Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Knitter, Slayer

Month: August 2017

The Weight of Words

I devised my favorite teaching exercise just after the US went back to war in Iraq, taking my inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source: President George W. Bush. Though the forty-third president had a sometimes-tenuous command of words, he surrounded himself with masters of manipulating language. Remember when we used to call climate change global warming? Yeah, I do, too. That shift in nomenclature happened during Bush 2’s administration. It was a brilliant, though disturbing choice. Warming is a kind of change, so that much is accurate. And change is one of the few constants in our life, so naturally the climate will go through it, too, right? Maybe even all by itself. But as the science has made clear, the planet is warming at an alarming rate because of humans, particularly because we consume too much, especially fossil fuels. By stripping away the old label’s specificity, the new one adds the illusion of wiggle room to discussions about the environment—if it was going to change anyway, perhaps it’s still okay to drill, baby, drill. (It’s not okay. It’s so far from okay.)

Although I did point out this label shift to my students, the example that inspired my lesson plan works in the other direction, moving from abstract to specific. For months leading up to the war, we heard about weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration relied on these weapons’ putative existence to justify beginning a war that many of us believed was unjust. Every day we heard that phrase, often multiple times. But on the eve of that war, Bush claimed in his speech to the nation that the Iraqis had weapons of mass murder. It’s the only moment from that speech that I remember because it arrested me. I was caught between horror for the impending war and admiration for the rhetorical prowess of 43’s staff. It’s just one word, but it carries so much weight, and this moment offered a perfect example of diction’s power. So I asked my students to bring dictionaries to the next class where I wrote the two words—destruction, murder—on the board. After we listed the definitions beneath the words, I explained their context and we discussed the difference. I asked them why the President might change a phrase that had been in the public consciousness for so long, and my students saw how this rhetorical shift from an abstract idea to a concrete image appeared to heighten the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the world, thus making the war appear necessary.

In both of these examples the more specific a word’s meaning, the more weight it carries. Change can happen in many directions; warming is a particular kind of change. Destruction has many targets; murder is the intentional destruction of a human life by another human. All writers have seen advice about using fewer words that do more work to add power to their writing. Instead of “she ran quickly,” we could write “she raced,” “she sped,” fled, flew. All those words contain the notion of “running quickly,” but they also add a specific flavor to that quickness; they all do extra work. This is one of my favorite parts of writing—choosing my words carefully.

For eight years after President Bush left office, we had an articulate, eloquent president in Barack Obama, a man who chooses his words carefully. But now we have a president who proves his disdain for words and meaning every day. When he speaks, many of his words float, unanchored by meaning. The rest of his administration operates in much the same way. These are the people for whom news is fake and facts are alternative. Nouns become verbs—how does one “architect her life?” And when we hear the words “Believe me” coming from 45’s mouth, we’re wise to do just the opposite. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump prefers to improvise rather than rely upon prepared remarks. And in his improvisations he returns to the same words over and over: huge, tremendous, and of course, great. While huge and tremendous offer more specific meanings, great requires context. It can mean big, important, remarkable, above average; it can have both positive and negative connotations depending on the words around it: a great nation. A great idiot. It is a word, like this presidency, without much weight.

And then there is the word that so many pundits long to apply to the Oval Office’s current occupant, if for no other reason than to pretend that there is something normal about this president. So many people still look for a reason to call Donald J. Trump presidential. But in order to do that, we’d have to strip that word of all its weight and let it float as meaningless as every other Trumpian utterance. There are plenty of more accurate adjectives to apply to the forty-fifth president, adjectives that carry all the weight they need to describe him.

Puppies Make Everything Better

Because I’ve been working on a fantasy trilogy, I haven’t written many posts recently. But if you scroll down my blog page, you’ll see a clear shift in my focus over the past year. Before the 2016 election I wrote mostly about my life as a writer, with the occasional essay about something deeply personal. And then came November 8th. Since then my mind has been occupied more than I would like by the mishegoss in Washington. But sometimes I have to look away. Sometimes I have to focus on something else. So that’s what I’m doing now.

About a year ago I started volunteering as a dog walker at the Oregon Humane Society. It’s the oldest animal shelter on the west coast, with a beautiful facility and an amazing adoption rate. At OHS no animal is euthanized to make space for others. In fact, we take animals from other shelters that don’t have room. We have a behavior department and a medical facility on site where veterinary students do a shelter medicine rotation. There’s almost always a line at the door well before we open—often because people want to get first dibs on the kittens and puppies. Sometimes people just wander through the kennels to look at dogs, people who have recently lost pets or who just want to say hi to the puppies. At any given time you’re likely to find a volunteer or Animal Care Technician sitting in a kennel with a dog.

Over the past year I have fallen in love with several dogs—there were Harvey and Jupiter, long-term residents who finally went home around Christmas last year. Then there was Kobe, a pit bull with a skin condition, and Buddy, a black lab who lost a leg because of a tumor. And of course, sweet little Fox, a Chihuahua who loved belly rubs, cuddling, and cheese. If Ralphie would have been cool with having a little brother, Fox would be curled in my lap right now.

Who doesn’t love a belly rub?

I loved that little dude. He spent more than a month at OHS, so I signed up to be his Pet Pal and worked with him on basic commands in between belly rubs.By the time a family came to take him home, he had learned sit and stay (more or less). Luckily I was at the shelter that day, so I got to tell the family what a sweet little dog he is. And I got to say goodbye. I think about him every day and hope that he is happy. He’s an easy-going sort of guy, so he probably is.

Now I’m spending extra time with a labrador mix named Jackson Brown.

Look at those beautiful eyes!

Jackson and I have a bit of a history. The second time I walked him, he accidentally bit me. I can’t stress that enough: he didn’t mean to get me. He was just trying to bite his leash and my finger got in the way. Because the bite drew blood, I had to report it and then JB went into BQ (bite quarantine). I felt wretched. If I had moved him past the other dog’s kennel faster or more effectively, he wouldn’t have gotten over-excited and then redirected his focus on the leash. But Jackson got plenty of attention from the staff during his quarantine, and now he’s back on the floor, playing with his buddy Margaret every day and his other Pet Pals several times a week. Jackson will play fetch with his toy pigs forever if you let him. Luckily he loves food, so I can bribe him when it’s time to get them away from him and take him back to his kennel. Every day I check the OHS website to see if Jackson has gone home. One of these days, the right family for Jackson will find him.

In the midst of our POTUS inspired insanity, OHS is an oasis of calm. Yes, there are dogs barking, and kittens playing, and staff members delivering food, and people milling about in the lobby. Every day we deal with animals who may have been abused, who are terrified, who need extra help in one way or another. Sometimes the cacophony in the kennels is deafening. And sometimes the smells are overwhelming (puppies poop a lot, but they’re PUPPIES!).

Cuteness overload.

But when I’m working with a dog, the rest of the world fades away. I don’t think about the insanity and the tweets and the fear. I think about the dog, about how to help him learn more so that he can go home, how to make sure to keep her safe because she has a vision problem, how to manage dogs who don’t like each other. I think about my little man Fox’s cuteness and about Jackson Brown’s exuberance. I also think about how to get Jackson to surrender his pigs and let me put on his gentle leader. And I make mistakes that I have to learn from right away. It’s also time away from my writing, time where my mind can work on some narrative problem without my knowing what it’s doing. It’s time spent doing something that has meaning to me. That gives me a little light and makes me feel like I’m doing something right.

And puppies make everything better.

Best volunteer gig in the world.

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