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small breath postI went spelunking once, and one time only. Man, it was fun.

It was one of those college things, a bunch of people I barely knew were going, so I found myself heading out on this expedition with no real clue. A semi-claustrophobic person by nature, I probably had no business being there in the first place. I remember sitting in a closet when I was a little kid, with a flashlight, a blanket, and a book to read when I got myself latched in. It was a frantic few minutes before I was able to let myself back out again, and I suddenly remembered that experience when we walked into our first cave. But that was an old memory, and one that needed to acquire a new sentiment. After all, I managed to free myself up again just fine. I do remember worrying about finding myself in deep water in the caves.

Hours and hours we traipsed through the cool damp of these caves. Our leaders on this trip had explored these particular caves many, many times, and they guided us through different underground rooms filled with spectacular rock formations. We didn’t linger long in any of them, because we were told our very breath would condensate in the chambers and throw off the humidity levels, or something like that.

In one particular chamber, they allowed us to wiggle into the various smaller crevices. The one I was in was supposed to get narrower and narrower until it opened up into a space wide enough to turn around before wiggling back. A group of us went in, and soon wound up crawling on our bellies because of the lowering ceiling. By the time the first two people in the group reached the area where they could turn around, there was no room for the rest of us to get into the chamber, so I was told to back up. We relayed the message to everyone in the chain, and slowly started to inch our way back. This is when I got stuck.

For a moment that seemed like a lifetime and a half, I realized fully that I was 50 feet below the surface of the earth, on my belly, with rocks pressing in on all sides of me, and I couldn’t seem to move. But in that moment, I also knew that if I thought about it, I’d start to breathe faster, and that would really get me stuck. Where I was, taking a deep breath was impossible, and hyperventilating would have allowed for panic to set in. I was not giving up. I’d managed to get in there, and I’d fit going back out again. I refused to think about anything else, and I inched my way backwards, one small, measured breath at a time.

I didn’t dwell on the amount of movement, only that I was still willing to attempt it. Eventually, we all got back out again, and standing there in the darkness of the cavern, no one knew of my near-panic, nor of the change in me.

It was mind over matter, just like it had been when I got stuck in the closet as a kid. The rest of the closet story was that I panicked, fumbled with the latch, and thought I’d suffocate until I exhausted all the panic, and suddenly and calmly thought my way out. In the cave, on my belly, the memory came back fully, and this time, I refused to let myself get to the panic level.

I’m not saying this is how anybody should handle caves, or that you can cure yourself by thinking about it. I am saying that, from then on, any small crevice I found, I’d say, “Where does this go? I think I can fit in there.” And we’d try it. And when, late in the day, we found a cave with water running in it, I lined up with the group going in.

The cave comes back to me, in difficult times. I’ve truly never been the same since.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

winging it postI overheard someone talking today about winging it when she put together her Fantasy Football team. Describing this to a friend, she claimed she “wung it.”

I’m walked by just as she said it, and thought to myself, “Wung?”

The phrase “winging it” comes from the theater, when actors would learn their lines in the wings before heading onstage to deliver them. (Similarly, “waiting in the wings” i.e., patiently waiting for an opportunity, comes from those same stage wings.)

“Winging it” was done very last minute–typically because the actor had just been assigned the part—which is where the hurried and haphazard meaning enters the phrase.

But the past tense of “wing it” is winged, not wung. At least, not yet.

Language is a living, breathing thing. Trendy words certainly come and go, but for new circumstances, new concepts altogether, we coin a new term or phrase. We’re not inventing new words in lieu of the chance to string together existing words into interesting and unique ways. If that were the case, new words would be born out of laziness. No, language changes not so much with the times but with the need.

I’m always tickled when I figure out a new way of wording something or create a new descriptive term. These are usually the times when my friends raise their eyebrows corrected enough grammar that they can’t wait to catch me saying something wrong. In my mind, I tell fun grammar stories that everyone can enjoy.)

When asked that question, I always respond with, “Of course it’s a word. I just said it.” As if all one needed was to use a word in order for it to come into being. Oh, wait, that’s kinda how it works. We’re in charge of our own language, our own ability to communicate. These are powerful things, indeed.

So, perhaps the day will come when we introduce “wung” properly to the world. Until then, the past tense is still just winged, and we have theater to thank for it.

Theater’s ability to influence language is just one aspect of its great role in our lives. The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “winging it” has been used since 1885, which means we’ve been winging it for quite some time.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The Language of the People

language of the people, musicWhen you get a song stuck in your head, does your day revolve around it, as if it’s your own person theme song? On Friday, are you singing this power song to launch yourself into the weekend, with decisions as bold as the drums in your head?

