Archive for the 'Essay' Category

The Golden Age Of The Moniker

Other than hearing them on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” nicknames that overrode a person’s given name seem to have disappeared from mainstream American life. Growing up in a blue-collar, city neighborhood of the 1940s and1950s, I remember nicknames as commonplace.

The essence of most nicknames was that they were almost always off-handedly bestowed, never chosen by the carrier. Nicknames that could stick to a person for a lifetime usually originated in throw-away lines, offered as casual asides. Most recipients of an adhering nickname, after some futile resistance, would reluctantly acquiesce to their new identities. There are men today in their seventies who, were I to meet then on the street or were their names to come up in conversation, would be greeted or referred to reflexively in the often inexplicable nominatives of their schoolyard or corner lounging days. These were not the benign names of contemporary suburbia. There were no cutesy, parentally endowed “Chips” or “Skips.” These were names like “Jiggs,” “Ozzie” and “Nuggie,” likewise “Fat Sam” and “Fat Ralph,” who incidentally was not fat.

We had a “Buzz,” more than one “Ace,” a “Duke” and a “Babe.” There was a “Lips,” a “Joe Guinea” and even a “B. O.,” who smelled no worse that the rest of us. “Roughhouse Ray” was a guy congenitally incapable of putting up his dukes, and “Bones” approached the obese. I knew a “Mouse,” a “Chickie,” a “Pidgie,” a “Jug” and a “Gobbler.” Where that last one came from, I have no idea. “Bull Moose” was an imposingly muscular retarded guy who wandered the neighborhood in silence, and the name “Dippy John” was the price that a kid with minor birth defects paid to belong on the corners. “Dippy John” was in no way “dippy.”

I was present when a co-worker told a low-grade joke about a gay attack dog barking “Bowsie-Wowsie.” From that day on he was “The Bowser,” and none of his resentful objections were to any avail.

A cousin of mine got stuck at the age of seven with the name of his radio adventure hero “Brick Bradford.” The full name morphed to “Bricky” and is still answered to by a man now in his sixties. Fifty years ago, another cousin married a plus six-foot sailor who continues to get “Stretch.” An eighth-grade classmate, whose given name I no longer recall, was tagged with “Uncle Miltie,” and another has carried “Fuzzy” into seniorhood. While nicknames were a guy thing, I can recall a “Bubbles,” a “Cookie” and even a “Jukey.”

A kid named Joe lived across the street and it was my own father who, referencing a newspaper ad for a Yiddish theater production of the play “Yostle the Bum,” hung that name on Joe. The name took instantly and permanently, contracting quickly to just “Yostle” and from there to “Yos.” I doubt that hardly anyone from the neighborhood remembers him as anything other than Joe “Yos.”

For the record, I managed to elude getting a nickname.

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With Apologies To Verlyn Klinkenborg

The measure of my distractions is that I have to keep reminding myself that I do indeed exist specifically with the continuums of time and space. This morning, a mild morning in a mid-Atlantic winter, I carried my half-cup of lukewarm coffee to our bedroom door and gazed for a few minutes out into the mature woods that envelop our suburban New Jersey home.

Seeking stillness in the pale sunlight, my attention slowly began to focus upon the wonder of that burning star we call the sun, the prime source of our continuing existence. A slow slide-show moved me through the beautiful blue improbability of the sky, the solid facts of the trees and finally, to the utterly uncommon quality of the commonplace, manifested for a moment in the perfection of a small gray squirrel perched on a garden urn. Opening myself to the agile elegance and the twitchy functionality of this little marvel of physical evolution, noting the tiny, clawed feet and paws, the silky bristles of its furry coat and the panoramic placement of its eyes, I involuntarily uttered a eureka, a “holy shit!” How can all of this be? And immediately springing from that question came the further, far stranger puzzle of what exactly is the source of this sentient consciousness, this transitory self, this capacity that allows this me to grasp, if not actually comprehend, the reality of all these small, everyday miracles just outside my bedroom door, and beyond?

Who Knew?

Driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike with Wilco in the CD player, I became aware that visually, Winter has begun to dominate the landscape. The remains of Autumn have become more and more vestigial. Like most such observations, this one led on to another.

