The Factotum’s Procrustean Bed

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Years ago, I had purchased an audio lecture course for word nerds via Audible. I quit listening for reasons I don’t remember, but it’s most likely a new semester had begun. Now that I am a certified university graduate, I decided to form a new habit of learning one new word each week in 2022.  

I do love words; yes, I am a nerd. I just don’t know enough of them to make me sound like a pretentious, and pompous windbag, yet I am willing to learn how to be one. Just kidding.  I love how one skilled in language use can string words together, forming into an exquisite and rare-jeweled necklace adorning the page.  Like how a blob of paint upon a canvas can be pushed, pulled, and squished around to form an abstract or still life. Or how a musical note layered one upon another can become an enchanting melody transporting me to a third or fourth dimension. 

I am also inspired by a long-time friend, a genuine Einstein level of genius who has a vocabulary the size of a real, hard copy, 8” thick Webster’s dictionary: The self-proclaimed and humble Master of None (https://rongiesecke.com/?s=giesecke). In my opinion, you are master of the English vocabulary, whose use of language I admire.  (And yes, 8-inch-thick dictionaries really exist. My mother owned one yet was most often used in our family as a toddler’s booster seat at the table.)

But I digress.

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After rediscovering and listening to the introductory chapter of the course, I remembered what had attracted me to the lectures; the technique of teaching was finally a process that I could remember a word’s meaning far beyond that of knowing long enough for a test and promptly flushing.  

Therefore, what and when I write here is something I cannot take credit for––another’s idea yet put into my own words.  That credit belongs solely on the instructor, Kevin Flanigan, PH.D., West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The title of the audio course and the accompanying eBook in PDF format is “Building a Better Vocabulary.” 

His method involves 1) defining the word 2) using the word in context 3) breaking down the morphology and/or etymology 4) making connection: the new with what you already know 5) chunking or learning by groups of similar words. Words that are very often used together are collocates and aids memory by learning synonyms that can be connected in meaning.  

 I have four new words saved to memory: factotum, procrustean, circumspect, and factitious. Following in the footsteps of Prof. Flanigan, I explain my two favorite words from the first four weeks of 2022. These I will remember 50 years from now. (Ask me then.)

Factotum

1. Definition: a factotum is a person who performs many kinds of tasks, or a general servant; a jack-of-all trades. 

2. Context: Modern society would not typically use the word factotum to describe a butler, girl- Friday, or a go-fer, but in fact, that is precise meaning of a factotum––one who performs many different types of tasks. 

3. Morphology: Latin; fac, make, do + totum; all, of the whole. 

Etymology: first used in the 1500s, Martin Luther used factotum in his commentary on            Galatians in 1535. (Merriam -Webster dictionary app.)

4. Making connection: take the new word and connect it to what is already known. We know that mothers are nursemaids, cooks, housecleaners, laundresses, chauffeurs, bookkeepers and more. Picture your mother and now you can make a connection of the new word factotum. Moms do a little bit of everything. 

5. Chunking: category of words that mean servant, jack-of all-trades, man/girl Friday, personal assistant, or a handyman/woman. 

Procrustean

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1. Definition:  Tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means to enforce uniformity or conformity without regard to natural variation or individuality. 

2. Context: Many U.S leaders have instituted mandates they equate with constitutional law and enforce by tyrannical means of denying basic human rights such prescription drugs, loss of employment, or denying people to be in public places without proof of receiving a particular injection. Many people view these as being placed on the procrustean bed of leadership by coercing individuals to comply, regardless of personal belief or health status, with the specious argument of keeping every citizen “safe.”  

3. Morphology: Procrustean is an adjective derived from Greek mythology of a robber named Procrustes who was known to force victims to lie on a bed and made them fit or by chopping off limbs. Etymology: first known recorded use c.1640s; Procrustes+an (Dictionary.com).

4. Connection: The authoritarian ruler often metes out punishments to young children with procrustean methods such as spanking with a willow tree branch. My personal connection is a memory of an angry mother chasing me around the yard while my calves stung with each strike of a willow branch and an involuntary corresponding yelp. I envision a weeping willow tree and see Procrustes. 

5. Chunking with words that mean ruthless, tyrannical conformity, unmerciful, inexorable. 

I’m excited to think that by this time next year, I will have 52+ new words to insert into my writing. I suppose at the year’s end that the next challenge is to see how many new words I can use in one blog and be coherent. 