On Sunday, is your theme song still there? Or are you powering down, humming a song from the morning church service or beginning your dreaded mantra of must-get-ready-for-the-workweek-laundry’s-still-not-done songs?

I love the way music calls to people. I watch the way it beckons little kids to dance, or gives some of us nostalgia to the point of tears, or the way it dares us to buy that expensive glass of wine or decadent piece of chocolate that’s not on the diet because we deserve to savor. Music’s effect is not lost even on people like me who have so many words in our heads at all times that music has a hard time fitting in.

I see the way music moves. I see it influence, inspire, incite, and even sooth. Musicians urge with sound the way writers move with printed words. It’s not as glamorous for the writers, of course, because everyone uses words, whereas not everyone feels they can create with music. Since Dante, writers have been writing in the language of the people, the common tongue. And I happen to agree that Dante was right in making that bold change from Latin to Italian with his Inferno. Poetry should be accessible to the people, without an intermediary. Words should speak, and they should make waves.

So I watch the music, the newest language of the people. I watch the Friday people with their music, and I watch the Sunday people with theirs, and on Monday, like I do every day, I sit down to make the words line up on the page in the hopes that they will inspire, like a mantra or a song.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

On Being Watched

Watching postJust a couple questions today:
What do you do when no one’s watching?

Is it even possible these days that no one is watching?

And finally:
If we’re always practicing our best behavior, does this mean we will live better lives?

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler.

Boxes postA trip to the storage unit today reminded me that the writer brain never shuts off. I was looking for a series of binders that I’ll need for an upcoming project, and luckily, I only had to open half a dozen boxes before I found them. But to get to those boxes, I spent a long time re-arranging things in order to reach the right area. Move-in day, you’ll remember, was a lot of lifting and driving. Things got shoved haphazardly into the storage unit without much rhyme or reason.

As I shifted the boxes around today, I noticed, again, that most of them don’t play well with one another. Many of them are too heavy to stack; others are marked “Fragile” and can’t stack too high or hold much weight on top. And almost all of the various bread, fish, hospital, office supply, and all of the other free junk boxes I’d collected to hold my worldly possessions seemed to be an inch too large or too small to really fit well together. The storage unit itself is a puzzle to figure out, it’s a [losing] game of Tetris, and yet, at one point, I looked around and thought, “This is what writing looks like.”

Each of those boxes holds meaning. Each one has a different size and shape and value. I liked organizing them, rearranging, playing. I was careful not to force them where they didn’t want to go, the way I remind myself that the words need to line up on the page just right or they’ll clash. Not wanting them to crush one another in my absence, I lovingly arranged the boxes where they seemed to fit best. I didn’t need any surprises or typo discoveries.

The entire trip should have taken an hour at best, but I lingered with it and thought of each box as a favorite word. The storage unit is my own story, after all. It’s my life, condensed. And though it resembles a brilliant mess at this point, it’s only in the middle of the telling.

Boxes post~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The North Wind of Change

The North Wind of Change postThe winds have picked up in Pittsburgh this week, with a touch of a North Wind chill in the air. The North Wind is active in mythology for its cold, stormy activity, and is known generally as the bringer of change.

Though we’re told we need to embrace change, it’s a tall order. We strive to have a sense of order and comfort to our daily lives that change is looked upon as a great disturber of the peace.

I think sometimes we get a picture in our minds of how things are going to be, and nothing can move that gaze. As kids we’re told not to let anything get in the way of our goals, so we learn to focus hard. But keeping our eye on the ball doesn’t mean that we stop seeing the ballpark. We see this especially in conversation. Focusing so hard on speaking our mind, we forget to listen to what’s happening around us to know if our comment is even applicable to the conversation. We speak before all the facts are in. Again, the lack of being able to adapt is the culprit. My Dad says, “When you walk into a room full of people, the first person to open his mouth to speak is typically the stupidest person in the room.”

(He has the best proverbs.) As an introvert, my Dad tends to think the world talks entirely too much. His philosophy is, and always has been, to listen and then speak only if necessary.

And we’ve all heard stories about the person climbing the success ladder who kicked, scratched, and clawed to reach the top regardless of who got knocked out of the way. No one sets out wanting to be that guy. Yet, in chasing down our personal goals, we tend to get short sighted and forget that are many ways to reach that goal, not just the one way we’re trying to push through. Take a step back, and look at it from another angle. See the ballpark as well as the ball. Let the details in.

