delighting in all things communication
courtesy of your wordsmith, Sandy Ross

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Codebreaker at Bletchley ✑ in honour of Remembrance Day (2016)
Pop Star ✑ in honour of Father's Day (2016)
Shortest (and Last) Love Letters ✑ on eulogies and epitaphs (2015)
Keep the Light On ✑ creativity as a lifelong lifeline (2015)
War Correspondence ✑ letters of legacy (2012)


I Was Santa's Ghostwriter (2015) and sequel Cuppas with Mrs. Claus (2017)
Big Stink Over Ink?airline policies, security lists that miss the gist (2013)
Pulp Friction ✑ ageism in ads (2012)
When Gab's No Gift ✑ brevity in communication (2011)
Un-cola Communicating ✑ the power of saying what it's not (2010)

Codebreaker at Bletchley Nov.11.16 ↓ Beryl, Sandy

enlarge, WWII codebreaker Beryl England's Bletchley Park, where WWII veterans decoded the Enigma machine, is a humbling, heroic expanse of grounds. Basked in sunshine on our September day, cousin Charles and I walked through this living museum – its mansion still impressively elegant. The huts, restored, are buildings once hectic with vital work. I felt in my own strides the footsteps of codebreakers 70 years ago. It was especially meaningful because one of several hundred decoders is my friend, Beryl*, who was in Hut 6.

I know Beryl from a monthly Storytelling Your Life group I lead for older adults in a retirement residence. I donated a Bletchley guidebook to their library, and we agreed Beryl had more than earned the right to be first to read it. After session, she stayed to sign my copy of another book, 'My Secret Life in Hut 6'.

This secrecy compelled me to ask how, in 1943, her parents had felt not knowing what she was doing, or even where – surely they were frantic? "I was able to tell them I'd signed the Official Secrets Act" (bound to silence, she said, for decades), so they didn't question further. Did she know Alan Turing, the decoder inventor? "No, none of us did. We knew he was there, but had no idea which one he was or what he looked like. Only a few working with him directly knew."

I told Beryl how heartened I'd been to see classes of school children as I strolled that day. I reassured her that she – indeed all at Bletchley – will be remembered. Her eyes misted, with mine, and she composed this inscription:

"Storytelling is an opportunity to share the experiences that have had effect upon our lives and to give understanding so that others may learn from it."

May such legacy be lessons to us – we who thank and remember all who serve(d).
*hear Beryl's voice and brief account at The Memory Project
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Pop Star

Dad. Papa. Pop. A father figure can be a shining star, role-modeling even with small gestures. Here's a sense of how mine was that for me, shared in the spirit of Father's Day.

In my 1970s basement rec room, Miriam and I sat among clippings from TigerBeat and 16 magazines, scattered close-ups of teen dream pop stars. My parents were away so, hearing noise upstairs, we silenced in panic. The fact that we had scissors was not particularly reassuring. Police came just before my parents, coincidentally, returned pulling in behind the cruiser. In the driveway, we recounted our drama as officers entered the house. Mum was understandably frantic. "Oh no, they'll look everywhere, and I don't know when I last cleaned under the beds." Their search done (all clear, false alarm), we had to smile as an officer approached wearing something he'd found – a pair of those joke, Groucho Marx nose-and-moustache eyeglasses. He turned to us with mild admonition, "Now you two go down there and tidy that mess of magazines." Relieved and alive, we promptly divvied the posters – Les for her, Woody for me – to showcase later on bedroom walls.

enlarge Sandy BCR wall The art was in preparing the sticky tape: rolled around my finger, glue side out, tapping until it's just mildly tacky. Some company later made a fortune manufacturing it that way, but in the 70s, it was jerry-rigged. Tape at each corner, my Bay City Roller collage homage was up. One day soon after, Dad was at the front door as I came home. "Come here, please, I want you to go to your room." That parental phrasing, in my experience, rarely ends well. But he'd said it flatly, not sternly. Walking with me, he pointed, "Your posters..."

enlarge Dad porch I quickly rambled my defence, assuring I'd taped carefully so wallpaper wouldn't rip. His gentle smile curled. "No, no, that's fine. What I want to show you is this." He reached to flip a switch high on the other wall, enjoying my reaction. A squeal then; a tear today as I recall. My dear Dad had installed a spotlight to shine on my joy. //
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Shortest – and Last – Love Letters

Our eternal rest isn't usually among my daily musings. But today, cousin Marilyn and I talked of our family ties to a Dean of St. Paul's in Britain. I instantly recalled visiting his tomb and, more particularly, the inscription's impact. It occurred, too, that honouring end-of-life is comforting, and comfortable, for me. It was front-row for me growing up. In my teens, Dad co-founded the Memorial Society Funeral Home as an alternative (often a thorn) to a then-traditional funeral industry. It was part of dinner conversation. Our garage had in it empty caskets, for heaven's sake. Pun intended.

