Tuesday, July 19, 2011


About a century ago, Chicago canals destroyed a separation between the Mississippi River and one of the healthier Great Lakes, Lake Michigan. Then, an infestation of Asian carp into the Mississippi River basin threatened a carp invasion of Lake Michigan. With this threat came discussions on how best to reduce or eliminate the Asian carp population before it overran or destroyed the delicate ecosystem of Lake Michigan.

Selling Asian carp to Chinese residents for their daily meals seemed reasonable. Except the cost of fresh carp in China was less than the price of a days’ old catch from America. Then someone decided to offer the fish to Chinese restaurant owners, using enticing words like
“wild catch”
to describe their product. The marketing plan worked and fish sales jumped.

Whether the sale of fish to China will alleviate the problem of infestation in America has yet to be determined, and remains a topic for another day. The point is that the right words can mitigate or intensify a situation, generate success or failure.

During an argument between husband and wife over the preparation of breakfast, the words “You always season the eggs wrong” will likely garner a less favorable response than “Can you use less salt tomorrow?” One emphasizes the negative, the other offers hope ... or at least helps the cook save face.

The right words can also make or break a novel’s scene or an entire story. Bland dialogue or action without reaction does not heighten tension. The words "mowed lawn surrounded by trees" does not conjure up pleasurable images as easily as "fresh-cut grass bordered by shrubs of blossoming hibiscus."

Can you taste the drizzle of lime juice on a fresh-cut papaya; smell the hint of cinnamon in apple pie cooling on the kitchen counter; feel the itch of a healing surgical incision; enjoy the sight of rain clouds after an extended drought; hear a faint sob of dispair near the closed casket?

Using the right words can activate a child's imagination, avert an argument, stimulate an emotional response, or even make a sale that might reverse the infestation of a lake.

Is there anything more powerful than words?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ju-dy, Ju-dy, Ju-dy

Remember Cary Grant’s distinctive voice purring: Ju-dy, Ju-dy, Ju-dy?

Okay, all you Cary Grant aficionados already know that he never repeated the name in Only Angels Have Wings or any other movie, though he did say "Susan, Susan, Susan" in Bringing Up Baby.

Yesterday at Ala Moana Center in Honolulu, I stopped to talk with a friend who has managed one of the mall’s kiosks for several years. Judy suffered a setback a while ago when she tripped on a sidewalk curb and sustained multiple injuries. Her strong disposition and desire to remain active helped her to heal quickly. She continues to hold a positive attitude and always calls me by name as she greets me with a smile.

Thinking about that smile reminded me of my friend Judy in Minneapolis whom I haven’t seen in years. She always liked to say we were best buddies. We worked together for an insurance company on the hill whose image was all-important. They had once instructed the maintenance crew to spray-paint dead spots in the sprawling front lawn to improve its appearance before “the big bosses” came to visit. Judy found humor in situations like this and her bubbly laughter was contagious.

During my brief reverie, I wondered what might have triggered the thoughts about friends named Judy. Surely, seeing one smiling friend at the mall wasn’t a strong catalyst. I quickly realized that another Judy, a close high school friend, had been on my mind for weeks.

When I arranged to visit my home town of Two Rivers a few years ago, I made plans to meet several friends at a favorite gathering place. They surprised me with an unexpected guest, Judy. We talked about old times, indulging in uninhibited excess as we devoured our favorite pizza combinations and pitchers of ice cold beer.

Despite a beatific smile, Judy’s blue eyes held a perpetual gleam that revealed a devilish personality. Too soon, she died last month.

Everyone has a Judy in their lives, a friend whose smile lights up the room or brings a tear of joy at the thought of pleasant memories. Even if, rather than Judy, the name is Jesse, or Kris, or . . . .