Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Deep Pockets

“Did your husband play rugby, too?” I was at a recent Vallejo Barbarians Rugby match against the Reno team. It was a good game, both sides playing hard and keeping things moving, the kind of rugby that fans rave about. The air was cool, not cold, good for running, and the sunshine was warm, not hot. There were dogs and kids and old men and girlfriends. It’s some of the best entertainment for free in the Bay Area.

I laughed at the thought of John, with his replaced knee, very painful for him for years before the replacement, playing rugby. He would be like a tree against an axe, I thought, felled with a blow or two. Timber!

“No,” still laughing at the tree falling in the forest, “When he started this, he could barely spell rugby.” He knows a lot now, though, and has given his all to make sure our boys have beautiful Morton Field on Mare Island in Vallejo to play on. Many of the teams say it’s the best pitch in the league. We are glad to have stands for fans to sit on and restroom facilities. We wish we had more, but we run on a shoestring. It takes nearly everything John makes to keep it going; I’m never sure the team realizes how much he puts into it. But I agree that it’s better for the players to focus on their work.

Truth be told, John’s spelling is still suspect and it has always been a matter of shock, amusement, controversy and fondness for me. How does he come up with some of the spellings? In some ways, I can see traces of phonetic spelling while at other times I’m just baffled and entertained. John must be the reason computers have spell-check although as cell phone auto-correct stories show us there is only so much a computer program can do to guess at what humans mean with a combination of letters.

It’s not really John’s fault, after all. English is by all accounts one of the more difficult languages for non-native speakers to figure out. We have homonyms, irregular verbs, articles, suffixes, prefixes and colloquial usage. Our most literate may or may not understand when to use a subjunctive. I make no excuses for my native tongue. It is the stuff of legends like Beowulf and Canterbury Tales. It changes all the time and there are people, intelligent people, who spend their lives debating whether English grammar should be prescriptive or descriptive. It steals from other languages easily and without remorse. It acquires or creates new words or assigns new meanings so frequently that our authorities on the language publish a list of new words this year. It is the Borgia Family of languages, foreign even unto itself and plotting to take over the planet at any minute. It is expected to be universally understood by non-native speakers. It is poorly understood at best by native speakers. In the United States, it is assumed to be “American,” so much so that those speakers from England “have an accent.”

It is, in short, like having a pet dragon. I love my dragon.

Of course, in the USA we have “accents” too. I remember one long week translating everything my Chicago/St. Louis area first husband said to my Alabama cousins and vice versa. I found it amazing they could not understand each other and equally amazing that I could. Our English is a language divided by ego-centricity, the naïve belief that we are the center of our universe. Americans can be that way.

John, however, has never been an egoist about his language skills. He admits freely he is not a “native” speaker of English but grew up speaking Butte-enese, the patois of the Irish mining community blending with the Northmen who settled the cold northern shield that is Butte, Montana. It sounds a little like the movie Fargo with an Irish twist.

John will say endearing regionalisms like, “Take her easy!” as a hearty farewell. I claim we do not argue, but I expect this may count as one time I tried with waning patience to explain that taking “her” easy was sexist language likely to get his clock cleaned by someone who didn’t realize that John is the staunchest supporter of women’s rights and the gentlest man you’ll ever know. Suggesting he switch to the more neutral and less incendiary, “Take it easy!” produced a sputtering of frustration and I realized with only a little dismay that I was attempting the verbal equivalent of making a left-handed person write right-handed. I gave up. He can take her easy if he wants to.

In spite of his creative spelling features and occasional regional color, John not only majored in English in college and reads almost continuously, he also teaches. He started the ARC-Solano Adult Literacy program as part of the state library system's literacy program. He and the people he has recruited volunteer to assist adults with developmental disabilities learn to read, a program so improbable that many people thought it couldn’t be done.

And yet, my John is the "Ant and the Rubber Tree Plant." One of the clients now reads fairy tales to children in day care and writes in her journal. Another is starting to write about the jewelry she creates, writing for the first time in her 60-some years. And there are all levels of development, too. One client is struggling to recognize letters reliably but the most amazing thing about his work in learning to read is that he has begun to talk to others with a little confidence.

In my eyes, it is nothing short of a miracle. Here’s the nicest man in the world who can’t spell cat, who majored in English and reads like a house on fire, who has the biggest ideas in the world about how unrecognized and undervalued resources can bloom into beauty. He teaches others that they can do it. It is the essence of the 6 of Pentacles: Giving what you did not know you had to people who were not expected to be able to use it.

You do not know for certain, when you plant the seed, how beautiful the garden will be. You may not live so long to see the acorn become the tallest tree. Still, plant the seed, bury the acorn. Your action of the moment will stretch far into the future, whether you see it or not.

Best wishes.


  1. My name is Tony Morris. I had the pleasure of meeting John and he is by far the nicest person i have ever met.

  2. The beauty of modern self-correct is that John can type away and still get the main idea out to his team or whomever, with only a few possible glaring misses. No matter. Thanks for this eloquent story. From a fan, Ruthanne Volz

  3. Marsha,

    Thank you for putting into words how we all feel about our manager, hanai father and friend; your husband John. It is beautiful souls like John that the island people of Polynesia fell in love with and it's that love we remember to keep our hearts warm for palangi people inspite of the many hardships we have faced because we had opened up so long ago. May God continue to bless John and all he endevours.