And what of the ancestor interred in England's cathedral? A kind cleric personally guided cousin Lyndsay and I years ago as I explained a Ross connection to Henry Hart Milman. HHM had been Dean of St. Paul's and, I later learned, a writer (one of his hymns is in my Library of World Poetry book). Down dark stairs well-worn, in the crypt, I knelt to the marker where HHM rests with his beloved. My fingers ran along its text carved in the stone floor. If memory serves: 'To my wife who for me, in life, made my poetry reality'. Reading his epitaph was a gift elating my quick, quiet gasp: 'He was a wordsmith!' As my eyes adjusted to tears and dim light, I lifted my gaze looking around. In this small area, only a few monuments. Two in particular were no further away than a whisper: Lord Horatio Nelson and Sir Christopher Wren. It was a remarkable afternoon. A privilege profound.

It reinforces for me the power in ceremonial goodbyes, yet often the brevity of such touchstone sentiment. The writing's spare, just a few paragraphs or single phrase as our forever tribute. Like Dean Milman's final, soulful vow, it may be our shortest (and last) love letter. So wordsmithing concisely, tenderly, is paramount. Eulogies, life celebrations, epitaphs – a storyteller's craft. Henry, my quill at the ready, may I do you proud. //
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Keep the Light On – creativity as a lifelong lifeline

Memory is precious. It keeps us company. It's a gift that costs nothing, yet too many are robbed of it. Dementia is a wicked thief. As we seek a warrior against it, perhaps we may look to one such champion within each of us – our creative self. I found this hope at a creative aging festival, as a speaker noted that scientific data suggests our creativity is among the last faculties we lose. It may well remain intact the longest of all our sensibilities – a theory both profound and inspiring to me. Creativity may be the last light to go out.

"I'm ideally positioned to carry a torch for this," I felt. As a wordsmith, it's my calling to nurture others' self-expression. Some, too, may embrace art, music, or dance – I illuminate storytelling. In workshops, often with older adults, it's powerful to see a gleam ignite in their eyes as our topic sparks a recalled anecdote. Then sharing, telling it adds such a benefit of connection, community. That's certainly been our experience in my programs for a retirement residence [their compositions].

"I learned things we never knew about each other," a resident smiled after one of our Storytelling Your Life groups. Another added, "My son saw my writing notebook and said, 'Mom, you never told me these stories'." When he learned they were inspired by our creative sessions, he encouraged, "well, keep writing them."

That sentiment's all the science I need. Storytelling your life (pdf 141kb) is a loving legacy and, more immediately, it's a beacon of creativity. Let's keep that light on.
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War Correspondence – letters of legacy

A notation in a soldier's army-issued diary, 1943 – 'went to the show in Fleet with Sheila' – a priceless touchstone not just because it's my father's handwriting, it's a time capsule marker of the day Dad met Mum for a first date.

Remembrance is a warm embrace, certainly on Veterans' Day, with this year's especially poignant. As autumn found me sorting my late mother's effects, tucking her mementos safely with mine, I re-read Dad's WWII post cards home.

Leaving Canada for Britain, he wrote at the harbour, 'Dad, Grandma: Do not worry about the crossing as there was not a single troopship lost in the last war nor this one.' [Waiting and hoping was the battlefield at home.] 'As for me going astray, don't bother yourself about that, all my friends in the army are good fellows. I had chance to make friends with a fast bunch but owed it to you and myself to remain as I know you'd like me to. I have plenty of soap, toothpaste, razor blades, fare, flints, wicks, candy, cigarettes.' Little did he know, his future war bride's father (my Brit grandad) managed provisions for Canadian troops.