Change, according to Merriam-Webster, is to become different, to become something else. I don’t know about you, but I find that exhilarating.

The winds of change are upon us, my friends. Good or bad, they’re already on their way.

The North Wind of Change post

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

Deer in headlights postI once trained in at a restaurant where there were a few of us newbies, not just me. I overheard the trainers one night discussing what they were going to do about Bruce, because he’d just asked a question that clearly showed he had no idea what was in the house salad.

Bruce had a funny habit of widening his eyes when he looked at me, and then switching it to a look of gratitude. I didn’t know what that was about, but he was quiet and kind, and I liked him just fine.

Then one day, I managed to break a glass at the bar right into the bartender’s ice bin. (Of course I did.) The glass rack was stacked too high and I didn’t think it would be a problem until I heard the crash. The bartender was not thrilled. I started cleaning as thoroughly as I could. Servers walked by me, letting me know the glass rack was too high. I thanked them for that. And then suddenly there was Bruce.

“I’ve got this,” he said, and nudged me out of the way, and proceeded to clean up the broken glass like a pro. I’d never seen him move so fast, nor with so much authority. And that’s when it hit me: This was something he could do. In this crazy gig of restaurant training, with a million details in your head about the martinis, how the chicken is prepared, where the salmon comes from, where to put the glass of water on the table, where the extra straws are kept, what’s sold out, how to talk to the guests (because you forget how to line up your thoughts and make sound come out), not to mention remembering the table numbers and figuring out where the heck you are in this new place, all the while someone is following you, scrutinizing your every move, telling you what to do better. Picking up broken glass was not an assault on the senses the way everything else was.

And that’s when it further hit me: The look he always gave me was one of a deer in headlights that suddenly knows the way to the field. He was overwhelmed, and looked at fellow newbies with relief.

These were simple realizations, I admit, but ones that reminded me that the salad wasn’t as important as helping a person who was struggling.

Phrases turn into clichés when they consistently work. In this case: There are two sides [at least] to every story. The trainers were looking in the wrong places. Bruce didn’t have a lack of knowledge as much as a lack of comfort. Yelling salad ingredients at him would only make the situation worse.

We were servers, for crying out loud. Paying attention to subtle cues and helping others feel comfortable was what we did.

I apply Bruce-logic as often as possible. When attacking head-on fails, just take a quick step to the right and the whole view changes.

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler who has waited tables in five U.S. states. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The F-Word, In Glowing Terms

F-word postI was witness to an argument on Facebook this week between people who prefaced the whole shooting match by saying they “normally keep private things private” or something like that, which was immediately laughable because the world has never seen so much airing of dirty laundry, and because Facebook has that darn Message button if you really want to be private about it. But, I’m a lover of irony, so I read through some of the posts. The most interesting thing, to me, was the use of the F-word. Not interesting=clever, but interesting=misspelled. When you add an –ing to the end, then shorten it to just in’, you don’t need to change the “i” to an “e.” And that goes for all -ing to in’ shortenings. Just sayin’. (See?)

Most English majors will point out that there are so many gorgeous words you can use in place of the F-word that you’re really doing yourself a disservice to condense your vocab down to just that one. While I agree with this thinking, I can’t help but point out that if it’s done well, the F-word can be sheer poetry. In my lifetime, through high school, college, jumping into the bar scene, being friends with athletes and military personnel, and working in kitchens and boardrooms, I’ve known one person who really had a handle on it: My friend Josh.

One particular night working at a restaurant, my coworker Darrell and I made up a game (server games are the best) where we both tried to talk like Josh for the night. This came about because Darrell had told a story with entirely too many F-bombs in it–which I pointed out–and he made fun of me for my “inability to swear without sounding like an uppity professor.” Thus, the game of trying to talk like Josh was born.

Josh talks fast and hard, and can throw in the F-bomb left, right, and sideways and not miss a beat. Darrell and I tried our best to emulate this, in the kitchen, the server station, and even quietly near the bar, tossing out F-bombs all over the place and for no reason–which is where we went wrong, because it’s not a haphazard skill.

By the end of the shift we’d both had some impressive runs, but as we locked up and rounded the corner we ran smack into Josh, of all people, who was outside a pub having a cigarette. We chatted him up for a second, during which he launched into an effing rant that, in one sentence, not only used the F-word as multiple parts of speech but he also tossed in two effings followed by an actual noun where the effings were not redundant. No kidding, each one meant something different and we understood him perfectly.