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Dirty Deeds Done on Spoon Lane–– Part Two

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It’s strange to think how selective memory can be: I remember details leading up to, during, and following this event, but I cannot remember what my punishment was from the courts. I must have been let off the hook legally, but rest assured parental punishment was indeed plotted, planned, and executed.

After the story’s conclusion, you’ll find a list of details that are true events and what was added for the resolution of the story’s sake.

Dirty Deeds Done on Spoon Lane–– Part Two

Mom’s philosophy is that if you’re not early, you’re late. It’s 9:15 a.m. and we pile into the ‘65 Belair and make the five-minute drive into town. She says nothing, thankfully. My stomach bubbles like a volcano of baking soda and vinegar.

The makeshift courtroom, in the Cottonwood Library, scant of furniture and dimly lit, is empty but for us two silent souls. Teary-eyed teenagers with stern-faced and weary parents shuffle in two by two. The air, stale, still, and thick with tension suffocates.  Judge McCabe swaggers in and slides into position. The “all rise” does not come, but we stand anyway. I am surprised that I am first on the docket. I can’t detect his mood.

“How do you plead?” he asks.

I say I am guilty. Every muscle is shaking as I speak.

Mom stuns the room with a request that I be sent to Juvenile Hall.  I want to burst with laughter at the thought ––me decked out in pin-striped prison garb. But I tamp the urge down­ deep. I think the request is ridiculous.  The looks on the faces of everyone in the room echo my sentiments. No one breathes. The judge stares deep into my mother’s eyes and questions her.

“Does she meet her curfew? Does she do her chores? Does she get good grades?” he asks. He looks annoyed.

Mom answers yes to all three.

“Lady, you don’t have a problem,” he announces, “Request denied,” as he whacks the gavel onto the wooden table and calls for the next law-breaker.

The already stale, dull air fills with the sound of air escaping our lungs. Everything is blurry.  I smile at the vindication, and we file out and into the car.

Mom is fuming as she informs me David Wilkerson (a religious leader) will hold a meeting in Redding next week and we are going. I say I’d have rather gone to juvie. She adds that maybe I’ll learn to appreciate her. I say I don’t know why she thinks her own daughter is so bad, when clearly, even a complete stranger can see differently. This escalates her anger to a level never seen in all my 16 years. She drives me to the school and I am grateful to escape. Exiting the vehicle, I wonder how I’ll survive the summer months at home, this being the last week of classes. I consider summer school.

It is dusk as I sit at my cheap, particle-board desk, writing my essay on World War ll for American History. A melancholy ballad about the Edmund Fitzgeraldplays on KRDG, the local pop-rock radio station. Mom and Dad discuss the events of the day rather loudly in their bedroom.  The phone rings and they quiet. I think I am in a déjà vu. Mom says into the phone she thinks that a great idea, thank you and she will make the arrangements. I hear the click of the receiver. They whisper. I strain to figure out why. Mom and Dad say they are sorry to each other. I imagine them hugging and sicken at the thought they might be kissing.

Dad opens the door of my room without knocking. He tells me his sister, Aunt Carol, who lives in Marcola, Oregon, is sending me a bus ticket and I’m to spend the summer with her. I don’t know who is happier to hear the news: Mom or me. I ask if he thinks that is a good idea since the Oregon family is much more liberal than we Cottonwood straight-laced conservatives.

He answers, “Yes, I know, but this is what your Mom wants. She’s adamant about that David Wilkerson meeting, so you’re not leaving until that’s over.”

He stretches his arms out in a big bear hug, a rare event, and whispers he only wants the best for me. As he leaves, he tells me Mom loves me.  I say she has a funny way of showing it.

“Janet, she’s my wife and your mother. You know she comes first with me but that doesn’t mean we agree on everything. I may not agree with her on this latest episode, but we stand together, and I support her regardless,” Dad says with a wistful tone and a sad look in his green eyes.

I close the door, turn up the radio, and do a happy jig to the current tune, Paul McCartney and Wing’s upbeat song, “Band on the Run.”


To satisfy the reader’s curiosity, I have listed below the details as I remember them.

These details are true:

  • Bus #94.
  • My Aunt Pat really was my bus driver at times, although I’m not sure if she was on this particular day.
  • I have 56 first cousins, 46 or so on my father’s side.
  • My father made me dig in the mud.
  • I lived in a yellow house at the end of Spoon Lane, and our area was referred to by utility companies as the Bermuda Triangle.
  • The courtroom exchange between my mother and judge.
  • The conversations between mother and me.
  • My Aunt Carol rescued me from a summer of misery.
  • My favorite song at that time was “Band on the Run.”
  •  I really was required to suffer through a David Wilkerson meeting
  • My mother really did love me, but she had a funny way of showing it.   (I probably      made it difficult for her.)