Grandad Stevens, a career soldier, ran WWII field stores in Aldershot, home of the British Army. A letter from superiors thanks him for a D-Day operation. I gently hold the stationery's tattered edge, happily breathing any remnant whiff of mustiness, to read a typewriter's mottled ink tapped onto creamy parchment. '...of Mr. Stevens in connection with Overlord... with mobilization of the Canadian Army last year these were equipped to 99% and this also speaks for Mr. Stevens' good work done.'

My English aunt's ration book dates 1954. Enough surely has no deeper meaning than in wartime. I had no idea the lack was so longstanding, a decade after bombs silenced, added to a devastated Europe. Pencil marks strike weekly allowances: fat, sugar, bacon, cheese, eggs, meat, a full page for tea and, in brackets, sweets. Aha, as suspected, tea and sweets: the official fortification of stiff upper lips.

Today, be thankful our own fortitude is eased by peace. As my scarlet poppy symbolically pins my father's letters like a legacy to my lapel, near at heart, let us be glad stewards of their words – written snapshots of sacrifice and faith.
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I Was Santa's Ghostwriter

Jolly old soul sat on his spectacles one year and couldn't read – not his naughty list, not toy blueprints, not children's letters (nor his replies). I was dating an elf at the time who, bless his pointy little toque, boasted I had a skilled quill. Soon, Saint Nick was relying on my pen and peepers to pitch in for Christmas communiques.

Ah, that smell: spearmint ink on snowflake parchment. Who knew you can write with a candy cane? It was one sweet gig. At cookie breaks, I had to go easy on the nog or spelling suffered and 'cinnamon' would have 10 n's. Or, giddy on gingerbread, I'd sneak in to infiltrate the naughty list. A few got gifts that year only because I edited them over to the good group ... you know who you are.

My best memory, though, is not of the writing I did but of a letter read, sent to Santa too late for Christmas. It was days after his sleigh ride, eyeglasses fixed by workshop crews, toys long since crafted and delivered. When a penguin toddled in from the postbox, an envelope in his beak, we hoped the timing didn't mean a child had been disappointed. As Santa adjusted his specs to read, he wiped a tear. Voice trembling through his winter-white beard, he shared aloud the note's only words: 'Thank You'.
go to top of QuillJoy or to home — enjoy with Cuppas / Mrs. Claus in one pdf 212kb

Cuppas with Mrs. Claus — sequel to I Was Santa's Ghostwriter

"How is it, HQ, you always sense when I put the kettle on?" Mrs. Claus teased me as I joined her by the hearth. Though my intuition for teatime wasn't as keen as Saint Nick's is for Naughty / Nice lists, "I have my ways", I winked.

I liked to sip and chat with her after workdays as Santa's ghostwriter (my pen name was Holly Quill, HQ). With Dec. 25 near, though, my help in year-end correspondence would soon finish. As we shared one of our last, quiet, girl talks together, she gifted me this wisdom.

"Cuppa", I fondly called her (her warmth overflows), "you know that elf who's sweet on me – senior director of sleighbells?" She nodded, "musicians can be charmers". True. I went on. "You know all too well of sharing your heart with someone, and century after century. How do you do it? What is love's secret?"

"Love is like winter twinkle," she softly said. "Just as night sky glistens on Christmas Eves as Santa sleighs by, that same star shine glows faithfully every eve in between, too – enduring. So can romance, friendship, family, all love. And when life's clouds hide its fullness from view, or busyness distracts, keep love in your gaze. Light with love, my dear – to someone, it's star shine."
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Big Stink Over Ink? – airlines' policy writing (security lists that miss the gist)

It was 17 years since I'd renewed my passport. It arrived boasting a photo that has all the joy of an autopsy. My vanity eviscerated, I go online to prep for my travel – what we can and can't take on a flight.

No   While most can't packs make sense, two make me stew... no batteries for wheelchairs (so we Fred Flintstone foot-pedal it?) and no ink toner.
Yes  Yet it's OK to take, albeit in checked luggage... ammunition, arrows, axes, billy clubs, crossbows, knives (hunting, throwing), sabres, and swords. A notation says check with the airline before packing a catapult. Is that a trebuchet in your trunk, or are you just happy to see me?

So, to recap — it's fine if the cartridge is ammunition, just not ink.

