Saturday, June 29, 2013

Don't Scratch or You'll Get a Cigar

My good friend Max Wallack and I just collaborated on a children’s book that teaches about Alzheimer’s disease.  It has been a wonderful experience, learning about this disorder and appropriate caregiving strategies from Max. The working title will be Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? and it is due for release later in July. But don't worry about marking your calendar. I'll be writing a LOT MORE ABOUT OUR BOOK IN IMMINENT POSTS read about Max here

Max Wallack of, Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator?
The writing process never ceases to light me up from the core.  Max and I were working together on phrases and word balance when the copy editor in me kicked in.  Max is breezy and fun to work with, because I’ll explain why something needs work, and he finds strategies to rewrite.  Some authors require hard edits, but I’m a teacher so the 'process' is important and Max is a process person. After a long back-and-forth over one section of the book, the final result satisfied us both and I said to Max, ‘NOW we’re cookin’ with gas.’

And I immediately wondered how relevant this idiom would be for him.  It wasn’t even relevant to me when I was little – hundreds of years ago – when my father spouted it. I was in fourth grade and he had just retired, and together we’d either complete an oil pastel painting or cover a living room wall in new paneling.  I’d hold the panel up, he’d pound in a million finish nails. 

“THERE we go, Carolyn.  NOW we’re cookin with GAS!”

“We ARE?” I wondered.  We had an electric stove.  The only kinds of gas I was familiar with included petro, laughing, and intestinal.  But I sort of assimilated the expression through context and never asked specific questions.

Idiomatic etymology fascinates me as an adult, so I looked into this one. It seems gas cookers began to replace wood burners in 1915, so that’s when the concept of ‘cooking with gas’ began. Owning a new gas cooker would be in vogueall the rage.  The phrase itself was first linked to Bob Hope in 1939 when he began using it in his Hollywood radio show.  But it was coined by Deke Haulgate, founder of the Haulgate College Football Ranking system, who worked for the American Gas Association -- but that is not what today’s post is about.

Today’s post is about chicken pox.  And children.  And books from which children learn.

Writing a children’s book with Max and thinking about idioms brought to mind the many phrases young kids ‘hear’ before they learn to read.  Any parent can tell you tales of their kid’s impressions and imagery regarding common phrases. Even the idiom An Old Wives’ Tale caused one of my kid’s to believe that when a woman reaches a certain age, she grows a tail.  

Another of my kids wondered how to spell ‘kosh’ which he pronounced very carefully. So I could spell it.  Which I did.  “K O S H.”  Then I noted helpfully, "The word doesn’t exist."

“Yes it does. You know!  Like, when you throw ‘kosh’ into the wind.” 

It was interesting to me that he didn’t want to know what a kosh was.  He wanted to spell it, so he could use it in his fiction writing. When he was six.

He did grow up to be an English major.

Which brings me to chicken pox, which this particular child contracted in the late 80s at summer camp.  And he brought a contagious case back to his brothers. I apologize to them in advance because I am dating myself and them. Two of my four children would later be vaccinated for chicken pox.  But before the vaccine was invented, two of my ‘earlier kids’ erupted. 

As my husband and I slathered them in calamine and baking soda pastes (I love concocting a good witch-poultice), tossed them into Aveeno oatmeal soaks and smeared them with Benadryl lotions, I recalled one of those Old Wives' Tails. 'Don’t scratch or you’ll get a scar.' To this day I hear folks advising children not to scratch at a mosquito bite, lest they get a scar.

Well, as far as chicken pox goes, scars are related to the depth of a particular ‘pock.’ That ‘old saw’ about scars comes from the Dark Ages, before the invention of Neosporin or the microscope.  So when pioneer children scratched a rash with their microbial black fingernails, I’m sure amputation would result.

Fortunately, when my offspring contracted mosquito bites OR chicken pox, I also slathered them in Neosporin. And checked their nail beds with my Home-Kit Hypochondria Microscope.

Back when I had chicken pox, I was four.  This was way back in an era when humans emerged from caves speaking in grunts and Old Wives Tails, like “Don’t scratch or you’ll get a scar,” which I definitely heard from my ancestors' mouths and which definitely terrified me.

Before I go on, the story of my chicken pox always makes me feel like I was the victim of child abandonment JUST BECAUSE I erupted in a contagious body rash and, days later, was shipped off to my Aunt and Uncle. 

But it wasn’t like that. 

My parents both worked for the Quaker Oats Company and there was an annual convention in Chicago they attended for as long as I could remember. The year I contracted chicken pox, I was recovered from the worst of it during this annual convention. So I was packed up for my annual visit with any number of family members I used to ‘vacation with’ for that week.  This year, my calamine lotion and I got to visit my Auntie Barbara and Uncle Phil because their kids had already had chicken pox. Anyway, my Uncle Philip always reminded me to “Not scratch or you’ll get a scar.”

I was four and had no idea what a ‘scar’ was, but my Uncle Phil was very good at articulation. So what I heard was “a cigar.”

For some reason I knew more about cigars than scars.

I definitely didn’t scratch my healing pox after that.  Uncle Phil to me was a giant of a man with dark hair, brilliant eyes and behind them, vast knowledge.  If he said I would get a cigar if I scratched, then I definitely would get a cigar – so I did not scratch, lest each pock sprout a tiny lit cigar.

It was horrifying.

Anyway, Max and I finished our educational children’s book about Alzheimer’s disease, Why Did Grandma Put Her Underwear in the Refrigerator? and we were really cookin with gas, the world was our oyster, life was a bowl of cherries, and don’t scratch or you’ll get a cigar – which will be the title of our NEXT award-winning children’s book.

We each bring our personal passions to the writing table. Teaching young children about Alzheimer’s disease is Max’s passion and my honor to co-author. Ensuring pre-schoolers not envision lit cigars popping out of old mosquito bites?? That’s mine.