Tested for flavor, judged by color, oftentimes chosen for bite, words are the fruit of labor for writer Anna Quindlen.
"My favorite words are all sorts of words too big to use with any regularity," said the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. "Anytime I write, I try to hammer it until it's completely done as far as I am concerned."
"Pernicious," "aspic," "expiation" have wormed their way into Quindlen's two currently running columns. Both columns - the nationally syndicated version, which The Buffalo News carries biweekly, and "The Last Word," also running biweekly on Newsweek's coveted last page - represent about 1,700 finely tuned words, hammered to a pulp before meeting the press.
Right now, "flabbergasted" is a favored word, one she may use Sept. 27 when she visits Kleinhans Music Hall to launch Buffalo Seminary's Sesquicentennial speaker series.
At 48 - an age when many boomers may succumb to midlife angst - Quindlen has opted against a red sports car, dismissed the idea of kayaking the Amazon, and has pretty much avoided any display of retroactivity. The reason, she explains, is simple. Quindlen has divided her life so far into trimesters.
"I think of the first part of my life as ending when I was 19 and my mother died," she explained. "The second part of my life as ending Sept. 11, 1983 when Quinn Krovatin was born, and I would think of the third part as ending the day my last child, Maria Krovatin (12), goes to college. I don't think that mid-life thing applies."
Good answer, the kind of heads-up thinking that has set a course from Philadelphia, where, as the oldest of five children in an Irish-Italian Catholic family, she was glued to her seat.
"I spent almost all of my childhood sitting in one chair, sitting and reading a book," Quindlen said during a recent phone conversation punctuated by laughter. "I remember disappearing constantly and coming up for air every three or four hours."
When Quindlen was not devouring words, she was spitting them out. Her nickname was "Jukebox," she recalls, coined by an uncle whose photo stands framed on her office desk.
"I think that sort of gives you a good idea," Quindlen said. "I basically started talking at a young age and never shut up. I talked all the time, and I was very dramatic. I don't want to use the word bossy, because it's a word that always refers to girls."
At Barnard College, Quindlen was a Dickens scholar and Krovatin devotee. That's her husband, trial attorney Gerry Krovatin, whom she met when he was a freshman at Columbia University. It was also during college that Quindlen nursed her dying mother, planting the seed for the novel "One True Thing."
As a cub reporter at the New York Post, she recalls being overwhelmed by the sex appeal of Sean Connery during an interview. Covering Jerry Brown during his 1976 primary race, meanwhile, represented a fiery baptism into political mayhem.
During her 17-year run at the New York Times (which began with a Valentine's Day feature assignment) Quindlen wrote two columns: one on the reflections of a yuppie mother called "Life in the 30s;" the other, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort, "Public and Private."
Quindlen's Op-Ed column, circa 2000, has brought out some vivid snapshots of today's news makers:
All the best. Think you're nuts. Not nuts to move to New York, which I consider the center of the universe. But to move to New York to run for the U.S. Senate? What can you be thinking, to think so small?"
problem, a deep pool of prejudice about everything from immigration to infectious disease and a singular physical ability. His fast ball has been clocked at 95 mph, which is an interesting trick of the body somewhere between rolling your tongue and dancing en pointe."
Throughout her journalism career, Quindlen (who at age 37 shared the tenderfoot badge with Russell Baker as the youngest columnists at the Times) points to her family as a force of reason.
"We were having a discussion about something," she recounts, and Chris (15) felt he wasn't getting into the conversation a lot. He disappeared, and 10 minutes later came back and wrapped himself in toilet paper, put on glasses and a hat, and kept on saying: "I am the invisible man.' I mean all of us just went ballistic, and it's one of those things that just keep coming up."
Quindlen's view on family and motherhood prompted her participation last May in the Million Mom March. It also triggered her withdrawal one year earlier from a commencement speech at Villanova University, where anti-abortion activists threatened to protest by walking out at the start of her scheduled address. Quindlen, who served on the board of directors of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Foundation, bowed out.
"I did this solely for the sake of the graduates," Quindlen told the Philadelphia Inquirer in May 1999. "I would have given a memorable speech. I would have talked about the sheer pleasure of living."
Quindlen has been called the laureate of real life, speaking out on family matters, social issues, intellectually focusing on emotional turf that defines the line between the sexes. She rocks to the band U-2, has lost the compulsion to please all, and cries at some television commercials.
When she visits Buffalo later this month, she will dance around the feminism lockstep.
"Perfection was hard enough when it was all about throwing the perfect dinner party," Quindlen said. "But when you combine it with the perfect portfolio, or the perfect manuscript, I mean it was just a killer. And one of the things that we're finally doing, is making feminism what it has always been all about - choices."