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The Write Way

8 August 2008

An Accident Waiting to Happen ...


We were shopping at one of those ubiquitous shopping malls last week and decided that it was time for our coffee fix, so while the Love of My Life went to stand in the queue for coffee, I set off in search of somewhere to sit.

As we all know, when looking for Somewhere to Sit, it can't be just anywhere, but has to be somewhere out of the way of passing prams and strollers driven by frantic women with two or three demanding toddlers in tow. It also has to be away from the rubbish bins, where harried workers, heavily engrossed in conversation, absent-mindedly toss their rubbish in the general direction of the bin and quite frequently miss.

Neither can it be on one of those large, communal tables where you can get wedged between people who quite obviously spend way too much time frequenting fast-food outlets.

No, it has to be just the right spot so you can enjoy your break in relative comfort and seclusion. And thus it was that when my husband finally tracked me down, I was tucked into a corner table, surrounded by the indestructible potted palms that abound in such areas and able to survey the passing throngs without worrying either of us were going to be wearing their burgers, kebabs or all-you-can-fit-on-a-plate Chinese takeaway.

I don't know about you, but I love people-watching, and I'm in my element in such situations where I can observe without being too blatant about it.

My attention fixed on one of the aforementioned harassed mums who'd settled herself (if you can ever apply that term to a woman with three children under the age of five) a couple of tables away from us at one of those set-ups that had a fixed table with a bench seat along one side and two chairs on the opposite side. She'd chosen this so she could position her double stroller on the other end of the table. (What a nightmare those things must be to manouevre through crowded shopping centres!)

Of course, all three ankle-biters demanded to be let out and to sit on the chairs (not the bench), so there she was, sitting alone on the bench and struggling to keep the excitement under some semblance of control as the three fought over the two chairs, reached across the table, spread out their plastic drinking cups, brochures they'd collected from somewhere along their travels and assorted stuffed toys, raggy old blankets and items of discarded clothing.

By the time her husband returned with a tray laden with chips, baby-burgers and fizzy drinks for the kids and big burgers and hot coffees for the grown-ups, there wasn't much flat space left, so he balanced the tray on one corner as I muttered a warning under my breath.

It must be something that happens when you give birth, so this is definitely a mother-thing, but I swear every woman in the immediate vicinity (apart, that is, from his harried spouse who was reaching under the table to retrieve some valued toy) was instantly alert as he started to unload his tray and distribute the food to his starving family. First the chips, which, positioned as they were on the side of the tray closest to the edge and being feather-light in weight, had little impact on our story.

Then he removed one fizzy drink, but this time it was from the edge that was in contact with the table. The mothers in the room drew in a quick breath, then sighed as he handed the drink uneventfully to his oldest child. This led the two younger ones to demand their drinks immediately.

To do this he had to remove the hand that was supporting the tray, and when he reached for both drinks simultaneously, a collective gasp went up from the watching mothers, and we stared in horrified fascination as the tray simply upended and vanished onto the floor, but not before it had spilt the contents of the coffee over all the remaining food, the table and its assorted contents (although fortunately not over the children).

As I said, it must be a mother-thing, this ability to see accidents waiting to happen wherever you look. Whenever we stayed in hotels or motels when our kids were with us, I would always draw my family's attention to the location of the fire stairs; if we went bush-walking along mountain tracks, I'd point out rusting supports on lookout fences, rotten timbers on bridges across raging torrents and the like ...

In other words, I was always aware of all the what-ifs, and as a consequence (I like to think there's a direct correlation) none of us suffered any horrific injuries along the way.

With both our offspring now adults, I comfort myself with the thought that if I can't be watching over them all the time, at least I've passed along some of my awareness to them. So when I overheard our daughter relate the story of how she always asks for a seat at the back of the plane because "my mum said that very few planes reverse into mountains," I knew my work here was done.

All this talk of accidents waiting to happen makes me ponder how often things end in tears, witness our little family and the unfortunate end to their lunch. And this made me wonder about ... crocodile tears. (C'mon now, be kind, some weeks are harder than others to work in a writing tip!) 

We all know what crocodile tears are ... those big drops that slide winsomely down the cheek of your precious child who's not getting his/her own way, but why crocodiles? Surely big, cuddly panda bear tears or ever-so cute tiger cub tears would be more appropriate. But cold-blooded, prehistoric crocodiles?

Well, it seems that the ancient Egyptians (who knew a thing about crocs, having to live cheek-by-jowl with them along the Nile) noticed that after crocodiles had devoured a meal, especially if it was a very large meal, they'd appear to cry. The Egyptians, being a sentimental lot, assumed the crocodiles were sorry for what they had just done and were shedding tears.

We now know that far from crying, this is part of the normal process of eating, and after a meal, the crocodile sheds excess salt from its system by means of glands located beneath each eye.

We use the term "crocodile tears" to refer to those false tears people shed (literally or metaphorically) over something they don't really care about.

This week's Little Something Extra has some inspiration for those of you who feel your Muse nudging you to write about an accident waiting to happen ...

And this story is about an old chap who probably never had to shed crocodile tears ...

