v. t.

to place beyond the regular bounds; to oust; to reject

the Dictionary according to Cynthia




Yesterday I emailed a friend with my regrets that I couldn’t join her at a workshop she’s attending. I had a commitment to a continuing education day, required to maintain my professional credentials.


In my email I said, “I’ll bet your workshop will be funner than mine!”


My computer, in its computerish way, said, “ ‘Funner” isn’t an acceptable word. Please change it.”


I love having arguments with my computer that I know I can win. It can underscore “funner” (and “computerish”) to its motherboard’s content, and I can override its sensibilities and still use my made-up words.


The French, like my laptop, often take issue with the imprecise way we Americans use our English language. I once told a French hostess that I had been anxious to meet her. She immediately corrected me: “I think you mean you’ve been eager to meet me.” (In fact I was both eager and anxious, but it was best not to explain that to her.)


I, however, prefer to think of playing with words not as frivolous or irresponsible, but as creative, and often instructive. If a made-up word brings a reader up short, that pause is a precious moment through which a smile, some delight, or even a new thought, may enter the world.


My computer doesn’t like it when I use “outside” as a transitive verb.


My computer takes it upon itself to uphold the linguistic rules of our culture. It has a little built-in grammar conscience that says, “Sorry, but that’s incorrect. That’s not the way we speak and think.”


In America we’ve recently become comfortable with using “out” as a verb meaning “to expose.” We talk about “outing” a person, or the person outing themselves, regarding their hidden talents, their unexpected leadership skills, their closeted sexuality. My computer hasn’t caught up with that public acceptance yet. It still points its digital digit at me if I write, “The committee outed his great chairmanship potential.”


But “to outside” is a verb so new that there is as yet no public awareness of this use of the word.


When we outside someone, we move them away from the social center of things and place them at a margin. We outside them beyond the boundary of acceptability, and we make them an “outsider.”


So consider, for a while, our cultural outsiding. [My computer says “outsiding” is outside its acceptability boundaries. So once again I must override it.] Think about outsiding. Think about how often and unthinkingly we do it.


See if, when you hear the word “outside,” you can grasp it as a verb. See if it causes you to wonder, for just a moment, about how our social margins came to be. Who has outsided the people who live in those margins?


Whale breath

Whale breath

Two weeks ago my 14-year-old granddaughter and I went in search of gray whales. Jessica, a Michigander, had never been on saltwater before, had never seen a wild whale. Aboard the Mystic Sea, a 100-foot whale watch boat harbored in Langley, Washington, we set out into Saratoga Passage, the body of water that defines the eastern side of Whidbey Island, my home.


In less than half an hour the first whale spouts were sighted, and for the next 90 minutes the captain of the Mystic Sea followed his experienced intuition about where the gray whales would show up next as they searched the cutbanks (where underwater banks drop off sharply) for krill, the tiny shrimp that sustain the whales. We saw the huge animals spout, saw their backs rise from the water and dive in what seemed like an impossibly endless motion, saw their signature flukes wave in the air before they swam deep for a while. Then a spout would appear on the opposite side of the boat, and the thrilling sequence repeated itself.


Once two 40-foot grays came within 20 feet of the boat, so close that when one spouted we could smell the krill on its misty breath. I grimaced at the unpleasant odor. But that quickly turned to an awestruck grin when I realized that I had just breathed in molecules exhaled by a behemoth from a realm unknown to me.

Close Encounter

Close Encounter

The whale rose once more, and dived, its long spine looking serpentine, seeming immeasurable, until finally the fluke rose like a flag, or a salute, and the whale disappeared.


When we returned to the dock, I felt as if I had accepted Walt Whitman’s challenge to approach the “unknown region.” Though the region he speaks of in his poem is death, the essence of his challenge is to cross the boundary from what is known to what is unknown, what feels fearsome. I stepped back onto the land of my beloved island with a sense of connectedness to the whales, to their ways of moving and being, to their mystery.


Jessica and I had done what I encourage my readers to do:

to go to the margins, to the boundaries of the known, and then just a little further;

to be present there, experiencing the unfamiliar, being unafraid of what we can’t even find words for;

and welcoming any smallest sense of kinship or empathy for a fellow traveler with whom we exchange the molecules of the breath of life, be they homeless human, deep forest firs, or foraging whale.

Diving Deep

Diving Deep