These details are not true:

  • Anyone who knows my father and the older generation of the Spoon family will know that they never say or do that!

Happy guessing. Hint: it’s in the third to last paragraph.

 

 

Dirty Deeds Done on Spoon Lane

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I can’t even. Think. I’ve never this stumped before.  Writing prompts are not improving the flow of creative energy through the synapses of this brain.  So, I decided to post this essay that won second place in my university writing contest in two parts.

 

Dirty Deeds Done on Spoon Lane
(Part One)

Anderson Union High School bus #94 squeals to a stop and the yellow double doors swing open. The bus driver, Aunt Pat, wishes me good luck as I drag and stall my exit. I dread the half-mile walk home, more so today than any other in my 16 years. I glance at her over my right shoulder and tears begin to sprout from the corner of my blue eyes. I wipe them away.

“You got to go, Janet,” she says, “Get it over with.”

I step out onto the dirt. Five mailboxes line the road; all are labelled SPOON. I grab envelopes from the box reading Tim Spoon. I deliver their mail (it’s on my way home) and go inside for a chat with my cousins and enjoy an ice-cold Coke––staving off the inevitable.

The telephone rings––Mom wants me home.

I have spent my entire life in the tiny town of Cottonwood, California. I say I am from Cottonwood. In truth, I’m not sure. I have a Cottonwood address, Anderson phone number, attended Cottonwood elementary schools and now am at Anderson High School––a Bermuda Triangle.  I am in a sea of cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents. No action escapes notice––ever. I am safe from reproach only with my cousins––my cohorts in crime­––33 of my 56 first cousins live in Cottonwood proper.

I trek toward home, kicking small rocks from the dirt and gravel with the toe of my black and white Converse tennis shoe. I approach a muddy, slushy pond, divided in two by the road. I grab   the contraband from the right front jeans pocket and toss it among the cheerful daffodils, planted years before by my grandmother. I think of her as I stare at the flowers, belying my mood.

Half-way home the surge of a diesel motor snaps me into reality­­––it’s my Dad. I slump my shoulders and slow my walk to a crawl. He waves, and I am grateful he doesn’t stop for me­­­––that’s his way­––no special treatment just because I happen to be his daughter.

I trudge heavy feet up the porch of the yellow house at the end of Spoon Lane. The sliding doors open; Mom’s face is the color of gray ash as she tells me she had an interesting phone call from Mr. Litaker, the school’s principal. I say I know and look around for Dad. His chair is empty, and I know he is still outside. I stomp to my room, slam the door and throw myself down on the squeaky springs of my bed.

Within moments, Dad roars, “Janet Lee, get out here. Now.”

I think how I know I’m in trouble when both names are called.  I explain to both parents what happened, holding nothing back. Daddy wants to know what I did with the rest of it. I tell him they are in the pond. Sharp pangs stab at my intestines but it is my elbow he grabs and marches me in silence to the scene of one of my crimes. I dig in the mud. By now a cold spring rain is drizzling then increases in intensity. I wonder if God is weeping over my sins.

“Dad, I’m telling the truth. I threw them in there, but I can’t find them. Please, can we go? I’m freezing,” as I extend muddy hands before him.

I wash the muck from my hands, relishing the water’s warmth. I wash the tears stains, change into pajamas––pink with large, white polka dots––and crawl under bedding. Mom and Dad are arguing in their room, next door. Mom says I ought to be flogged. Dad says just take her driver’s license and keys for the next month. Their bedroom phone rings––twice, before Mom says a weak, timid hello.

A knock at my door drives me from my cocoon. My mother’s shrill voice squawks that my arraignment is set for 10:00 the next morning, in Cottonwood.  She shakes her index finger and launches a tirade, a litany of my evils. For the umpteenth time, she asks what kind of mother people will think she is for all my bad behavior. I say she should worry more about what I think. Doors slam. I retreat to beneath the handmade quilt Gramma Spoon willed me. I position the goose-down pillow over my ears and close the baby-blues.

I dream my mug shot, on over-sized posters––Wanted––decorate the walls of the Post Office. Morning comes. My brother and sister get dressed for school.  Dad left for work in the woods at 3:00 a.m. Mom reminds me I have other places to go. No one asks if I slept well.