There in the heart of some of the worst of the country’s post-industrial mess, the NJ Turnpike driving south between Exits Twelve and Four, I discovered that the late-November weeds, shrubs and trees flanking the highway were simply gorgeous. The season’s first really hard freeze has yet to occur and the muted colors of the foliage, now fading to near monochromatic browns, are still infinitely varied. The seemingly random arrangements of different species of grasses, plants and trees combine in a natural architecture, offering surprising and beautiful configurations of shapes and values.

All of the above emerged at seventy-miles-an-hour, amid the eighteen-wheelers, clots and breaks of traffic and hidden within an overall surrounding environment of sprawl and clutter. Hmmm.

John Brown’s Body

imagesDriving through cold rain and heavy traffic to pick up some lunch, I overtook an old barge of a car waddling along doing about twenty-five in what was a forty-five zone. A disheveled early 1980s station wagon, its flashers were on and its read-end was plastered with “Right to Life” stickers. As a card-carrying subscriber to The New Yorker and the NYRB, my opinions can be largely predictable. I shook my head as I sped past the crawling low- end heap and what I reflexively assumed was its yahoo driver.

Given all of the above, I am caught between a willingness to doubt all, my own opinions included, and the dangers of doubt’s smug certainties. While I remain instinctively predisposed to support a woman’s right to choose, I have no illusions about the reality of what an abortion entails. Having become of late a doting grandfather probably also undercuts the clarity of any absolute position on so volatile an issue. Moreover, I suspect that my antipathy to so many of the Pro-Life advocates and their fanaticism is reaction based upon style, upon reasonableness, upon taste. The not-so-easily dismissed truth that enters my mind is the fact that even the worst of assholes are not of necessity, wrong.

To state the obvious, one shouldn’t judge the merits of a case by the nature, behavior or even the stupidity of its adherents. A self-styled Left Libertarian, a leveler of sorts, I like to believe that where I feel compelled to choose sides, I do so after having listened to what’s being offered. And even when genuinely convinced that a position on an issue is the work of what Mencken would have called “serfs, goose-steppers and poltroons,” my conclusions are too often tempered by reference to Cromwell’s words to the Church of Scotland in 1650, “I beseech in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken.”

images-1In coming to grips with an issue as disturbing as abortion, the most powerful touchstone against any kind of certainty could be the case of John Brown, the anti-slavery John Brown of Russell Banks’ novel “Cloudsplitter,” the absolute fanatic Pottawatomie Brown, the unrepentant murderer Osawatomie Brown. Deemed a deranged psychotic by most of his fellow Americans and executed by his government, poor, mad John Brown, in his time and in his place, just may have been the only sane man in The United States of America. His example is one to give pause to received, hasty or unexamined opinions.

Bless Us Oh Lord And These Thy Gifts…

freedomfromwant1On finding myself alone at a mealtime, I’d reach for something to read while eating. It was multi-tasking, something I still considered a virtue. Too often after a mealtime spent reading, I could barely recall what I had eaten. 

As a child in Catholic school, I had been taught the Graces Before and After Meals, prayers that were rarely if ever said in the absence of clergy. On a day last year, alone in the house, and ready to tuck into one of my ample lunches, I rooted the recent mail for the latest New Yorker or New York Review of Books. To my surprise, an obvious and disconcerting reality entered my mind.  Despite my best efforts not to think about such things, I found I was facing one of my own “inconvenient truths;” there were at that moment, millions of people all around the world for whom hunger was more than a marginal urge, for whom eating was more than a function of choices. 

Unable to banish or deny the realization that there is actual widespread starvation in the world, that there were really children stunted by malnutrition, I fell back upon that long-remembered prayer, “Bless of Oh Lord for these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, through thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, Amen.” I put aside my intended mealtime reading material before starting my lunch. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. 

In the course of my life, I may have skipped a meal now and then. There were the Lenten observances and the days of fast and abstinence during my far off childhood. And even those, in our marginally observant family, were far from rigorous, and always open to the most liberal of interpretations.  But among the far too many things I’d chosen to ignore was an unquestioned assumption that I held an entitlement to eat whenever and whatever I choose. 