I’ve studied nine languages over the years, and I’m telling you, Josh’s skills are nothing short of art. Yes, art. Educated, purposeful, quick-thinking art. It’s one thing to toss in an F-bomb in place of a word because you can’t think of the word you’re trying to say. That’s what Darrell and I were doing with the game. It’s another thing entirely, though, to use it as diction to convey heartache, love, angst, appreciation, and to describe a scene with precision and clarity, and even beauty.

Game over. Darrell and I looked at each other and shook our heads, defeated. “The master!” we congratulated Josh, first shaking his hand, then hugging him and telling him we how much we loved him. And when we left him there outside the Irish pub to finish his cigarette in the cold, night air, poor Josh had no effing idea what was going on.

Jody Brown.com~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler who has waited tables in five U.S. states. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

Galaxy of ideas postSomething suddenly clicks into place, and, for a moment, the whole world makes sense. An idea has arrived. Some ideas land fully formed, and knock a person over upon arrival. This one is the other type, the amorphous, dreamlike idea with hazy details. I know exactly what it is, and yet, to describe it is impossible. When I look away, I can see it fully, but only out of the corner of my eye. The more I focus on it, the more vaporous it becomes. So I try to remember the feeling of the idea, because it’s already sliding away.

And I just can’t accept that the idea is gone, so I wonder: Where do the ideas go? Are they like stars, burning brightly and then dying out, leaving behind a white dwarf for me to find? Or maybe they’re made of energy, thus not destroyed but converted into something else, something that can be located and picked up, like a pebble on a beach, and converted back to the idea itself.

I imagine world-changing ideas originate in a far off place, from which they’re sent on a mission to find the right person who will carry them through. I think this because it’s nothing short of tragic when we fail to catch them. It’s a shame to think about traveling all that distance, just to slip through the fingers of the mind. Sometimes I think the ideas bounce around, from writer to writer, like pinball, until they connect to the right person and light up the board. That would explain why you hear artists lamenting, “I thought of that years ago!” when a new sitcom launches, or a handy gadget hits the store shelves.

I think about the idea I just lost, slipping right on by and traveling out into darkness, like a tiny comet, into the great unknown. I imagine it as a glowing ball of light, small but mighty, hurling itself toward a dark, lonely planet where it can take root, sprout, and grow, eventually creating a lush, colorful terrain that forever changes the planet as a whole.

Conversely, my writer friend says, “Good things come from lonely places.”

If he’s right, and I know he is, then it’s possible for me to access these lush places. Because somewhere out there, if I know where to look, are whole galaxies that I’ve brightened with lost ideas.

For Chris, with thanks

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

The Booth on the Stone Hillside

The Booth postPitt campus sits in the heart of Oakland, in Pittsburgh. While there are some dorms and even a grassy space known as the Cathedral lawn, really the university buildings are sprinkled in among new and old city buildings that have nothing to do with the campus. When I went to school there, seven hospitals spread out on one side of the campus, each one with a different specialty and each connected by random interior corridors and stairways. Back then, Pitt stadium still stood in the middle of that same concrete hill, and across the street from it was a nondescript parking lot with a little booth that had one of those lever-arms for letting cars in and out of the lot. (And if the arm got stuck while open and you knew the booth operator, you got to drag a large piece of metal on a rope over a sensor in the ground to trick it into thinking a car had passed. And really, if you’re going to do that, you might as go all out and make car noises while you’re at it.)

The parking lot and the booth were nondescript until you knew they were there–and then they became a beacon. My friend Matt worked nights in that booth, checking IDs and letting cars in and out. He had various other duties, too, but nothing too taxing. For the most part, Matt got paid to sit in the booth and study.

It wasn’t long before most of us on the 12th floor of Brackenridge started visiting The Booth, because Matt lived on our floor. I remember when roommates found out that fellow roommates were also talking to Matt–about roommate troubles. Some of the guys would chat with Matt about girl troubles, girls would complain about guys, and in case you thought it was all social venting in our pre-Facebook era, Matt and our engineer roommates would dream up and work on designs for hospital equipment to aid in cancer research and a variety of other mind-boggling pursuits.

It seemed no matter your topic of choice or how big your dreams would become in that tiny booth, Matt would always open the door for you. It was our own warm, well-lighted place in the middle of a stone hillside.

I think of The Booth more and more the older I get. Everybody needs a place of sanctuary. Everyone needs a place to feel welcomed, understood, even celebrated. For us from 12th Brackenridge, that place was The Booth.

For Matt, Marie, Brian, Big D, & Sean T

~
Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing

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