"Slice of Life"

Oh What A Marvel, the Simple Knarvel!

Farm-to-City Less of a Shock than You Might Expect

Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch

I wrote this in 2003. It appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press

Oh what a marvel! The simple knarvel!
by David W. Downing, copyright 2003

I had a cross-category experience recently that I'd like to share. It has elements of family language, high-falutin' pleasures, "It's a Small World," and pop-vs.-soda regional language differences.

My family uses a word I've never heard anywhere else. I've long wondered whether it is a "real" word, or just something that one of my relatives made up. The word is "knarvel," it starts with a hard "k," like in Knutson, not with an "n" sound like in knife. So it comes out "k-nar-vul." A knarvel is an elongated piece of wood nailed to the frame next to a door, typically on a farm shed, a closet or a cabinet. The knarvel is turned, rotating on the single nail through its center, to hold the door closed.

I suspected knarvel might be a Swedish word. So back when my wife was studying Swedish at Gustavus Adolphus College, I had her look it up in her Swedish-English dictionary. But it wasn't there.

Then recently, I had the bright idea of applying new technology in my quest to satisfy my curiosity. I decided to "Google" knarvel on the popular web search engine. I entered "knarvel" and got only four hits. Two had no apparent relevance, while the other two led to a website from....Sweden!

The site was totally in Swedish, complicating things a bit. But it appeared that the page I had found was a listing of local dialect words from the city or area of Karlskoga, Sweden. In a column on the left was an alphabetical list of words including knarvel. The column on the right contained other words or phrases, lined up with the words on the left. The right column seemed to be definitions for the words on the left.

I sent my wife back to her Swedish-English dictionary, to look up the words in the definition column. She reported that some of them translated into English words such as "door," "close," and "shut." We were on the right trail!

I sent a message to the e-mail link on the Swedish website, telling my tale to whomever was on the other end. The reply I received from Jan Eric Christersson, of the Karlskoga Public Library, was very interesting.

Mr. Christersson explained that the list I found had been compiled in the 1940s by a local schoolteacher, who wanted to preserve "for future generations" about 500 words of local dialect used in the city of Karlskoga and other parts of central Sweden. Mr. Christersson reported that knarvel has several meanings, but most commonly it means a door closer. He wrote that he had talked to several native inhabitants of Karlskoga, and that among them the word is well known "and sometimes used by old people." But as for himself, he was born and raised farther south, and as far as he knew, the word was totally unknown in his home region.

So here I am, a fifth-generation (partly) Swedish-American, still successfully -- albeit futilely -- fighting off 40, and I know a Swedish word used only by "old timers" in one part of Sweden, where it has been determined the word must be saved in the historical archives before it is lost forever. It truly is a small world! (But to make things even more interesting, according to the information I have my Swedish ancestors didn't even come from central Sweden. Perhaps they learned "knarvel" from other Swedish immigrants who settled at West Rock.)

Bulletin Board readers, we mustn't let this word die! You may not have any wooden knarvels around your house, but I'm told that my Swedish-American grandmother also used knarvel to refer to those small metal "bow tie" closers that do the same job. You may have some holding your storm windows in place. Use the word knarvel, use it often, and use it proudly. Teach it to your children. Don't let it die. Oh what a marvel, the simple knarvel!

Farm-to-City Less of a Shock than You Might Expect
(Why I Love St. Paul)
by David W. Downing, copyright 2003

"You mean like, downtown?"

That was the question put to me at my 20-year high school reunion. I had just told a classmate that I lived in St. Paul, and his confused look showed he didn't understand the concept.

That's OK. Before I became a St. Paulite, I didn't know about the neighborhoods, either.

I grew up about an hour north. Like my classmates, I traveled to "the cities" fairly often. We had relatives we visited in the suburbs.We were well-acquainted with suburban shopping destinations ­ Northtown, Rosedale, the Target on Central Avenue. We knew how to get to Met Center. When the Metrodome opened, we figured out how to find downtown Minneapolis.We even knew how to find downtown St. Paul, where we saw The Who and The Boss at the Civic Center.

But we looked at "the cities" as one big mass of freeways and development. St. Paul and Minneapolis were downtowns with tall buildings. We didn't know about the neighborhoods.

So when I moved to St. Paul 18 years ago from a farm near Braham ­ "Population 744" the sign used to read during my high school days ­ you might have thought I'd be in for some serious culture shock. Instead, I discovered the neighborhoods.

Tucked away inside the busy suburban beltways, like the calm in the eye of a hurricane, are the neighborhoods of St. Paul.

When I step out of my house, I don't see a major metropolitan area of nearly three million people. Nor do I see a city of 287,000. I see a neighborhood ­ Mac-Groveland, in my case.

Mac-Groveland is just one of St. Paul's many residential neighborhoods. Most have their own commercial districts, and their own schools and churches. Each maintains its own identity, while still connected to the rest. In many ways, the relationship between the various neighborhoods of "big city" St. Paul seems like the relationship between the various small towns in the area where I grew up: the people living in the "others" may be your rivals, but they're often your relatives, as well.

So the city isn't as different as one might expect. I enjoy the convenience of being able to walk the kids to school, walk to church, or walk to the hardware store when I need a bolt of just exactly a certain size. (Instead of having to make do with what I've got, because you don't make a trip to town just to get one bolt.) Sure, it's different from living on the farm. But living in Braham, rather than on the farm, would be different, too. Living in St. Paul is not so different from living in any other town, no matter how small.

