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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I do, third grade, Fullerton, California, Ford Elementary, a strange Booklet, a sharpened number two pencil. Mrs. Leander said, “Begin.” Soon came “Stop.” Then “Turn the page…Begin.” This woman, as kind and encouraging as any teacher in my life, did not say this was an IQ test. What eight-year-old would have understood?  But statewide, third grade was the year a student received an IQ number.  Did the crude grading machine in Sacramento indicate that Gail Wilson ignored parts of the test?” I was not deemed an imbecile but not far from it. I only felt the result of this when I entered high school and IQ affected placement. The number more important than excellent grades in junior high.


What section of the IQ test had I failed to do? Anything with geometric shapes and manipulating them. By eight I read voraciously but disliked numbers. The day of my first timed test, I remember looking out the window, wanting to be outside.  A child of nature then, walking beside the Pacific, collecting seashells. Or in the Sierra Nevada at my grandparents’ cabin with a wood stove beside a stream in a forest. 


The book I loved more than any other was The Yearling. Jody lived with candles or darkness. Ma Baxter had a cast-iron wood stove that burned logs and kindling. I relished Little House on the Praire & read the series repeatedly, along with The Black Stallion books. Oh, to be on an island. Early in life I concluded I had been born in the wrong century; that I must have lived earlier, before electricity, when no machines ruled life. I feared plugging anything into an electrical socket because of frequently being shocked.  In high school I wrote an essay titled, “A Dam is Taking Over Our Lives.” A Divine Automatic Machine. (I left off the letter N!)

 At this time in the late 1950s, I would not have heard of Jacques Ellul: a French philosopher, sociologist, theologist, professor, and author of fifty books.


His work throughout the 1950s concerned the effect of machines on humanity, on mechanical activities performed in the shortest time with the least possible effort, which would lead to the production of faster and better machines.

I read about this Frenchman in the September 2023 Commonweal. The article, “More Than Machines,” is by Nolen Gertz, who discusses Jacques Ellul’s ideas and AI’s threat. I also read, “The Despots of Silicon Valley” by Adrianne La France in The Atlantic’s latest issue (March 2024).  In the February London Review of Books, I twice read a long article “In the Shadow of Silicon Valley” by Rebecca Solnit, who wrote Orwell’s Roses, a book I used in a course not long ago.

            What if I could ask Chat GPT to digest the three articles and come up with a page for next week?  If asked to do this, might AI incriminate itself?  Since I don’t have the capacity to do this (though someone out there might), I will endure the mental hodgepodge of working through many thoughts, and to see what emerges for next week.

 

                                                                       

                                                           

           

                                                           

           

 

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I begin by admitting to weariness with so much language that comes to our eyes and ears from the electronic world; and this weariness affects the way I write, which is to take dictation from an inner voice. And lately that voice is tired.  Yet sometimes playing with one word can restore my energy for language. That’s what happened three weeks ago when I could not find a way to unravel my thoughts (see the last three blogs for what I mean). At some point during a long afternoon, my mind in a muddle, I said aloud, “What a hodgepodge!”

The writer in me asked, “What’s the source of hodgepodge.”


That’s when I looked at a shelf beneath my printer where I keep dictionaries. First, I opened the Oxford American Dictionary, one compiled by noteworthy writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Two contributors were the late David Foster Wallace and the U.K.’s Zadie Smith. In the OAD under Hodge Podge (two words) I saw jumble, mishmash, and a word I did not know, gallimaufry.


Next, I opened my two-volume Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and discovered that gallimaufrey comes from the old French, calimafrée, its origin unknown, according to the OED, which defined hodgepodge as a variety of hotchpotch or hodchpot, and is a “clumsy mixture of ingredients.”


As someone who does not know French, I asked myself what ‘hodgepodge” would be in Spanish. Mescolanza. Que bueno!  The sound mimics the meaning:  a mixture, a jumble, a hodge podge (written as two words). Putting away my Simon and Schuster International Dictionary (a gift from the State Department for withstanding 32 weeks of Spanish!), I opened a thick Synonym Finder and found 21 words for hodgepodge, including gallimaufrey. I cannot see this word without an image. My quirky definition is, “a way to fry fish in a boat’s galley.”

Por fin (at last), I opened a dictionary that I recommend to students and would-be-writers.  The Flip Dictionary has sixteen words for hodgepodge, including Katzenjammer, salmagundi, and olio. The latter word made me think of portfolio, and folio made me think of Willy the Shake, as I call him. That’s when I pulled Shakespeare’s Words from the shelf. This over two-inch thick book has no page numbers, and no hodgepodge, either one word or two.  But there was hodge-pudding!  What character in Shakespeare might have used this word?   None other than corpulent Falstaff, ever concerned with food and lust.


The L word led me to The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Might hodgepodge have a risqué meaning? No, only one dull definition: “irregular mixture of numerous things.”


Yet playing with the word pushed me through the stasis that afternoon of not having a voice with which to write.  And next week? A Frenchman, Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) and his concerns over 70 years ago, in the 1950s, about machines and technology.                                                              

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Then one Mother’s Day, a fatal stroke, and in days her husband was gone. I have borrowed part of a line from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Funeral Blues” quoted in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral.  

I imagine the poem is used often. The same way people reach for commercial sympathy cards. Let someone else find the difficult words. I do know words fail me when confronted with acknowledging someone’s death.


He was my North, my South, my East and West,

My working week and my Sunday rest, 

My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;

I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.


 

Above in my title, I substituted Auden’s “me” for “He.” While reading A Balanced Life, a memoir by Patricia Schultheis, I remembered Auden’s poem. Last week I mentioned the SMK creative nonfiction essay, “The Country Where I Live.” The combination of the Franz Kafka quote, the memoir, the narrative essay, led me to feel the “Guilty Blues.”  Why?  Not easy to explain in a page of prose.

Simply stated, I believe that countless friendships have ruptured because of Donald Trump. And this rupture relates to something I find vexing in our culture. Maybe I say this after living in a country where there was no separation of religion and state. I do know I feel annoyed if someone in the USA tells me their religion and politics are no one else’s business.  I respect anyone reciting, “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” with its declarative first person.  But what about, “We the People?”  I think the plural suggests openness about political beliefs, not a scrupulous and earnest piety of “no one else’s business.”



My friend, the widow, and I parted because of this. I had no problem that she was Republican, but hopefully like those who declared themselves Lincoln Republicans.  I could not accept she would not disavow Donald Trump. She stuck to the “I” and no ‘one else’s business’ creed, and I to my plural, “We the People.” This is to say fixed ideas supplanted feelings. Which means I did not feel the painful loss of her husband, a man my husband very much enjoyed seeing.

For over a decade I was in a group of six writers. One member was already a widow, two more would become widows. Then this woman’s husband suffered a fatal stroke. Earlier the Pandemic had brought an end to the group.  Almost everything she shared with us had a married couple as the subject. We often suggested she bind her creative and humorous stories into a book on marriage.

My point is this. It was only when I finished reading A Balanced Life that I felt my friend’s loss, instead of my own grievance.  In other words, Patricia’s book was an axe for a frozen sea, in which no waves had washed me into an acute awareness of this former friend finding herself in the Country of Grief, and how that felt as a new reality.

What to do?  I am going to ask if she will meet me for coffee downtown one day. And if this happens, I will take with me A Balanced Life and offer the memoir to her. I will also take along a photocopy of Patricia’s masterful narrative, “In the Meantime” which is about mortality and creativity. The one a certainty. The other always an open possibility


Next week:  Playing with hodgepodge and exploring this word in multiple dictionaries.

           

           

 

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