Handy: a rant inspired by the county fair

I am orignially from the city. Chicago. New York. Boston. Seattle. And a few others along the way. But I’ve lived in Montana for 17 years. As much as I love it, there is one issue that I just can’t shake. Language. I’m not talking about the poetic license to write two word sentences and start them with And or But. I’m talking about the slow and steady and acceptable widening black hole that makes up many of my interactions here and maybe yours too. But truly I wonder if the joke’s on me. Here’s my rant. Ready? County fair time always does this to me.

(And yes I know I’m a pompous ass, but hear me out).

There is no such word as “orientated.” I can take the dangling participle from hell, “where’s that at,” the double– sometimes triple negatives, and even the humble attempts at proper grammar, which I’ve heard plenty “of.” After all, this is the land of the handy. The Queen’s English follows function out here in the Great American West, especially when there’s snow to plow, fields to tend, wood to chop. Where you’re not handy, a neighbor is, and they’ll come panting and smiley and full of handiness with their chainsaw or bobcat or carpenter’s belt. You can pay them with beer and that doesn’t require much Queen’s English now, does it?

Food. Shelter. Running water. Heat. We all need it. Back in the city, the water comes from the tap, the heat from vents in the wall, and the shelter…well duh, it’s just there. The important aspect of shelter as I knew it was the color you chose to paint or paper your walls. When those taps and vents and walls betray you, I was taught how to pick up the phone and call a man in a suit who arrives in a truck three hours late and overcharges. I was taught how to play damsel in distress to his…well, grease monkey in shining…well, plumber’s pants. Now, I am the grease monkey. I know where my water comes from and how it is that it enters my kitchen sink. I understand the network of pipes tying me in with the modern world. I know that it is not grease monkey magic. And when you have three cords of wood to chop, it doesn’t really matter where your participle is at. But there’s no such word as “orientated,” okay? That’s a griz claw swiping slowly down my inner chalkboard. It’s oriented. Disoriented.

But I digress. I moved to this state of Montana with very good phone skills. Excellent Yellow Pages navigational abilities. I had and still have, I’m fairly positive (although nothing is sacrosanct on this subject now that I am actively employing the word “awesome,” often) a pretty damn good vocab. A vocabulary indicative of those fancy east coast prep schools that nearly drove Holden Caufield to vagrancy in the tunnels of the New York city public transit system. Who in the Sam Hill is Colden Haufield? Never mind. (I’m just glad to know what an Allen wrench is and that it has nothing to do with Woody, probably our self-admittedly least handy American.) Anyway, I had and potentially still have the kind of vocabulary that is spun out of pruny, old, bifocaled masters in bow ties playing Mr. Chips-gone-bad to my “um…yeah…like…whatever”‘s. One of these such chaps used to pull my pony tail until I cried, “onomatopoeia”!!! In high school, our English papers were returned with an F if we used the passive tense. I’m not even sure what that is anymore, but I remember it was bad. Really bad. Worse than passive aggression. Or passing gas. Or not passing the soccer ball in time. Or asking to pass the salt without a please. Actually that was different– that was simply just not done.

In all this talking the SAT talk, I never learned how to walk the handy woman walk. And why would I? I was taught that biceps are unattractive on a woman. I learned that the color leather belt you are sporting should match your shoes. I learned which fork to use at which juncture of the dining experience. I learned how to make polite but not turbulent conversation. I learned that Hope is not a method of contraception, nor is it a method of admission into Harvard. (Knowing someone on the Board of Trustees, however, is.) I even learned, from my own research mostly, where babies come from. But nobody told me that oil needs changing in a car and, God forbid, that a person, a Full Service gal like me, can do it herself. Perish the thought. These hands were made for shaking and playing a little Beethoven, not oil. Maybe oil paint. Maybe oil wells. Studs on the lacrosse field, yes. But in a tire…in a wall…no. Pre-Montana, the ceiling and basement on my handiness aptitude, was the assemblage of a rather roaring Watteau-worthy (say it fast three times) fire. A fire for form not function. For that, we simply ask hubbie to twist the heat dial thingy on the wall.

The first time I heard the word “ain’t” in real life, not on Hee Haw or The Waltons, or out of the mouth of Opie, was at a county fair. It was my first weekend in Montana so I figured I’d go to the center of the culture. It was enlightening. I learned that bulls don’t just buck — their balls are strung up. I learned that goats stink. Llamas spit. And that Wyoming is to Montana as Wisonsin is to Illinois as New Yorkers are to Bostonians as ugly Americans are to all of France and most of Europe. (And you won’t find that in the verbal section of the SAT’s.) Soon after, I became acquainted with my inner chalkboard. You do that real good, do you? Eeeeeeeeeeeeee. Cold enough fer ya? Eeeeeeeeeeeeeee. I been there. Irrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I seen that. Owwwwwwwww. This car needs fixed. ???? And as if Gimme your John Hancock wasn’t bad enough, here, it’s a different John I’ve never heard of, but think he had something to do with the railroad: John Henry! Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuh. Alls I want…erp. What can I do you for…uhp. The clincher was the use of the word “anymore. ” A true Flathead Valley native, at least someone who has lived here long enough to wave at every inhabitant of every car at every stop light (a feat for which training can take up to, say, minimum: one year’s all), replaces the phrase “these days,” with the word “anymore,” emphasis on the any. And given the huge amount of change happening all around them– take freaks like me moving in, for instance– they’re always talking about anymore. Anymore, you can’t find a decent-sized trout in the river. Anymore, it doesn’t snow much. Anymore, you have to speak Eyetalian just to ordera cuppa coffee– and it’ll cost ya three dollars! When I heard this use of anymore, once I unjumbled the brain teaser, I got over my inner chalkboard and just outright laughed. It makes no sense. And yet it makes perfect sense: it is the language here.