Being human is, of necessity, to live within the context of history. In this time and this place, we’ve been led to believe that we’ve been granted a unique dispensation from the flow of history. Solidly, if newly, middle-class in what still feels like the first of first world countries, I do not have to look very far back in my own family; three, four generations at most, to find more sobering attitudes toward the prospects of securing one’s next meal. 

I’ve no personal documentation, nor do I need any, to assert that my Irish peasant ancestors faced periods of absolute need, of hunger and exposure, experiences utterly removed from my own experience. My father spoke of his illiterate and penniless parents emigrating here from the barren West of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century. My mother’s people, more assimilated, deracinated might be the better word, laid claims to being in this country at the time of the Civil War. Only recently was I able to parse that assertion into the probability of their being what were called at that time, “Famine Irish,” a term that carries its own horrific story. 

Never having known genuine scarcity, most of us have come to accept plenitude as our due. The very idea of “normal” presumes an unwarranted and illusory sense of permanence, an exemption from the too often dire consequences of history. It no longer seems necessary to sanctify the routine acts that are the basis of our sustenance, of our very existence. Once a year on the fourth Thursday in November, somewhere amid images of Pilgrims and Indians, we collectively participate in ritual expressions of gratitude for our bounty. For most of us, that’s about it. With my ancestral history as a personal context, the tuna salad sandwich on my plate began to take on sacral qualities, not something to be taken absent-mindedly with the day’s Op-Ed page. 

I can no longer read while eating. Instead, I do my best to focus on my every mouthful of food, be it a bowl of cereal, a fast food sandwich or a holiday dinner. Within my small   insight lies the possibility of ever more openings to gratitude, and within those, a hope that such revelations will encourage a more generous, more active charity on my part, particularly toward those who would find my need for distractions at mealtime beyond  imagining. 

“Essentialism,” Whatever It Is

images-1Over lunch today, glazing the eyes of my wife, I went on at length, as I am usually wont to do, this time on the subject of Shredded Wheat and my tendencies toward what I’ve come to call “Essentialism.”  That’s not to be confused with Puritanism or self-denial. Essentialism to me is an internal paradigm, a mode of moving towards something like a backpacker’s vision of life, which is to say, never carrying anything you don’t really need, but also not doing without the things you feel are essential to living life on your own terms. 

Why then Shredded Wheat? Shredded Wheat because it would seem to me that our current world of half-mile-long breakfast cereal aisles has come to define inessentiality. Who needs to wander among endless boxes of overpriced, over-processed things like Chocolate-Covered Sugar Bombs trying to decide what to eat for a Tuesday morning breakfast? It can also mean choosing $32 Converse sneakers instead of entering the universe of Nike or Foot Locker stores to ponder hundreds of models of what are essentially, sneakers. A durable pair of Levi’s will outlast any of the nearly indistinguishable “designer jeans.” I mean, the damned things started out as work pants for farmers. And maybe add $8 J.C. Penny T-shirts to the list. 

All of the above is probably a result staying up too late or having heard Delbert McClinton’s “Too Much Stuff,” or more likely it’s a reflection of the idea that decadence is not about orgies and corruptions, but about having too many choices in matters of trivial concern. It’s the trivialization of  allowing yourself to agonize  over  the marginal variations in jeans or shoes, or the anxieties of confronting an infinity of rug patterns or kitchen cabinets. Does any of this stuff ever do anything to genuinely enhance anybody’s life? 

I would like to keep moving toward that state of mind where I can free myself, as much as possible, from the mindlessness of the consumerism that’s become the end-all/be-all of our culture. That ideal of course is predicated on keeping my 120g iPod, and having access to NHL games on cable. Then again, my efforts toward a life of “Essentialism” as I call it, may prove entirely irrelevant, given the good work already done by those altruistic financial geniuses responsible for the ongoing collapse of the American economy. There’s a high possibility we may be heading into a future where for too many of us, frivolous spending choices may be but distant memories, and a life of “Essentialism” no longer a matter of choice.