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Around the Kitchen Table

Lloyd Ratzlaff


A few observations on language.

Back in high school, old “J. B.” once demonstrated to our Grade 11 class how the German language can create words of indefinite length. Suppose, he said, there was a Hottentot living in South Africa: in German this would be a Hattentat. Suppose further there was a man who murdered Hottentots: in German he would be a Hattentattentoeter. And if this slayer of Hottentots owned a writing desk, it would be a Hattentattentoeterbierotisch, and one leg of the killer’s desk would be a Hattentattentoeterbierotischbein. . . . And so on, so that theoretically a single word could become almost endlessly long.

But why he picked this example, none of us ever knew.

A curse on Baruch Spinoza delivered July 27, 1656: “With the judgment of the angels and the sentence of the saints, we anathematize, execrate, curse and cast out Baruch de Espinosa, the whole of the sacred community assenting, in presence of the sacred books and the six hundred and thirteen precepts written therein, pronouncing against him the malediction wherewith Elisha cursed the children, and all the maledictions written in the book of the law . . . Let him be accursed by day, and accursed by night; let him be accursed in his lying down, and accursed in his rising up; accursed in going out and accursed in coming in. May the Lord never more pardon or acknowledge him; may the wrath and displeasure of the Lord burn henceforth against this man, load him with all the curses written in the Book of the Law, and blot out his name from under the sky” (quoted in Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy).

The first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass sold poorly, and the Boston Intelligencer said of it: “The beastliness of the author is set forth in his own description of himself, and we can conceive of no better reward than the lash for such a violation of decency. The author should be kicked from all decent society as below the level of the brute. He must be some escaped lunatic raving in pitiable delirium.”

I’m sitting against a fence near St. George elementary school, writing in my notepad. At recess time some kids see me and yell, “Hey, hobo!” I look up, they shriek and scamper off, but curiosity pulls them back again — Look! old guy with pencil and paper.

I resist many labels, but Hobo is one I happily accept.

Examples of some powerful remedies to be found in the Boomtown drugstore of the Western Development Museum: Sarcoptic Mange Medicine for Hair and Scalp. Purified Solution of Liver. Albert’s Grasshopper Ointment. St. Jacob’s Oil (Intended to Help Relieve Pain). Barbed Fence Liniment. Dr. Pierce’s favourite Prescription for Women (No Alcohol). And (my favourite), Miller’s Diarrhea Mixture.

And today in the washroom of a Shell service station, a new medicament: Genuine Horny Goat Weed (Sexual Stimulant For Men).

An instruction sheet with a gift from friends: FLOWER STAND Fold type Natural: Please understanding the natural wood likely to have the status of distortion, damage or some cracks. The wood will possibly have some status of cracks, rot, rust and other phenomena if the wood with water and wet. Please pay more attention to the product which will be broken under the situation of flop down. Please do not throw and cast it, in order to avoid injury and damage to the goods. Please surely do not use it for other purposes.

A confession of Franklin Merrell-Wolff in The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object, “I find that I had had too high an opinion of the intelligence of the average man, and that the individual who is capable of understanding the wisdom contained in the fable of the goose that laid the golden egg is really quite above the average level of intelligence. Frankly, I have not yet completely adjusted myself to the disillusionment that comes with a more objective and realistic appreciation of what the average human being is, when considered as a relative entity . . . (W)hile I am much more certainly aware of the Jewel hidden within the mud of the personal man, yet I see more clearly also the fact of the mud and its unwholesome composition. It is not a pretty sight and not such as to increase one’s regard for this world-field. All in all, the more objective my understanding of the actualities of the relative life, the more attractive the Transcendent World becomes.”

At the funeral of our good friend Guy Giroux, the priest’s homily says the story of the raising of Lazarus shows that Jesus has called Guy from death, but also calls us to “free Guy and let him go.” So valiant a re-interpretation that now the story says the opposite of what it did before. In the Bible story, it was to this world that Lazarus was re-called, and bystanders were instructed to remove his shroud so that he was free to walk and talk and eat as before. Yet not even the biblical story has him doing any of this. It doesn’t say, They took Lazarus home, and while Martha made supper Mary and Jesus sat with him, and finally Lazarus said, “It wasn’t the way I imagined . . .” Nor does it say that eventually Lazarus had to die again. And what was the point, then, of the resurrection?

The priest expressed another thought about Guy being “re-created on the last day” and becoming immortal. But his tenses were all mixed up — “was raised, is raised, shall be raised” — and I’m still not sure what the priest, or the biblical author, meant.

Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.