An elderly man had owned a large farm for several years. He had a pond in the back, fixed up nicely with picnic tables and some apple and peach trees. The pond was properly shaped and fixed up for swimming when it was built. One evening the old farmer decided to go down to the pond to look it over, as he hadnt been there for a while. Since he was going that way, he grabbed a five-gallon bucket to bring back some fruit. 

As he neared the pond, he heard voices shouting and laughing with glee, and when he got closer, he saw it was a bunch of young women skinny-dipping in his pond. He made the women aware of his presence, and they all went to the deep end.

One of the women shouted to him, Were not coming out until you leave!

The old man frowned, I didnt come down here to watch you ladies swim naked or make you get out of the pond with no clothes on. Holding the bucket up he said, Im just here to feed the crocodile.


This week's quiz:

All these words are derived from Latin match the word with its meaning:

meretriciousness, mendacity, malfeasance, mellifluous, magniloquent, malocclusion, mollify, malediction, maleficence, moratorium

1. elevated or pompous in speech or style of expression, using big or unusual words

2. curse

3. an authorized delay or cessation of an action

4. act or state of doing evil

5. wrongdoing by a public official

6. a flashy attractiveness, alluring by false charms

7. failure of teeth opposite each other to meet properly

8. having a smooth rich flow

9. to soften or temper (a person); pacify, appease

10. untruthfulness; tendency to lie  


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Did you hear about the bee that took over the other's shift to give him a break? He was a spelling bee.

And speaking, as we were, about things that end in tears, here's a situation that may be familiar to some ...

A man is a person who, if a woman says, "Never mind, I'll do it myself," lets her. 

A woman is a person who, if she says to a man, "Never mind, I'll do it myself," and he lets her, gets mad. 

A man is a person who, if a woman says to him, "Never mind, I'll do it myself," and he lets her and she gets mad, says, "Now what are you mad about?" 

A woman is a person who, if she says to a man, "Never mind, I'll do it myself," and he lets her and she gets mad, and he says, "Now what are mad about?" says, "If you don't know I'm not going to tell you!"

Last week's quiz:

appendix, slug, advance, sinkage, flexography, rasterization, agate, molleton, scum, reflow

1. undesirable film of ink that prints in the non-image areas of a plate in offset lithography - SCUM (No, not the editor who rejected your query letter!)

2. unit of measure used in calculating columns of advertising space, primarily in newspapers. Fourteen agate lines equal one column inch - AGATE

3. undesirable occurrence in which the line breaks in digitally typeset copy change due to alterations in the layout - REFLOW

4. type of printing that uses rubber printing plates- FLEXOGRAPHY

5. process of converting mathematical and digital information into a series of dots using an imagesetter for the purpose of producing film negatives or positives - RASTERIZATION

6. money paid to an author, usually at the time a contract is signed, that is a portion of expected royalties that will be paid to the author once the book is published - ADVANCE (Sometimes known as "music to my ears.")

7. thick cotton fabric used on the dampening rollers of a printing press - MOLLETON

8. short phrase or word that identifies an article as it goes through the production process; usually placed at the top corner of submitted copy - SLUG (And no, this isn't the editor who rejected your query either.)

9. extra white space at the top of a chapter opener - SINKAGE

10. part of a book's back matter that includes lists of resources, tables or other reference material - APPENDIX (Not to be confused with that dangly bit responsible for processing cellulose.)

And a corny crocodile story ...

A man walks into a bar carrying a crocodile and a chicken. He sets them down on the stool next to him and says to the (uncertain-looking) bartender, "I'll have a Scotch and Soda." 

Then the crocodile says, "And I'll have a Whiskey Sour."

The (dumbfounded) bartender gasps, "That's incredible; I've never seen a crocodile that could talk!" 

And the man says "He can't; the chicken is a ventriloquist."


A Little Something Extra

If you're searching for fodder for accident stories, you can't go past the Darwin Awards ... here's a short sample:

(8 March 2008, Czech Republic) Steel is valuable, especially the high grade alloy used in steel cable. Scrap metal dealers do not ask questions. They pay in cash. And a good supply of cables can be found in elevator shafts.

This particular goldmine was a towering shaft inside an empty grainery near Zatec, 40 miles northwest of Prague. The cable was tightly fastened, and the far end of it disappeared into the shadowy distance above.

After substantial wear and tear on a hacksaw, our man finally cut through the strong steel cable. At that instant, the counterbalance, no longer held in check, started to move silently downwards, accelerating until it reached the bottom of the shaft.

Result: one proud winner of a "terminal velocity" Darwin Award.

There are (sadly) hundreds more such stories here.  

Word of the week: Lachrymose (adj) suggestive of or tending to cause tears; mournful; given to shedding tears readily; tearful

This word comes from the Latin lacrima (a tear)

Oxymoron of the week: sweet sorrow

And this week's Latin phrase could well come in handy ...

Hinc illae lachrimae

[HEENK EEL-eye lah-KREEM-eye]

(It will all end in tears)

Did you know that you can have your very own Latin reminders? How about undies proclaiming, Bene est rex esse? (It's good to be king) Or a shopping bag that warns, Emptrix nata sum (Born to shop)? 

Kind regards,


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Copyright  Jennifer Stewart  2008

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