n00b and noob are not in the dictionary YET.


On the day after Christmas, I climbed Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, AZ with my husband and older daughter, Erin. It’s only 1.2 miles to the top, but it’s a difficult hike because the trail is very steep and at times it requires both hands and feet. I have four broken fingernails to show for it. We reached the Echo Canyon trailhead to begin our hike at the same time as a mother with her young children.

Mother: “Move over so the FAST HIKERS can pass.”
Me: “No one has ever called me a FAST HIKER before. Thank you so much for that!”

When the real ascent began a few minutes later, my husband and daughter, who are fast hikers, left me in the dust (and rocks and cacti). I told them to go. It is not fun for them to have to slow down and wait for me; it is not fun for me to try to keep up with them. I enjoyed my hike at my pace, which was, in my defense, faster than the mother and her kids.

I have always been slow. My mother says that I was born three weeks late and that I haven’t been on time since. I posted my Christmas Wordoku two days after Christmas. I am the last one to finish a meal, the last one to get to the car when we go to church, and definitely the last one to reach the top of the mountain. I don’t always like this about myself, but I have learned to accept it. I look for support wherever I can find it. My favorite fable is The Tortoise and the Hare. My favorite Bible verse is “He who is last shall be first.”

This brings me to the word “shuffle.” I listen to oldies on my iPod Shuffle. With or without tap shoes, I still like to perform the “Shuffle off to Buffalo” that Dorothy Lundstrum taught me in 1959. My sister, Nancy, can shuffle a deck of cards backwards and forwards, but I can’t. Finally, as it relates to being slow, when I say I am going for a jog, I am really going for a “shuffle.”

My jogging shuffle is a little bit faster and more energetic than my walk; but runners, and even some walkers, pass me all the time. I shuffle like an old lady pushing a walker, but there is no metal contraption in front of me and my mittened hands are tucked inside my sleeves to keep them warm. I shuffle down the walking path at my own speed and I try to ignore the critical comments.

Girl from kitchen window: “Pick it up, lady!”
Man in front yard with leashed schnauzer doing its business: “You’ve got to go faster than that!”
Man about to LIMP past me on Theodore Wirth Parkway: “Are you recovering from an injury?”

Even Katie Holmes got criticism for running the New York Marathon because it took her 5½ hours. I don’t get this. America is full of overweight, out-of-shape people. It is time we begin applauding everyone who makes an effort to stay fit, no matter how slowly they run or, in my case, shuffle.

There is a Palo Verde tree at the top of Camelback Mountain that is fully decorated with Christmas ornaments. It’s terribly tacky and wonderfully festive at the same time. Ian and Erin were waiting for me there to have our picture taken after our climb. The photo tells it all: my grin is just as big as theirs. It doesn’t matter that my trip to the top took longer.