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The Right Words
Sometimes, all it takes are a few of them. Take these: "Who says?"
One of my favorite books is a collection of essays, spearheaded by Marlo Thomas, called The Right Words at the Right Time. Originally published in 2002, over 100 luminaries from a variety of fields – sports, entertainment, politics, activism – share how their lives were changed by hearing “the right words at the right time.”
Often, it’s only with the benefit of time and space that we look back and recognize the impact of someone’s words in our lives. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, so you might assume that I am heading toward something my mom once said to me.
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My momwas a major influence on my love of language. She gave me a book on word and phrase origins; for years, a prominent fixture in her small apartment was a gigantic dictionary splayed open to the latest page she had consulted to look up the latest obscure word she had come across. Once, while chastising some local elected panel, she zinged them by using “folderol” to describe a decision they appeared to be on the verge of making.
(I had to look folderol up, so if you don’t know it, go ahead and do that now... Mom made me do that all the time.)
Mom provided plenty of sayings that could fill the rest of this space. I’ll share only a few of her gems:
“Do what’s good for you.” (This was especially her mantra in her later years.)
“Let go and let God.” (We might have even had the bumper sticker for that one.)
“You’d give an aspirin a headache.” (Now that’d be a cool bumper sticker.)
“If you’re going to fight, go out on the front lawn.” (This classic was reserved for me and my two brothers when a conflict began to escalate.)
Returning to the theme of “the right words at the right time,” it was a simple two-worder that she delivered to me in April 1984: “Who says?” With that succinct challenge, Dorothea Mae “Dot” DeLoskey Baron sparked my journalism career.
It was toward the end of my sophomore year of high school. Reading Sports Illustrated for six years had been the primary catalyst that stoked my desire to write, eventually, for the weekly newspaper in my community, the Marshfield Mariner.
Alas, the two previous high school correspondents, each of the prior two years, had been seniors. I figured I had to wait my turn, I told Mom, since I was over a year too young. Rather than agreeing with me or my lame rationalization, Mom responded with that simple challenge: who says? That was all I needed to hear. Within a few days, I contacted the newspaper editor, Lois Martin.
“Write something for me,” Lois said.
Two days later, I turned in my first piece, a rather ambitious—and more than a little preachy—essay on collegiate athletics falling far short of attaining genuine “student athlete” ideals. A few months later, I earned my first journalism paycheck— the princely sum of $15—for a feature story on a two-time state tennis champion from my high school.
Seeing my words appear in the paper, for all to see, stirred something in me that has endured for nearly four decades: the joy, pride and deep sense of responsibility that comes with communicating to an audience.
The interaction with Mom that kick-started my career and modeled for me a vital principle of journalism, and all of life: the importance of challenging assumptions.
When others ask “why?” your reply can be “why not?”—and vice versa.
Question conventional wisdom, expand your comfort zone, march to your own beat…you get the gist. I have striven to embody those principles, and when I encounter people who bring my tentative 15-year-old self to mind, I channel Mom’s spirit and encourage them to go for it – whatever “it” is. Often, they have been teens and younger adults, and more than a few have been young journalists. Nudging them along has been one small way of honoring Mom’s impact on me.
What’s a favorite saying that your mom has imparted to you? Did you know what `folderol’ meant before today? Do you think there should be no apostrophe in `Mother’s Day’? Share a comment…and if you’re going to fight, go out on the front lawn.