Language exists for one purpose, I suppose, and that is: communication. These people don’t need to throw around prosciutto, capacola, pancetta. They have goose jerky, smoked trout, elk sausage all their own. What do they want with craft store raffia for decoration– they can pull straw from the bales off their harvested and harrowed fields, and frankly, that stuff is a bit shabby around here– kind of like decorating your condo door with a wreath made out of carpet swatches and linoleum leftovers. Their hamachi sashimi, Prada purses, and Bobby Brown earth tones are Makita, mountain lions, and Flathead river rock. And the piece de resistance, if you’re very very good to Santa, is a big ‘ol backhoe under your self-cut Christmas tree. What in creation is a backhoe? A big machine that moves dirt and other stuff around. When you live in a place where there’s still dirt to be moved around, it comes in very handy. I just can’t imagine life without a backhoe.

So I guess I’ve learned that form can take a flying leap off the top of the Empire State building. I’ve got bucking broncos and Indian Fry bread and rodeo clown humor calling me. But there’s still no such word as “orientated.” There just ain’t.


Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

10 Responses to Handy: a rant inspired by the county fair

  1. This made me laugh. I have language pet peeves, too. Those words and phrases that are like fingernails on a chalkboard. I didn’t realize how language different I was until my husband, a native Chicagoan pointed out my foibles – those dishes need washed, that laundry needs done. And some of my pronunciations – INsurance instead of inSURance, UMbrella in place of umBRELLa. I learned though.

    And I still remember an old boyfriend’s grandmother giving us a hard time for using “at” when we said “where.” I think of her, often too late, after I’ve said where is the remote at?

    I suppose as writers, we can’t help ourselves!

  2. Wonderful post! In the 13 years I worked at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, CA I was sometimes reminded to restrict my English to what was referred to as “Business English.” It made sense, as we needed to meet and work with people from all over the globe who struggled with basic English and could not, should not be expected to wield a large English vocabulary. But for me, a former English major, it meant a slow atrophy of my vocabulary. I worried that loss of vocabulary would shrink imaginative possibilities, but maybe it forces us to write more honestly?

  3. jaime

    ANYMORE! thank you for clarifying that it stands in for “these days!” That makes sense. I lived in Missoula for nine years (by way of CT, the only one from my family to ever live west of Westchester County) and could never figure out exactly what “all” they meant by throwing it in most sentences.

    Loved the book too!


    Jaime (who accidentally made her way to California and who will be returning to Montana next month!)

  4. Well, there must be something in this Big Sky air with the non-word “orientated” because I struggle daily upon hearing my co-worker continually ask guests if they’re “orientated” when they look at the peaks from the summit of Big Mountain. It’s all I can do to manage a tight smile and nod at the visitors when my uniformed coworker continuously slaughters language.

    I am so lucky to have several outlets to release my tension regarding this-one, my wonderfully smart and well spoken boyfriend who equips himself with the Oxford English Dictionary-and now you.

    Also, looking forward to meeting you on Tuesday.


  5. I laughed and smiled the ENTIRE article! The photo would have been enough. Being from the South, I had to develop an appreciation of the English language. I will never forget being in the 3rd grade and finding out that “git” was not a word! I “swear” that is how it sounded (and, git came “by way” of two syllables). My teacher had a hard time convincing me otherwise. Thanks for the hilarious thoughts and photo!

    • lauramunson

      Oh good. Glad you found the humor in it. I don’t want it to sound snobby, but heck, sometimes I’m a snob I guess. Working on that one. Montana is a good teacher that way! yrs. Laura

  6. Doug

    I grew up in a blended farm family. My mother is from northern ohio where Grandpa “fit ground” prior to planting. Here in west central Ohio, my stepfather “works dirt” for the same operation.

    I work for a farm equipment company and travel the eastern midwest, ocassionally venturing into the delta regions of AR, MS, and LA. When speaking with the folks down there, often I find myself falling into the vernacular, especially “cutting on/ cutting off ” switches. I do it partially for rapport, but it’s really about the communication.

    Speaking is much like walking, everyone has a gait which changes with the terrain and is affected by age, experience and injury. I try to stand straight and walk tall, but when lost or tired at the end of the day it’s all about getting there.

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