What's a communicator to do? We make words, not war. What if I wordsmith something shiny and exciting en route, eager to extract it upon arrival? I can forget about laser printing it, obviously. I wonder, might a small ink well comply? Perhaps, but its quill may be misconstrued ('stand back, she has a nib') and I don't want that.

Criteria for safety is good, granted. But bureaucrats trying to craft policy that intuits every possible scenario nuance... well, some poor scribe in govt. communications has to post lists to accommodate off-chance catapults. So I just take my aisle seat and sit quietly. Who am I to make them even more nervous by pointing out the wordsmith credo – the pen is mightier than the sword.
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Pulp Friction – ageism in advertising

I recently had a tooth pulled. It did not want to go and, as my dentist battled on, he asked his assistant if she saw what he saw. That can't be good. But it was. Amid whirring, cyclonic suction, I heard him tell me, 'you have the pulp of a 17-year-old'.

Amazing how words do wonders. With his few, I felt vibrant, strong, certainly more alluring. Nothing says man magnet like young, sexy root canals. Then I became mindful that my reaction (flattered) reinforces how youth-driven our culture – and communication – can be.

Advertisers use this, especially when flogging face fixers and beauty elixirs. Copy asks, What if you could grow young? White space spews appeals of correcting, rejuvenating, illuminating. Names are strategic, like Youth Code. Guess what? We cracked the code: the model's 26! Knowing I have pantyhose older than her makes me want to do a little illuminating – shine praise on messages that honour maturity.

I'm miffed by brands' talking points that target buyers they want to nab early – the young (not old as, say, 26) – 'cause I doubt this group cares about the cream. Back at that age, my galpals baked poolside in concoctions of baby oil + iodine: 1970s self tanner. That was our youth's code. A demographic not likely swayed by preventive. And a 50+ segment, the niche that boomers built, is savvy, authentic. We embrace symbols of our season – laugh lines – knowing the only way our cheeks will plump is if we have a peanut allergy.

Marketing's alternative? Write real. Leverage humour in our human condition. And know that others enjoy this approach – consumer markets that are seasoned, like me – craving copy that's pro-lifespan. For that copywriting, a wordsmith awaits whose pen is mightier than her pulp.
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When Gab's No Gift – brevity in communication

My late father was an entrepreneur. He likely sensed that as my path, but didn't live to see Word's Worth. I often wonder what he'd advise. Luckily, I worked for him in my teens, so many moments of Dad's business (and life) wisdom were gifted to me.

One lesson came as I worked the till. That's hitting cash register keys, for you barcode babies. Sometimes, not even a register, but a crank-lever adding machine on top of a cash box. Well, I had a habit of chatting up customers as they paid. Not long banter (hey, I was mentally tallying tax to add, and change to give), but enough to catch Dad's ear. He caught my small talk about some item I was ringing in: how I'd had one, ways you might use it, other colours it comes in. At day's end, I was gently told the less-is-more mastery of sales communication (in this case, point-of-sale). Basically: keep talking, and you'll talk yourself right out of the sale.

What?! No enthused embellishment? No friendly, overthink-overkill conversation? So that's why I never got a Chatty Cathy doll as a kid ('Don't encourage her'). No matter. All Dad did give and encourage is immeasurable. Even still, his sage practicality helps curb my inclination, leading me to questions more than commentary. "How may I help? If I do xyz, might that fit your need?" And the moment a prospect agrees to invest in my support: "Terrific, thanks" [full stop]. Remember, Dad echoes ... "you've already sold it once".
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Un-cola Communicating

A marketing tag line can also boast what a product isn't. 'Unlike other widgets...' is a point of differentiation as it is for that clear soda, the un-cola. All things your product isn't offers infinite choice, so pick one and, voila... a slogan, or at least distinction.

I'm reminded of a Halloween years ago. The lad from next door knocked; I greeted him (a pirate) with my amused smile and his name. "You look terrific, Armand," as I put a few extra treats in his empty pillowcase. An hour later, he knocked again but with a wardrobe 'malfunction'. He'd altered his costume slightly (a different shirt?), and added a cardboard sign around his neck: 'Not Armand'. OK, hardly the poster boy for truth in advertising, but it did reap return on investment. His market (me) paid up – milk chocolate motherload – and, more pointedly to the business lesson here, his message is remembered still.
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