In fact, I've often said that Mac-Groveland is more small-town than many small towns. The first time I stepped into Widmer's Supermarket, with its worn wood floors and busy meat counter, I was transported in my mind back to Moses Grocery in Rush City. The only difference is, Moses Grocery has been gone for nearly two decades.

And how about St. Paul Corner Drug, with its soda fountain and tin ceiling? How many small towns still boast such a place? If there was ever a soda fountain in the drugstore in Braham, it was before my time.

And we've got hardware stores! Quite a few of them, too. It may not have electric fence supplies or parts for milking machines, but the sprawling Grand Avenue Hardware still has the ambience of a real small town mercantile. (The self-propelled mousetraps are a nice touch.)

I sometimes feel like I'm living in a Norman Rockwell painting. Where else can you step out for a gallon of milk, or to take the kids for an evening walk, and just happen upon a baseball game? Leaning on the wrought iron fence, you watch the shadow of a church steeple lengthen across the field. Then you move along, never knowing who was playing. (Not that it matters, anyway.)

(I'll concede one big difference living in the city. It's strange to me that people can live so close together and not know each other. My thoughts on that, and what to do about it, will serve as grist for a future essay.)

NOTE: I wrote this piece to apply for a St. Paul Pioneer Press "community colunnist" guest opinion writer job. I made it to the final cut, but better luck next year, as they say.

Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch
by David W. Downing, copyright 2003

I spend most of my working hours alone, staring at a computer monitor. But for one month each year, I enjoy a change of pace. I get to work outside, get my hands dirty, do some heavy lifting, and interact with the public. I sell pumpkins.

When my father decided to diversify the family farm by planting pumpkins, my wife and I volunteered to help by selling everyone's favorite fall fruit in our St. Paul neighborhood. Now it's ten years later, my younger brother has taken over the pumpkin growing, and I've learned a lot. Over the past decade, I've compiled a mental inventory of what I call Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch.

Lesson No. 1: Nobody's Perfect.

A lot of people are looking for a "perfect" pumpkin. Good luck; I haven't seen one yet in ten years and tens of thousands of pumpkins. Pumpkins, like people, don't come out of a mold in some sterile factory. As they grow, both are shaped by their genes and by their environments, and both are likely to pick up some scars along the way. Few have what we consider an ideal shape. But that's OK, whether you're a pumpkin or a person. We even have a saying: Pumpkins are like people. No two are exactly alike and not a one of them is perfect.

Lesson No. 2: There's Someone for Everyone

Real estate agents say there's a buyer for every property. I've learned it's the same with pumpkins.Our first year, I came across a really odd pumpkin in our load and set it aside, thinking no one would want it, and the mere sight of the misshapen gourd might lead customers to question the quality of our merchandise. Then along came a trio of Macalester College students. They picked out pumpkins for themselves, and said they were looking for something unusual for an art major friend back at the dorm. I remembered my "reject" and showed it to them. "It's perfect!" they shrieked excitedly.

Perfect? It was perfect for this Macalester College art major, anyway. So while there may not be any perfect pumpkins, there is a pumpkin that is perfect for you. It's the same way with people. While I'm certainly not perfect, my wife thinks I'm perfect for her. (Which illustrates another old saying: There's no accounting for taste.)

The trick is in getting the perfect partners together. This past year I finally figured it out. I separated the most unusual pumpkins from the rest and highlighted them as the "Island of Misfit Pumpkins." The concept was a hit. I felt like a software company, turning what had been a defect into a feature.

Lesson No. 3: Think Outside the Sphere

"You don't want that one! How are you going to put a face on that one?" Over and over I've heard that refrain voiced in response to a child's pumpkin selection. It's accompanied by a vision of the child's creativity being squashed under the heel of the parent. If this sounds like you, go back and study the previous lessons again. Just because you're stuck in an adult rut of narrow expectations doesn't mean you should squash your child's budding creativity. Children know you can make an interesting jack-o-lantern out of any pumpkin; they aren't hung up on having one that's round.

Lesson No. 4: You Can't Judge a Book by It's Cover

All sorts of people buy pumpkins. But stereotype the customers at your own risk. The well-groomed man in the designer suit may show himself to be a rude jerk who acts like he's better than a lowly produce seller. Meanwhile, the tattooed guy with the stringy hair and body jewelry may prove himself to be a real gentleman, with a sensitive side and a real appreciation for the artistic possibilities of the pumpkin.

Lesson No. 5: Money Can't Buy Happiness

Keeping the previous lesson in mind, I'll point out that most of our customers are wonderful, no matter what kind of car they drive. But each year it seems we have one or two of a certain type of customer who is not so pleasant. This customer drives up in a large, late-model luxury car, immediately asks what the pumpkins cost, then drives off harumphing that $3 is too much to pay. You've got to wonder if such a person is ever happy, or even wants to be.

Contrast that with the fellow in the rusty pickup or old bomber of a car who says "How ya doin'?" with a big grin, asks questions about pumpkin growing and listens with sincere interest while you answer, then buys a bunch of big pumpkins for his kids and is on his way with a smile and a wave as he drives off. (This is also the sort of customer who'll tell you to keep the change.)

I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes, attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

NOTE: I wrote this piece to apply for a St. Paul Pioneer Press "community columnist" guest opinion writer job. I made it to the final cut, but better luck next year, as they say.

page and website copyright 2004 David W. Downing